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).

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