July 16th, 2017
Psalm 86:11-15 Romans 8:1-10
I mentioned to those who attended Bible Study on Tuesday that we would revisit the verses we studied then from Paul’s letter to the church in Rome, again this morning. I didn’t mention, because I hadn’t known it at the time, that we would approach them from a different perspective or emphasis today. One thing we found on Tuesday, and we find again this morning, is that we keep returning to the verses we read from Chapter 7, last Sunday, and that is inescapable because it is Paul’s set up for the thrust of his letter.
Paul wrote this letter on his second visit to Corinth (which is in what is now southern Greece), during his third missionary journey, around the year 57. As the seat of the Empire, Rome was the center of the world; Christianity had spread rapidly and taken root in the Roman Peninsula –particularly in Rome. Like any metropolis, the early Roman followers of Christ lived in a time and place when rapid change was the only thing that was consistent. It was a multicultural city with people and religions from as far north into the lands which would one day become England, Germany and France, as far south as Egypt and Ethiopia, and east into the Greek cultures and further into Asia and Syria. Through all this, these early Christians were trying to make sense of their religion, especially as it was being shared with so many non-Jewish believers. Paul was writing to a congregation, or a fellowship of believers whom he had never met, (he had not yet visited Rome, and would not see it until as a prisoner, sometime in the early ‘60s). But he knows of these believers by word of mouth, and they of him by his reputation.
In the first half of the his letter, as we talked about last week, he writes to them, using himself as an example, of how difficult it is to follow your heart when everything else inside you is intent on taking you down paths which lead away from God. He assures them that they are not alone in their confusion, that we all have questions, doubts and worries about what God’s will is, if we will be able to fulfill it, how, and concern that we will fall short and fail in our attempts. He goes to such great lengths to make them understand that we all endure these struggles, because he knows that living in the culture of Rome, their battle to follow the teachings is even more difficult. His letter is an encouragement and reassurance to continue on the right path because God does for us what we cannot do ourselves. God sent us Jesus, he says to “justify” us, to make us right, not by what we do or what we do not do, but by trusting in Jesus. By trusting that God’s love for us, and the entire world, is evident in Jesus. He tells them (and us) that we will never succeed in being sin-free; our struggle to do the right thing will continue, and that we will be tormented by that feeling of falling short. I know it is a terribly in-apropos metaphor on a July morning, but it is like when your car is stuck in the snow, and your wheels are spinning, and you know that just a few more inches and you be free, but your wheels just keep spinning. You know where you need to be… but you just can’t will yourself to be free. You know what living free of sin looks like… but ‘willing’ it won’t make it happen, you are just incapable of living it.
But then Paul shifts gears dramatically and tells them, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus!” Paul’s writing can sometimes get bogged down in his words, words like ‘law’ and ‘right’ ‘death’ ‘flesh’ ‘sin’ and ‘justified,’ but here there is no confusion or equivocation; now there is no condemnation, ‘NO’ condemnation…
Is that a promise of something in our future, something we will work and strive toward? No, Paul couldn’t be more clear; this is ‘now’, right now. God loves us now, loves us enough to forgive when we doubt, when we spin our wheels trying to do right – but fail; loves us enough to restore us, loves us enough to embrace us as God’s children. Through all his words, Paul is explaining that, that is why Jesus – God’s son – came. Not to show us how we are to live so that we might earn God’s love; not to suffer for us so we do not have to. Not to stand in our place in some bizarre notion that someone must ‘pay the price’ so he’ll spare us and do it for us. And not so we will be eternally motivated by our guilt at the horrors he suffered, to be grateful.
Rev. Dr. David Lose put it this way; Paul is saying Jesus came to show us through his cross just how much God already loves us. And to show us through his resurrection that his love is more powerful than anything – more powerful than death, more powerful than our sin, more powerful than our confusion, and more powerful than even our sense of being condemned.
Paul’s letter is filled with “buts” – big “buts”; he makes statements and assertions which he consistently follows up with a caveat, an exception, a clarification, an ‘if’. He assures us ‘it is really difficult living the life we’re called to, and that we will experience doubts’ – but – clarifies that we shouldn’t feel we are alone in these feelings, that we all experience those doubts. He warns that ‘if we allow ourselves to be governed by sin, our fate is death’ – yet – offers the promise of hope, that if our lives are focused on ‘the Spirit we will live in Peace.’ He consoles us ‘We are drawn to, and fall to sin’ – but – assures us God loves us anyway.’ He galvanizes us, ‘There is therefore now no condemnation’ – but – attaches the crucial caveat “if”, if you are in Christ, if you know Jesus. He comforts us with the reassurance that, “You are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit – if, (and for Paul this is a critical if indeed) – the Spirit of God lives in you.”
There is however one more caveat, one more ‘but’ in this scripture; it is the implied ‘but’, the one exception, the one caveat, the one clarification Paul does not articulate, yet dances all around. Which is somewhat surprising since it is the most important ‘but’ or clarification of all…
And that is, that no matter how many times we hear that God loves us, no matter how many ways we are told that God forgives us, that God accepts us as we are, that we are embraced, that we are called God’s ‘beloved’, it just might be the hardest thing of all to accept. To look at the stuff we’ve done, the horrible and hurtful things we’ve thought and harbored in our mind and our hearts; the intentionally vile things that have come from our mouths; the truly poisonous wishes we’ve wished upon others; the contemptable things that we have done; even the doubts about God’s existence or Jesus’ divinity that have wandered the hallways of our thoughts… to acknowledge all of that – as well as that other thing, that thing you keep locked away so deeply inside your psyche because it is too terrible to allow out, and still be able to believe that God can forgive you and love you, might be the hardest thing to do!
How many times have you heard – or repeated “Jesus loves me”, yes “this I know,” but quietly thought, “Do I really-really believe that? Is that even possible?” If you’ve asked yourself that (or had those thoughts pervade your head) then you haven’t really let the implication of what a love that unquestioning is capable of, sink in? (But– Paul reminds you you’re not alone there).
And that is exactly the big unspoken ‘but’. In order to be able to receive and live in God’s Spirit we have to be able to accept God’s forgiveness, which does not to imply we excuse ourselves or deny our brokenness. To accept that God is able to forgive us, we have to be able to look at our failings, all of our failings, and to look ourselves in the mirror and acknowledge that we are responsible for them, yet have the faith to forgive ourselves because through Jesus, God has forgiven us, and sets us free of those things to live in the Spirit to which He calls us.
Yet there is still one more, big “but” you need to consider. But – what would it be like to truly live in God’s Spirit? How many broken relationships could be healed, how many troubled, sleepless nights might be avoided, how different would your life be? Don’t worry about those things from the past – they are in the past – there’s no going back and changing them now. But what about the future – your future? What could that future be if you can forgive yourself and accept God’s forgiveness?
— Amen ―