26 July 2011

Life in the Spirit

Romans 8: 26-39

6th Sunday after Pentecost/ 24th July 2011

 For the last two Sundays we’ve been making our way through the majestic and theologically profound eighth chapter of Romans, Paul’s letter to the Christians in that city.  The title of this series – Life in the Spirit – was chosen because one of the main threads I see running through this chapter is the core relationship between the Holy Spirit and the human spirit.  Paul makes more references to the Spirit here than in any other chapter in the New Testament.  The Holy Spirit is obviously important to him.

            But he lifts up themes here that are, to some extent, unique to Paul.  He has phrases, sentences, insights here that are found no where else in the New Testament.  There’s one theme in particular I’ve been trying to lift up.  The last two weeks have been biblically and theologically demanding; this is a tough text.  The last third of the chapter is just as demanding and maybe more so.  But I want to lighten it up a little – after all, it’s been hot this week and it’s hot outside, – and focus primarily upon one story.  I’ll get to that story in a minute.

            First, I want to set it up, provide a context for it.   The context is the one particular theme that I’ve been stressing the last two weeks:  right now we who are baptized “in Christ” (en Christos) are participating, that is sharing in the very life of God.  For us to be “in Christ” is to be in a relationship with him and, like Christ himself, to be “in him” is to be in God, in a profound, intimate relationship with God – right now. Right now, God is present to us, around us, but also within the depths of our souls.  We belong to God, right now, and nothing can change this. There’s no possibility of separation.  There’s no possibility of God rejecting us, forgetting us, or not loving us.  In fact, God has to love us – it’s God’s job, it’s what God does and it’s who God is. 

            That’s what Paul wants his hearers to know.  He raises these rhetorical questions. “What then are we to say about these things?  If God is for us, who is against?”  And the answer is, No one and no thing.  God has demonstrated to us definitively in Christ that God will hold nothing back from us.  In sending us Christ, in giving us Christ, in Christ living the life of God and breathing the breath of God, we know God gives us Godself.  Therefore, who can give any charge against God’s children – the elect?  The implied answer here is, “No one.”  Certainly not God because God justifies.  Who is to condemn us?  The answer is implied in the question, “Not Christ,” not the one who died and was raised and now intercedes on our behalf, not Christ.  Then, who will separate us from the love of Christ, then?  Again, nothing. 
            Can hardship?  No. 
            Can distress?  No. 
            What about persecution?  No. 
            Hardship, nakedness, peril or sword? 
            No, no, no, and no. 
You see nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

            And here, then, Paul drives the point home.  Is there anything in the universe that can hinder God’s love?  The last two weeks I made reference to the fact that in Paul’s worldview, sin (in the singular) was viewed more as a force than an act.  It’s because of the power of sin – as a principality, as a force, a power “out there” in the world, that we are bound and hindered from doing God’s will, showing God’s love, offering mercy.  Paul, and others like him, believed that their lives were influenced by larger cosmic forces – like sin or death, the gods, the empire.  As we have seen, Paul believed that God sent the Son to “take on” or “to deal with” theses powers so that we might be liberated, released.  And you can hear this worldview in these closing verses:  “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, now powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

            Stunning.  Perhaps theses verses should be posted on banners at a Ravens game or on billboards just as much as as John 3:16 – or maybe more so.  Romans 8:38-39. What a very different world it would be if it were so.

            These verses, starting at verse 31, are often read at funerals and memorial services.  This isn’t surprising given the hope expressed here, not only for this life but for the life to come.  Not even death can separate us from God.  We belong to God and shall dwell with God forever.

            But I’m also convinced – or hold the conviction – that Paul had in mind here not only comfort for the life to come.  As I said two weeks ago, Paul is a great pastor-theologian, but he’s also a great psychologist, because it is from the depth of his experience, his psyche (or soul), reflecting upon the meaning of his life in the face of considerable suffering that he offers these amazing theological claims.  Yes, there’s theology here, but his theological claims are forged in the midst of considerable suffering and pain.  Paul knows that to be in Christ does not mean we are somehow excused or exempt from pain and suffering and hardship.  Even in these verses, he doesn’t say in Christ we will be prevented from experiencing hardship or peril.  He knows they won’t be able to separate us from God. 

