Lent 5A

March 31, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    John 11:1-45

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Ezekiel 37:1-14

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 130

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 8:6-11

    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 somaSarx 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.

    Illustration Idea

    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.