Here it is: tomorrow's sermon.
The text is Romans 8:1-11
Funerals have been on my mind lately. We’ve done quite a few here lately; I think Eric must have set some kind of record in the last few months for doing funerals. And you know that it’s been a hard year for my family: it hasn’t been quite a year since my stepmother’s death and only about 4 months since my uncle and grandmother passed away. That’s a lot of funerals.
Death is an inevitable part of our lives. We can’t escape it. We add people to our prayer lists, knowing that in some cases, the healing we are praying for will come in death and resurrection. We deal with our own health, and that of our loved ones, fearing that sickness will lead to death. We love our pets, knowing that they will not be with us forever. We live, either in fear or in peace, knowing that we will all eventually die. But no time soon, I hope. And we struggle and worry and wonder as to how our death may come, how it might be avoided, what might follow.
Today’s Scripture reading deals with the profound and perennial issues of life and death. It’s a traditional reading at funerals, reminding us that even in death, we find eternal life with God through the power of the Holy Spirit and the saving work of Jesus Christ. Although death is a difficult subject for us to talk about, even a frightening one at times, it is a part of our lives, and dealing with death is a part of our faith. In today’s passage, the Apostle Paul deals with life and death and the Christian’s response to the challenges of everyday life. Paul wrote these words to the church at Rome, a church he didn’t start and one he had not even visited, as part of his long letter establishing who he was in the faith—his credentials, if you will—to pave the way for a visit he planned to make.
In typical Paul style, he uses a lot of loaded language and sort of legal terminology to support his argument. He uses words and phrases like “law of the Spirit of life” and “law of sin and death”, “according to the flesh” and “according to the Spirit”, “in the flesh” and “in the Spirit”. Paul had extensive training in rhetoric, or the art of winning someone to his side of an argument by logic and persuasion, and he set up this conversation in a pretty standard rhetorical style: by framing the argument as a simple dualism. There are two sides to Paul’s argument, and he wants us to see it as plainly as if it were simply black and white, so that we will come around to his way of thinking. He means to make the choice clear, to help us understand with no room for error which is the better way to live. He uses this black/white, flesh/spirit dualism to make multiple points here:
We cannot be united with God by the law alone, even though the law was given to Moses and the people of Israel to help them live together in community and grow closer to God. Their obedience to the law was not enough.
We cannot be united with God by anything we can do, no matter how good our intent or how good we are as people. Good works alone won’t do it, not even prayer and study can do it—for human beings to be in fellowship with God requires more than we have to offer.
Jesus came to work out our salvation because we can’t do it ourselves. Rather than rejecting us as unworthy of God’s love and attention, not able to hold up our side of the relationship, Jesus came to offer us the grace of being accepted, even though we are unacceptable.
God gave us the Spirit to help us be united with God even when Jesus was no longer physically with us. God’s love and care and grace didn’t stop at the crucifixion or even at the resurrection; instead God’s love continues, and so does God’s presence in the form of the Spirit in our lives everyday.
When we are in relationship with Jesus Christ, we receive the Spirit as a constant presence in our lives. The words for Spirit in the Bible, ruach in Hebrew and pneuma in Greek both also mean breath: with every breath we take, we know that God never leaves us alone; God is always with us.
With the Spirit, we will have assurance of our resurrection and unity with God. Our life with the Spirit is the sign to us that God’s promises remain true, that God’s presence is ever with us, that the grace and mercy extended to us in Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection are eternal.
The problem with Paul’s dualism is that it’s too simple for real life. It’s never really just black and white in our lives, is it? There always seem to be shades of gray that we live in and live through. Paul enumerates the curses of life in the flesh, sin and death, and holds them up against this Spirit Life—and anyone could see how obvious the choice is after reading Paul’s argument in this brief passage. But we live in real life, in those shades of gray, and our choices aren’t always so clear. We talk about being forced to choose the lesser of two evils when we we’re forced to make difficult choices. That’s a lot more gray than black and white. Paul’s black/white, Spirit/flesh dualism seems clear, but how does it apply to our own lives?
Now, before you decide I’m contradicting Paul, hear me out: even Paul knew that it was too simple. In Romans 7, before he started this argument, he admitted that he struggled to live the life of the Spirit that he advocated: “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Paul knew what it is to struggle with life and death, with black and white, with sin and resurrection, with flesh and Spirit. Even as he made this argument, he knew it was simplistic…but there’s truth in it, too, and that’s what Paul wants us to hear.
The real challenge Paul wants us to think about is what does it mean to live life in the Spirit? How does our life change when we have had an encounter with Jesus, when the Spirit lives in us? What does it mean to live with the experience of death and suffering if Jesus has conquered death? What does it mean to live in the “real world,” a world that seems to deny our faith in a good and just God?
On the one hand, Paul is telling us that we live by faith in the resurrection, so whatever we go through in this life can be tolerated because we know that in the end, we win. Paul’s statement, “for me to live is Christ, to die is gain,” in another of his letters rings true here. In this view, our lives are really about survival—getting through whatever life throws at us until our death and resurrection, and then the “real life” of eternity with God can begin. This is not particularly satisfying, though, and lends a little too easily to us saying that God puts obstacles into our lives to test our faith, which I don’t believe at all, and I don’t think is what Paul meant. That’s not a God-honoring Spirit life—instead it’s just marking time.