            He’s writing from his experience and lifts up his experience as an expression of what God can do in the experience of everyone —now — who is in Christ.  Paul has had some profound encounters of God’s love and presence in his life.  He knows the presence of Christ is a constant in his life, that he exists in the sphere of God’s love in Christ.  And he shares this with us so that we too might learn how to “read” or understand or make sense out of our experience too.

            You see, for Paul the Holy Spirit is bearing witness with our human spirit.  This is the theme running through the chapter; it’s unique for Paul.  You don’t even find it explicitly mentioned in the gospels.  The Spirit bears witness with our spirit, speaks to our spirit to tell us we are children of God – that we belong to God.  The Spirit is the Spirit of Christ who is a presence within us and around us, tugging us, speaking to us in a variety of ways, bearing witness, proving to us that God is present.

            The gospel of John calls the Holy Spirit a “Comforter” (see John 14).  Paul is even deeper.  “The Spirit helps us,” Paul says, “in our weakness.”  This is a Spirit who is sharing our lives with us, participating in our experience, providing assistance.  Take prayer for example.  When we’re “weak” in prayer and don’t know how the pray, the Spirit helps us.  Not from a distance, but listen, “that very Spirit intercedes [to God] with sighs too deep for words.”  Can you feel the depth of feeling in such a statement?  Can you perceive the depth of self-awareness on Paul’s part?  Can you feel the grace of God expressed in such an insight?  The Spirit searches the depths of the human heart and even through our sighs intercedes to God, through our sighing, even through our groaning, through experience and circumstance that leave us speechless, which we can’t articulate.  The Spirit intercedes for us.  The Greek word here is perhaps best described this way.  It is a word used to describe a rescue:

Image that you arrive on the scene of a horrific crime or tragedy, you discover a person in serious trouble and on behalf of that person you begin to plead, to cry out, to beg for help.  You know that time is of the essence, there’s a sense of urgency and in your cries you struggle for words, but your words don’t make any sense. Then others come because they hear you, but they don’t understand you because your concern and now your suffering on behalf of this person renders you almost speechless, you don’t make any sense.  This is the sigh too deep for words.[1]  But the Spirit knows, can interpret the sighs and the Babel of panic.  The Spirit gives voice to God that which is underneath and behind our sighs.  That’s what the Holy Spirit does for us and with us – coming to our aid, bringing us to life, demonstrating to us that we are children of God, that we belong to God, and nothing can separate us from the love of Christ.

            I know we can all add our own experiences why we know Paul’s words ring true.  I can share of some mine.  I’m grateful to Anne Lamott for sharing her experience in her book Traveling Mercies, which was released in back in 1999.  Lamott is a contemporary novelist and essayist.  She’s a brilliant and funny writer.  She’s also loves Jesus and seeks to follow him, but that wasn’t always the case.  Anne is wonderfully irreverent and gets away with saying things that others might wish to say, but won’t or can’t.  She can be rude and has the mouth of a sailor at times, but she’s real.  There’s a rough-edge to her and so would you if you lived through what she lived through.  This is part of her story —the G-rated version.  I encourage you to read the original if you haven’t already.

            Anne grew up in a secular, atheist, Communist family of professors in California.  For decades she lived a rough, hard, fast, and self-destructive life – sex, drugs, alcohol, and ready to take her life.  She had no interest in religion or Christianity and viewed most Christians with considerable suspicion.  In time, she found herself going into St. Andrew Presbyterian Church in Marin County, CA – a small, elderly congregation.  She only went for the music.  She went to sing, first.  “Something inside me that was stiff and rotting would feel soft and tender.  Somehow the singing wore down all the boundaries and distinctions that kept me so isolated.  Sitting there, standing with them to sing, sometimes so shaky and sick that I felt like I might tip over, I felt bigger than myself, like I was being taken care of, tricked into coming back to life.  But I had to leave before the sermon.”[2] 

            Around this time she discovered that she was pregnant.  She thought she had no options and didn’t wish to bring it to full-term.  She didn’t want to bring anything or anyone to full-term, to life, including herself.  So she bought a bottle of Bushmills and some codeine and drank until dawn.  She did the same the next night and the next until she finally “dealt” with her pregnancy. Afterward, she got drunk and then there were more complications.  She was at the lowest point in her life she was in her houseboat, in bed, scared.

