Sermon delivered on Trinity 5A, Sunday, July 12, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.
If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.
Lectionary texts: Genesis 25.19-34; Psalm 119.105-112; Romans 8.1-11; St. Matthew 13.1-9, 18-23.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Well, my beloved, here we are on Zoom—again. If you are like me, while I am always happy to see you in any venue, I am also feeling a bit hollow and disappointed this morning. Today was the day we were to reopen the chapel and reassemble as a parish family, as the beloved people of God. But COVID had other ideas and so here we are, consigned to our virtual meeting for the near future. But I have some Good News for you this morning because as we continue our preaching series on St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, today’s passage is a condensed and brilliant summary of the essence of the Good News of Jesus Christ and this is what I want us to look at this morning. If there is anything that can lift us out of our doldrums, our epistle lesson this morning will do it.
As we saw last week, St. Paul left us in a difficult place in his letter. Recall that he wrote:
21 I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. 22 I love God’s law with all my heart. 23 But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me. 24 Oh, what a miserable person I am! Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? 25 Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. (Romans 7.21-25, NLT)
For those of us who have pondered carefully the seriousness of sin and the reality of God’s judgment on it, we know where this is leading—to our condemnation. We want to say to St. Paul, “Thanks a lot. Another piece of bad news in the seemingly never ending hit parade of bad news lately. We are so hosed!” After all, we learn to fear condemnation from a very early age, even if we haven’t pondered the seriousness of sin and God’s judgment on it. Whether seeking the approval of our parents and getting none or suffering through the humiliation of being picked last in a neighborhood pickup game or getting turned down for a job or desired relationships—I was turned down 16 times in a row before I got my first date—the message is clear: You’re not good enough. You don’t measure up. You’re not innocent. Guilty!! Guilty!! Guilty!! And so we spend much of our adult lives trying to compensate for this reality as we desperately seek to avoid the condemnation we dread. Throw in God’s condemnation, the mother of all condemnations, especially if we were/are unfortunate to have overly critical and rigid parents, and we are confronted by an ongoing and terrifying reality that we try to tamp down or ignore altogether so that we can just cope. Not good enough. Can’t make the grade. Thoroughly inadequate. Total Loser™. Wretched people we are indeed!
But right when we hit rock bottom with St. Paul, he shocks us with his conclusion to the argument he has laid out in chapters 5-7, a conclusion we didn’t see coming with the help of arbitrary chapter divisions of his letter. Who will rescue us wretches? How can we ever hope to measure up when we’ve been told by the world throughout our lives that we don’t? “Therefore,” St. Paul says as we brace to hear his expected conclusion that we must face the reality that we are consigned to being Losers in everyone’s eyes including our own and God’s, “there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (v.1). Wait. What??? Welcome to the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Before we look at why St. Paul would draw this astonishing conclusion, it bears repeating that his conclusion would only be meaningful to those of us who take the reality of sin and God’s judgment on it seriously. For those who don’t have an awareness of sin or who reject its reality completely, this wonderful Good News would likely evoke a shrug of the shoulders, their own personal avoidance of condemnation notwithstanding. But for those of us who understand that God will indeed judge our sin and all that is evil in his world that defiles and corrupts it, St. Paul’s conclusion of no condemnation for those who belong to Christ is music to our weary ears and aching hearts.
