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.”
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.” 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.”
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.” 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.” May it be so.
 Martin Laird, Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 15.
 Keck, 206.
 Keck, 207.