            “After a while, as I lay there, I became aware of someone with me, hunkered down in the corner, and I just assumed it was my father, whose presence I had felt over the years [since his death] when I felt frightened or alone.  The feeling was so strong that I actually turned on the light for a moment to make sure no one was there –of course, there wasn’t.  But after a while, in the dark again, I knew beyond any doubt that it was Jesus.  I felt him as surely as I feel my dog lying nearby as I write this. And I was appalled,” she writes.  She was worried what all her progressive, atheist friends would think of her.  She turned to the wall and said out loud, “I would rather die.” 

            “I felt him just sitting there on his haunches in the corner of my sleeping loft, watching me with patience and love and I squinched my eyes shut, but that didn’t help because that’s not what I was seeing him with.  Finally, I fell asleep, and in the morning, he was gone. This experience spooked me badly, but I thought it was just an apparition, born of fear and self-loathing and booze…”  But then everywhere I went, I had the feeling that a little cat was following me, wanting me to reach down and pick it up, wanting me to open the door and let it in.  But I knew what would happen: you let a cat in one time, give it a little milk, and then it stays forever.  So I tried to keep one step ahead of it, slamming my houseboat door when I entered or left.

            And one week later, when I went back to church, I was so hungover that I couldn’t stand up for the songs, and this time I stayed for the sermon, which I just thought was so ridiculous, like someone trying to convince me of the existence of extraterrestrials, but the last song was so deep and raw and pure that I could not escape.  It was as if the people were singing between the notes, weeping and joyful at the same time, and I felt like their voices or something was rocking me in its bosom, holding me like a scared kid, and I opened up to that feeling – and it washed over me.

            I began to cry and left before the benediction, and I raced home and felt the little cat running along at my heels, and I walked down the dock past dozens of potted flowers, under a sky as blue as one of God’s own dreams, and I opened the door to my houseboat, and I stood there a minute, and then I hung my head and said, “[Duck] it:” [— I told you this is the G-rated version —] “[Duck] it: I quit.”  I took a long deep breath and said out loud, “All right. You can come in.”  So this was my beautiful moment of conversion.[3]

            Not typical, to be sure; but not out of the question either.  Extreme circumstances sometimes call for extreme manifestations.  The Spirit of Christ pursued her (she didn’t ask for such an experience), searched her spirit, listened to her sighs too deep for words, the Spirit bore witness to her troubled spirit that she was a child of God – no matter what – and that whatever she’s done or tried to do, every manifestation of death and self-destruction cannot separate her from the love of Christ.  So too, I believe, the Spirit pursues me and searches and groans and intercedes for me; a Spirit who, I believe, bears witness to my spirit – in a way that is unique and individual to me – to remind me that I am a child of God.  So too, I believe, the Spirit pursues you and searches your spirit and groans through your sighs too deep for words and intercedes for you, a Spirit who bears witness to the depths of your spirit – in a way that is unique and individual to you, to your circumstance,  to your past, you’re your present,  to your personality, your needs — to remind you and show you that you are a child of God and that nothing in this exquisitely beautiful, yet utterly baffling universe can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.[4]  Thanks be to God.  Amen.

[1] Cleon L. Rogers, Jr. and Cleon L. Rogers III, The New Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek New Testament (Grand Rapids:  Zondervan, 1998), 331.
[2] Anne Lamott, Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith (New York:  Anchor Books, 1999), 48.
[3] Lamott, pp. 49-50.  Used without permission.  Permission pending.
[4] These are themes developed advanced by the practical theologian James E. Loder (1931-2001), which I further develop in Kenneth E. Kovacs, The Relational Theology of James E. Loder:  Encounter and Conviction (New York:  Peter Lang, 2011), 104-111, 181. Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “But God’s own descent/ Into flesh was meant/ As a demonstration/ That the supreme merit/ Lay in risking spirit/ In substantiation./ Spirit enters flesh/ And for all it’s worth/ Charges into earth/ In birth after birth/ Ever fresh and fresh.”  Robert Frost (1874-1963),  “But God’s Own Descent,” In the Clearing (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1962).

