Proper 10A

July 07, 2014

  • The Lectionary Gospel +

    Matthew 13: 1-9, 18-23

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • Old Testament Lectionary +

    Genesis 25: 19-34

    Author: Scott Hoezee

  • The Lectionary Psalms +

    Psalm 119: 105-112

    Author: Doug Bratt

  • Lectionary Epistle

    Romans 8: 1-11

    Author: Stan Mast

    Comments, Observations, and Questions to Consider

    When I read this text, I recall a line from Garrison Keillor’s iconic radio show, A Prairie Home Companion, set in his fictional home town of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.  One segment of the show was sponsored by a cereal called Mournful Oatmeal, which Keillor said was “like Calvinism in a box.”  That’s how lots of folks think of Calvinism, a gloomy, negative-thinking, sin-obsessed version of Christianity.

    Indeed, that’s how some of us Calvinists think of our own tradition, and not without reason.  I was raised on the Heidelberg Catechism which is shaped just like Paul’s letter to the Romans with three sections: sin, salvation, and service.  In the sin section, here’s how the sinfulness of the human race is described:  “I have a natural tendency to hate God and my neighbor.” (Answer 5)  “But are we so corrupt that we totally unable to do any good and inclined toward all evil?  Yes, unless we are born again by the Spirit of God.”  (Question and Answer 8)   Sounds like the authors of that Catechism had eaten a big bowl of Mournful Oatmeal on the morning they penned those words.

    Of course, it isn’t just Calvinists who have a strong doctrine of sin and a correspondingly pessimistic take on the possibility of change.  The world is filled with self-help books and DVD’s precisely because all of us sense that we need to change in some way and that we need a lot of help to do it.  Deep inside most of us is a little voice repeating, “You can’t do it.  You can’t change.  You can’t start over.  You are what you are, the product of forces of nature and nurture that are too strong for you to overcome.  You have natural tendencies.  You are inclined.  You are unable.”  Sounds just like the Catechism.  For that matter, it sounds just like the apostle Paul in Romans 7.

    Except that the Catechism has a caveat.  That’s the way we are “UNLESS we are born again by the Spirit of God.”  The Catechism is merely echoing the inspired and inspiring words of Paul in our text.  After bemoaning his sorry bondage to the law of sin (“what a wretched man I am!  Who will deliver me from this body of death?”), Paul heaves an unexpected sigh of relief and gratitude in 7:25, “Thanks be to God—through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  Here in Romans 8 he gives an extended explanation of that exclamation—“therefore….”

    I’m going to focus on verses 1-4, in part because I’ve written about verses 5-11 very recently on this same web page (cf. Sermon Starter Archives for March 23, 2014). But more than that, I want to zero in on these first four verses because they are so foundational.  In these first four verses Paul carefully lays the foundation for our understanding and experiencing of the new life we have in Christ.  Laying a foundation might not sound very exciting, but I can’t overestimate the importance of getting the foundation right.  A few years ago, I watched a 23 story luxury hotel go up in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan, where I live.  My health club looked out directly on the construction project, so every day I watched them build.  The laying of the foundation seemed to take forever, because if they got that wrong, the whole edifice would have been in jeopardy.

    Paul begins to lay his foundation with this life-changing declaration.  “Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  That is where new life begins—not with some firm mental resolution, not with some carefully designed plan to change, not with concerted effort on our part, but with God’s declaration, with God’s word about and to us.  This is one of the great texts in the Bible.  But what does it mean?  Does it mean that our sins are forgiven, that we are justified before and by God, that we are reconciled to God, and that heaven is guaranteed?  Yes, all of that, but more, much more.  In fact, Paul has been talking about all of that since chapter 3; all of that has been settled in Paul’s argument.  Now he moves on to what all of that theological talk means for our daily living.  The word that best captures the meaning of “no condemnation” is in verse 2—“set free,” eleutherosen.  The key idea here is not so much justification as liberation.

