March 31, 2014
Author: Scott Hoezee
For this Fifth Sunday in Lent Sermon Starter, I again present a sample sermon of mine that I wrote in connection with doing a seminar with Frederick Dale Bruner as he completed his Commentary on John (Eerdmans 2012).
“Just about Everywhere”
In one of her short stories the writer Annie Dillard has a scene in which a family is sadly gathered at a grave to commit a loved one’s body to the earth. At one point the minister intones the familiar words from I Corinthians 15, “Where, O Death, is thy sting?” Upon hearing that, one of the family members looks up. He scans the sorrowful faces of his family and sees all around him row upon row of headstones in the cemetery. And then he thinks to himself, “Where, O Death, is thy sting? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked!”
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. Indeed it is. Nothing makes headlines like lots of deaths. An earthquake hits Haiti and in the span of a few seconds tens of thousands of lives disappear. A tsunami hits Asia and our minds grow numb as the death toll mounts higher by the day: 10,000, 50,000, 100,000, a quarter of a million. But those are just the big events. The relentless fact of death can also be seen in the everyday. You never open the newspaper’s Obituary column only to see the word “None.” It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.
So is the denial of death, of course. Don’t look your age, defy it, the make-up commercials say. You’re only as old as you feel, the old aphorism asserts. Meanwhile people hope to defy death by being put in cryogenic frozen storage, by getting themselves cloned, by hoping to transfer their consciousness into a robot like Mr.Data on Star Trek and any number of loopy ways by which to attempt an end run on our common human denominator. But all to no avail. They say that when prisoners arrived at the Nazi death camp of Auschwitz, some were told that there was only one way out of Auschwitz, and that was up the smokestack of the crematorium. But in a dark yet true way, the same could be said for all life on this planet: there’s only one way out and that is via the cemetery. Birth, someone once said, leads to a terminal condition called life.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. It’s everywhere in John 11, too. And not just in the obvious place where Lazarus was buried. There is a whiff of death when John reminds us in verse 2 that Mary anointed Jesus with perfume. That actually doesn’t happen until the next chapter but when it does, Jesus makes clear that this is a burial anointing for his body. The specter of death is visible when Jesus tells the disciples that Lazarus has died and again when Thomas invites the disciples to go and die with Jesus since they anticipate some kind of a lynch mob to meet them in Bethany.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. But nowhere is the choking reality of death on better display here than in what Jesus encounters once he at long last arrives in Bethany. You could hear the sound of the crying a long ways off. The whooping cries of the professional mourners mixed with the heaving sobs of Mary, Martha, and others. Sorrow creates its own kind of presence, doesn’t it? We’ve felt it as pastors when walking into that hospital room, that living room, that funeral parlor. It’s like walking into a layer of wet gauze. Grief is palpable and engulfing. I don’t know about you, but I’ve had it more than once when I have barely made it back to my car before dowsing my steering wheel with a lot of pent-up tears I had been holding back.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and it surely was in Bethany that day. Jesus encounters Martha first. Perhaps recalling a time when Jesus chided her for staying in the kitchen too much, Martha is the first one to leave the house. But it’s difficult to know just how she meets Jesus. It kind of looks like she meets him with some measure of unhappy disdain in her voice, but then again, we’ve all seen deep grief come out as anger, haven’t we? “Well there you are! It’s about time. This whole thing could have been avoided had you just shown up when we first called you. I know you could have healed Lazarus same as you’ve done for lots of people who mean a whole lot less to you than he did!”
“Your brother will rise again,” Jesus offers. “Lord, if I had wanted a Hallmark card . . . Of course he will rise again at the last day when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But I’m hurting this day, Lord!” And that’s when Jesus says it. He fixes Martha in an unusually intense stare and makes a claim so bold, it brooks no middle ground in terms of its being true or false: “Martha, I Am the resurrection and the life. Now. Today. Martha, I Am the roll that’s called up yonder and I am now. Do you believe this, or does that sound like a Hallmark card yet?”
With trembling lips and a quivering chin, with tears leaking out from her eyes for the first time since she encountered Jesus that day Martha says, “Yes. Yes . . . I do believe that, because I believe you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the future of the whole universe that has come into the world.” It was a bold thing for Jesus to say and a bolder thing for Martha to buy into. But even so, within minutes, when Jesus sees also Mary and then the others, he loses it. He didn’t make it back to the car. He weeps.
