“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit…” Romans 8: 3 & 4
If we stick with the idea that the Epistle to the Romans is a narrative, a very big story, and that St. Paul understands it to be God’s story in which we human beings play leading roles we can see how so many of the stories we have grown to love over the years seem to be reiterations of that original story. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe for example is the story of how the enslaved offspring of Adam and Eve are set free from the evil magic of the White Witch. But not only the humans are liberated. Remember how Narnia is a place where “it is always winter, but never Christmas” and it is in that state because of the power of the White Witch. Recall last week that I spoke of patterns of recurrence and how such provisions are good and beneficial structures of relations within God’s creation meant to enable growth, development, greater complexity and creativity. The seasons of the solar year – spring, summer, fall and winter – provide us an example of a pattern of recurrence that is built into creation and one that is dependable, and predictable; and that pattern of recurrence in nature enabled humanity to fashioned its own cultural pattern of recurrence that we call farming – planting, watering, reaping and preserving the yield. When it is always winter, as in Narnia, no crops can be planted because nothing will grow and death looms large over the land. Lucy, Edmund, Susan, and Peter soon learn that the White Witch who rules over Narnia brings winter wherever she reigns because her very nature is of wintery death. But they also discover that an old prophecy has declared that the offspring of Adam and Eve in union with the long absent but true Lord of Narnia, a lion named Aslan, will break the witch’s hold. And as a matter of fact as soon as Aslan and the children are together and on the move, the ice of the great river begins to crack and splinter, the snowy woods begin leafing, icy steams thaw and spring returns to Narnia. And the reader knows that the brittle power of the White Witch will one day melt away forever.
That is just one story we love, but there are many more: The Princess pricks her finger on a needle and she falls into a death-like sleep till her Prince – her Chevalier – wakes her with a very human kiss. Or a creature, an obvious beast, is transformed into a Prince by the true love of a Maiden. The very reason these stories delight us so much is because they touch another world that we Christians know first hand from our Bible and that we experience existentially in the Sacraments and the Liturgy.
Why am I talking about this? I have repeatedly said over the last few months that Paul’s epistle to the Romans is not a book of abstract theological principles but rather a narrative and that in fact it would be a mistake if we attempt to reduce the narrative to theological abstractions. The fact is that the vast majority of the New Testament texts are stories that have a beginning, middle, and an end – even if the end that the stories announce has not yet arrived. But it would be a big mistake to think that the New Testament narratives are narratives in the same sense of these other narratives that we have been discussing like The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. One reason we need to talk about this is because in our world the words “story” or “narrative” are frequently taken to be light-weights in the world of truth and meaning, and that is mostly because we are warned in so many ways not to even question the myth that scientific knowledge is the model for what it means to really know and to really understand – the issue is simply not open for discussion. Real scientists don’t talk about the “narrative of the neutron” or the “story of gravity” in anything like a serious manner. For the scientist the ideal language of truth is physics and the language of physics is mathematics and anything short of that is soft at best or just journalism, propaganda, or wishful thinking.
Furthermore, stories and narratives are typically taken to be entirely personal and subjective, merely one point-of-view among other equally valid points-of-view. That of course is not the truth concerning the words “story” or “narrative” but that is the assumption. Just go into a courtroom or a departmental hearing in a hospital or a university when charges have been brought against someone and listen to the examination and cross-examination of witnesses and look at the consequences of giving a false witness. False testimony can end a career and even put a person behind bars and the only reason that is just is the fact that we know that we can know and understand as well as communicate truth as a narrative. Even in hearing a complaint in the context of people dedicated to branch of hard science no one would suggest the absurdity that we should learn how to eliminate the narrative of a witness and replace it with the certainty of mathematics. The fact is that some points-of-view have exercised attentiveness, intelligence, reason, and responsibility while other points-of-view are bent, crooked through being inattentive, prejudicial, unreasonable and irresponsible. One should know that the New Testament narratives most certainly claim to record historic facts, the truth about real events in history.
