The Law and Sin
(Given at Upavon on the Seventh Sunday
after Trinity, July 14th, 2002)
Lessons: Rom. 8. 1-11 and Matt. 13.
A priest who had a good deal to do with my own training for the Ministry
once said to me, "If the lessons are read properly and with understanding,
then there is no need for a sermon!
That's worth thinking about.
Well, it may possibly apply to that parable about the sower and the seed
which you've just heard and which you have probably heard preached about
many times before.
I wonder, however, what you made of that reading from St. Paul's letter
to the Romans - and it was well read.
St. Paul is not my idea of a popular author of interesting material I
often feel sorry for those who are called upon to read aloud some of his
stuff. He is certainly not a man to be satisfied with one sentence when six
Today we hear something of what he has to say about the Law and about
Sin. What's the difference?
A year or so ago I was passing through a little village called Arisaig on
the west coast of Scotland. It was about 4 o'clock in the afternoon and I
was dying for a cup of tea - with a scone to go with it. There was a small
I stopped and went inside and gave my order to the middle-aged lady who
was serving. On a blackboard was the menu for larger meals. One item was
'poached salmon'. I said to her, "When I'm in Scotland I sometimes wonder
what you MEAN by POACHED salmon!
"Aye", she said, "an' ah'm no tellin' ye!"
Which put me in mind of a certain Scottish Bishop who was asked what he
thought about poaching. "Poaching is not a sin", he replied, "it's only a
Law is necessary to control crime, to limit anti-social behaviour, to
protect the community against the violence of the selfish, to provide a
deterrent and so on - you can probably think of many other functions of Law.
The prime example of Law in Biblical history is that of the giving of the
ten commandments. They were designed out of the necessity of keeping
together, as a unit, a tribe of people who had just been released from
slavery and who were thus inclined to kick over the traces.
But then Law became a thing of itself, multiplying and breeding
restriction after restriction until it became faintly ridiculous.
You will read later in the Bible how the Law forbade the eating of
certain things - pork for instance. So my ham sandwich is out.
It forbade the wearing of fabric of mixed threads - so polycotton is out.
And we see to this day how much store is put, by certain religions, of the
wearing of what is worn - skull caps, head veils and tea towels, turbans,
and other items of clothing, not to mention beards and moustaches and
restrictions on hair cutting. We hear much at this time about the cruelty of
some religious Law.
Perhaps we are guilty of the same thing without realising it.
During the many years during which I have been aware of such things, the
parliament of this land has made many, many laws. Yet we are told that there
were five million crimes in this country last year - and that's only those
which were discovered.
Law will never totally prevent crime.
St. Paul talks about minds set upon what he calls the flesh, and what he
calls the Spirit. Man, the species 'homo sapiens', is concerned principally
with three things, his survival, his comfort - in its widest sense - and the
satisfying of his reproductive instincts.
In these he is no different from any other biological phenomena - any
animal if you like. These are the things of what Paul calls "the flesh".
They are fundamentally selfish things, and to satisfy them, anything
goes. If man is ONLY a creature of the flesh, then he will be, as is most of
the natural world, in constant competition for survival, comfort and
reproduction. So his fellow man, unless an essential ally, becomes a threat,
his predator or his prey.
We see the results of this not only in so called "crime figures" but in
tensions and war between nations, tribes and sects, in terrorism and nuclear
I do not need to list the many, many places in our world where the
greatest threat to man is his fellow-man.
When Paul speaks of "setting the mind on the Spirit" he is not just
telling us that we should be "good", he is placing before mankind an ideal
which is totally revolutionary; an ideal which calls for a different kind of
thinking. It is possible, he is saying, for selfish, predatory instincts to
be sublimated. That which makes us what we ARE should be MORE than these
Things such as love, compassion, concern for each other; companionship
and willingness to sacrifice, and if need be, to suffer, for other's sake;
to give, to heal and to console.
These are things which we can only experience and practice when we become
aware that our humanity is more than selfish survival, more than creature
comforts and more than just multiplying our species and heaping up
This is what Jesus meant when he spoke about being 'born again'. We are
all born with a genetic inheritance which stems from our primeval ancestors
when life was overshadowed by death. Kill or be killed is a law of nature.
We need a spiritual RE-birth if life is NOT to be overshadowed by death,
and this can only come by a re-birth of the mind. That means that we must
become aware of ourselves as being in touch with a power that is altogether
good, holy, righteous, however you like to put it - more and better that is
than we can achieve by our human nature alone; a power by which we can be
guided, as St. Paul again puts it, into a "more excellent way".
St. Paul says that "The Spirit of God dwells in you." "He who raised
Christ from the dead will give life to YOUR mortal bodies also - through his
Spirit that dwells in you."
We are no longer concerned about being overshadowed by death and the
competition to delay it. We are promised the power of God's spirit in
holding fast to life and making much of that life, not only life in this
world, but in a world to come - eternal life - promised and demonstrated by
the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
That is what the Gospel is. That is what our Christianity is all
© The Estate of William John Green, 2004