What we have as Christians is not only life in the hope and promise of resurrection, a long-distant (we hope), pie-in-the-sky reward that challenges us to tolerate whatever comes into our lives for the sake of winning the prize of eternal life. Instead, what we have is the promised life in the Spirit, a life that is not unaccompanied, not an endurance trial, not just an endless series of sufferings.
Paul wants us to hear that while sin may be all around us, while we may not escape sickness and trial and fear, the assurance we have is that God is with us. Life will happen. Suffering will happen. Death will happen. But we have the community of the church, our fellow believers, and the promise of God’s presence with us in all that we do through. The promise is not that we won’t go through it. It is that we won’t go through it alone. Life, suffering, and death do happen. So does the Spirit Life.
John Wesley, the founder of our United Methodist Church, struggled his entire life with a sense that he was sinful and unworthy, that God was distant and remote. Once during a stormy sea crossing, he watched in awe and amazement (and no small fear for his life) as a group of Moravians met the storm and peril with peace and rejoicing. When he asked them what gave them such strength and faith, they reminded him that living the life of the Christian meant the Spirit of God was with them. Like Paul, they did not fear death but saw it as a passage to eternal life with God, and so they could sing songs of praise even in the face of death.
Once back in England (and safe on solid ground), John Wesley again felt that he couldn’t sense God’s presence and love. Although he believed in God wholeheartedly, devoted his life to ministry and to serving others in God’s name, he often struggled with a sense that God was somehow aloof and that he himself might not be worthy of the promise God gives us through Paul, later in the letter to the Romans: that Christians become adopted into the family of God, becoming “joint heirs” with Jesus. One night in May, John Wesley heard a reading of Luther’s introduction to his commentary on Romans, and again found his heart warmed and his life changed by a sense of the presence of God. He found himself again able to live a life in the Spirit of God. It’s no accident that our Church’s symbol is the cross, paired with the flames of the Holy Spirit, to remind us that the Spirit life is ours when we know Christ.
At the end of his life, John Wesley had one last piece of wisdom to leave us. His life had not been easy. He had not always been received well by the people around him, nor had he always been kind and gentle to others. What he had done was to live his life the best way he knew how, in prayer and study and service to others, sharing a vision for a church that worshiped God both in the sanctuary and wherever the people are. He wasn’t perfect, but at the end of his life, his last words reflect the confidence that he had found in living life in the Spirit: “The best of all is, God is with us.”
This is the life in the Spirit Paul was trying to communicate to the Christians in Rome and to us: that whatever we go through (and we will go through some stuff), God is with us. The Holy Spirit, the gift of God’s presence, is ours, always. “The best of all is, God is with us.” One of the names given to the Messiah in Isaiah, Emmanuel, means simply that: God is with us.
It sounds simple, doesn’t it? Almost as simple as Paul’s black-white, flesh versus spirit dualism. God is always with us. But we know it’s not that easy; we know that sensing the Spirit’s presence with us comes hard, that we aren’t always—or even often—aware of God in our lives. This is where things get a little more complicated, because life is just complicated. It would be so much easier to convince people to know God, to meet Jesus, to live with the Spirit if we could tell them honestly what once they come to know God, everything would be easy, that there would be no more worries about money or aging parents or how to pay for college; that rising food prices wouldn’t affect your budget and your car would never break down and no one you loved would ever be critically ill again.
But life is not that simple. Many books have been written and many theologians have made their careers out of trying to understand why life can be so hard, where God is when things get tough, “why bad things happen to good people.” The reality is simply that they do. Being a Christian, living life with the Spirit, does not exempt us from pain and struggle. In fact, Jesus seemed to suggest, and Paul to confirm, that we might even have more struggles than other people. Our faith is not predicated on whether or not we have difficult seasons in our lives, but on our conviction and God’s promise that we do not go through them alone.
God is with us. Always, and in all things. In the hospital and in our living rooms. Here in this place. In our cars and workplaces and on our vacations. In everything we do and everything we go through, in our joy and in our sorrow, in our laughter and in our tears, we are never alone, never abandoned, never desolate, because God is always with us.
Let me put it another way. Ben recently had a conversation with a former 747 pilot about how those great big jets fly and land. His friend told him that the pilot of a 747 sits 10 feet behind the nose of the plane, and 10 feet in front of the front landing gear, and can’t see either the ground in front of him or the tips of the wings. When the plane is on the ground, taxiing to a gate or runway, this presents a particular challenge, as you can imagine. After all the other formal training a pilot undergoes, it takes a year’s apprenticeship, being watched by an experienced pilot, before one can become certified to fly and land one on one’s own. The pilot has to have faith in his instruments and his instincts before he can handle the plane properly; to paraphrase Paul again, he must believe where he can’t see in order to guide the airplane, and his hundreds of passengers, safely.
Part of our lives is about experience, it’s true. Experience is a great teacher. It’s from experience that we learn, for example, how not to brush against the curb when we’re turning out of a tight space. You can look at curbs all over town and see the tell-tale black smears and know that’s true. Experience teaches us how to ride a bicycle or a skateboard, the best way to cut our grass or fry a chicken. But an awful lot of our lives is also about faith: faith that the car will start when we turn the key. Faith that the check will come in the mail. Faith that when you come here, to church, you will be met by friendly and welcoming faces. And faith, indeed, that God is always with us, and that one day we, like John Wesley, might be able to say from experience that we have lived the Spirit Life, and “the best of all is, God is with us.”