The Fourth Sunday after Pentecost, 28 June 2020
A Sermon on Romans 7:1-13 by Samuel D. Zumwalt
Romans 7:1-13 English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles
Or do you not know, brothers—for I am speaking to those who know the law—that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives? 2 For a married woman is bound by law to her husband while he lives, but if her husband dies she is released from the law of marriage. 3 Accordingly, she will be called an adulteress if she lives with another man while her husband is alive. But if her husband dies, she is free from that law, and if she marries another man she is not an adulteress. 4 Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God. 5 For while we were living in the flesh, our sinful passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members to bear fruit for death. 6 But now we are released from the law, having died to that which held us captive, so that we serve in the new way of the Spirit and not in the old way of the written code. 7 What then shall we say? That the law is sin? By no means! Yet if it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin. For I would not have known what it is to covet if the law had not said, “You shall not covet.” 8 But sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, produced in me all kinds of covetousness. For apart from the law, sin lies dead. 9 I was once alive apart from the law, but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died. 10 The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me. 11 For sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me and through it killed me. 12 So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good. 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.
SUMMER MUSICALS: FIORELLO
Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
It may seem this preaching series on summer musicals is meant to be entertainment instead of a serious engagement with biblical texts or a distraction from more challenging topics and issues. That’s not what we are up to as we meditate on God’s Word today. Let’s go deep then deeper.
The Law Always Accuses
Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock, writers of the Pulitzer Prize winning musical “Fiorello,” are best known for their magnificent “Fiddler on the Roof.” That will be our summer musical on August 2. In an aside to older folk who surely remember the Kingston Trio, Sheldon Harnick also wrote, “The Merry Minuet,” (“They’re rioting in Africa. They’re starving in Spain. There’s hurricanes in Florida. And Texas needs rain”). So, you may not know “Fiorello,” but many of you are acquainted with Harnick and Bock’s words and music.
Now, Fiorello La Guardia built Municipal Airport #2 that now bears his name. He was a congressman from East Harlem in the 1920s. Born in Greenwich Village, he was raised in Prescott AZ, where his Italian immigrant father served as Army band leader. His mother was both Italian and Jewish from the international city of Trieste. La Guardia was fluent in Italian, Yiddish, and Croatian, which helped him immensely in serving New York City’s immigrant population first as an attorney, then as a congressman, and, most famously, as the Republican reform mayor from 1933-1945. With the help of President Franklin Roosevelt who funneled large sums of relief money to the city from 1934-1939, La Guardia and his Parks Commissioner, Robert Moses, rebuilt the infrastructure and transformed the look of the city. La Guardia hated the Italian mob that controlled the Democratic political machine known as Tammany Hall, and he fought to have Lucky Luciano jailed and then deported. He reformed city employment to be merit-based rather than linked to political patronage. God knows New York needs another La Guardia right now!
Among the many memorable songs in “Fiorello,” I want to highlight three that underscore the accusatory nature of God’s Law, which is holy, righteous, and good. The first, “Politics and Poker,” has card-playing Republican operatives trying to pick a candidate for Congress to run against the Tammany Hall candidate: “Gentlemen, how about some names we can use, some qualified Republican who’s willing to lose.” As the song soars to its conclusion, they sing: “Politics and poker, politics and poker, playing for a pot that’s mediocre; Politics and poker running neck and neck, if politics seems more predictable that’s because usually you can stack the deck!”
It wouldn’t be a musical if there wasn’t a love story somewhere. La Guardia’s secretary is in love with him but he ends up marrying Thea, who later dies of tuberculosis. By the end of the musical, Marie becomes his wife. But “Marie’s Law,” a duet with Morris the office manager, occurs after La Guardia goes to supper with Thea instead of Marie. She dictates and Morris repeats Marie’s vision of how things ought to be: “In re: my law; ad hoc, to wit, to woo: ‘When a lady feels affectionate, then the man must follow through.’ Here’s another law we women’ll do our best to legislate: ‘It shall be completely criminal for a man to break a date. Each offender shall be rapidly thrown in jail where he belongs.’ Thus we’ll write our Bill of Wrongs” Her Law accuses.
