Sermon for Williamstown Uniting Church
16th of July, 2017
Finally, we have an optimistic Apostle. After last week’s lament: ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do,’ and the warning from two weeks’ ago against being the slaves of sin, which leads to death, now we have Paul rejoicing that we’ve been set free from the law of sin and of death. Everything that we could not do by ourselves has been done for us by God. Last week’s reading ended with Paul writing: ‘with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin’. This week begins with: ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. Left to ourselves we cannot achieve righteousness through our own actions, but as Paul reminded us in last week’s reading, we are not left to ourselves. God did not leave us alone and floundering. In Jesus Christ God entered into creation and joined us in our humanity, and in the Spirit God is still with us, around us and between us and within us. We are never alone.
Over the past two weeks I’ve been reminding us that when Paul uses the word ‘sin’ he’s using it in an almost personified sense, talking about the power that opposes God. If we define ‘sin’ as the bad things we do, we won’t fully understand what Paul’s saying. In particular, Paul writing about God ‘sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh’ makes no sense if we think of ‘sin’ as the wrong things done by individuals. Paul is not suggesting that Jesus sinned as a human being; that Jesus did sinful things that the gospel writers refrained from writing down to protect his reputation. What Paul is saying is that God entered into the human world with all its evil and sorrow and through the crucifixion and resurrection became the ‘death of death, and hell’s destruction’. (I’ve had ‘Guide me, O thou great Redeemer’ in my head all week.)
This week we need to be careful with two other words: ‘flesh’ and ‘law’. The Greek words are sarx and nomos and Paul is using them in very particular ways. All the way through today’s reading Paul contrasts flesh and Spirit: ‘For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit’. It’s easy and tempting to translate ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ into ‘body’ and ‘soul’, and there have been varieties of Christianity that have done that, Christians who have mistreated their bodies in order to get closer to God. That’s a misreading of ‘flesh’ that can be dangerous. We live in a society that frequently tells us that our bodies are dangerous and need to be controlled and disciplined; a society of obesity and eating disorders; a society in which even children talk about being ‘bad’ because they indulge in particular food. Behind all those social problems, I think, is the idea that our bodies aren’t really us. There is an ‘I,’ mind or soul or spirit, which is housed in a body; but that body is somehow separate from ‘me’. That’s not the way Christianity understands humanity. We’re not an immortal soul housed in a mortal body; God created us body and mind. God became incarnate in a human body. One of Christianity’s early heresies was that Jesus was a disembodied spirit who only appeared to be embodied, and the Church was very clear that that wasn’t true. When God came to be one of us God became truly human, and that means God had a real, flesh and blood, body.
So when Paul talks about the ‘law of the flesh’ he is not talking about living life in bodies. When he says that ‘to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace’ he is not suggesting that we turn away from eating and drinking and sleeping and playing and making love and washing – although sadly some Christians have turned away from all of those as though they were wrong. (Personally, I’ve never thought that failing to wash made people more holy, but it was one of the things that people admired about those Christian ascetics of the Byzantine Empire who lived on top of pillars.) When Paul talks about ‘the flesh’ he’s talking about everything that separates us from God, everything that keeps us trapped in evil, everything that prevents us from living righteous lives. When talking about eating Jesus was very clear that it wasn’t what went into the body that defiles: ‘since it enters, not the heart but the stomach, and goes out into the sewer … it is what comes out of a person that defiles. For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly.’ (Mark 7:18-23) It’s important that we don’t read Paul as disagreeing with Jesus.
The other word that we need to be careful about is ‘law,’ nomos in Greek. Paul has spent a lot of time explaining the futility of trying to live a righteous life by obeying an external law, but here he contrasts ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ with ‘the law of sin and of death’. Paul is not replacing one law with another. Instead he is using the word ‘law’ in the way that Australia’s First Peoples use it. It doesn’t just refer to rules; it also includes culture and religion and land, and is life-giving and a gift from God. Paul is a good Jew, and so he uses the word ‘law’ with its Jewish meaning, as God’s will for humanity.
Sadly, some Christians are unable to live without rules. Paul rejoices: ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’ but Christians continue to condemn each other, creating a new Christian Law in order to do that. But Paul is very clear. Righteousness, living in right relationship with God, is not a matter of following rules. Righteousness is God’s gift to us, not something we earn.
Paul ends today’s passage by writing: ‘you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you’. We are able to live the lives that God wants us to live, not because we are so strong and good that we are able to obey the law, but because God’s Spirit is within us and we live within God’s Spirit. Because we live in Christ and according to the Spirit, we are able to live lives of love and peace. What we could not do for ourselves, God enables us to do.
I recently had a very strong experience of what it means to live in the Spirit; how it feels to do something in the power of God that I know I could not have done by myself. When we heard that Curtis Barnett had died at the age of seventeen and that his funeral would be held here, June asked me how I would manage to take that service. How would I be able to stand in front of hundreds of people and speak words of comfort and hope to those whose hearts were broken? I said that I’d be able to do that because this is what God created me to do. I’m sure that’s true. God made me to be a minister, that’s my vocation. I know that whenever I turn to God and ask for help in fulfilling my vocation God gives me all the help I need. The only time I get into trouble in ministry is if I forget that I’m ministering in partnership with God and try to go it alone.
I was able to take Curtis’ funeral because God’s Spirit dwells in me. I have no doubt whatsoever about that. I could not have done it by myself. I prayed constantly in the week leading up to the service; Michelle prayed with me immediately before the service; and friends and colleagues were praying for me, as well as for Curtis’ family and friends, as the service happened. I knew that I was being surrounded by prayer, and that God had answered those prayers and was providing me with everything I needed.
I’d previously experienced God’s presence just as clearly over ten years ago, when three students at Janet Clarke Hall died in a car accident one Easter holiday. I didn’t take their funerals, but I did lead the memorial service in the college chapel and I helped to care for the other students and staff as they grieved. I was in the third year of my theological studies, I was completely unprepared for that sort of pastoring, and I know that I was only able to be at all helpful because I was in Christ. I’ve talked about that situation before, because it had such an impact on me. I had the strongest sense that Jesus was standing right behind me, with his hands on my shoulders, holding me up. When I’m depressed one of the things that I lose is the sense that God is with me, but even then I know that there was a time when I felt Jesus beside me, and I hold on to the memory.
By ourselves we are enslaved to the law of sin, Paul writes. But the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set us free from the law of sin and of death and we are able to live in life and peace. And when Paul writes: ‘you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you,’ I am able to say with utter confidence and faith ‘Amen’, because I’ve experienced the Spirit of God dwelling within me, and in the strength of the Spirit I’ve been able to do things that I would never be able to do by myself.
We are in Christ Jesus, and God’s Spirit is with us. And so we can do more than we ever thought possible and live lives of astonishing love. Thanks be to God. Amen.