Freedom in the Spirit - Lectionary Reflection for Pentecost 6A (Romans 8)
Romans 8:1-11 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 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. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. 10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 11 If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
The Second Reading for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost is something of a reprise of the reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent. That reading focused only on verses 6-11, so when we visited that reading we didn’t hear the opening word of the chapter, which pronounced a not guilty verdict on those who are in Christ Jesus. That is, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The slate has been wiped clean. This is good news. It suggests we get to start life anew. That is because, in Christ, the Spirit of life has set us free from the spirit of sin and death. But, we need to be careful with what we do with this pronouncement. It’s not a perpetual get of jail card that we can use to do as we please. That would involve giving free rein to our own worst instincts, which is something Paul or Jesus would want us to do.
When I wrote my reflection on Romans 8:6-11 for Lent, we were in the early stages of a pandemic that continues to this day. It appeared on March 24th. We knew that something big was happening, but we didn’t know what the future held. We hoped that we could be back to full strength for Easter Sunday. That was not to be, and as we pass the 4th of July weekend, cases are surging once again across the country. As we face this ongoing reality, what word might Paul have for us?
While Paul doesn’t directly address the pandemic, he does suggest that there is a path that leads to life and one that leads to death. We can think in spiritual terms only, but I think we might miss something if we only think in terms of the afterlife. It’s good to know that when we stand before the judgment seat of God we can turn in our not guilty card. But what about the life and death issues that face us each day during this pandemic? When I consider this question, I need to confess that I live a fairly sheltered life. I live in a suburban community that has a low number of cases and deaths. But the city of Detroit, which lies just ten miles to the south from my house, has been hit hard, with African Americans suffering the greatest numbers of cases and deaths.
As I ponder these realities, I wonder about the choices we face. Like I said, I can live my life fairly safely. I can control my interactions with the public, unlike my brother who works in a grocery store or the folks that work in hospitals, nursing homes, and other similar places of work. Then there all the first responders, who also put themselves in danger. They have fewer choices because their jobs are risky. But whatever situation we find ourselves, we can consider the choice between the Spirit of life and the spirit of death. Paul speaks of either having a mindset on the flesh or one set on the Spirit. The choice is ours. I think it’s interesting that the Common English Bible uses the word selfishness where the NRSV uses flesh. While I don’t want to press this too far, could we be indulging the flesh if we refuse to wear masks and keep our distance from one another? On the other hand, might we exhibit our connection to the Spirit of life when we wear masks as a sign of our love of neighbor? Again, I realize I’m reading something into the text, but there are times when we simply need to take every opportunity to address the challenges of our day.
Even as we come to terms with the pandemic, we are also facing the reality that our nation’s history has a very problematic underside that is rooted in white supremacy and racism, which is America’s original sin. So, I want to add into the mix here this word I encountered reading James Baldwin for the first time. In a letter to his nephew, Baldwin writes:
This innocent country set you down in a ghetto in which, in fact, it intended that you should perish. Let me spell out precisely what I mean by that, for the heart of the matter is here, and the root of my dispute with my country. You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society which spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity. [Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (p. 7). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.]
So, what might Paul have to say to us about the lingering legacy of slavery in the United States? How is it an expression of the law of sin and death, which we’ve been able to eradicate from our land? Paul does suggest that Jesus came into the world to deal sin and death a blow, by taking on sinful flesh. This is the good news. The bad news is that Christians, including me, find it difficult to live into that good news.
It should be noted, that when Paul speaks here of the Law, he doesn’t have the Torah in mind. He’s speaking more generally of the values that are expressions of the spirit of death. To be in Christ is to have broken free of that law, but we have take hold of that offer so that we might participate in Jesus’ act of taking on sinful flesh so that sin might be dealt its own death blow.
The call here is to live according to the Spirit, who brings life. Paul invites us to set our minds on the things of the Spirit and not the things of the flesh (and flesh he doesn’t mean the body, but the passions that lead us away from the things of God). So, what are we talking about here? We might think in terms of arrogance, narcissism, and similar passions. These are rooted in living our lives outside of a relationship with God. In fact, the flesh is hostile to God and the things of God. If we define God in terms of love, then it’s hostility to the love of God and others. So, getting back to the pandemic, might we think of wearing a mask as an act of love that reflects our relationship with the Living God. After all, we know that wearing a mask can deter the spread of the virus. So why do many people, including Christians vociferously object to wearing a mask? This includes preachers! Since this is true, it should not surprise us that churches that have flouted the rules have spread the virus. All this has been done in the name of “religious freedom,” though I think this is more about flesh (selfishness—CEB) than the Spirit. This is especially true since this can lead not only to spiritual death but physical death.
When it comes to freedom, there is a sense of limits. As we consider this message from Paul, to whom do we owe our allegiance? Who/what has dominion in our lives? The choice is ours. We can give our allegiance to the Spirit or the flesh. One way leads to life and the other to death. May live in the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead, and gives life to our mortal bodies. That is true freedom!
Resurrection of the Dead, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57310 [retrieved July 5, 2020]. Original source: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Plaque_resurrection_dead_VandA_M.104-1945.jpg.