The real show stopper near the end of the second act is “Little Tin Box,” in which Ben and his fellow Republicans sing about corrupt Tammany Hall hacks making excuses to a judge about their lavish lifestyles despite having modest salaries. When a judge asks how a guy can keep a dozen women in the very best hotels, the guy answers: “I can see your honor doesn’t pull his punches, and it looks a trifle fishy I’ll admit, but for one whole week I went without my lunches, and it mounted up, your honor, bit by bit… It’s just a little tin box, a little tin box that a little tin key unlocks. There is nothing unorthodox about a little tin box. In a little tin box, a little tin box, all a-glitter with blue-chip stocks. There is something delectable, almost respectable, in a little tin box.” Thus, two good Jewish boys, Harnick and Bock, explain how one can’t escape God’s Law.
The Law Cannot Save
In Romans 7:1-13, Paul begins by comparing the relationship of a wife and husband to the relationship between the Mosaic Law and the baptized. According to Deuteronomy 24, the wife is bound to her husband until he dies. After that, she may remarry. Likewise before Baptism, one is bound to the Law until death, but, having been buried with Christ in Baptism, the baptized are now bound to Christ, the Husband of the Church, which is His Bride. Even as God’s Crucified Son Jesus is risen from the dead, so, too, the baptized, as His own, rise to bear fruit to God.
Like the corrupt Tammany Hall machine that Fiorello fought against, the unbaptized are shown to produce rotten fruit, because they cannot and do not keep the Law perfectly. Just as Marie’s love for Fiorello was an unrequited love for years, so it is that God longs for all people, created in His image, to turn from our wickedness, the way of death and not life! We must be clear that Baptism does not end the Law’s accusatory voice. The Law will keep exposing sin, the rotten fruit of rebellion in every human heart and mind, yes, even in the baptized, even in you and me.
In these crazy days in which an impending presidential election cannot be ignored, the Law is very much exposing and condemning sin not only in the murder of George Floyd but in the outrageous behavior of mobs not doing good but evil and in the reprehensible cowardice of elected leaders who will not condemn and use the full force of the Law to stop the chaos in our streets. Yes, those who propose the remaking of America through Marxist and anarchist means are trying to replace the Law with raw power that only destroys and cannot save. They stand accused, and they will certainly die sooner or later. But they may well die the eternal death of the damned.
The Law is Holy, Righteous, and Good
Paul is not saying there is something wrong with the Law, which he also calls the commandment. God is a holy God. Having no beginning and no ending, the Lord God, the Maker and Owner of everything, is the standard by which everyone and everything is measured. So, the color of one’s skin and the dividing the world into oppressors and victims cannot be the standard for measuring everyone and everything, which is why cries of ending systemic racism must be rejected as an unholy and false gospel proposed by Marxists and echoed by useful idiots around the world.
The Law is holy, righteous, and good, because God is holy, righteous, and good. The Law exposes and lays bare the bigotry in every heart and mind. The Law exposes those who would enslave their neighbors to sin, hatred, hopelessness, and misery both through utopian schemes and through the exercise of raw power. Just as Fiorello fought against political corruption and the very leeches who made millions from sinful desires lurking in every heart and mind, so those who would lead us now must break the back of the corrupt elite with the full force of the Law.
Let us be clear. The Law that always accuses cannot save anyone. It can only restrain and punish evil in the world. There is only one way to be saved, and that is through the only One, who perfectly kept the Law that is righteous and good, God’s Son Jesus. If anyone would be saved, that person must be baptized into the saving death and glorious resurrection of God’s Son Jesus and rise to live in Him. We rise to bear fruits to God, fruits that show forth repentance, a change of heart and mind. As Paul taught us last week, we will be slaves either to sin or to righteousness!
Be wise in the midst of the chaos and noise, dear Christians. Fiorello was not a perfect man, but he was a great mayor at the right time. God’s Law is holy, righteous, and good always, and so it gives us eyes to see and ears to listen: to discern lies from truth. The lie is always very seductive, like its father the devil. The lie offers slavery to sin, death, and evil. Its fruit is rotten just like the burning, looting, destruction, and death around us. The reform needed most is inside everyone!
