A sermon on Romans 8:1-17, preached by Jamie Howison on Tuesday November 26 at the “Wine Before Breakfast” communion celebration, Wycliffe College Chapel, Toronto
Iwant to commend those who made the decision to depart from the standard weekday lectionary in order to give the Wine Before Breakfast community the opportunity to dig more deeply into the Epistle to the Romans. In general I think lectionaries are a good thing for the preacher, in part because they keep steering us into territory into which we might otherwise not go, but for a weekly gathering like this one what you’re doing allows for deeper and sustained explorations of the sort not possible with a conventional lectionary.
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Having said that, I suspect that some of you are growing restless, and are beginning to think that after three months maybe it is time to set Romans to the side for a bit. If that’s the case, I’d invite you to consider this. A friend of mine grew up in a Baptist church in which the pastor preached a weekly series on the Epistle to the Romans that ran eight years. Sunday after Sunday after Sunday, for eight years. And whereas I’ve been asked to limit my sermon to twelve minutes—a very good thing at 7:22 in the morning—you can be sure that at the twelve minute mark my friend’s Baptist pastor would have just been getting warmed up. I can’t imagine having that much to say about Romans… I can’t imagine Paul having that much to say about Romans!
I have to think that as you’ve been working through the first seven chapters of the epistle, your preachers have made it very clear that Paul is not a dualist. His language of spirit and flesh can be so easily misread, so it is useful to attend briefly to the observations of the New Testament scholar Paul Achtemeier:
“Paul uses the words ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’ not to designate two parts of human nature but rather to represent two ways of living. Life pursued according to the flesh is the life influenced by rebellion and idolatry…” “Life in the Spirit, on the other hand, is life set free from bondage to self and sin… The power of [Christ’s] lordship has broken the enslaving power of self-idolatry and sin and sets the person free to enjoy a new relationship with the Creator, the relationship of child rather than rebel.”
“The relationship of child rather than rebel,” and it is on this that I want us to focus this morning. “God’s Children!” wrote Karl Barth, “Consider and bear in mind the vast unobservability, impossibility, and paradox of these words… we are taking the step of faith, the step over the abyss from the old to the new creation, which God alone can take. We—God’s children! In uttering these words either we are talking blasphemy or we are singing the song of the redeemed.” I’ll opt for the latter… that we’re singing the song of the redeemed. And Paul sounds a particularly significant chord as he invites us to sing that song. In the closing verses of our reading, he writes of those “who are led by the Spirit of God” as being not only “children of God,” but children who “have received a spirit of adoption.”
My own family knows a good deal about adoption. My wife Catherine was adopted, a mixed race child raised in a very Anglo-Canadian family living in a very white neighborhood. My brother and his wife have an adopted son, my sister and her husband have two adopted daughters. It makes for quite a family photo; this little clan with a Highland Scots surname and faces that are white, Chinese, and African-Canadian. Not that we embody some idealized and Disneyfied version of reality suitable for the Family Channel. We are a family, in all that that entails.
You’ll sometimes hear people talk about the “church family,” and while I think it is often meant to convey something as idealized and cozy as anything Disney has fabricated, there is a level at which it is true. The Christian church can be rightly described as family, simply because it is the community which has been empowered by the Spirit to say, “Abba! Father!” “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’” writes Paul, “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.” This has none of the sentimental thinness that tends to accompany talk of “the church family,” and it has absolutely nothing to do with the idea of a “family church,” which is on several levels a deeply problematic phrase. This is a declaration of foundational identity—it is Barth’s “song of the redeemed”—it is a declaration of a kinship that is given as pure gift by the One who has adopted us and declared us both children and justified… our ambivalence and our stumblings notwithstanding.
But Paul sounds one further note; a note which should strip the interpreter of any shred of sentimentality. “[W]e are children of God,” he writes, “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 we suffer with him… why does Paul bring in the issue of suffering here? And it isn’t just raised in passing either, as it is in fact the theme of the remaining twenty verses of this chapter.
Most obviously he introduces the theme because it is his reality and the reality of the community to which he is writing. Though Paul is convinced that in the fullness of time it will not only be individuals but the whole world that will be redeemed and transformed in Christ, he is deeply aware that he is living and writing in the time between times; between the life, death and resurrection of Christ and the culmination of all time and history. And in the “in-between,” to be at peace with God through Christ will be to appear anomalous to the world. The core message of the Christian scriptures, writes the Jesuit theologian Herbert McCabe, is this: “If you do not love, you will not be alive; if you love effectively, you will be killed.”
Paul knows this—he knows it all too well—and yet he will not back down. You’re my kin, he’s basically saying to them, and they’re probably going to kill us for it. Achtemeier suggests that the world typically destroys what it does not understand—in this case being at peace with God in Christ. And while it is true that the kind of threat and suffering that Paul knew is not something that Christians in this part of world really have any experience of, I do have to wonder if we have been—and are being—destroyed in other, more subtle and seductive ways. I wonder, too, if one of those has been our willingness to accept sentimentality (“the family church”) in place of a more radical call to be sons and daughters of the Lord most high; to be kin in that sense, and to live like it actually makes a difference.