a sermon on Romans 8.1-11
Unfortunately we had a malfunction with our recording on this Sunday evening, so are unable to post the audio for this sermon. We should have things back on track by next week…
May only truth be spoken, and only truth received. Amen.
o, another warm July Sunday evening, and another round of Paul’s letter to the Romans. As I said last week, it is for reasons unknown that the designers of the lectionary cycle of readings have set things in such a way that we’re challenged to make our way through some pretty dense theological material right in the midst of our summer vacation months (though I suppose if we were in a church in the global south, we’d be wrestling in Romans in the cooler months…). I will do what I can to keep this relatively brief and clear, and to offer at least some reflections that you can take with you into the summer evening.
It is a bit tempting to simply read to you again the first two verses of this eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians, and just leave it there. It is, after all, quite a statement:
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. (Romans 8:1-2, NRSV)
There is no condemnation; we can all go home. In line with the final words of Jesus from the cross as presented by the Gospel according to John, “It is finished;” “accomplished,” settled and done.
Maybe if I added the loose translation Eugene Peterson offers in The Message, that would cap it off and officially make this the shortest sermon I’ve ever preached:
With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death. (Romans 8:1-2, The Message)
The thing is, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve sat with people over coffee or in prayerful counsel and had them talk with me about their fear of some kind of condemnation or judgment. Several times over the years I’ve sat with people in palliative care, and listened as they agonized about whether or not their impending death was due to some moral or spiritual failure or weakness. “Can I really trust this, Jamie? Is this my fault? What if…?” And really, all you can do at that point is to trust.
A few years ago, my friend and mentor Robert Capon told me about reaching a point in his own life and faith, where he was faced with that very challenge of trust. After years and years of proclaiming the audacity of grace and the all but inexplicable power of the cross, this theologian and priest of the church was plunged into what he characterized as a year-long “black depression.” His health failed, his resilient courage waned, and he had to face down—to really face down—the reality of his own aging and the fragility of his own mortal life. After years and years of making bold statements like “death is the engine of grace” and “all you have to do is die,” he had to decide, in his own words, “if I believed any of this stuff.” He tapped out his pipe, looked up at me with a grin, and said, “And I do. Every bit of it.”
For Capon, that year of wrestling in the dark with a weakened body, a dispirited heart, and—for him probably the worst of all—a mind made temporarily fuzzy both by the medications and by his depression, was ever so important. And it is why Paul had to keep writing beyond those first two verses of this chapter in Romans. We might hear that there is “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” and that we’ve been freed from “the law of sin and death,” but when you actually get pressed up against the reality of our own seemingly endless capacity to act sinfully—to act and think in ways that consistently choose my self and my needs and my way over the Way—you really have to wonder. And when we get pressed up against the reality of our own death, whether as a simple recognition of our mortality or in the form of a serious life-threatening illness?
So Paul keeps writing, to unpack the tensions with which we live. Tensions between “things of the flesh” and “things of the Spirit,” between captivity and freedom, and between life and death. To again make the very crucial distinction I made in last week’s sermon, when Paul deals with the tension between “flesh” and “spirit,” he is not proposing a dualistic picture of life in which the body is at odds with the soul. In fact, Paul couldn’t even contemplate what it might mean to be human without a body, which is why through all of his writings he talks not about the immortal soul but rather about the resurrection body. What is it that he writes in the final verse of today’s reading? “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” For Paul, to be human is to be an embodied soul or perhaps an inspirited body. Whenever he writes of the ultimate future of humanity and of the created order, he is insistent that it will be recognizably and tangibly material and bodily.
So to reiterate some of what I said last Sunday, when Paul is writing about “the flesh”—in his original Greek, “sarx”—he’s not meaning to say that our bodies are the problem. No, he means instead that which in human life and society has become distorted, destructive, and idolatrous. That might well be connected to our physical bodies and appetites, but not only or narrowly so. Is a life-destroying addiction to crack cocaine, alcohol, or crystal meth physical? Yes it is, but it is not merely physical. As just about any recovering addict will tell you, the actual physical addiction is only part of the problem; it is the thinking of the addict and all of the patterns self-deception that are much tougher. And talk to someone for whom the 12 Step program has been a part of their recovery, and ask them about their path of prayer, confession, and the absolute surrender of their will, and you’ll begin to get a very clear picture of how what Paul calls “the flesh” implicates every ounce of our being as humans.
Surrendering of the will; doesn’t sound much like freedom, does it? Or at least not if we understand freedom to be the same thing as license, as freedom from all constraint to do whatever I damn well please. As he writes his Letter to the Romans, part of what Paul is trying to say is that this is not freedom at all, and that in fact the only possible freedom is freedom for obedience. Yes, in Christ we are freed from the ultimate claims of sin and death; death will not have the final word for us, because it did not get the final word for Jesus Christ. But ultimately Paul would say, “pick your master.” You can be held as a slave in the bondage to the things that destroy us and turn us inward and getting us telling all kinds of lies to ourselves, but you have actually been freed to become the servant of the living God; a gracious, oftentimes challenging and even unsettling master, who is nonetheless life-giving and trustworthy.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.