a sermon on Romans 8:1-11 for the Fifteenth Sunday of Ordinary Time
preached at the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone on July 10, 2011
One of the great joys of preaching is the opportunity to revisit favorite texts every so often, and today is one of those moments. Romans 8 is quite possibly my favorite chapter in the Bible. It begins with some incredibly concise and meaningful statements of the work of salvation in Jesus Christ and ends with the incredible and powerful affirmation that nothing in life or in death will be able to separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Thankfully, the Lectionary leads us to this chapter once every three years, offering us three weeks of readings to delve into its radical claims as we sort out what all these wonderful words mean for us today.
The first eleven verses of this great chapter that we hear today get at the core of the apostle Paul’s message in all of his letters and put it in relatively simple terms in the very first verse: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Everything else he says in the verses that follow elaborates on this central claim as Paul declares his understanding of what God has done to make this happen. While traditional understandings of Jewish law placed great restrictions on life and living, Paul insists that there is a new law – the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus – and this law sets us free from the law of sin and death. The old law couldn’t do what it set out to do, so God did it in the end, condemning sin in the flesh and fulfilling all the requirements of the old law once and for all in and through Jesus Christ, making the new law in him complete and real for us and all humanity. In this new law, then, Paul says we have the gift of the Spirit, and so we live in the Spirit because the Spirit of God dwells in us.
Everything else doesn’t matter because of this – the righteousness of the Spirit gives life to us, and so our mortal bodies receive that life too. This new life in the Spirit stands at the core of who we are as children of God and followers of Jesus, for our concern no longer must be with making things right for ourselves or sorting out where we stand with God, but instead we can spend our time and energy on making things in the world new and different beyond what we have known before.
As wonderful and beautiful and important as this text is, I think that what we most often miss is the importance of transforming what it means into our daily living. We’d like for this text to tell us theological, eternal things, but that’s not really its goal – there is nothing whatsoever said here about gaining eternal life through the righteousness of the Spirit, and Paul never directly mentions the promise of life in a world to come anywhere in this great chapter.
Instead, I think Paul is more concerned with how all this new life that we have in and through and because of Christ changes our daily living, how knowing the reality that we have no condemnation in Christ makes a difference for us and our world every day. This is the bigger challenge here – not to figure out the full meaning of this for us but rather to sort out how to live in the light of this new knowledge, how to respond to the incredible love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
I think we have better grounding for doing this than we might think, though. In many ways, we live this life of response in other parts of our lives. After our celebrations of independence on July 4th, we ought to be pretty good at living into the freedom we have as United States citizens, and I’d say we certainly have some good moments. On July 5th, I stopped by the Whitestone post office to check the church’s mail, and as I rounded the corner onto 150th Street, I saw one of the great freedoms of our nation being lived out. Two women had a table set up in front of the post office representing the Lyndon LaRouche movement. Their posters were troubling if not offensive, calling for the impeachment of President Obama, among various and sundry other strange political moves. As I entered and exited the post office, they called out to me in hopes that I might sign their petition for impeachment, but I walked on after offering a firm and angry “no,” deeply frustrated that anyone could feel so abused by the politics of these days as to suggest such a move. As angry and frustrated as I was, I reminded myself as I walked on that their unpleasant and frankly weird politics and even their frustrating tactics stand at the core of who we are as a nation – we don’t just shut down speech because we don’t like it but rather insist that all perspectives have a right to be heard. So the core principles of our nation are at their best in moments like these, in moments when they get lived out in unexpected and even slightly unpleasant ways.
And so it is also with our life of faith. We must to find similar ways where our commitment to this life in the Spirit can shine through even when we aren’t sure what is going on. Because of the joy of life in the Spirit, we don’t have to worry about that life itself for ourselves or others but rather can turn our focus toward promoting that life in the broader world. What does that look like? What does it mean to put our attention on the things of the Spirit rather than the things of the flesh? What does it look like to be free from the pressure of condemnation through the grace of God in Jesus Christ?
First of all, I think this means that we have to turn our worries and focus away from salvation. Not only do we have comfort in these things because of the promise we hear here, a primary or exclusive focus on our own salvation or even on our own eternal life is antithetical to the life of the Spirit. The life of the Spirit is not about what is best for me for all eternity, but it is rooted instead in the here and now. The life of the Spirit is built not on what we do but on how we join in what God is doing in the world. The life of the Spirit is centered not in greedily seeking what is best for me but rather in finding what God is doing that is best for the whole world.
Then, after we shift our focus from getting something out of all this to offering ourselves in this, we can see things in new ways. We can work in the world without fear that what we are doing will not be right or will surely fail, and if it doesn’t succeed as we expect, we can still trust that God is at work to redeem where we fall short. We can take thoughtful and hopeful risks because we know that the success or failure of anything we do does not rest upon us and does not reflect upon our salvation. And because of the freedom from condemnation we have in Christ, we can step out in faith in new and different ventures that enable and support the life of the Spirit in us and in others.
Living in the life of the Spirit also means that we turn away from the things that pull us away from this kind of life, not simply condemning sin in the forms we most easily recognize but stepping away from all the things that separate us from life as God intends and keep us from focusing on what we can do to join in God’s transformation of the world here and now.
This life in the Spirit will look different for each one of us, and it will certainly look different for our community of faith today than it did some years ago, but if we are to make this new way we have in Christ something more than just another belief we talk about just once a week on Sunday, we must figure out how to make this new life in the Spirit visible to others and ourselves in the days to come.
So may the Spirit of new life that we have in Christ Jesus our Lord inspire us to a new way here and now, living without fear and with great hope, focusing not on our salvation but on the possibilities and potential that it brings us so that we might join in what God is doing even now to make all things new. Amen.