In the name of the Father, and of the +Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
©Samuel David Zumwalt
St. Matthew’s Ev. Lutheran Church
Wilmington, North Carolina USA
Summer Musicals: Fiorello
“In your lovingkindness, O God, you have adopted us into your family as children of light: Grant that we may not become entangled in the darkness of error and lies, but may always live in the brightness of your truth; through your Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.” (The Daily Prayer of the Church, 616).
Romans 7:1 “Or do you not know, brothers… the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?”
Origen [Late 2nd – early 3rd century Bible scholar in Alexandria, Egypt]: “It was not only Paul who knew that the law was spiritual but these people too, who had been taught by it and who were spiritual themselves…. Before the coming of Christ there were many Jews who grew in spiritual knowledge and saw God’s glory, e.g., Isaiah….” (Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Romans, 175).
Romans 7:4 “… so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead….”
Theodoret [Early 5th century Bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria]: “In order not to offend the Jews or to give those heretics who reject the Old Testament any encouragement, Paul did not say that the law had come to an end but rather that we have died to the law by the saving grace of Baptism” (177).
Romans 7:12 “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
St. Augustine [Late 4th – early 5th century Bishop of Hippo Regius, Algeria]: “Man needed to be shown the foulness of his malady. Against his wickedness not even a holy and good commandment could avail; by it the wickedness was increased rather than diminished” (187).
Romans 7:12 “So the law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good.”
St. Gennadius [5th century Patriarch of Constantinople, Turkey]: “The commandment is called holy because it takes us away from sin and sets us apart from evil; just because with its righteousness it honors those who obey it and punishes those who transgress it; good because it leads us to the good, and this because of the goodness given by God. The law is not sin just because it shows me what is evil but the opposite” (188).
Romans 7:13 “Did that which is good, then, bring death to me? By no means!”
St. John Chrysostom [Late 4th – early 5th century Patriarch of Constantinople): “By the very way he accuses sin, Paul shows how excellent the law is…. It was the commandment which showed us just how evil sin is. At the same time, Paul also shows how grace is so much greater than the law. Grace is not in conflict with the law; it is superior to it” (188).
- Do I understand the law never ceases to accuse me and my entire life until I die?
- Do I understand the purpose of the law is to drive me to the saving gospel of Jesus Christ?
Table of Duties
Certain passages of Scripture for Various Holy Orders and Positions, by Which These People Are to Be Admonished, as a Special Lesson, about Their Office and Service
“Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Ephesians 6:4).
“Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right. ‘Honor your father and mother’ (this is the first commandment with a promise), ‘that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land’” (Ephesians 6:1-3) (Luther’s Small Catechism).
- Pray for every unbaptized child you know and for the child’s parents, too.
- Pray for your unchurched loved ones and friends. Invite one or more of them to worship.
- Discuss with your spouse, your family, or a friend the responsibilities of parents and children. In this time of social upheaval in our country, this is a wonderful opportunity to talk about why God gives parents and children to each other, what godly authority looks like, and how to speak to those of good will about God’s work through earthly authorities. It also is an occasion to talk about those not of good will and what those in authority must do about them for the good of all.
- Set aside time daily, preferably first thing, but when you are able to focus, to hear the Word of God, to reflect upon that Word, and to ask the Holy Spirit to grant you grace to be shaped by and conformed to that Word. Daily Bible readings may be found at www.stmatthewsch.org. If you haven’t previously done so, please ask for a new devotional booklet when you return to corporate worship or when you drive through to receive the Body and Blood of Christ this weekend. Daily lectionary readings are on p.189 in the front of the Lutheran Book of Worship (Year Two, Week of 4 Pentecost).
For Husbands and Wives
Repeat daily: “I (name) take you (name) to be my wedded wife (husband), to have and to hold from this day forward; for better, for worse; for richer, for poorer; in sickness and in health; to love and to cherish until death do us part, according to God’s holy ordinance, and thereto I pledge you my faith.”