Preacher: The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Whatever your personal opinion about him might be, we would all have to concur that Paul must have been quite a person; he certainly would have stood out in a room. Born to be a Pharisee he would end a Christian martyr. Along the way, he would be a zealot, a fundamentalist in modern day terms – a person not afraid to do violence, even murder, for his cause. Not only a man of strong opinions but clearly also someone who could arouse others to embrace passionately the mission he espoused.

Paul could be considered the godfather of God’s church on Earth; inspired by Jesus, it would be Paul more so than Peter who set the world on spiritual fire in that first century. Unlike Mohammed who, five centuries later, would set the world on spiritual fire by word and sword, Paul did it only by word – the word that was in the beginning, that word that was with God, the word that was God.

However such an exalted role in the early church has not left Paul immune from criticism, especially in our own time. To some, Paul was a bigot, a sexist, a supporter of slavery, anti-semitic despite himself having been born a Jew. In the wake of such accusations, many of us may even have been tempted to develop our own personal versions of the New Testament- a New Testament Lite, with reduced Trans-Pauline-dogma, leaving only such low calorie, warm comforting bits of Paul’s writings as 1 Corinthians 13:13:

And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

And by the censoring of some of Paul in the New Testament, we either overlook the difficult parts of his epistles or feel ourselves twisted into contorted explanations of contextuality in order to cover up for him in the presence of twenty-first century ears.

For my part, were I to meet him, I feel I might consider Paul over-bearing, judgmental and more bound by his socio-cultural upbringing than he might have cared to admit. I have little doubt that, in any face to face conversation, I would feel myself goaded on occasion to say “but how can you say that?” as I would take issue with some of his more dogmatic and judgmental words. And in so doing I would arm myself with an armoury of Gospel quotes spoken by Jesus to back me up, to prove my point in arguing with Paul.

But there are times, when reading his epistles, that I encounter someone quite different; someone who, despite some of what he had written, speaks to something in me as much as any person of my own time could ever do. Last Sunday, at the morning service, I had such a moment when tonight’s epistle reading was read. It was indeed the reason I asked for it to be included into tonight’s service instead of the reading from Romans 9 that was scheduled in the Lectionary for this Evensong.

Two profound insights occurred to me upon hearing Paul’s words. First, here was Paul, human being just like me; and secondly, despite all his flaws, here was Paul standing back and observing not only his own place in the world, but also connecting existential dots of life and purpose, of good and evil in astounding ways.

Consider Paul the human being. Other than perhaps the psalmists and Job, we know more about Paul as a complex, three dimensional person than anyone else in the Bible. Through his epistles, Paul wrote not only about his beliefs, his opinions and his advice to all and sundry, he also frequently bared his soul to his readers.

How much do each of us really let others know about ourselves, our real selves? Back in 2003, when I addressed the Adelaide Prayer Breakfast, I spoke of the many selves that are each of us, and said that all, bar one, are either false or deliberately and misleadingly incomplete.

On that occasion, I spoke about the fact that there is a self that I portray to an unknown wider public, then there is one I reveal to acquaintances, and another for my friends, and yet another for my family. Each portrayed persona revealing progressively more about the self I believe myself to be, but each also containing degrees of image control, of shielding aspects of the inner self that I feel certain is the real me. However, at that Prayer Breakfast, I said even that inner self that I claim to be me is but a shadow; for there is yet a more profound self that is largely unknown, even to me. This is the self that God knows me to be. Furthermore, I said then that my lack of a complete comprehension of this deep inner self did not perturb me, for that self exists at a meeting point with the eternal; where the breath of God and the dust of my mortal self meet. As such there is inevitably great mystery to this profound self, for total knowledge of that self would require more than my finite being could ever bring to it. Indeed, rather than being a frustration to me, this great mystery can be a spur to me. A spur that, this side of eternity, encourages me to keep seeking the truth, to keep looking through the glass darkly to glimpse the full light of God, as Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 13:12.

It is into this unknown space of our real selves that each of us should pray; for our prayers cannot be self-assured, they must delve, through our unknown real self, to our God who continually reaches out to us – our prayers should be, as Paul says in Colossians 4:12, ‘always wrestling’. The Greek word Paul used in that verse was ἀγωνιζόμενος [agōnizomenos], literally agonising.

And so I come back to Paul and tonight’s reading. In this reading, Paul cast aside all self-managed public selves of himself on display to those he sought to lead or to impress, revealing that inner self which he himself knew to be and which touched upon an even deeper unknown self. And thus, this sometime overly certain and seemingly so self-confident first century evangelist revealed his own considerable inner turmoils. Listen to his words:

I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate … I see in my own members another law at war with the law of my mind … Wretched man that I am!

