By Emily Hylden
I love the Epistle lesson for today. It’s one of my favorite passages and speaks so deeply to me of my constant desire to do and be good, and my constant inner battle to accomplish that good that I desire. “I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … what a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Usually, of course, the thing I’m not doing is avoiding dessert, or getting out of bed to go for a run, or spending my precious little unfettered time helping someone rather than binging Netflix.
Oh, but if I leave the passage there, in the place where it’s talking about my little bad habits or guilty pleasures, then it’s castrated. The message Paul seeks to deliver is totally turned lukewarm and inert. And all too often, isn’t this exactly what happens? We interpret Scripture, perhaps as best we can, but in getting it just a little off kilter, it becomes about eating too many cookies, or giving our time to the poor, rather than the deeper, sinister, actually life-and-death Word that Paul is moved to write and warn his fellow Christians about.
If sin is just resisting the thing we already hate, then if we just try hard enough, we’ll be fine. If reconciliation is just doing the right thing, we can strong-arm our way into it, and sleep in on Sunday mornings.
I suspect that each of y’all know that sin is much deeper, much worse, much more insidious, than that.
So if we turn back to just before this passage starts, a few verses earlier in Romans, we read (in verse 13), “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means! It was sin, producing death in me through what is good, in order that sin might be shown to be sin, and through the commandment might become sinful beyond measure. For we know that the law is spiritual, but I am of the flesh, sold under sin. For I do not understand my own actions.”
Even when we follow the letter of the law, the law, which is good, Paul says; we don’t know the outcomes of the actions we’re taking, and the straightforward results of following the good rules in this sinful and broken world often leads to more sinfulness, more brokenness, because we ourselves, humans, are a broken mess of sin. Like Paul says, “I am of the flesh, sold under sin.”
He’s a great example of what I’m talking about, actually: in his great faithful zeal, he persecuted the church. He is infamous for his great power and work in destroying God’s bride, the fledging group of Christians who followed Jesus in the first century. His road to Damascus moment revealed to him the way that sin had taken the good desire in his heart to keep the people of God pure and to help others seek holiness, and made it into something used for evil, almost without him even knowing it.
He did not understand the implications of his own actions. He did not know what it was that he was really doing to God. It’s why Jesus, when he appeared to Paul on that road, said, “Saul, why are you persecuting me?” What Paul was really doing was tearing down the very kingdom he desired to build.
This is what sin does. It takes wise, knowledgeable, faithful people and it twists their good work into absolute repugnance. This is what we must admit to, and against which we must pray, and toward which we must show no mercy. The heinous power of sin is to twist and deform the good desires and good intentions and true actions of people into darkness and evil and sickness. And because we’ve tried to be good, to follow the law, to do the right things, when evil and sin take hold and they twist our good, we get defensive, we double down, we refuse the truth of the sin before our eyes.
That’s what I do when I make this passage about eating too many cookies or watching too much TV. This passage is about the power of God over sin and death and darkness and evil. It is not about my willpower.
Paul shows us that even in our hard trying — even in our willpower, we are programmed in our bodies. As Paul says here, I am of the flesh — to twist it into evil. That is sin. Sin is when order turns into oppression. Sin is when beauty turns into a contest. Sin is when diversity becomes a tool for division. When skin color is a way to define “normal,” and when my celebration is more important than your safety.
This is why, on our own, as humanity, we are hopeless. It is the way of humanity to twist the good, to infect the true, to deform the beautiful. I believe this is why the Gospel passage is so startling, and why I’ve heard it explained as a new way to train your body and soul, but I think that misses the point entirely, again.
“Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
The burdens of Jesus may seem heavy to us. Can you imagine anything more onerous than being like Jesus in this sinful and broken world? But the yoke of God is only heavy if we are also still holding on to the sin that causes oppression for some, but supremacy for me, or the understanding of “normal” that puts me in the center and others on the outside, or the definition of beauty that sets me ahead when I’m shopping for a car or walking down the street or saying something in a crowded room.
The yoke of Jesus is only heavy if we keep hold, too, to the sin that warps it and makes that burden, that yoke, into something that is inside our system of the world already.
The burden and yoke of Jesus is the way that God has made the world to function, the grace under which we are created to live, the “burden” that our bodies and souls are formed to carry. The yoke of Jesus is the freedom of worshiping him, the burden of God is living in his kingdom, the new Eden.
Even when we try, we do the thing we hate. We do it wrong. Humanity can’t get it right outside of God’s hand and work in the world. So we gather, we kneel, we ask God again (and again and again) to make us as members of his body, as pieces of his kingdom, bricks in his house of justice, and truth, and beauty, Jesus Christ himself being the chief cornerstone.
The Rev. Emily R. Hylden lives with her priest husband and three sons in Lafayette, Louisiana, and is host of the podcast Emily Rose Meditations.