    Think of all the condemned prisoners on Death Row in America.  There are 3,000 of them, give or take a few hundred.  They have committed terrible crimes—murder, rape, terrorism.  They have been caught and tried by a jury of their peers.  They have been pronounced guilty and sentenced to die. Now they are rotting in a tiny cell, waiting for that day when they are executed for the crimes they have committed.  That, says Paul in the earlier chapters of Romans, is where we all are, UNLESS God steps in.  We have been pronounced guilty by God and sentenced to die eternally.  We have been waiting in the tiny cell of our sin-filled lives for that sentence to be carried out.  Everyone will be punished for their sin, unless God steps in.

    That’s what verse 1 is talking about.  God has stepped in, and if you are in Christ Jesus, there is no condemnation for you.  Not only are you pardoned, declared not guilty, forgiven, but also your punishment has been lifted and you are free to leave your cell of sin and begin your life again.  You don’t have to do time; you don’t have to serve probation; you aren’t on parole.  All penal servitude is gone.  There is not one bit of condemnation for every condemned sinner who is in Christ Jesus.  And that’s true right now.  “There is now no condemnation.”  You don’t have to wait for your new life.  God says so.

    How can that be?  If the Supreme Court would simply declare that there is now no condemnation for all 3,000 death row inmates, the United States would be in uproar.  How can God say this?  Because God has done something the Supreme Court could not and would not do.  Verse 3 explains it using the very same word as verse 1.  God condemned the sin that condemned us by condemning his own Son.  I know, I know, this sounds very much like a “penal substitutionary theory of the atonement,” which is much out of fashion these days.  But it’s exactly what Paul says.

    The law can never set us free.  Indeed, it can only point out our sin, stimulate our sin, and condemn our sin.  So, in his grace and mercy God did what the law and we cannot do.  He sent his own Son “in the likeness of sinful man” (sarx in the Greek).  That unusual expression is Paul’s ingenious way of protecting both the true humanity of Christ (he was in the flesh) and the true holiness of Christ (he was in the likeness of sinful flesh, but never sinned himself).  To set us free, he had to be both fully human and fully holy.  So, says Paul, God condemned sin in the flesh (of Jesus), even though Jesus had never committed sin himself (cf. II Cor. 5:21, “He was made sin” and Heb. 4:15, “yet was without sin”).

    There is no condemnation for condemned sinners who are in Christ Jesus because in Christ Jesus God condemned our sin.  That is why our guilt is gone, our sentence lifted, our penalty paid, our cell door open wide, with a whole new life stretching out before us.  That is the objective foundation of new life.  It has happened out there, at a certain point in space and time, on a cross outside Jerusalem 2,000 years ago.  It is finished.

    But there is another part of the foundation of new life, and that is the subjective reality, what has happened in the hearts and lives of formerly condemned sinners.  What has happened?  Verse 2 puts it this way: “because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.”  The key to understanding this reality is that word “law.”  In Paul’s theology that word has multiple meanings, depending on the context.  It can mean the law of God, the Pentateuch, the entire Old Testament, or, as here, a controlling power.  The power of the Holy Spirit who gives life has set us free from the power of the sin that gives us death.  Note that this is a done deal, too, just like justification.  That’s because Jesus did it.  What Jesus did in his death and resurrection actually set us free.  And the power of the Holy Spirit makes that freedom real and experiential in our lives.  We can have new life because of the power of the Spirit of Jesus.

    Why is that so important?  I’m sure that everyone who has seen the violent prison movie, “Shawshank Redemption,” remembers this scene.  An old prisoner is suddenly and unexpectedly released from prison.  He has been in prison so long that he doesn’t know how to live on the outside, in the real world, as a free man.  Prison had become his life.  He felt like a prisoner, thought like a prisoner, made choices like a prisoner, talked like a prisoner, acted like a prisoner, even though he was free.  He ended up hanging himself because he didn’t know how to live as a free man.  He just didn’t have it in him to escape prison life. Objectively he was out of prison, but subjectively prison was still in him.