But what is the basis for St. Paul’s conclusion? How can we who are enslaved by the power of Sin escape God’s just condemnation? The answer, simply put, is that the power of God has freed us from our slavery to Sin where our finite and human efforts inevitably failed. In the following verses, St. Paul lays out a condensed version of the entire gospel of Jesus Christ. We escape God’s just and right condemnation because God the Father sent God the Son, i.e., God became human, to condemn our sin in the flesh instead of condemning us (v.3-4). We need to be very careful with our language here so that we can confront the tired old false teachings that claim God is a cosmic child abuser who punished Jesus on the cross. This is emphatically not what St. Paul is saying. First, we must remember that Jesus was and is God incarnate so anything Christ did on our behalf he did willingly and in cooperation with the Father, not because the Father coerced the Son. Second, St. Paul tells us that God’s terrible condemnation (judgment) fell on our sins, not on Christ. God the Father never condemned God the Son. It was our sins and the evil they produce that was condemned on the cross. And this should make sense to us. If God is a loving God, God must condemn all that is corrupting and death-dealing to his creatures. What loving parent would stand by idly and condone evil being perpetrated against his/her children? The whole story of Scripture is about how God is rescuing his world and us from the ravages of Evil and Sin, and here is a concise statement about how God ultimately chose to do that: by becoming human and dying on our behalf so that he could condemn the real culprit, sin, while sparing us. In other words, despite our fear of not being able to make the grade or measuring up in God’s eyes—who could blame us for thinking that in light of what St. Paul has written in chapter 7 and our own self-condemnation?—God doesn’t see us as we often see ourselves. As St. Paul reminded us back in chapter 5, God loves us so much that at just the right time he became human to die for us, even while we were still God’s enemies (Rom 5.6-8)! This is the power of God at work, my beloved, the only power that can free us from our slavery to the power of Sin. When Christ died for us on the cross, it not only spared us from God’s condemnation, it also freed us from our slavery to Sin’s power (v.2). Sin has been condemned. We who have a real relationship with Christ and believe in the efficacy of his death are not. On Mt. Calvary, God has proclaimed to us in no uncertain terms that we do measure up in his eyes, that we are not the Losers we have been told or think we are (well, the jury is still out on some of you, but I digress), and that we are no longer guilty because it was sin and not us that was pronounced guilty in Christ’s body. This isn’t the work of a cosmic child abuser. This is the work of the living God who loves his children and wants to free us to be the truly human beings he created us to be. No amount of human effort or trying harder is going to free us from our slavery to Sin. Only the power of God can do that. This is why we call it the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ.
But the gospel is more than just escaping God’s condemnation. We must remember that we are God’s image-bearers whom God created to run the world on God’s behalf, reflecting God’s goodness and glory out into the world and channeling creation’s praises back to its Creator. So God freed us to live accordingly, not to give us an eternal “get-out-of-jail-free” card so that we could continue indulging in our sinful and rebellious ways. This is the contrast St. Paul is talking about in the rest of the passage (v.5-11). When he warns that living according to the flesh produces death, St. Paul is not talking about our physical bodies being bad nor is he talking about a dualistic nature inside of us, an internal good-cop, bad-cop so to speak. That is a Neo-Platonic and gnostic notion. We must remember St. Paul was a Jew and all good Jews believed in the goodness of creation, bodies included, because God is our Creator and the Genesis narratives proclaim in no uncertain terms that all creation prior to the Fall was good and remained good, albeit corrupted, even after our first ancestors’ rebellion in the garden. Rather, what St. Paul is talking about here is who will be our master. Will we serve our fallen nature (the flesh) and the power of Sin or God (the Spirit)? When we set our minds on the flesh, when we trust in ourselves instead of God and act accordingly, we can expect God’s just condemnation. St. Paul speaks elsewhere of what living life according to the flesh looks like. He speaks of lives characterized by sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and others. St. Paul isn’t talking about one-off or occasional sins here nor is he attempting to offer a complete catalogue of behaviors and thinking that cater to our selfish and rebellious nature. Rather we should understand these things as manifestations of enslaved lives to the power of Sin. The apostle declares ominously that those who engage in lifestyles characterized by these kinds of behaviors will not be part of God’s world, either in this mortal life or the world to come, the new creation (Gal 5.19-21).
But serving our fallen nature (the flesh) is not always about committing egregious sins, and here is where it gets really interesting because we can pander to our rebellious desires in very subtle ways. When, for example, we proclaim Jesus is our Lord and Savior but steadfastly refuse to believe that God really has spared us from his condemnation by becoming human to die for us, we are setting our minds on the flesh by not trusting the promises of God contained in his gospel. We will likely follow a gospel of self-help, making sure, for example, that we read the Bible enough or pray enough or go to church enough or give enough to earn his love and forgiveness while simultaneously pursuing our own selfish interests and being very ugly people, hoping along the way that our good efforts are enough to persuade God to save us despite our ugliness. But as St. Paul has already explained in chapter 7, that ain’t gonna happen. We are incapable of pleasing God if left to our own devices. Don’t misunderstand. Praying, worshiping, giving, service to others, reading the Bible, and other pious activities are all good and necessary things for Christians to engage in, but we are never to engage in these activities with the false belief that doing them will compel God to love us and save us. As we have just seen, God has already demonstrated his love for us and taken care of all that is necessary for us to enjoy life with him in this world and the next.