He weeps not because he doesn’t believe his own words. He weeps not because he has forgotten that he’d be having tea and cucumber sandwiches with Lazarus within the hour. No, he weeps because as the Word of God who was with God in the beginning and through whom all things were made, he knows more keenly than anyone there that day that this is not the way it’s supposed to be. He didn’t say “Let there be light” in the beginning to end up with a world so full of darkness and sorrow. He weeps for the same reason you cry when you see your kid trying to be brave on the playground even though he’s just been taunted and insulted by some other kids, taunted in ways that shriveled his little spirit. You weep for your child because you hate to see him diminished, because you love him. And Jesus weeps because he loves. He weeps because he is in love with this creation’s flourishing.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and no one sees it with more startling clarity than Jesus himself. And so on that day he does something to take, if even for just a little while, some of the wind out of death’s sails. Lazarus will die again. Mary and Martha may still have to go through another funeral for him at some point (and since we are told in the next chapter that the chief priests decided to murder Lazarus so as to cover over what Jesus had done, for all we know Lazarus’ second funeral may come really very soon after all). But still Jesus shows that he is on the side of life by bringing Lazarus back.
But that’s where John ends the story. Silly John! Doesn’t he know we want to read about the reactions of Mary and Martha? Doesn’t he know we want to see how they turned the leftover turkey on buns and potato salad from Lazarus’ funeral lunch into a “Welcome Back to Life” dinner party? But no, all we get is Jesus’ saying, “Take off the grave clothes and let him go!” We’re left to imagine the joy.
For his part, however, John returns us to death. We pivot from Lazarus the mummy walking out into the sunlight in Bethany to a secret plot to kill Jesus. After all, if Jesus keeps raising the dead, it’s going to start to get pretty tough for the Pharisees to convince people that Jesus is, as they say in Texas, “all hat and no cattle.” Raising the dead has a way of catching people’s attention and so—in a narrative twist so sharply ironic as to take your breath away—they decide to kill the life-giver. They will prevent future resurrections by burying the one doing the work. With life busting out all over Bethany, the authorities opt to bring things back to normal where death has the last word.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked. And for now, despite the joy and spectacle of John 11, that remains our reality, too. And that would be a piece of bad news were it not for those clarion words of John 11:25 that have had a way of hanging in there across the centuries and right on down to this July morning, too. “I am the resurrection and the life.” You either believe those words or you don’t but if there is one thing both the religious and the non-religious could agree on it is this: one way or another the truth or falsity of those words have something to do with every last person on the planet, past, present, and future.
Think of it this way: suppose I came up to you and said “I am the cure for hemorrhagic fever.” Well, that might be a nice thing to know about me but unless you have hemorrhagic fever—or unless you anticipate ever getting this rather rare disease—then my claim to possess the cure for that condition won’t do much for you. It would be a claim that would, at best, have something to do with other people but not you. But the same cannot be said if I claim to be the cure for death. Now I’ve got everyone’s attention. Those who believe me will latch on quite literally for dear life. Those who do not believe me will walk the other way but will still have to know that death remains their destiny. Either way or both ways, someone’s claim to being the resurrection and the life is never a claim that has nothing to do with anyone.
It’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked, and so therefore is the need to deal with it. God’s solution was, unsurprisingly, rather ingenious! The theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg is someone who understands—as best anyone can understand such a mystery, that is—what Jesus as the resurrection and the life means. Pannenberg said that what happened on Easter was the future breaking into our collective past. The new life Jesus brought was quite literally our future taking place at a distinct moment in history.
So now when Jesus comes up to each of us to ask the question he first posed to Martha, “Do you believe this?” we have a new way to answer. Yes, we do believe in Jesus, we do believe that we will rise again one day. We believe it will happen because, in Christ, it already did happen! Nothing can prevent the eternal life Jesus offers us because it has already come! On that long ago day in Bethany, Jesus essentially told Martha that the Last Day, the Day of the Lord, the Day of Resurrection was standing right in front of her! That great font of wisdom, Yogi Berra, once said, “The future isn’t what it used to be.” To that I reply, “Oh yes it is! The future is exactly what it used to be in the resurrection of Jesus from the dead!”
In commenting on John 11 Frederick Buechner once pointed out that sometimes people who go through so-called “near-death experiences” profess to not being completely happy that the doctors pulled them back. Many have said that they saw a bright figure standing in the light and that they wanted to approach that figure but were cut off when the heart defibrillator yanked them back to this world. For them it felt less like “near death” and more like “near life.”
