6th Sunday after Pentecost “Christ, Our Deliverer”
July 9, 2023 Romans 7:14-25a
Dear brothers & sisters in Christ,
Sometimes the smallest thing can tell a greater story. Such as the few old things in your great grandmother’s small hope chest; or a small stone marker with a few words about a Civil War soldier. Small things can tell a much greater story, extending over time, involving many people. Consider a well-used silver cup, about the size of your hand. It was tucked away in a floor storage area in the home of a prosperous Roman family. When Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, (at least the apostle John was still alive at the time); that cup was valuable enough to be in a secure place, but not valuable enough to be taken along as the family fled for their lives.
This small cup belonging to an unnamed family tells a larger story of what it was like to live under the rule of Caesar Augustus. On one side of the cup is the image of Augustus, surrounded by Roman gods. He is seated, and being handed the world by Venus, while Mars, the god of war, brings before him a multitude of conquered nations. On the other side of the cup is the image of Augustus as a merciful ruler over his people. His one hand is extended toward the people, & in the other hand he holds a spear.
This kind of dual-image of the emperor was common throughout Rome at the time when Paul wrote his letter to the Roman Christians. It was carved into marble blocks, printed on coins & molded into ceremonial cups like the one found in the city of Pompeii, Italy. It helped people understand their relationship with the emperor as citizen & ruler, or as the conquered & the conqueror. The emperor held both power and mercy. In power, he would wield the spear to protect his people; in mercy he would reach out with an open hand to provide for them.
So the single story of power & mercy of this one historic figure =who is long gone= is part of the much larger story of all the Roman emperors & gods. When Paul wrote to believers there, he offered another story of another Conqueror who ruled over people in power & mercy. This God=man was much greater than all the Roman gods & emperors combined. He was the Son of the one true God, in the human form of Jesus of Nazareth.
The verses of our Epistle reading today from Romans 7 are quite familiar to the Lutheran perspective.
As compared to other Christian churches, Lutherans have a keen interest in the struggle Paul is talking about; the struggle between sinner and saint. This struggle is real, and hidden in the heart of every person; it’s the battle between our old sin-nature by birth, and our new holy-person by baptism & faith in Christ. Some people openly confess this struggle, & admit their sin-weaknesses, and ask others to hold them accountable. Others keep their struggle hidden & do their best to hold themselves accountable. Either way, what Paul writes about is universal: ALL people suffer from this condition = our old nature still clings to us & our faith must battle with it. And until the day when Heaven’s Conqueror returns, we will all struggle between being a sinner and a saint.
So, this great saint, Paul, uses himself as an example. His story is of having a daily struggle that even he cannot conquer. Paul knows the good that God expects of him; and he agrees that what God wants is good & holy & right. Yet Paul also recognizes that he is “sold under sin,” (he said). He’s using the language of slavery & of captivity. His ‘members’, that is his body & mind “wage war” but he is “captive” to the law of sin. By God’s Word & Spirit, Paul knows the good that he wants to do, but he is unable to do it == he is conquered.
Instead, he finds that what he doesn’t want to do, that’s what he does. That doesn’t mean that Paul is running around living an outwardly sinful life. But remember when Jesus taught that ‘if you hate a person, you have committed murder in your heart’? How easy it is for us to break the 5th Commandment & commit murder! Now, it IS worse to do the physical sin; but God also sees the heart. In this life, Paul’s inborn, old humanity was a slave to sin & remained captive. Paul cries out for deliverance; and if a strong conqueror doesn’t come & rescue him, he has no hope.
This is Paul’s story. However, as a human being in this world, it is also your story. This condition is like that of Cain, who despised his brother Abel; he knew the good that God wanted him to do, but God warned him that evil was close-at-hand. Joseph’s brothers knew the good relationship they should have with him, but they gave-in to the evil of selling Joseph into slavery. King David knew of God’s good expectations of him to protect the Israelites and lead them in all of God’s good commands; and yet, his flesh was still captive to those wicked desires of adultery, and of murder to cover it up.
From individuals – to family-groups – to whole nations, this captivity to sin affects ALL mankind. Even with the 12 Disciples, in the presence of the Son of God, this slavery showed itself. When Peter had the good desire to follow His Lord – even if it meant death, he fell captive to denying Jesus three times in the courtyard. If the likes of David, Peter, & Paul knew the good they ought to do but couldn’t do it on their own, then this is also OUR sad & helpless condition. Our reality is that evil is always close at hand, and we are wretched in God’s sight. WHO will deliver us from our body of death?