22 July 2011

Life in the Spirit

Psalm 139:1-12, 23-24 & Romans 8:12-25

Fifth Sunday after Pentecost/17th July 2011

There’s no doubt about it, Romans 8 is one of the most majestic and theologically profound chapters in the Bible.  There’s no doubt about it, it’s also demanding.  It’s particularly demanding for preachers, and those who listen to them, to do it justice.  Sure, it’s easy to pull out a beautiful verse here and there and draw comfort from it, such as 8:1, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus; or 8:6, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”  Without knowing the Greek, without knowing the meaning of these words and phrases such as, “in Christ,” “mind,” “flesh,” “death,” or “Spirit,” we can glean something uplifting from the text and feel like we’ve heard a Word from the Lord.  On the surface, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this approach.  The problem is, however, that we miss the depth of the text, the depth of Paul’s argument, the life of depth toward which Paul is continually calling us.  This text demands something of us—a willingness to struggle, to use our brains and our hearts, to wrestle with our faith, to give up things we used to believe in order to welcome what Paul is really saying here.  So may the Spirit lead us here this morning as we again go deep into this text.

            Paul is difficult to read and difficult to preach on for many reasons, not the least of which is his vocabulary.  Once we get a clear (or clearer) sense of what he means by certain words, once we have a glimpse of how he viewed the Christian life, then we can begin to enter into his world and, by God’s grace, begin to see our world transfigured by such a view.  In terms of preaching, getting to the point of the text is labor intensive because it requires considerable background information before one can really preach from the text.  We looked at the context last week.  But in order for these verses in the middle of the chapter to make any sense (and to help those who weren’t here last week), we need to set the stage again.  I’ll be briefer than I was last week.

            Why is Paul writing to Christians in Rome?  Because there’s deep disagreement and confusion among them.  On the membership rolls of First Church, Rome, are Jews who have come to follow Jesus as Messiah and Lord and Gentiles who, too, have come to see Jesus as Lord and God’s Messiah.  They can’t agree about what to do with the Law.  By Law we mean Torah, the 610 laws of the Mosaic Covenant.  For Jews the Law was viewed as the way toward righteousness, that is, toward a right relationship with God.  Follow the Law and all will be well.  If the Gentiles wish to follow Jesus, who was a Jew, then let them honor the Law.  If you wish to please God, who gave you the Law, then see to obey the Law.

            But as Paul came to know, the Law does not save us. Following the Law does not save us.  Why?  Because no one can live up to the demands of the Law.  But why?  Because Paul came to know of another “law” at work in the depths of the human spirit, a deeper, powerful, contravening force at work in the lives of everyone who attempts to live according to Torah:  the power of sin.  In Paul’s theological worldview sin is not so much an act as much as it is a force; that is, a power at work outside us in the world and also within us because we are in the world.  Many, like Paul, in the First Century viewed their reality in terms of domains, of living under spheres of influence, of living under the domain of forces, of the gods, of empire.  Sin, too, was seen as a domain, a force.  What is this force?  Sin is a power that is at odds with God’s will, a power at work in the world and in us that seeks to tear us away from God, that’s hostile to God, that seduces us into believing that we matter more than God, that we can live apart from God, that we can make choices as if God doesn’t exist, a kind of egotism that puts us at the center of our universe.  Due to the influence of this force we are therefore bound, enslaved, trapped, caught, and foiled in our attempt to follow God’s will, the Law.  Because of this power, we sin and commit deeds that are sinful.

            “Sin” is also synonymous with another word Paul uses here, “flesh.”  “Flesh,” sarx in Greek, means human nature that is caught in the grips of sin.  Flesh does not mean body.  Because of the power of sin there are sinful “deeds of the body,” as Paul says here in Romans 8:13.  And the other word Paul uses in a similar way is “death.”  Death, too, is a kind of force that is at odds with life.  It’s a force that tears down, breaks down, destroys—life, lives, souls, relationships, justice, hope—and actively works against God’s desire for life and soul and relationships and justice and hope.

            But because of Christ there is good news—for, as Paul came to see, God sent the Son to take on, wrestle with and ultimately defeat the power of sin and the flesh and death itself.  God sent the son in love to do what only love can do—liberate, redeem, grant life, offer peace.  There is another “law,” a greater power at work deeper than the power of sin, flesh, and death; that’s the power of God’s love which brings us to life.  That’s what the resurrection means for Paul—not the promise that when we die we go to heaven.  The resurrection is now.  Jesus’ resurrection is a demonstration that there is a creative power at work that can bring life out of death and decay and destruction.  There is a creative force that strives to undo the work of sin and death.  There’s a creative force at work in the world and in us that is stronger than these oppressive forces.  To be “in Christ” (en Christos) for Paul means that we are participating in a new domain, participating in Christ, not just believing in Christ or praying to him or trusting him, but participating in him.  To participate in him is to share in his life, suffering, death, and new life, all aided by the Holy Spirit.