Well, as Buechner imagined it, maybe that bright afternoon in Bethany when Lazarus emerged, blinking into the Palestine sunshine, only to see Jesus standing there in the light, maybe Lazarus was at first not sure which side of death he was on! Was he walking toward eternity or back toward earth? Some of you have seen the fine film Field of Dreams in which long dead baseball players somehow come back to life to play on a mysterious baseball field that Kevin Costner’s character, Ray, had built right in the middle of an Iowa cornfield.
When one player steps out onto the ball diamond, he says to Ray,
“Is this heaven?” to which Ray replies,
“No, it’s Iowa.”
“Funny, it looked like heaven to me.”
So also maybe Lazarus at first asked Jesus,
“Is this heaven?”
“No, it’s Bethany.”
But maybe it looked like heaven to Lazarus just because Jesus was there. Perhaps as much as anything just that is the point of John 11: whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s because he just is, right now, the resurrection and the life. That will have enormous meaning when the roll is called up yonder by and by. But faith understands that tasting Jesus’ life and hope doesn’t have to wait that long. It is here, now. It is at the Lord’s where each time when we come we quite literally taste and tsee that the Lord is good, taste and see that new life is here now because as this table says to us, Jesus is here, Jesus is now. And if by faith you can see him each time in the bread and the wine, then you, too, have begun to taste heaven already.
“I am the resurrection and the life.” Because of these words from our Lord, when we as Christians get asked by people, “Where can you find any hope in this world,” we now have the joyful privilege to proclaim the gospel by boldly declaring, “Where is hope? Why, it’s just about everywhere, seeing as you asked.”
Hallelujah and Amen!
Author: Scott Hoezee
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
It is a sad statement on the last hundred or so years that we can rather easily imagine the scene Ezekiel describes in his famous 37th chapter. Whether or not the people in Ezekiel’s original audience had ever seen such a valley full of bones, we now have.
We’ve seen the mass graves of Auschwitz and Kosovo. Our minds cannot erase, much though we’d like to, the carnage of Rwanda and particularly of that one photo of a church sanctuary littered with the skeletal remains of those who sought refuge in God’s house but who found instead swift death at the hands of macheté-wielding thugs. Perhaps most dramatically we’ve seen the killing fields of Cambodia with bones and skulls stretching to the horizon.
We know what Ezekiel saw and we know that such a scene represents death in all its finality, intensity, and horror. And so we also know what we would say if someone asked us, “Do you see any life in all that carnage? Can those emaciated victims of Hitler’s Final Solution live? Can Pol Pot’s legacy of murder lead to life?” We know what we’d say and we know that from just the human side of things our answer would be a resounding,
Son of man, can these dry bones live? No, they cannot. From our human side of things the bones cannot live. From our human side of things death is the end. We cannot bring anyone back. Even with the wonders of today’s medical technology there is nothing that can be done for even a body that has been dead for more than five or so minutes, much less for a body as far gone as to be a skeleton.
Ezekiel saw skeletons–lots and lots of them. These were people who did not receive burial for some reason. The sheer number of bones seemed to indicate some kind of mass carnage or catastrophe. The dry condition of the bones lets Ezekiel know that these people have been dead a long time. Can these bones live–these long-dead, desiccated, jumbled-together remnants of people who are long gone from this earth?
No, they cannot.
Verse 2 tells us that Yahweh gave Ezekiel a pretty thorough tour of this terrible place. They walked back and forth, through and among the bones. Ezekiel saw no life.
Can these bones live? The question was ridiculous. So much so that Ezekiel was savvy enough to realize that it is more of a rhetorical question. Perhaps that is why Ezekiel is bold enough to swat the ball back into Yahweh’s court. “Son of man, can these bones live?” “You tell me, O Sovereign Yahweh. You tell me.”
In the face of such a scene of death’s finality, people of faith have no choice but to throw it back into Yahweh’s hands. We know the answer to the question insofar as our human perspective and ability is concerned. If there is more that can be said in this situation, God will have to be the one to say it. If there is anything to be done to or for these bones, God will have to be the one to do it. “Can these bones live?” The suspense of faith is holding our collective breath to see what Yahweh says in answer to his own question.
