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.

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