Remember a few weeks back that I said that every big event in life has its text. The event generates the text. For example, the resolve of the 13 original colonies to be free from England has as its text the Declaration of Independence. The event of falling in love generates love letters, poems, and novels. The event generates the text. That is important to keep in mind. If there is no historic event behind the content of the text then we call the text fiction. Fiction is not a bad thing when it is understood to be intentionally fiction as in a fictional work of art. Such intentional fictions may also disclose truth, but truth of a different, a limited sort of which I am speaking. The fictions of C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkin are great because they are intentional fictions. The event behind their texts was their Christian faith and their intention to tell a story that was true, but without any claim that the events really happened. If a text purports to be a record of what really happened, as in the Colonies separation from England and their Declaration of Independence, and if the historic events that are asserted to have happened did not happened then the text is a lie.
“For what the law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit…” Romans 8: 3& 4
Look at verse 3:
“God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh…”
If the Second Person of the eternal Trinity was not capable of assuming human flesh, not capable of coming to us “in the likeness of sinful flesh,” then the New Testament is not true and it is not worth the bother. But the Church claims that New Testament texts are records, memoirs, in some cases autobiographies, life stories, and accounts concerning an insignificant Jew from the back of beyond named Jesus. But this is the main point I made a few weeks ago and I wish to make now: the big event that gave birth to the texts of the New Testament is the resurrection from the dead of that insignificant Jew. The resurrection of Jesus Christ was God’s work of finality, the great reversal, the climatic moment in human history. It is the content and authorship of the New Testament that sets it apart from all other texts in the world and the content of the New Testament hangs entirely upon the event of the resurrection and the identification of the resurrected One and that is why Paul’s epistle to the Romans matters and matters far more than all the wonderful stories we have ever heard and love. It is the historical resurrection and only the resurrection of Jesus that gives meaning to the New Testament. Furthermore the very reason these other stories delight us so much is because they reach up to touch another world – a world that we Christians know first hand from our Bible because we know that Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the eternal Trinity is the one who called that world and all other worlds into being by fiat. If you were to stand next to a great cathedral as the sun rises in the east, you would see its long shadow falling across busy streets and tall buildings. Any child knows the shadow is not the cathedral. Furthermore the shadow could not exist without the cathedral. The fictional stories and narratives of people like C. S. Lewis are the shadows and the New Testament of Jesus Christ is the great cathedral. Lewis’ stories touch Christians so deeply because they are the shadows thrown over our lives by the resurrection narratives of the New Testament.
Again you might ask why am I talking about all this when I am supposed to be getting us into Romans 8? I have frequently said in the past, one of my driving concerns is to build up your trust and confidence in the Bible and especially in the New Testament. Not because the Old Testament is secondary but because the New Testament is a precious and reliable collection of Apostolic memories, of eye-witness recollections, of the life, death and resurrection of our precious Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. I am as confident of this – of the authenticity, of the candidness, the truthful history of the New Testament – I am as confident of the truthfulness of that as I am of the birth of my daughter, the love of my wife, of the ground under our feet.
And in addition to that objective truth, I am concerned to teach you a hermeneutic, that is, a way of interpreting these weird and sometimes troubling narratives that have been handed down to us. Mainly I want you to learn not to read them apart from the Common Prayer of the Church. It is Common Prayer that provides us with the hermeneutical grid we must have to “rightly divide the Word of truth.”
The great New Testament scholar E.C. Hoskyns described the proper end of New Testament studies: “You look down your critical microscope at the New Testament text with a view to describing the religious life of the first-century Christians, and you find that God is looking back at you through the microscope and declaring you to be a sinner.” That is why it matters so much that we present ourselves, our souls and our bodies to the these narratives as a pliant and living sacrifice. In short that you and I open our life to the living Word of God, so that this text may interpret, may judge, and may form our life according to the will of him who loved us and died for us on the Cross.
I have said this frequently enough, that as your priest I take this with all seriousness. I promise you. That is why I dedicate my days and weeks to prayer for you and to the study of the Holy Scriptures. Every single day I blessed to reach up to the Text and as I have said before whoever preaches in this pulpit does the same. And those who teach in Wednesday school or the Monday Morning Bible Study or the men’s group Bible study do the same. A worthy reading requires hours and hours of study and prayer, loving and respecting the narratives so that we may order our lives individually and corporately to the Resurrection so that we live our life not in shadows, but in the incarnate Word whose life is the Light of the world.