Speaking of breath, the Hebrew word for “breath” is ruach, and it pops up fully ten times in just these fourteen verses. Clearly it is the key word for this context. It starts in 5 when Yahweh tells Ezekiel to prophesy to the bones that God would indeed restore the breath of life to them. But before we consider that any further we need to notice the silliness of what Yahweh asks Ezekiel to do. Ezekiel needs to stand up, clear his throat, and preach a sermon to the skeletons! Imagine going to a cemetery as a pastor, standing on a bench, and then saying to all the headstones stretched out before me, “Good afternoon. You’re probably wondering why I called all of you here today . . . well, that is, what I have to say to you . . . .”
Nobody is listening! There is no one to hear! Ezekiel has had to perform his share of wild and crazy things in this book but earnestly preaching a sermon to this valley of bones is far more outlandish than most of the other prophetic signs he had to perform. Yet this spectacle is less ridiculous than we might at first think. Preaching to the obviously dead is actually not so rare after all–not within the context of Ezekiel and not even yet today.
In verse 11 of this passage we hear Yahweh quote a saying or a sentiment that had been circulating among the exiles in Babylon. With Jerusalem destroyed, the Temple in ruins, many of their children and loved ones dead, it seemed to most Israelites like the end of the world. So they’d gather together in little clusters of lament and say to one another, “Our bones are dried up! Our hope is gone! We are cut off from all joy!” The Israelites had become the living dead. Their spirits were shriveled up within them.
This entire book was written in the shadow of what Walter Brueggemann calls the Nullpunkt, which is a German word for “zero point.” The Nullpunkt of faith is that moment of crisis when all seems lost and when, humanly speaking at least, all really is lost. For Israel all of her prior understandings of covenant had been shattered. The belief that Jerusalem was inviolate and the Temple indestructible proved hollow.
What was next for Israel? Was there a “next” to anticipate? Out of this time of profound spiritual crisis emerged the distinctive voice of the prophets. The job of Ezekiel, and for that matter of Isaiah and Jeremiah and the others, was to declare that God was not undone by the catastrophe of recent days. God remained sovereign and what’s more, Yahweh was determined that he would never be “Israel-less” in the world. Yahweh would always have his Israel! But from the crises of history, from the death that surrounds us, and from the ways by which the bleakness of our human situation can so easily make us spiritually dead on the inside, this hope is something that completely and utterly depends on the gift of God.
Everything depends on whether or not Yahweh will return the very breath of life itself. We are powerless even to summon this breath, much less to grant it to ourselves or anyone else. In other words, from the human side of things there is the undeniable reality of death, and there is not a thing we ourselves can do about it. We are finite. There are limits. The universe itself cannot continue forever.
Any hope that we have cannot be based on any trends or possibilities that we see within this physical sphere of life as we know it. We cannot expect that science or medicine will break through with the news that we’ve found a loophole, a way to escape death, a way to keep the sun lit forever and the universe to stop expanding itself to the breaking point. No, the hope we have has to take square account of death and its inevitability. We also cannot base our hope on the Greek belief that there is something inherent within our human souls that is death-proof all of its own accord.
But Yahweh is the God of resurrection! Can these bones live?
Even if somehow sinew and tendon and flesh could be put back onto them, as happens in verses 7-8, can they breathe and be whole and complete living souls again? No–not unless Yahweh himself picks up these dead folks and, as he did in the beginning with Adam and Eve, personally blows the breath of life back into their nostrils! It is all of God.
As a prophet it was Ezekiel’s task to pluck the strings of the people’s imagination with lyrical descriptions of things and possibilities beyond what we can attain on our own, and in this way to foster a thoroughgoing hope. He succeeded. In this universe of death and decay, Yahweh’s question still rings across the broken landscape of our history: Can these bones live? The answer of Immanuel, who is the resurrection and the life, the alpha and the omega, the great shepherd of the sheep and the firstborn of all us dead and dying folks–his answer to this question is simple, clear, and redolent of hope: Can these bones live?
The Sovereign God in Jesus Christ our Lord has spoken it.
If you’ve ever toured one of the Nazi concentration camp memorials you know of the almost choking sense of death and finality you sense in those places. When years ago I visited Buchenwald, I was struck by what a glorious place of natural beauty it is. Located near Weimar in what was then East Germany, Buchenwald overlooks a broad vista of rolling hills and valleys. Even in the dead of winter when I was there the view was lovely.