            From Paul’s perspective human beings are either under the influence of the “flesh,” and have the mind of the flesh (a mind hostile to God), or under the influence of the “Spirit,” that is, have the mind of the Spirit.  These are two different mentalities, two different ways of being in the world, facing reality, two different ways of being.

            Paul wants the Romans—and us—to know that right now, to be “in Christ” (en Christos) means no condemnation.  To be in Christ means, then, that the Spirit is at work in us, already.  “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9).

            In verse 12, Paul picks up this discussion.  We are not debtors to the flesh—we owe the flesh nothing; we belong to the Spirit—we belong to the Spirit of Christ, participating in the resurrection of Christ, which means that we need to realize that the Spirit is continually doing something.  It’s the “doing” that Paul now stresses here, the main theme of this section.

            This is the simple, yet stunning revelation at the heart of these verses. What Paul wants us to know is this:  right now we are participating in the very being of God.  For us to be “in Christ,” to be in relationship with him means that we are living in the life of God.  As Martin Laird has said, “Because God is the ground of our being, the relationship between creature and Creator is such that, by sheer grace, separation is not possible.  God does not know now to be absent.”[1]

            Right now, God is present to us, around us, but also within the depths of our souls.  We belong to God, right now, and nothing can change this.  There’s no possibility of separation.  There’s no possibility of God rejecting us, forgetting us, or not loving us.  The way Paul gets this point across is by his reference to adoption, which was not a Jewish, but a Roman custom.  “For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children [literally, sons] of God.  For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”  There’s a word-play going on here between “sons” and the word “adoption,” which is lost in English translation.  “This imagery is drawn from the well-known established practice, provided for by Roman law but not by Jewish law, by which one formally and officially designated someone other than physical offspring to be ‘son,’ the heir designate.”[2]  This is exactly what Julius Caesar  (100 BC – 44 BC) did with his nephew, Octavian (63 BC – 14 AD), who he adopted as a son and made heir to the throne of Rome, later known as Caesar Augustus.  Paul is making the point that by Christ we are all God’s adopted children, especially Gentiles.  Severing all ties with our old family, the old way, the “flesh,” we are not part of God’s family—not because of blood lines, not because of anything owed to us.  We are God’s adopted children and heirs with Christ as children of God.  “The imagery fits Paul’s theology because adoption confers on the ‘son’ a new status, to which he has no right but which he receives solely because of the father’s decision—theologically, adoption is a grace.”[3]

            How do we know we’re part of the family?  When our spirits cry out again and again to God, “Abba!”  “Father!”  “Daddy!”  For when we “cry,” that is, cry out, shout, even shriek, “Abba!  Father!” it is that very “Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”  If you weren’t already a member of God’s family, you wouldn’t be crying out, “Abba!”  “Father!”  The use of this Aramaic word, “Abba,” used in a Greek text as a way to address God “was early, significant, and distinctive of the Christian community.”[4]  And do you hear this language of participation, of sharing a life, of the Spirit being present to us, leading us, guiding us, reminding us who we are?  Children of God.

            The Spirit, struggling against every mentality or attitude, every self-conception or self-deception that doesn’t believe, can’t believe we’re children of God, yearns for us to know who we are.  The Spirit is struggling with us and for us.  Indeed, the Spirit wants us to grow and to grow up into Christ.

            That’s where the groaning comes in.  The creation groans for healing and hungers for restoration.  So, too, humanity, as part of creation, inwardly groans for something more, for healing and wholeness and meaning; we hunger for the way of the Spirit, which is freedom, life, and peace.  Yes, there are struggles and setbacks now; yes, there’s pain and suffering and injustice, but “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.  For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”

            This is all heady stuff, I know.  I’ll be sharing a story next week that I hope will embody what Paul is getting at here, as we look at verses 26-39.