So, Paul knows this dual story very well by personal experience; & he knows that all of our small stories are the same, so he is teaching this so that we will see the greater story of God. It is also the story of the relationship between The Conqueror and the conquered.
God’s story of power & mercy begins at the fall of man in the Garden of Eden. As Adam & Eve stood there, with the nakedness of their sin exposed before God, God acted in tough-love to put enmity -or a hostility- between satan & the woman, between his followers & her offspring; that one human would bruise/overthrow satan’s authority, and satan would bruise his earthly life. (Gen. 3:15). This was the first promise of God’s Conqueror for us.
In that promise, Adam & Eve lived in hope of being delivered out of their slavery. In this Gospel promise of God’s Messiah, all descendants of Adam & Eve, all nations of people, were to live in the same hope of God’s mercy & eternal deliverance. So, when Paul asks the question of everyone’s story, “Who will deliver me from this body of death?” The good-news-answer is close at hand for all of us: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”
The New Testament includes 13 letters/epistles of Paul; in many of them, Paul speaks of some aspect of his small life-story to highlight the Savior’s much larger story – that includes US, and is for the whole world. Jesus Christ is the one & only, who was sent to deliver us.
By our sins, we delivered Him up to the cross & wrath of God. But by His blood, and by the power of His resurrection over sin, death, & the devil, Jesus has delivered us. Now the door to the kingdom of heaven stands wide open for all who trust in Him. No Roman emperor and no Roman gods could ever promise or fulfill what God-in-the-flesh was able to do for us.
In the year 1516, an artist tried to capture an image of what Paul is teaching here.
The artist was Fra Bartolommeo, and the painting is called ‘Christ and the Four Evangelists.’ Unlike that Roman silver cup depicting emperor & gods, in this painting, Christ is seen standing on top of a cup, or chalice, and on top of the whole world = which is supported by those old-fashioned little-cherub-angels.
Jesus’ right hand is raised in the common gesture of blessing & peace for all people, and in His left hand he holds a staff, or king’s scepter, which has a small globe & cross on the top of it. The heavenly God-man truly holds all power, and rules over all creation; and thru His death & resurrection, He is pronouncing His blessing of forgiveness & salvation for all people.
In that silver Roman cup, Augustus is pictured as being among his people, which is a good image, but Augustus ruled just one nation for a mere 41 years; he is dead & gone.
Jesus, on the other hand, is risen from the dead to live & reign without end. In the painting, Christ is flanked on either side with the four evangelists who, by the Holy Spirit, have written our Deliver’s life-changing message for all to hear & believe. 2,000 yrs later, that gospel message is still calling souls from all nations of people into Christ’s ongoing kingdom. In the painting, Matthew, Mark, Luke & John are seen each holding their book of that saving Gospel.
In the painting, the physical body of Jesus & the chalice, along with the evangelists, are meant to show us how our Conqueror is present with us today to deliver us from our slavery to sin and our wretched body of death. He is with us thru His Word & Sacraments.
Jesus is with us by the Written Word. He brings us to humble repentance & fear of our sins of thought, word & deed; He promises to come to us and show His mercy in forgiving our sins as we hold on to His cross & it’s promise; He abides with us by His strong Spirit, so that we will live as His people, & obey all His teachings.
Jesus is also truly, physically, with us thru His Sacrament of Body & Blood, as He gave His promise by saying: ‘take and eat, this IS My body; take and drink, this IS My blood.’ That means that, as we eat & drink His Meal, we are joining with our Conqueror as He actually delivers us from our captivity under sin. When the Son sets you free, you are free indeed.
So, in Rom.7, Paul has explained to us about the hopeless, wretched reality of our slave-condition under our old sinful nature; and he explained about the greater hopeful & holy reality of how our Heaven-sent Deliverer has arrived. So, again today, the good news has been proclaimed to us that Jesus has conquered our enemies == including Satan, & the fallen world, and even our own personal evils that are always close-at-hand; Jesus has overpowered them. He has saved us from our own body of death. Now, as His people, we live in this new life each day, we listen to our Savior, and we follow His teachings like trusting children.
So, now we can return to our gospel reading from Matthew 11, and hear Jesus’ words of comfort & hope with the ears of faith.
“At that time, Jesus declared, ‘I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and the understanding, and revealed them to little children; yes, Father, for such was your will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” (Matt. 11:28).
Jesus is the greater story of God. He is the Savior for the whole world, & the Ruler of all nations & people, for all time. And He is also your Savior, & your Ruler & Lord = even tho your story is very small in the history of the world. Our Creator is powerful, and He is merciful, and God has included you in His great story of salvation and life.