We also see life lived according to the flesh illustrated in our OT lesson this morning in both Esau and Jacob. The former let his own temporary hunger control his behavior so that he disastrously forfeited his birthright, something from which he apparently never recovered, by giving it to his younger brother Jacob, who being the great deceiver he was, always tried to manipulate people and situations to gain God’s blessing. The beauty of both the old and new testaments is that despite this, God still redeemed Jacob because Jacob was to be the bearer of God’s covenant promises to Abraham, despite himself. God does likewise with us. Or consider the parable of the prodigal son. We see living according to the flesh in both the sons in the parable. While the prodigal’s sins are obvious, his older brother had a sense of self-righteousness that is death-dealing because his focus was on his behavior/power, not God’s. Contrast this mindset with the prodigal who humbly accepted his father’s forgiveness and found new life. So it is possible for us to live according to the flesh while pretending to be pious and spiritual. If you are one who thinks you have to follow the rules to earn God’s forgiveness, or that your right standing before God depends on you doing the right things instead of Christ’s sacrifice for you, you are unwittingly or otherwise living according to the flesh and living a lie, and you should have every reason to fear God’s just condemnation because of your refusal to trust God’s power to rescue you, relying instead on your own folly to get the job done.
Contrast this to living by the Spirit, who frees us to be truly human beings and God’s image-bearers (I see Father Bowser twitching with delight over the mention of the Holy Spirit). Notice carefully what St. Paul is telling us here. He is not telling us that those who have the Holy Spirit living in us will never sin. That won’t happen till after our mortal death (Rom 6.7). No, what St. Paul is telling us is that because we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection, we are given his Spirit who will live in us and transform us over a lifetime to become more and more like Christ. It is the power to live as fully human beings, imperfect and utterly messy as that may look at times, precisely because we are united with Christ in his death and resurrection at our baptism (cf. Rom 6.3-5). The presence of the Spirit allows Christ to dwell within us and unites us to him. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul put it like this: “My old self has been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ [who] lives in me. So I live in this earthly body by trusting in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Gal 2.20). That’s why those who don’t have the Spirit don’t have Christ. First and foremost, the Spirit reveals to us God’s great love for us so that despite all our feelings and fears to the contrary, we really do believe that we no longer have to fear God’s condemnation because our sins have already been dealt with once and for all on the cross. We live in an Über touchy-feely age and frankly we need to get over that and embrace the objective reality that we have been transferred from the dominion of death into the dominion of God’s Son, in whom we have redemption and the forgiveness of our sins (cf. Col 1.13-20). That same Son lives in us and helps heal and transform us into God’s restored image-bearers who think, speak, and act accordingly if we only let him. When we do, irrespective of how imperfect that might look in our lives, we really will experience peace because we trust God’s promises and great love for us. We no longer feel compelled to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps to escape God’s condemnation. We believe it to be true, despite everything in and around us trying to tell us otherwise. It would take a whole separate sermon to flesh out what these two contrasting lifestyles would look like in our lives, but mercifully I won’t pull a Deacon Wylie on you and keep you till suppertime (well, maybe he didn’t preach that long a couple of weeks ago, but I like my story better so I’m sticking with it).
So let me close with this. If you really believe what St. Paul is telling us here, my beloved, it will change you and free you to live your life courageously and boldly, without fear of God’s judgment, because you trust in the unfailing love and power of God, not your own power or delusions. The NT calls that having real peace. And God knows we need courageous and bold Christians to proclaim a better way of life—a life lived according to the reality of no condemnation because of the love of God made known in Jesus Christ—to the forces of godlessness and lawlessness that swirl around and within us. It will make you want to please God because you realize it’s no more than your humble response to a done deal God has accomplished unilaterally on your behalf. You’ve been freed from your slavery to Sin’s power and your sins have been dealt with forever. Here is the Good News in a nutshell. St. Paul speaks of the saving work of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit—three in one and one in three, all working together to rescue and heal you so that you are equipped to live as the truly human being you were created to be—reminding us that those who belong to Christ share in Christ’s power and destiny, which is new bodily life at the Resurrection of the dead (Romans 8.11). We did nothing nor can we ever do anything to deserve God’s great gift of life. We only have to accept the gift offered us and believe we are worthy in the God’s sight. God is loving and faithful to his word and God has the power to do the impossible. Embrace the gift along with the hope and promise, my beloved. Let it change you so that you live your life with new power, freedom, boldness, and joy in your Lord Jesus Christ. After all, he lives in you and is your hope of glory (Col 1.27). To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.
In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.