And yet it wasn’t lovely to me. Buchenwald, like the other camps I’ve seen at Dachau, Bergen-Belsen, and Plötzensee, hangs so heavy with a sense of mass extermination that all else is eclipsed. By the time you’ve viewed the memorial plaques, glanced at the grim photos of corpses stacked like cord wood, and passed by the crematorium onto which is now engraved the words, “Remember How We Died Here,” there is little left in your mind than the overwhelming sense of death’s tragedy and of its apparent absolute finality. There is no beauty there and often very little sense of hope.
Author: Doug Bratt
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
Even the most capable biblical scholars find Psalm 130 hard to categorize. After all, it beautifully combines a plea for forgiveness with an expression of trust that contains an element of thanksgiving. However, perhaps it’s precisely that somewhat awkward combination of elements that makes it such an eloquent Old Testament expression of the gospel. Martin Luther called Psalm 130 a “proper master and doctor of Scripture,” by which he seemed to mean that it teaches the gospel’s fundamental truths about human sinfulness, God’s graciousness and the appropriate human response of gratitude. The church father Augustine even supposedly had Psalm 130’s words inscribed on the wall in the bedroom where he lay dying so that he might make its words his own.
Since the psalmist doesn’t identify the particular “depths” into which she has plunged, Psalm 130 opens its interpretations to a variety of ills with which worshipers can identify. “Out of the depths” may sound like the psalmist feels like she’s praying from the bottom of her own grave. We might even think of it as the cry of someone who’s fallen into the bottom of some kind of deep well, hole or crevice.
Yet as Christopher Breck Reid notes, “depths” refers to any chaotic forces that threaten human life. So perhaps it would be most appropriate to imagine the psalmist feeling as if he’s crying out from the bottom of some deep water. We might identify with the psalmist’s anguish by imagining ourselves falling out of a boat and sinking to the bottom of a deep lake. Perhaps we might even imagine ourselves wearing some clothing that weighs us down and prevents us from rising back to the surface. In that case, we could only “cry” for help.
However, the “depths” out of which the psalmist cries isn’t some kind of trouble caused by an external threat. The “depths” seems to refer to Israel and the poet’s sins. What threatens not only her emotional but also physical well-being is Israel’s unfaithfulness to and rebellion against the God who has created her.
The psalmist’s cry offers those who preach and teach Psalm 130 an opportunity to reflect with hearers on their own responses to their sin. Does anyone think of individual and corporate sin as plunging them into the depths that threaten their well-being? Have we become so cavalier about sin that we no longer view it as a threat to us, except when someone else sins against us? Some modern Christians are reluctant to talk about sin, preferring, instead, to talk about “mistakes that were made” or “errors in judgment.” Psalm 130 offers a wonderful liturgical tool for individual and corporate reflection on and confession of sin’s utter seriousness.
Worshipers who have felt the weight of their own and society’s sins may feel as though neither God nor anyone else can hear us when we plead for help with our sinfulness. Yet the psalmist begs God to pay attention to his plea for mercy. He recognizes that he can’t simply pull himself out of these depths by resolving to try harder to be more faithfully obedient. He recognizes that he must rely on God to graciously extricate him from the depths to which his sin has plunged him.
Yet Psalm 130’s poet also recognizes that she doesn’t deserve to have God hear her cry from the depths. After all, she realizes, if God “kept score” of sin against God like people keep score of slights and offenses against us, she’d remain “out;” she’d die in the depths of her sin.
Even the most faithful worshipers naturally keep careful count of the times others sin against us. Even when we forgive each other, it’s tempting to nurse grudges caused by others’ sins against us. Thankfully, then, God is fundamentally different than us. With God there is no careful record-keeping of sin, but “forgiveness.”
Of course, Christians understand the nature of that forgiveness even better than the poet did. The New Testament helps worshipers to recognize that our forgiveness comes at the steep cost of the obedient life and sacrificial death of God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Yet even long before Jesus lived, died, rose again from the dead and ascended to the heavenly realm, God showed the psalmist that God is a forgiving God. As a result, in spite of his overwhelming sense of guilt, the psalmist feels the right to cry out to God for help.
She even recognizes that she can afford to wait for God to graciously respond. It sometimes seems as though God is a bit slow to rescue us from the depths of our sin. Because God is a forgiving God, the psalmist’s knows her wait for the Lord isn’t in vain. She can wait for God’s gracious forgiveness as eagerly as a night watchman waits for the first streaks of dawn to paint the night sky.
