“Not By, But In”

Romans 8:1-11 (MSG)
South Presbyterian Church’s Fellowship of Faith – April 2, 2017
The Reverend Deborah Fae Swift

We have already heard parts of this in our Call to Worship and our Prayer of Confession, but let’s hear as one continuous reading these thoughts from Paul’s letter to the Romans, Chapter 8, Verses 1-11.

8 :1-2 With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

3-4 God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

5-8 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing.
And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

9-11 But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!

 

Okay. So I sat down to write my sermon yesterday as I usually do on Saturday mornings, and as I reread the scripture, here’s what stood out to me THIS time: But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him.

I just sat there for quite a while without moving … saying to myself, “HAS God taken up residence in my life?  Have I LET God take up residence in my life?  Do I INVITE God to take up residence in my life? Because there sure are a lot more times when I’m thinking about how *I* should handle things or what *I* want than stopping to think about GOD.”

And then, once I got myself off THAT verse, My mind went to: Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about.

Invisible but clearly present … I like that phrase.

I’ve had that sense before … usually when someone I’m close to has died. I’m aware of them TOTALLY with me. It doesn’t matter if they died in England like my dear friend, Norma, or if it was my parents … I’m aware of their Spirit checking IN with me and I remember saying to my parents’ Spirits in particular, “I’m glad that you’re here, just don’t scare me, and stay out of my bedroom.” 😊

But seriously … God is with us ALL the time … invisible and clearly present.

 

I did a little research on how this passage has been interpreted in the past.

In the 17th century … almost 350 years ago … there was a movement in religious history called the Nonconformist Movement. It started in England with the Act of Uniformity in 1662 after the restoration of the monarchy when people had to swear allegiance to the Church of England.

Not surprising – my roots – and YOUR as members of the Reformed Tradition – are found in the Nonconformist Movement. [i] And that’s a title that I claim proudly.

Well, one of the leading scholars of that day was a man by the name of Matthew Henry. He was a Nonconformist minister, born in Wales, but spending most of his life in England. Matthew Henry is well-known for a six-volume work he wrote, titled: Exposition of the Old and New Testaments. (He wrote that between 1708–10. Think about that … almost 70 years before our Declaration of Independence.) Sometimes it’s just called Henry’s Complete Commentary, and it provides an exhaustive verse by verse study of the Bible.[ii]

Reading over what he had to say about this “invisible presence” part, I was struck when he said: “By the Spirit the law of love is written upon the heart, and though the righteousness of the law is not fulfilled by us, yet, blessed be God, it is fulfilled in us.”[iii] Let me say that again … “By the SPIRIT … the law of LOVE is written upon our heart.  And though the righteousness of the law is not fulfilled BY us … yet, blessed be God … it IS fulfilled IN us.”

God’s righteousness – or “behavior that is morally justifiable or right” [iv] – is not something that we can CONTAIN withIN us, but it is something that we can fulfill by our very BEING in the world.  It is fulfilled IN us.

That’s pretty powerful to say … let alone, to live OUT … that God’s LAW – and by that we mean God’s WILL … God’s PLAN … God’s way of BEING … is not fulfilled BY us … it’s not fulfilled in anything that we can do or think or be … but it is fulfilled IN us. It just IS … it is within us to recognize and foster and cherish and share with others.

Now some of you are studying the Book of Acts in Bible Study and you may remember (or you may not have gotten there yet, I’m not sure) that Paul stayed for a while in Greece before returning to Jerusalem.  It’s generally agreed that he was staying in Corinth and he was probably THERE when he wrote this letter to the church in ROME.

We have to remember that Paul was a Hellenistic Jew – a Jewish man who grew up well-educated in both Greek and Jewish culture.[v] He had a background in the Pharisaic movement and all of those things were CENTRAL to his understanding of himSELF … let alone his FAITH. This is a man whose CONVERSION to believing in Jesus not only changed HIS life, but MILLIONS – no exaggeration – millions of people who came after him.

This letter to the Romans laid out for people in Rome Paul’s whole understanding of who God is and, more importantly, who JESUS is.

Well, one of the things that he was ADAMENT about is that we can do ALL things because through our baptism … through coming to claim Jesus as our CONNECTION to God … we are grafted ONTO him. Just like a branch that is grafted onto a TREE, we will start bearing the fruit of the parent (or the host) tree.