The one thing I would lift up this morning and invite you to think about, to meditate on this week, is this verse, the “Spirit bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.”  God is not “up there.”  God is not an idea or concept or image that we are asked to believe in, but a reality, a presence who dwells within us, who wants us to know who we are.  It’s the Spirit of Resurrection who wants to bring us alive.  We are given glimpses of this Spirit’s activity when we pay attention to our cries to God, when we acknowledge the “inward groans” of the Spirit about to birth something new within us.  It’s our own “labor pains,” the groans and desires of our hearts that might just tell us that God is moving in our lives, might give us direction, might give us hope.

            People often ask the question:  Where is God?  People what to know where God is in their lives.  How do you know?  Years ago, I learned that one way of knowing is by paying attention to what you hope for, desire, cry out for.  Very often it’s the deep hungers, the inner groanings that have something to do with the Spirit; it’s the Spirit who places these groanings in us or releases these groanings within us and eventually causes us to act on them.  They are signs that God is up to something in us.

            We always need to pay attention to the “inward groans” within us because they give us some clue as to what the Spirit is trying to do in us and through us.  How do we do this?  Through prayer—not prayers of petition, when we’re always asking God for something, either for others or ourselves, but contemplation.  There are times when we need to shut up in prayer and listen, in silent prayer we can become attentive to our feelings and emotions.  In worship—in the way a prayer or hymn touches you, the way you hear scripture or something in a sermon, in the prelude or postlude or the children’s message.  On mission trips—when you come back with eyes open and full of anger and frustration and with a desire to make a change.  In our grief—when we mourn the loss of a loved one, grieve the loss of health, the loss of a job, grieve a change in role or identity or purpose.  In the things that fire us up, the things we desire, hope for, what we long for, not in a selfish, egocentric way, but the opposite of these, such as in our hunger for justice.  In conversations, work experience, in walks along the shore or in the forest.  We have to cultivate a way of heeding the message of the inward groan.

            The Spirit is continually bearing witness with our spirits that we are God’s children.  If we can open ourselves, open ourselves up to the Spirit’s movement, become attentive to the fact that we exist in Christ, as we will see next week, who knows what we will yet discover about the power of God’s love at work to redeem and “restore an anguished creation back to its Creator.”[5]  May it be so.

[2] Leander E. Keck, Romans (Nashville:  Abingdon, 2005), 206.
[3] Keck, 206.
[4] Keck, 207.
[5] James E. Loder, The Transforming Moment (Colorado Springs:  Helmers & Howard, 1989), 219.

15 July 2011

Life in the Spirit

Romans 8: 1-11

Sixth Sunday in Pentecost/ July 10, 2011

In last week’s sermon on Christian freedom, I shared a story about a dog, four dogs actually.  I know it resonated with many.  I found myself thinking about it this week in conjunction with this text.  In both last week’s text, Galatians 5, “For freedom Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1), and today’s text, the subject is freedom, of being liberated in Christ.  Here, in Romans 8, Paul is talking about the indwelling of the Spirit who continues to teach us and helps us to know that in Christ we are free. 

            Here’s the story again:  Martin Laird teaches in the theology and religious studies department at Villanova University.  In his book, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation, he recounts an encounter he once had walking along open fields (probably in England).  He would take this route whenever he needed to clear his head.  He often saw a man walking his four Kerry blue terriers.  “These were amazing dogs,” he relates. “Bounding energy, elastic grace, and electric speed, they coursed and leapt through open fields.  It was invigorating just to watch these muscular stretches of freedom race along.” Three of the four dogs acted this way.  The fourth stayed behind and, off to the side of its owner, ran in tight circles.  Laird never understood why he did this; the dog had all the room in the world to leap and bound.  One day he asked the owner, “Why does your dog do that? Why does it run in little circles instead of running with the others?” He explained that “before he acquired the dog, it had lived practically all its life in a cage and could only exercise by running in circles.  To run meant running in tight circles.” [1]

            Laird writes that this event has stayed with him as a “powerful metaphor of the human condition.”  This is how Laird puts it:  “For indeed we are free, as the Psalmist insists, ‘My heart like a bird has escaped from the snare of the fowler” (Ps. 123:7). But the memory of the cage remains.  And so we run in tight, little circles, even while immersed in open fields of grace and freedom.”[2]

            Although Laird cites Psalm 123, last week I said he could have just as easily quoted from Galatians 5, or from here in Romans 8: 1 and 2:  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.”  Paul offers these words, indeed this entire chapter, as part of his concluding remarks regarding the Jewish law, the nature of sin, justification, and the new life we have in Christ. Paul is treading through deep theological waters in these chapters, addressing issues and concerns that, in many ways, are not as central to our lives today. But Paul has something to say to us, the Spirit still has something to say to us.  In order for this text to speak to us today, we, too, must be willing to tread some deep theological waters. So let’s go deep.

