July 12, 2020
For the rest of this month we will be flipping back and forth between Romans and the gospel of Matthew for our online and outdoor services. So this week… online… we read from Romans chapter 8. Listen for the Word of God as it speaks to you.
READ Romans 8:1-11
It’s not much of a confession… but I love to teach from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. It is so heady and conceptual. It’s a fun theological playground… especially for us Presbyterians. While I love to teach Romans… the other side to that is that I don’t so much love to preach from Romans. And it’s for the same reasons. How do you capture and contain the expanse of his theology and thought in a sermon that is six pages double space twelve point font? Paul weaves these great tapestries of thought and a sermon is about looking at this one inch by one inch square of that tapestry. I mean… we’ve just read these eleven verses, but what it took for Paul to get to these theological concepts… both in life and through his pen… the foundation he has been building throughout the letter up to this point… how do I help explain and give some context and still get to some manner of application before those six pages double space twelve point font of a sermon run out? Because even on video… I know you don’t want a sermon that’s too long.
And here I’ve wasted a whole paragraph just to tell you that.
Last Sunday at our outdoor service, I referenced a story from Matthew’s gospel where John the Baptist’s disciples come to Jesus with a question from the imprisoned prophet. John wants to know if Jesus is the one who is come… or are we supposed to wait for another. Jesus answers John’s disciples saying, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” Saints, that’s a good answer. That’s a good answer because it points to what I think Paul is saying in the last verse of this passage… “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.” All the actions Jesus describes to John’s disciples are life giving. They are transformational in their symbolic shorthand… moving from a brokenness to a wholeness… moving from the brokenness of sin to the life and peace that is God’s Spirit. The sign of the Messiah is characterized by real change… the sign of God’s presence or God’s Spirit being present is characterized by real change… or to use Paul’s symbolic shorthand language… a move from the flesh to the Spirit.
The flesh as Paul has been writing… well, let me bring in the words of Paul Achtemeier from his commentary on Romans… “Life pursued according to flesh is the life influenced by rebellion and idolatry, in which the entire perspective of the human being is turned in on himself or herself and the person becomes the center of all values. Life in the flesh is essentially life carried on under the lordship of the sinful self. It is a life of self-idolatry.” And I know I hit on this point of self-idolatry a lot, but it is key… it is key to understanding Paul’s theology. Christianity is not just self-improvement. It’s not about the “I” becoming my best self. It may sound strange to our ears, but that is self-idolatry. It’s a question of focus. If your focus is on self-improvement… the measurement to gauge whether there has been some improvement or not is usually based on something that illustrates the importance of the self. When John’s disciples come to Jesus to ask if he’s the one… his answer isn’t about him. Well, my crowds are huge. The donations are pouring in… we’ve got more money than we know what to do with. You should see the house I’m building in Capernaum. Huge! I have lots of Twitter followers. I’m pretty famous and important… so yeah, I think all that shows that I’m the one. Or… we can look at the Pharisees who were given to us in scripture as foils to Jesus’ ministry and the things they cared about… how well was the Law being obeyed… not on a deeper life giving spiritual level, but on a superficial, performative level. Am I saying the right phrases? Am I showing the right kind of socially approved concern to whomever my peer group happens to be? Do I give the correct appearance of holiness… of whatever is defined as the best and most holy self in this particular moment? Who is giving approval by what is seen and heard?
“For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Why? Because you can’t serve two masters. Who better than Paul to be a judge of this? Paul… who by all accounts was a great Pharisee. He was approved of by his peer group. Everything he did was supposed to be done with the focus of pleasing God… but his encounter with Christ… when the Spirit of God came upon him and realigned his focus away from the flesh… from his own self-idolatry that had felt like a devotion to God… the spirit took root in him like never before. There is no better example than Paul… of seeing someone move from a self-serving, self-focused idolatry to someone who sought to live according to the Spirit… to someone who set his mind on the things of the Spirit. Go to Paul’s fruit of the Spirit and they are all focused toward life and peace. The works of the flesh are qualities that lead to brokenness and division… fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing… and things like these. That’s how Paul puts it. Look at how many today are making these works essential in their expression of their Christian faith… making them everyday tools to achieve the goals they promote as being Spirit filled. The works of the flesh are hostile to God… they do not show that submission to the Spirit. These works are not pleasing to God nor will they lead one towards the fruit of the Spirit. My anger won’t bring kindness. I cannot quarrel my way to gentleness. The dissensions I insist on based upon my own self-idolatry… will not bring about peace or joy or love. The works of the flesh are transformative… to be sure… but they are not the transformation that Christ brings.