Interestingly, Psalm 130s’ original language doesn’t make the tense of “wait” clear. So Reid suggests that it would be an interesting exercise for worshipers to ask themselves what difference the tense of “wait” would make for this psalm. If the poet is saying, “I have waited,” we might see this as an affirmation of God’s coming to her in the depths in the past that strengthens her confidence that God will rescue her again.
If the psalmist is saying, “I am waiting,” the poignancy of that wait deepens our sense of her eager expectation that God will again soon rescue her. If the poet is saying, “I will wait,” it’s as if she’s professing that she will wait as long as it takes for God to graciously redeem her.
The psalmist also recognizes that because God is a gracious God, the most appropriate response of worshipers to God is that of fear. This, however, isn’t the cowering fear of an abused animal or the whimpering fear of a child who fears a thunderstorm. It’s not appropriate for worshipers to be terrified of God. Rather, the fear of which the poet speaks is that of honor, worship, trust and service. Those who fear God are those who are eager to respond to God’s redemption with their faithful obedience.
However, those who fear the Lord are also those who respond to God’s redemption by calling others to join in faithful obedience. So the psalmist calls Israel to join him in putting her hope not in her own efforts, but in the Lord. Those who’ve been in the depths know they can have no confidence in themselves. Our only hope is the God who graciously forgives.
However, the psalmist also seems to call Israel to join her in waiting for God’s redemption. Perhaps her own experience of having to wait for God’s rescue helps her to recognize how difficult such waiting can be. So returning to verse 3’s theme of “sins,” she calls Israel to continue to hope in the Lord whose love never fails and whose redemption triumphs over even the darkest sin. While Psalm 130 reflects a deep awareness of human sin and sinfulness, it also affirms that God’s gracious redemption eventually sweeps away even the most awful iniquities.
For the 5th Sunday in Lent the Lectionary pairs Psalm 130 with Ezekiel 37:1-14’s description of a valley of dead, dry bones. “Can these bones live?” the Lord asks God’s prophet. God answers God’s own question by giving those bones life, raising them, as it were “from the depths.”
The Lectionary also links Psalm 130 to Romans 8:6-11. There Paul contrasts the life of “the flesh” with the life of the Spirit. He promises that the God who raised Jesus from the dead will also give life to our mortal bodies that fall into “the depths” at death.
The Lectionary, finally, links Psalm 130 to John’s account of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead. Lazarus’ death plunged both himself and his grieving family members and friends into “the depths.” Jesus graciously raised all of them.
Anyone who has ever worked an overnight or “graveyard” shift knows the poignancy of the psalmist’s “wait.” As the night stretches out what sometimes feels interminably, various “watchmen” will do almost anything to keep themselves awake. Especially if there’s not a lot of work to do besides keep an eye on things, watchmen figuratively if not literally desperately watch the clock or scan the skies for signs that the morning is dawning and their shift is ending.
Author: Stan Mast
Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider
A serious observance of Lent could lead a Christian to the kind of despair voiced by Paul in Romans 7. In this section of Romans Paul is spelling out the lifestyle implications of believing in Christ and being justified through that faith. Trying to live for Jesus has led many Christians to the kind of frustration and defeat that says, “I want to do right, but I do wrong. I try to stop sinning, but end up doing the very thing I hate. There seems to be some power in me that frustrates all my efforts to live for Jesus. So, then, I myself in my mind am a slave to God’s law, but in my sinful nature I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7).” With Paul we exclaim, “What a wretched person I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?”
I’m trapped; I’m a prisoner, a condemned prisoner on death row. That’s the picture behind the joyful exclamation of Romans 8:1. “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus….” Our sentence has been commuted. No longer do we need to fear eternal punishment in hell. That’s what Paul has called justification; the guilt of sin has been erased from our criminal record and God looks upon us as innocent.
But “no condemnation” also means that the door to the cell is now open and we are free to leave. We do not have to live imprisoned to sin. “No condemnation” means that I am a free man: no longer a slave, but a son. I am no longer a frustrated and defeated Christian unable to do any good, crying out, “What a wretched person I am!” Now I am a joyful, obedient child of God crying out, “Abba, Father.” Now the righteousness requirements of the law can be fully met in us. We are able to keep God’s law, when we live not “according to the sinful nature, but according to the Spirit.”