            Paul is writing to Jewish and Gentile Christians in Rome who struggle over whether one has to first become an ethical Jew by following Torah, the Law, before becoming a follower of Christ.  For Jews following Jesus it’s a question of whether or not Torah, the Law (the 610 laws of the Mosaic covenant), needs to be followed or not.  The Law was viewed as the way toward righteousness, that is, toward a right relationship with God. Follow the Law and all will be well. 

            But through his experience in Christ, Paul came to know of another “law,” a deeper force, a dynamic, contravening tendency at work in the lives of everyone who attempts to live according to Torah:  the power of sin.  Note that I said “sin” in the singular, not “sins.”  In Paul’s theological worldview, sin is not so much an act as much as it is a force; that is, a power at work outside us in the world and also within us. Due to the influence of this force — a power that is at odds with God’s will, a power at work in the world and in us that seeks to tear us away from God, that’s hostile to God, that seduces us into believing that we matter more than God, that we can live apart from God, that we can make choices as if God doesn’t exist, a kind of egotism that puts us at the center of our universe — due to this power, human beings are bound, enslaved, trapped, caught, and foiled in their attempt to follow God’s will, the law.  This is how Paul understands sin.  Because of the influence of this power, we sin and commit sins. 

            “Sin” is also synonymous with another word in Paul’s vocabulary – which has caused all kinds of confusion across the years – flesh. “Flesh,” sarx in Greek, is Paul’s word for humanity that is under the influence of the power of sin.  Flesh does not mean “body;” Paul is not saying the body is sinful; to suggest so is a misreading.  Suggesting that the body is the cause of sin has led to all kinds of distorted views of sexuality within the Christian experience that continues to wreck havoc upon the church.  The body is not sinful, not any more than any other part of ourselves bound as we are by the force of sin. If Paul had meant our physical bodies he would have used the word “soma.” 

            There’s also another word he uses in a way similar to sin and flesh, as a kind of force, it is: death.  Death, too, is a kind of force that is at odds with life.  It’s a force that tears down, breaks down, destroys – life, lives, souls, relationships, justice, hope – and works against God’s desire for life and soul and relationships, justice and hope.  This is Paul’s view of the human condition.

            Paul knows there’s something in this world that holds us captive, that hinders and hampers our ability to love, to forgive, to be generous, to be agents of justice – to do God’s will.  If we’re honest with ourselves and analyze our feelings and experience, we know he’s right.  Sometimes it feels like there’s a force outside us, that we are the victim of circumstances beyond our control that steal away our life, our freedom, our energy, our zeal, our hope, our love.  Other times, this force is at work within us, in our egotism, our selfishness, our insecurities and our fears, all the ways our thoughts betray us, withholding compassion and love to ourselves, stirring up all kinds of images and scenarios in our mind that generate anxieties and worry.  Paul is a pastor-theologian.  I also hear him as a psychologist, adept in fathoming the depths of the human experience, he knows what lurks and lingers in the human soul and around us and thwarts what we hope and really want.  Earlier in chapter 7, Paul writes, “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.  Wretched man that I am!  Who will rescue me from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (21-25).

            Here we begin to see Paul’s understanding of the cross, of the incarnation, of why God sent the Son into the world.  Listen here: “For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do:  by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Rom 8: 3-4).  In other words, Christ didn’t die on the cross in our place; he didn’t receive the punishment that we have come to believe we deserve, punishment from a God who is eternally angry with us because our sin.  That’s not what Paul is saying. 

            Jesus came to “deal with sin,” to “condemn sin in the flesh.”  In other words, Jesus came to take on the power of sin, the power of the flesh, the power of death – all symbolized by the cross – so that these powers – sin, flesh, death – would no longer enslave and entrap us, that we would be set free, that we would be released from the things that hold us captive.  We would then be able to come out from under their oppressive influence, to stand up free, and run in the vast, open space of God’s freedom, instead of running around in tight circles in a cage – soul-crushing, life-denying cages. 

