Let Us Help One Another
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? – Romans 7:24
Tomorrow, or perhaps tonight for those churches that have Saturday night services, hundreds of United Methodist pastors across the country begin a new chapter in their ministries. Tomorrow, or perhaps tonight for those churches that have Saturday night services, thousands of United Methodist laity begin a new chapter in their ministries. As they meet one another for the first time, the fear, the curiosity, the hope, the mourning, all will come together and be laid at the table of the Lord, as the sacrament is shared and a new community is born, a community pledged to a new mission, a new life. The uniqueness of the United Methodist itinerant system allows this kind of rebirth and renewal, fresh faces and a fresh start, every few years.
No one arrives at these moments without history, however. All, clergy and lay, carry lifetimes and more of baggage, some buried so deep no one will ever find it. Others carry it around for all the world to see, using it to define their lives and relationships with others. This is true for the arriving pastors as much as the people in the pews. No one is blameless; the trick, of course, is navigating and negotiating all the highways and byways, walls and doors created by multiple lifetimes of sorrow and fear and sin and brokenness and cowardice and despair. It takes time, luck, grace, and an abundance of love to keep things moving forward while always recognizing there might well be a dangerous pitfall up ahead.
The Lectionary Epistle reading for this Sunday contains the verse above, and I, for one, believe this would be a great way to start out a relationship with a new congregation. Rather than step in to the office and parsonage and pulpit with a plan and a mission; rather than approach a new congregation as a wary semi-adversary to be won; I know, if it were me, I would step up and begin by quoting St. Paul: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Clergy are just far too reluctant to admit their failings and flaws. Oh, they may nod in the general direction that they, no less than those in the pews, suffer from temptations and failings. For some reason, however, too few will step up and say, “The good that I wish to do, I do not do.”(Romans 7:15b, para.) Fewer still are those who might actually spell out what that evil they do might be. A history of addiction, perhaps? Failed marriages due to infidelity? Perhaps even time in prison for a crime of violence? Perhaps it’s something less dramatic, like a difficulty at a previous appointment, the fault for which lay squarely at his or her feet. In any case, our clergy seem predisposed to speak in generalities rather than specifics. This is, after all, a first impression, and who wants to mess that up?
Yet, it isn’t really a first impression. Many if not most of those in the pews are used to the change in pastors. Many come to see and hear what this new person might have to offer – a new vision, a new hope, solace after conflict, challenge in the midst of a search for identity. While there is the all too human desire for continuity, most churches are mature enough in their faith to want this new thing to be just that: new.
All the better for that person to stand in the pulpit, read St. Paul, then cry out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” For this is the cry we all should make, each and every day. Not a plea for physical death; nor a plea for eternal life here and now. Rather, the desire for the one thing, the only truly desirable object, the pearl of great price for which we would be willing to sell all we own. The next verse answers this plea: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
Yet we should not rush through to the praise and thanksgiving too quickly. We should linger for more than a few moments on “this body of death”. As St. Paul has made clear throughout the preceding several chapters, and now brings to a climax, it is sin that abides, regardless of our intentions or will; regardless of our professions of faith and innocence; regardless of whatever we might will and do, whether feed the hungry, speak with the tongues of angels, or even give our body over to be burned – it is sin that reigns within us. We so wish to be righteous, to stand before God and neighbor as one blameless and holy. Particularly at this moment in our lives, as clergy just beginning a new relationship with a new community of the faithful, we want to be sure we present ourselves as those called by God and ordained through the laws of the Church and the power of the Holy Spirit to continue the mission of the church. Wouldn’t it be far more honest, however, just to stand before the gathered Body of Christ and confess, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members” (Romans 7:22-23)?
It is at this point, however, that grace can enter, not just our individual lives, but the new life together, new pastor and new congregation, confessing to one another and to God the weight of sin that holds them down, holds them back, prevents them from loving fully, living freely, and giving generously. It is at this point that all can covenant, with and for one another, to hold one another up, to be in prayer and active service to one another, to visit while sick or in the hospital, to call upon those who might have fallen away and extend an invitation to see this new thing that is being done. I would make a promise that all of us and each of us would help one another, rescuing us all from this body of death through the power of the Holy Spirit that makes us a community of the faithful. By doing so together, perhaps the chance will come to live out even more the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. By doing so together, all, both clergy and lay, can be Church in a new way, a Living way, a faithful, hopeful, and loving way in the years to come. Who will rescue us from this body of death? Jesus Christ, in the persons of each other lifting and holding one another up in faith to be who we are all called to be.
And I would follow such a sermon with the following hymn, a recognition that none of us, ordained or lay, have anything to bring before the Lord save what God in Christ has granted us in grace and love. We would come before one another in recognition of our own failing. We would hold before one another the reality that each of us and all of us cry out, “Who will rescue me from this body of death?”