This is where our text picks up the argument. The great secret of this whole new way of life is “living according to the Spirit.” The solution to the kind of Lenten frustration and defeat expressed in Romans 7 is “living according to the Spirit.” “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The Holy Spirit will, when we live according to the Spirit. Up to this point in Romans the Holy Spirit is rarely mentioned, but in this chapter that Spirit is mentioned 20 times. Romans 8 is the greatest teaching on the Spirit in the Scripture—not the book of Acts, but Romans 8. And the heart of it is this idea of “living according to the Spirit.”
What does that mean? And how can we do it? Verses 5-8 seem designed to answer those questions. But which of those questions do these verses answer—what or how? Is Paul giving us a description or a prescription? Is he giving an anthropological description? This is what the person living according to the Spirit looks like. She sets her mind on the things of the Spirit. Or is he giving an ethical prescription? This is what you must do if you want to live according to the Spirit. You must set you mind on spiritual things.
From years of preaching on this subject, I know that people really want to know how to do this. They want a “how to” sermon on this text. Unfortunately, Paul doesn’t give us a list of things to do. He moves us away from individual sins and spiritual activities. He focuses on our basic orientation to life. What characterizes those who live according to the Spirit is a certain mindset. Those “who live according to the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.” This fits nicely with Paul’s words at the beginning of his major ethical prescription section of Romans. “Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.” (12:2) Maybe these words are both a description and a prescription. Those who live according to the Spirit do set their minds on what the Spirit desires, and those who want to live according to the Spirit must set their minds on what the Spirit desires.
Paul’s words remind me of the “mindfulness revolution” that is sweeping through our western culture even though it was born of Eastern mysticism, particularly Buddhism. But the idea of focusing on one thing at a time, of being intentional about controlling your mind, is certainly found here in early Christianity. If you want to be live for Jesus, you have to live according to the Spirit, not according to the flesh. And if you want to be controlled by the Holy Spirit, you have to set you mind on what the Spirit desires. What the Spirit desires is not first of all that you are “spiritual,” but that you belong to Jesus. The Spirit, said Jesus, will reveal Jesus, will bring us to Jesus, will make us like Jesus, will enable us to bear witness for Jesus, and will change the world for Jesus.
There is intense competition for our minds all day every day. The world bombards our minds with a million images and messages. Our own flesh pulls at our minds with a thousand desires and impulses. (By the way, you are aware, I’m sure, that Paul does not mean our bodies when he talks about flesh here. The word is sarx, not soma. Sarx refers to our sinful nature, not our flesh and blood, our sinful self, not our physical self.) The Devil uses our desires and impulses to lure us away from God. As a result of the incessant attacks of the evil trinity (of the world, the flesh and the devil), our minds are, as the ancient monks used to say, like a tree full of monkeys. The secret of living for Christ is controlling our minds by focusing on Jesus. And the only way to do that is by the power and leading of the Spirit.
Paul doesn’t tell us exactly what we need to do in order to live that way. This is not detailed Torah; it is the liberating Gospel. But he does strongly motivate us to live according to the Spirit by drawing a stark contrast between flesh and Spirit. The mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace, but the mind set on the flesh is death. It is death, because it is “hostile to God,” “does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so,” and it “cannot please God.”
Paul is trying to show us that our natural efforts, our best thinking, our strongest willing, and our most sincere desires to please God will only lead to death. “Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God—through our Jesus Christ our Lord.” Our Lord Jesus Christ enables us to live for him by giving us the Spirit. If we live according to the Spirit, we can live for Jesus in a way that pleases God. This is the Good News to we can believe and celebrate, not a new law we must try to obey.
Except that Paul seems to cast doubt on this very Gospel in his next words. Immediately after saying, “You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature, but by the Spirit,” Paul appears to pull the rug out from under their feet with these words– “if the Spirit of God lives in you.” Then he adds, “And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” What a terrible thing to say when you are trying to encourage people to live by the Good News! Everything in the Christian life depends on “living according to the Spirit.” But do you have the Spirit? What on earth is Paul doing here?
Well, maybe our translation isn’t right. The first if in verse 9 is not ei, but eiper. And eiper can mean “seeing that, since, since indeed, if… as is certainly true.” In other words, Paul is not raising a question about them; he is assuring them. You have the Spirit. Of course, you do. You clearly belong to Christ; look at your faith and life. You could not say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit (I Cor. 12:3). The only way you could be a Christian is if you have the Spirit, because “if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ.” So rather than challenging us about our possession of the Spirit, Paul is assuring us that we have the Spirit. “[Y]ou are controlled by the Spirit, since the Spirit of God lives in you.”