            Paul wants the Romans to know, wants us to know:  “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  One more time:  “There is therefore now no condemnation [– judgment – ]for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  We have been set free.  Because to be in Christ, to be baptized in him, to be identified with him, to participate in his life and to have his life in us – which is what it means to be “in Christ” – means that sin, flesh, and death no longer have the last word in our lives, that we are not ultimately defeated and oppressed by these forces.  These forces are still out there, to be sure, but they are no longer definitive for the one who is “in Christ.”

            Because of what he discovered through Christ, Paul knows there’s still another force at work in this universe, another power, another law at work.  He encountered it face-to-face on the Damascus Road and in his own life.  It’s the power of love at work through faith (Gal. 5:6).   That’s what the resurrection means for Paul – not that when we die we get to go to heaven, but that resurrection itself demonstrates that there is a creative power at work that can bring life out of death and decay and destruction. There is another law that strives to undo the work of sin and death.  There’s a creative force at work in the world and in us that is stronger than these oppressive forces, stronger than the egotistic self.  That force is God and its face is Jesus Christ and the one who continually embodies this force and this person in people and the world is the Holy Spirit.

            Between now and the day when death has finally lost its sting and sin is swallowed up in love, we find ourselves in the midst of a cosmic struggle between two “minds”:  the mind or mentality of the flesh (the attitude, the mind at odds with God) and the mind or mentality of the Spirit, the Spirit who embodied and extends the creative work of Jesus Christ.  Paul believed that every person who is in Christ is not ultimately under the domain of the flesh, but under the domain of the Spirit.  Indeed, to be in Christ, to be incorporated into him means that the Spirit is influencing us, actually dwelling within us, deep within the depths of our spirits.  He wants them to know that there is another law at work in us, the indwelling-life of God’s Spirit is within us.  It is active and dynamic and powerful and a force to be reckoned with.

            In the meantime, how do we know if our lives are being shaped by flesh or Spirit?  How can we tell?  “For those who live according to the flesh,” Paul writes, “set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, set their minds on the things of the Spirit.  To set the mind on the things of the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

            The Spirit shapes us and molds us by releasing within us the very power, the creativity of God.  Not in some, not in isolated religious or spiritual experiences for spiritual elites, but for everyone who is in Christ.  For he who raised Christ from the dead is also at work in us to raise us from the dead – not after we die, but here and now.  The resurrection is now. It’s the kind of life that “breathes the promise of resurrection.”[3] The resurrection dwells in us because the Spirit dwells in us. Wherever the Spirit is there is freedom. Wherever the Spirit is, there is life. Wherever the Spirit is, there is peace.  To be shaped by the Spirit’s mentality is to be called into greater freedom, called out of the cages that entrap us.  To be shaped by the Spirit’s mentality means that we are continually being called more and more into life, into peace – even in the midst of chaos.  These are touchstones, signs, fruits of the Spirit’s work in us:  freedom, life, peace.  These are signs that God is at work in us and doing something with us and through us, activating something new in us – when we embody and exhibit greater freedom, in those places where we are coming alive, when we have a deep sense of peace, confidence, assurance, trust in the work of God in our lives, even in the midst of chaos and confusion. 

            We will pick up these themes the next two weeks when we look at the rest of the chapter. This week, let us examine our lives and look at the way the world operates:  where do you see evidence of the mind of the “flesh” in your lives and where do you see manifestations of the mind of the Spirit?  Paul tells us that to be in Christ means we already have the mind of the Spirit.  But do we?  Do you, do we realize this?  Do we live from it?  Do our life-choices reflect this mentality?  What blocks us from realizing this?  What causes us to forget who we are? What will it take for us to claim it, to claim who we really are?   
            A good way to move through these questions is with prayer.  An ancient prayer of the church is was Veni Creator Spiritus. Come, Creator Spirit.[4] It’s simple, yet profound.  To pray these words is to ask for God’s creative presence to fill our lives, to speak to our situation, our circumstances, in our hearts.  It’s offer with the hope that our minds might be set on the things of the Spirit.  Veni Creator Spiritus. Come, Creator Spirit.  Come.

[2] Laird, 20.
[3] C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 172ff.
[4] Cf. the quotation from the worship bulletin:  “Come Creator Spirit is a prayer of open surrender to the absolute creativity of God.”  Thomas F. Torrance (1913-2007), Theology in Reconstruction (London:  SCM Press, 1965), 245.