I’ve been preaching from Paul’s letter to the Romans these past several weeks. In Romans Paul contrasts two paths – the way of death and the way of life, the way of the flesh and the way of the Spirit. That theme continues in Romans 8, where Paul begins with an important announcement: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” To live in union with Christ means being set free from the guilt we often carry with us in life. That guilt can include the things we’ve done, and the things we’ve left undone.
There’s another way of putting it – from now on, we don’t have to live with regrets. No more – I wish I’d done that; or, I wish I hadn’t done that. And we all have a treasure trove of regrets to let go. In fact, we’re seeing this play out right now as LeBron James returns to Cleveland. He has regrets about how he handled his move to Miami, and the owner, Dan Gilbert has regrets about what he said and wrote after LeBron left. But, they’ve talked it over, and it’s all water under the bridge. It’s time to move on to a new chapter. And so it is with us – from now on, as we embrace Jesus and live in the Spirit, we can experience God’s present and God’s future blessings.
As we’ve been walking through Romans, we’ve been encountering a number of terms that probably need definition.
First, Paul speaks of the flesh. When he uses this word, he’s not talking about our physical bodies. Instead he’s talking about a way of living that is focused on the self rather than on God. Or perhaps even closer to the truth, it is a life lived in fear of the self, which makes it difficult to love God and neighbor.
He also speaks of sin. It’s often said that sin is missing the mark. God sets standards, and when we don’t meet those standards, we sin. The problem is this easily leads to a harsh moralism. Instead of finding freedom, we end up piling guilt upon ourselves – or on top of others. Perhaps it is better to think of sin as a power present in our midst that disrupts and distorts our relationships with God and with our neighbors. It’s like that shingles virus we talked about last week, which has the tendency of popping up and getting us off kilter.
That leads us to the word Law. Paul actually talks about two kinds of law – one is the law of sin and death, and the other is the Torah, the revelation of God’s intentions for us. Paul affirms the goodness of the Torah. He can embrace the words of the Psalmist: “Your decrees are wonderful; therefore my soul keeps them. The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.” (Psalm 119:129-130). The Law is a light on our pathway, but the Law can also be a burden. And when that happens, we need the grace of God to lift us up so we can continue the journey. This gift of grace comes to us through the Holy Spirit who dwells within us as we are united with Christ in baptism (Romans 6:1-11).
These are all theological terms. They’re good terms to know. But what do they mean in the real world. Pastor Karen Chakoian points us to the principles of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. For AA there are two choices one can make – death or life. While there are twelve steps to that program, three of them fit our conversation. The first step of AA, and any twelve step program, is to acknowledge that you are powerless when it comes to alcohol or any other addiction. You can’t change until you recognize this fact. The second step is to put your trust in a power greater than yourself. By recognizing that you can’t overcome this addiction by yourself, you find a new a source of strength that allows you to let go of the thing that binds you. We do this by turning our lives and wills over to God, which is the third step. Chakoian then writes: “So it is for the Christian. Substitute the word ‘sin’ for ‘alcohol,’ and you have the crux of this passage.” [Chakoian, in Feasting on the Word: Year A: Pentecost and Season After Pentecost 1 (Propers 3-16), p. 235].
The promise is this – turn your life over to God and by the Spirit you will experience union with Christ, which brings the power to live a new life before God.
There is another way of looking at what Paul is doing. In presenting us with this choice between life and death, it would seem that choosing life would be the better choice. But that path looks rather narrow and difficult. It looks a bit like the road to Hana on Maui. It’s narrow and windy, but from what I’ve heard the destination is worth the trip. There is another bit of good news here – God has promised to be our companion on this journey. So even if the pathway looks difficult, we’re not going it alone.
There is further good news here – the pathway that Paul lays out before us leads to eternal life. Whenever I’m called upon to officiate at a funeral or a memorial service, I am expected to offer words of comfort and consolation. People want to hear the promise of the resurrection. They want to take solace in the promise of eternal life. So, I often turn to John 14, where Jesus speaks of the many mansions that God is making available for God’s people. What Jesus means by this metaphor is that there is room for all of us in God’s inn!
None of us knows what lies beyond the grave. Scripture doesn’t tell us very much, which leaves much to the imagination.
Just the other day, I had a conversation about this very topic with a member of the congregation. We were talking about some of the recent books that tell stories about people dying, going to heaven, and returning to life. Maybe you’ve read one of them. It seems, from the reports, that everyone who has this experience encounters a bright light. Some of them run into family. Others run into Jesus. They’re usually told by Jesus or a deceased family member – but not Peter – that their time has not yet come. They have work to do, and so they have to go back. These books are comforting to some, and not so comforting to others. I can report that both of us are a bit skeptical about these stories. And yet, their popularity suggests that even in a scientific age, people want to believe that death is not final. While I’m skeptical about whether people go to heaven and return to life, there is one thing I do find compelling. With a great number of these stories, there comes the report that their lives have been changed dramatically. Many people who have had this experience, see it as a second chance in life. It is for them, a day of new beginnings.
While I do believe that there is something on the other side of death, I also believe that the message of eternal life begins in this life. Jesus speaks of the kingdom of God being near at hand. We may not experience it in its fulness, but the seeds have been planted – or perhaps better – they’ve been scattered across the land (Matthew 13:1-9).
Probably the best way to understand what Paul is doing here in Romans 8, is to think in eschatological terms. We need to look forward into the future. There, on the horizon, what we now see only partially revealed, is what we call eternal life.
Theologian Kathryn Tanner, who teaches at the University of Chicago Divinity School, offers this definition that I think is helpful to understanding the meaning of eternal life. She writes:
Eternal life is not the endless extension of present existence into an endless future, but a matter of a new quality of life in God, at the ready, even now infiltrating, seeping into the whole. Eternal life is less a matter of duration than a matter of the mode of one’s existence in relation to God, as that caliber of relations shows itself in a new pattern for the whole of life. (Kathryn Tanner, Jesus Humanity and the Trinity, p. 111).
Eternal life is infiltrating and seeping into the whole. With time, it reclaims our lives for God. It empowers us to share in the work of God. We no longer face condemnation, because in Christ we have been transformed.
Yes, this is the good news that Paul has been sharing since he introduced baptism in Romans 6. We have already crossed the threshold. Eternal life has already begun. It’s infiltrating our present reality. It is creating in us the opportunity to love God and love our neighbors. The question is – will we embrace it?
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
July 13, 2014
5th Sunday after Pentecost