Or maybe Paul does want to challenge his readers. Maybe he is concerned about the sin of presumption, about a false confidence that says “Lord, Lord” without ever really knowing the Lord (Matt. 7). Paul was not above saying hard things to congregations he knew very well. The church at Rome wasn’t one of them; he didn’t know these people at all. So maybe he is saying to this group of strangers the same thing he said to the Corinthian church that he knew intimately. At the end of his second letter to the Corinthians, Paul said, “Examine yourselves to see whether you are in the faith; test yourselves. Do you not realize that Christ Jesus is in you—unless, of course, you fail the test?” (II Cor. 13:5)
Paul didn’t want these Romans to discover too late that the Spirit did not live in them and that, therefore, they did not belong to Christ. So, he raises that awful specter of self-deception here in the hopes that they would ask the hard question. Do I have the Spirit? Do I belong to Christ? This is the hardest question for our Lenten self-examination, and the most important. And it’s a question about which we can do something. If we find ourselves unsure, we can, having heard the Gospel, receive Jesus Christ by faith and the Spirit at the same time (Rom. 10:17 and Gal. 3:2)
Earlier I mentioned the ways in which the diabolical trinity of the world, the flesh and the devil tries to fill our minds. Did you notice how much Paul emphasizes the blessed Trinity at the end of our reading? If you don’t have the Holy Spirit, you don’t have Christ, because the Spirit is the presence of Jesus in our lives. But the Spirit is also the Spirit of the Father who raised Jesus from the dead. And the Father who raised Jesus from the dead through the Spirit will also give life to us through his Spirit. What a profound reminder that the work of redemption is a Trinitarian work. Though we can speak of the distinct works of the persons of the Trinity, Paul is very clear that each member of the Trinity was involved in the entire work. Some traditions tend to glorify God the Father, others God the Son, and still other God the Spirit. This text calls us to sing, “To the Great One in Three, eternal praises be forevermore.”
Paul ends this section of his great teaching on the Holy Spirit by assuring us that the Triune God will finish that work of redemption in our “mortal bodies.” This is a long way from “this body of death” in Romans 7. Even though “your body is dead because of sin… he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies….”
A couple of phrases here beg for comment. By saying “your body is dead because of sin,” Paul picks up on the warning of God in Genesis 3 which he had used in Romans5:12-21. Though Adam and Eve did not physically die immediately after they sinned, they eventually did. Paul seems to teach that their death and ours is caused by sin. In other words, there was no physical death in human history before sin. This is a controversial statement in scientific circles, where death is considered to be part of the nature of humanity. But Paul says it is an aberration, an unnatural consequence of sin, the great and final enemy of human existence that redemption will finally eradicate.
Here he refers to resurrection as the final goal of human redemption. Even as God raised Christ from the dead, so he will give life to your mortal bodies. And notice how crucial the Spirit is to that resurrection. “If Christ is in you (by the Spirit), your body is dead because of sin, yet the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” My translation differs from the NIV, but it is more accurate. Pneuma here does not mean the human spirit, but the Holy Spirit (as it does in all eight previous occurrences in this chapter and in verse 11). The good news is that, even though your body is dead, the Spirit is not. Because of Christ’s righteousness earned on the cross, the Spirit within you is life.
Here’s what that means. “And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who lives in you.” The presence of the Spirit in your life not only enables you to live righteous lives that please God, but also guarantees that you will rise from the dead one day. God the Father will do that, even as he did that for God the Son, but he will do it through the Holy Spirit. I’m not sure how that works, but it’s another proof that redemption is the work of the Triune God. The Spirit might be “the quiet one” in the Trinity, never drawing attention to his own person, but the Spirit is as important in our salvation as Jesus or his Father.
I just finished reading Rachel Held Evans’ book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood. It is a slightly irreverent, often funny, sometimes touching account of a liberated evangelical woman’s attempt to live by the uniquely feminine commands of the Bible. Each chapter chronicles a month in which she focuses on particular commands about cooking and clothing, about sex and gossip, about being submissive to her husband, etc. In the end, she fails miserably and conducts a very moving ceremony of repentance and renewal.
It is a delightful book that unwittingly illustrates the futility of trying to live by biblical rules in our own wisdom and strength. As Paul says, we can only fulfill the righteous requirements of God’s law when we live according to the Spirit. And the key to that is not a set of rules, but a mindset. We are transformed by the renewal of our minds, by setting our minds on what the Spirit desires, which, in a word, is Christ.