In our outdoor service today, they will hear a sermon on Matthew’s telling of the sower parable. In that parable, Jesus tells about a sower out scattering seed and the seed falls on all manner soil… on the path where the birds come and eat the seed before it is able to take root in a crack in the path… on rocky ground where the soil is shallow and roots of any real depth aren’t able to form… seeds falling where there are lots of thorns that choke away growth. Seeds scattered generously and indiscriminately by this sower on all manner of soil situations. The seed finally growing as it should in good soil. This parable from Matthew’s gospel is a good companion scripture to our passage from Romans… because again I can see how this is about focus. The seed on the path are those who just don’t understand. They don’t see or hear God’s word… even when it is there before them… they are not going to understand. They are not looking for God. The sower keeps throwing seeds on the path… but until they seek, they won’t find. The rocky ground without much depth for roots to take hold… the shallow faith has no endurance when the demand of commitment appears… when faith asks more from you… and says you can’t just be a non-committed, comfortable consumer who has persistently dodged the demands of discipleship… you can’t stay on the sidelines anymore. It’s interesting how when pressed to move to a deeper commitment… how the rocky soil quickly becomes the stones used to throw at others who upset or call out our shallowness. The thorns who choke out growth… to use Paul’s language… the thorns are those demands of the flesh that are much more attractive or more desirable than what faith has to offer us. Jesus interestingly enough uses the lure of wealth as an example of a thorn. To me the thorns are all those things we make more important in our lives than the work of the Spirit… those things that we then use to redefine the Spirit’s work and to dictate what that work should be for our own benefit. So our thorns are our political allegiances that shape our faith expression in its own image. Our social positions that shape our faith expression in their own image. I know I also talk about the thorns all the time… but I do so because I think the thorns of right now are doing more to choke out and prevent real growth in faith than our consumeristic shallowness. Shallowness helped to create the conditions for the thorns to grow as thick as they are, but at this point… I think the biggest challenge we face is being able to recognize the Spirit from the thorns.
And as hard as it is to say… Paul is right… this parable is right… anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. The sower in the parable is gracious and generous… the sower is hopeful that the seed will take root and scatters that seed on all manner of soil in the hope of growth… but the seed needs good soil in which to grow. So much of our faith journey is spent in growing our awareness of what the thorns are in our life… of what the stones are in our life… of what are demands of the flesh that keep us blind and deaf to the Spirit… that make our hearts and minds inhospitable to the indwelling of God’s Spirit. How is preventing us from being the good soil so that the word of God has a chance to grow in us? Again though, this is more than a journey of self-improvement. It’s not about us becoming more holy as we would define holiness. It is not about us becoming more blessed as we would define blessed. That’s self-idolatry again. The Word of God transforms death to life. The life Paul is talking about filling our mortal bodies… it’s not biological… it’s not life after biological death… the life Paul describes transforms us into being a conduit for God’s Spirit to be alive in us… God’s spirit making us alive.
Let’s finish back to Jesus’ answer to John’s disciples. “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” What you hear and see … is evidence of whether God’s Spirit is alive in us… or if we are still bound by the flesh. Paul’s theology while masterful and brilliant… really comes down to that… what you hear and see. If you can’t see the Spirit bringing transformative life either to your own life or to our community… if you aren’t hearing the voice of Christ being spoken… then we are in need of refocusing. That sower hasn’t stopped spreading seed on us even as thorns have taken over or rocks have gotten in the way. The word of God is graciously and generously being given to us continually. But there is need for awareness and focus… or it will be missed… especially has we glom onto other ways… ways that take us further and further away from God’s spirit. So… as Paul wrote to us last week… “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!” Amen.