Now, SOME people get really hung up on who that Jesus IS to them … some churches even require that you use formulaic language like “Lord and Savior” in order to truly become part of Jesus. But I find that interesting because HE didn’t … JESUS didn’t.  To some he was a healer. To others, a teacher, a Rabbi.  To others he was a friend … or even a STRANGER whose encounters with people caused them to change their lives. So I don’t really think it’s important at ALL how we define our relationship WITH him – it’s just important that we HAVE a relationship with him.

And Paul is saying that we don’t have to DO anything more than have the relationship and live it out in our daily LIVES.

As Presbyterians, we believe that the groundwork for all of that happens in the sacrament of Baptism. (And let me just say, parenthetically, that if any of you have NOT been baptized … for any reason … you didn’t want to be … you didn’t agree with what you were being taught then about its meaning … anything … if you haven’t been baptized and you would LIKE to be baptized … talk to me. It’s one of my great privileges and honors as a minister to be able to do that for people.)

So back to Paul. He says, The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid … instead of [bringing] a deep healing … But with Jesus, he says that the DEEP healing can come simply by embracing what the Spirit is doing in us! It’s kind of like driving a car:  I don’t need to know how the engine WORKS in order to be able to get in, turn the ignition, and drive the car wherever I want to go. Right? Well … I don’t have to know HOW the deep healing happens … I just have to know that it DOES when I invite the Spirit inside me. Inviting the Spirit into us is like turning the ignition on in your car.

Then Paul goes on to say that: 5-8 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with MEASURING their own moral muscle but never get around to EXERCISING it in real life.

How true is THAT?  We ALL know people who spout righteous rhetoric and then are often hoisted up by their own petard, don’t we?  Religious leaders who SLAM people for some sin only to have it revealed later that they, TOO, did the same things. (No WONDER people see Christians as hypocrites!)  

Those who trust God’s action in them, says Paul, find that God’s Spirit is IN them—living and breathing God!  If we trust that God’s Spirit is in us, we will suddenly SEE how God’s Spirit is in us.

Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the OPPOSITE of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing.

I totally agree. Don’t you? Somebody who is self-obsessed is ignoring God. But then, frankly, I think Paul goes a little too far, and I disagree with his last sentence. He says, And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

I don’t know … I think that’s some of Paul’s culture and time … using GUILT to persuade people to believe all of this.

I think the bottom line is that life is so much BETTER when we invite God in. I don’t know that God’s feelings are really ever HURT by being ignored because God’s love is going to overcome that anyway. I don’t think we need to love God for GOD’s sake … I think we need to love God for OUR sake. Know what I mean?

Anyway … the beginning part of today’s reading sums it all up – Jesus changed EVERYTHING! He gives us a new way to be in relationship with God because we are grafted onto HIM and HE has an intimate, overlapping, all-encompassing relationship with God that we then become PART of.

Friends … BELIEVE the Good News of the story of Jesus’ life:  by inviting him into our thoughts and our everyday lives, his Spirit CHANGES us. We don’t have to BE the way we were before. We don’t have to have the WORRIES and the sufferings that we did before. We can … and DO … become new people with him. And that new person is less centered on our SELVES and more aware of God around us.

That’s who we are.

Sometimes people will say to me, “So-and-so can’t change. Does a leopard change its spots?” And if we’re talking about a leopard just living its leopard life with only its own SELF as a resource, then no … leopard’s DON’T change their spots.  But … if GOD is involved … God who created EVERYTHING … am I going to say that GOD couldn’t change a leopard’s spots?  Oh no. I’ll never bet against God. With God, ALL things are possible and even a leopard CAN change its spots.

As Christians, we are all in the BUSINESS of believing people can change.

And that’s why we come to this table … to remember and re-member the parts of ourselves that have gotten off-balance with God through our everyday lives.

We hear a lot of phrases in church like “new life” … “a new being altogether” … “baptized in the Spirit.”  And really what Paul invites us to know TODAY is that the Spirit is already here, INSIDE of us. What WE have to do is BELIEVE that and then get to KNOW it in a personal, intimate way …

Fortunately for us … Jesus is right there to help.

May God bless us on this journey of inner transformation.  Amen.

 

 

[i]  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nonconformist

[ii] “Matthew Henry Commentary on the Whole Bible” (6 volumes). Bible. Christianity. Retrieved 2007-10-11 through Wikipedia, “Matthew Henry” at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Matthew_Henry

[iii] http://www.ccel.org/ccel/henry/mhc6.Rom.ix.html

[iv] https://www.gotquestions.org/righteousness.html

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Epistle_to_the_Romans

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