    That’s what verse 2 is talking about.  Objectively the death and resurrection of Jesus got us out of prison, and subjectively Jesus has given us the Spirit to get the prison out of us.  By the power of the Spirit we can stop thinking and talking and acting and choosing and feeling like prisoners to the power of sin and death.  There is still sin in us as a great power, as Paul has so passionately expressed it in Romans 7, but the Spirit has more power.  Day by day, bit by bit, sin by sin, the Holy Spirit sets us free from the power of sin.  It’s a little like when firefighters put out a fire in a house.  After defeating the big fire once and for all, they stay for a long time to stamp out the sparks, spray the embers, look for hidden remnants of the fire, and put out any flare ups.

    In verse 4 Paul says that this power of the Spirit can actually make us law-abiding citizens: “in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us….”  Paul means that literally and seriously.  God has done his objective work for us and is doing his subjective work in us, so that we can actually keep the very law that had condemned us in the first place.  Now, by the power of the Spirit, we are not “inclined to hate God and our neighbors;” we are not “totally unable to do any good;” we are not “inclined to all evil.”  Now, by the power of the Spirit, we can become the kind of people God originally intended us to be.  This is the ultimate goal of God’s redeeming work, the purpose of all Jesus did, the end result of the Spirit’s work—“to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people who are his very own, eager to do what is good (Titus 2:14, cf. Eph. 2:10).”

    But there’s one more part of the foundation of this new life.  At the very end of verse 4 Paul adds this important proviso—“who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.”  We can live the way God wants when and if we live “according to the Spirit.”  The word “live” is a word that means literally “to walk around.”  As we walk around the world, we can fully meet the righteous requirements of God’s law if we are motivated and guided by the Spirit of Jesus.

    The problem is that we are often a lot like Fred Flintstone.  Do you remember that silly cartoon about caveman Fred and his friend Barney who would ride to work in Fred’s prehistoric car?  I remember a TV commercial for Midas, in which Fred and Barney were checking out new brakes for the car.  “Where are they?” asked the mechanic.  Barney pointed to Fred’s burning red feet, because, of course, Fred made the car stop and go with his own feet.  How ridiculous!  But that’s exactly what so many of us do.  We have this incredibly powerful engine within us, but we keep trying to move our lives by our own power.  We have this sophisticated guidance system, but we try to find our own way.  We have the Spirit of life moving in us to set us free from the old prison life, but we keep putting on the brakes by returning to old ways of thinking and talking and acting.  We know the Good News of our text, but we focus on the Bad News of sin. We keep eating Mournful Oatmeal, forgetting that great big UNLESS.

    Illustration Idea

    Several years ago Donald Miller burst on the scene with a funny, irreverent, but ultimately insightful book about Christian spirituality entitled Blue Like Jazz.  In one place he talks about the time he took a girl on a first date to see Romeo and Juliet. His date was deeply moved.  He was deeply bored, but he did hear that key line in the play, where Romeo says to Juliet: “Call me but love, and I’ll be new baptized; henceforth I never will be Romeo.”  As Miller and his date left the theater, two girls ahead of them were discussing the play.  One of them threw up her arms and cried, “I wish I could know love like Romeo and Juliet.”  He muttered under his breath just loud enough for his date to hear, “They’re dead.”

    That was the end of his date, but not the end of his musing about Romeo’s words.  As he ate his lonely post-play snack, he realized that Romeo was voicing a universal human longing in those words.  He writes, “Romeo believed that hooking up with Juliet would make him new, change his name, have him baptized and shiny.  Everybody wants to be fancy and new.”

    Isn’t that the truth!  We would all like to be shiny and new.  The incredible message of our text today is that if we hook up with Jesus (“in Christ Jesus”), we can be new.  In fact, the major work is already done.  By the power of the Spirit, we can finish it very well.