This is an agonising Paul, not the Paul who always seems to have all the ready answers to any problem or complex situation. And it is this Paul who I find speaks so compellingly to me; and, may I suggest, can also speak to you. There was no contextuality here in these agonised outpourings. This was not Paul speaking about the Romans to the Romans in a world so removed from us that we can barely understand it. This was Paul speaking through time to anyone who is prepared to be honest with themselves and to doubt their own internal capacity always to do what is right and never to do what is wrong, in thought, word or deed. Paul was speaking to anyone who is prepared to acknowledge the dark struggles of the night such as Jacob went through with the angel of God [Genesis 32:22-32] or as the psalmist referred to when he wrote:

O my soul, why [are you] so disturbed within me? [Psalm 42:5]

The second insight I drew from hearing tonight’s reading had to do with Paul’s connecting existential dots of life and purpose, of good and evil. In these verses to provide an anchor for the soul, Paul had let us know that he did not believe each individual to be entire unto himself or herself but that he, and we, live in a context of life and purpose, of good and evil. Socio-culturally, Paul lived in two tensions of law and life. He was raised in orthodox Judaism, so his life was subject to strict religious law; and, living in the Roman empire, so too was his living subject to judicial law. Each from its own perspective sought to define the boundaries of good (the permitted) and evil (the unpermitted) and to define the purpose of life – to be faithful in the first and to be behaved in the second.

Because Paul lived in the shadow of these two legal frameworks, it should not surprise us that he would refer to the law in his explanations as to how we should anchor our lives. But what is surprising is that he was not referring either to Jewish religious law or Roman juridical law. Rather he referred to a concept of law that transcended both of those. Both Jewish and Roman law were about the individual living successfully within this world; the law to which Paul referred dealt with living within eternity. And in these verses from Romans 7, Paul wanted his listeners to understand the difference.

In the whole of Romans 7, there are nineteen references to the ‘law’. Looking just at tonight’s reading, let’s consider its references:

The law is spiritual; the law is good; I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand; I delight in the law of God; I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind; making me captive of the law of sin; I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

How confusing is this? Spiritual law, God’s law, law of sin, law of the mind, law of the body … What was Paul getting at? It brings to mind the following joke about a doctor, an engineer and a lawyer are discussing who among them belonged to the oldest of the three professions, according to the Bible. The physician said, “Remember, on the sixth day God took a rib from Adam and fashioned Eve, making him the first surgeon. Therefore, medicine is the oldest profession.” The engineer replied, “But, before that, God created the heavens and earth from chaos and confusion, and thus he was the first engineer. Therefore, engineering is an older profession than medicine.”

Then, the lawyer spoke up. “Yes,” he said, “But who do you think created all of the chaos and confusion?”

So what are we to make of Paul’s references to the law? I believe their importance is to establish a point of reference between our own self existence and something else – whether that point of reference is God, ourselves or the world. At its most fundamental, understanding ‘law’ as a concept can only exist by being a point of reference with something else. A law decides a point of definition between what is of the law and what is not. And so it is that Paul, in these verses, denominated what had become for him the true point of reference. In doing so, in Romans 7, he acknowledged various alternate possibilities before him – the law as his body contested was very different from the law that his mind sought.

So, if we accept the referential perspective of the concept of ‘the law’, what is the point that Paul is making? I believe that Paul wrote of the ongoing human struggle to define what ‘good’ means. Is Good a virtue or a behavioural norm? This struggle between which to choose has been with humanity since the dawn of our creation. In ancient Greek thought, it was the contest between the Apollonian and the Dionysian; in Christianity, we see it in terms of Good versus Evil, though it goes further by defining evil as the absence of good rather it having some sort of dual status with good. As C S Lewis, in Mere Christianity, wrote:

No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good.

In our times, for many the virtuousness of good has been replaced by its behavioural rationality. Friedrich Nietzsche was an evangelist of this revision of the contest between good and evil. In his book intentionally titled Beyond Good and Evil, he wrote:

One loves ultimately one’s desires, not the thing desired.


The noble soul reveres itself

In our reading tonight, we see that Paul resolved the struggle between options of good as virtue or behaviour through Christ. By taking good to the transcendent, away from the individual; and thus the law became God’s law not the world’s.

I have titled tonight’s sermon ‘Paul Agonistes’, a play on John Milton’s poem ‘Samson Agonistes’ about the Biblical character who was brought down by his own hubris, but ultimately found a deeper understanding of himself and his world by changing his referential point away from his perceived self and back towards God. The final lines of the poem are:

His servants he with new acquist

Of true experience from this great event

With peace and consolation hath dismissed,

And calm of mind, all passion spent.

Through all Paul’s passionate agonising, he could thus finish saying:

Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!

And so too may we anchor the reference point of our lives to God through Christ.