Dear Disciple of Christ,
For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin which dwells within me. Romans 7:18-20
Does that sound familiar to you? It should. It comes up in the lessons on Sundays just about every year. What strikes me as odd is how long I took those words as if they were a theological statement, simply the foundation of a doctrine of the church (that we are sinners). I’d even recognize how close to home it hits for me. It can be a real benefit for us to use that text as a means for reflection on the sin that lies within me. How about you?
But it may be (and I suggest, should be) an opportunity for us to remember the impact of that truth, that we ALL are sinners. That would be helpful for all who gather at church and all who serve as pastors in the church.
A few weeks ago I mentioned the two nice elderly ladies who took seriously my invitation (encouragement, pleading) to sit forward to heart and who sat in the front row of church the next Sunday (and from then on). I really appreciated their actions (whatever the motivation), as it encouraged some others to move a few rows forward as well. I thanked God for the help and witness of the sisters. In some ways, perhaps, I gave them too much “saintly-ness”. Just like St. Paul, they were unable to do all that God called them to do or avoid all He warned them about.
So it came to pass (to use a Biblical phrase) that one day the sisters came to me after church to make an offering. Remember, our church had very limited funds, so when they indicated they wanted to make a special donation, I was again pleased to have them in the church. They described their donation as some plants that would run for 140 feet, (100 feet down the side-street side of our property and across the two lots we owned (40 feet) across the front. They wanted them planted along side our wrought iron fence that ran the entire length. It sounded like a good idea but I knew the attraction the empty lot inside our fence was to kids in the neighborhood. They would jump the pointed metal fence and spend the afternoon playing games in our yard. In my pastoral view, it was at least some connection to our neighborhood which we so desperately needed. So I shared the reality to the sisters that I was afraid their plants wouldn’t last long with the kids jumping down there.
To my surprise, the sweet little ladies knew about the kids jumping the fence and playing in the yard also. So the plants (a particularly hardy thorn bush) was their solution to what they saw as our “problem.” To be honest, their plan surprised me. It wasn’t as much a love offering to God designated to beautifying His church. It was … well, you know what it was and so did I. I kindly (at least for the kids), declined their offer trying to describe the gift of connecting with the kids and that our witness needed to be better than planting thorn bushes to dissuade them from coming to church. Ahhh, sin at work in all.
That is the reality of church life. Unless your church (with ushers like mine who I mentioned locked the doors on Sunday mornings) locks your doors, you likely have an “open door” policy and sinners wander in. It is not like you ever (or often) excommunicate (kick out as in out of your church) people or prevent them from coming to receive Word and sacrament in the hope and prayer they can receive grace for sin and the Holy Spirit to empower more faithful witness with love. But sin is rampant in the hearts and lives of each and every one of us. We confess our sin regularly each week in worship, out loud, and it should not surprise us that all that talk about not doing what God commands and doing what He says we should not do is real and powerful in our lives.
I’m sure you’ve known people who left a church over a tiff with another member or with the pastor. They were not able to sense the power of God’s grace and work graciously with the brother or sister of theirs in Christ. Believe it or not, I’ve known pastors who react the same way. They are called to and lead a congregation for a while and then, hoping the “next” church would have fewer sinners or less blatant sinners or, perhaps even no sinners, they contact the bishop and ask for a move. They may or may not share the real reason for their request but that is often the case with disgruntled members as well. I always hope that the simple reasons people give for their leaving are the honest reasons but, knowing the power of sin and the challenge Matthew 18 (going and speaking directly to someone who offends you), I expect some were just not able or willing to heal the broken relationship and recognize that sin is not just in that errant member but in each member (including them).
So the sisters (like St. Paul, like me, like you) were sinners. Should that have surprised me? No and it did prepare me for serving sinners with the good news of God’s grace for them and to be shared by them. That is all we pastors have to go on; the grace of God which is always sufficient. Sinners (like pastors and members) need the life-giving forgiveness of sins. That connects us all to one another and to God and that makes the Church of God a place of grace, a gathering of the forgiven disciples of Christ.
Blessings on your weekend in worship and on the grace you receive and share with others.
Peace in Him,