The Spirit of Life
Scripture - Romans 8:1-11
This is the good news! Our Scripture is sheer gospel. So now – because of everything Paul has written in this letter, including what we looked at last week, how doing the ‘right thing’ was a struggle for Paul as much as it is for us – there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The Law, the Torah, which condemned those like Adam, who coveted what was not theirs, does not condemn those in Christ. The conscience, which condemned those Gentiles who fell into idolatry, does not condemn those in Christ. Those in Christ do not live under the Law of Moses or the law written in our own hearts: we live under a different reality – the reality of God’s own Spirit.
The Common English Bible has chosen to use a capital letter in Spirit each time it appears in our text. That seems an appropriate acknowledgement of the fact that for Paul the Spirit is closely related to the living Christ, the Lord of the church & of all creation. While Paul does not develop any full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity, the Spirit is certainly God’s presence among the faithful.
To understand our reading, we need to remember than Paul believes that in Jesus Christ a great shift has taken place in human history & in the history of each believer. The old age of selfishness has passed away & the new age of the Spirit has come. At the very beginning of this letter, Paul writes that Christ was designated Son of God by the Spirit at his resurrection. In 1:4, he writes: [Jesus] was publicly identified as God’s Son with power through his resurrection from the dead, which was based on the Spirit of holiness. This Son is Jesus Christ our Lord. The Spirit is the gift of God in the new age brought about by Christ’s dying & rising again.
It may be that Paul has in mind the verse from Joel that is so central to the story of Pentecost in Acts 2: After that I will pour out my spirit upon everyone (2:28). Luke in Acts interprets after that somewhat differently: In the last days… I will pour out my spirit on all people (2:17). Certainly, for Paul the day of Jesus Christ is the last days, or more correctly, the first days of the new creation.
Paul wants to emphasize the shift from the old age to the new for several reasons. First, he wants to underline what he has been suggesting in the previous chapters. Christians no longer belong to the old age of sin & death but to the new law of obedience & life. We live with Christ, not with Adam, & we need to know who we are.
Second, Paul wants to remind the Romans that they do not live under the Law, the Torah. The Torah, for all its blessedness, was a blessing for the old age, not for the new. It has no place in the new age because it did not result in righteousness. In the old age, when people lived selfishly, they were disobedient, even though they had the Law. In the new age, people can be obedient because they have the Spirit. It is God’s Spirit that makes possible the obedience of faith. The obedience of faith is not our accomplishment. It is not our discovery of some new & better law. It is an entirely different way of living: living in the Spirit.
The third reason that it is so important for Paul that Christians now live in the Spirit is that the Spirit is God’s gift to all who have faith through Jesus Christ. The Law was a gift to the Jews, but God is not the God of the Jews only, so the Law cannot be God’s blessing for this new age where Jew & Gentile worship together.
Paul’s fourth reason is that the Spirit is a gift not only because it opens a right relationship to God through our faithful obedience but because it is the promise of eternal life. The Spirit provides obedient life now & life with God for eternity. The Spirit gives us a taste of what eternal life will be. In the Spirit God dwells with us, as in eternity we shall dwell with God. In 1 Corinthians 13:12 Paul writes: Now I know partially, but then I will know completely in the same way that I have been completely known. The Holy Spirit is the gift by which we know God in part, & we know that we are already fully known. The Holy Spirit is God’s promise that one day we will also fully know.
Here, in Romans 8:1-11, Paul reminds the Roman Christians that they no longer walk in selfishness. It is easy for us to think that Paul is primarily concerned about what we call the ‘sins of the flesh’ – hurtful sexuality, habitual substance misuse, & gluttony. Paul would probably have something to say about each of these abuses, but a selfish life for him is primarily life in the old age. Selfishness is the life of bondage to sin. Selfishness is to belong to the old powers of sin, which keep us self-centered, obsessively worried about our own worthiness, or obsessively worried about proving that we do not need to live up to any standards. Selfishness is to belong to the old powers of the Law, which seemed to Paul to keep us running after something we would never achieve: our own righteousness. Selfishness is the life that brags about me: how good I am, or how free from ordinary principles, or how pious. Selfishness is life that worries about me: Am I getting enough? Am I giving enough? Am I pious enough?
But to be in the Spirit is to belong to God in Jesus Christ, who brings us into a right relationship with God as a free gift. To be in the Spirit is to be bound to the one master who gives us freedom.
Think about the parable of the prodigal son. Both brothers live lives of selfishness. The younger brother is in bondage to sin: “Let’s see how free I can be.” So, he takes his inheritance, goes to a foreign land, & wastes everything he has on selfish living. Only when he hits rock bottom does he come to his senses & return to his father. The older brother is in bondage to the Law: “Look how upright I am.” He works hard every day on the family farm, but grumbles about it. When he could show forgiveness & be reconciled to his brother, his true colors come out. He complains to his father: Look, I’ve served you all these years. Yet you’ve never given me as much as a young goat to celebrate with my friends. The father invites both sons to a new age of the Spirit, to join in that banquet where all of us are God’s children, recipients of good gifts we could not earn, & bound to one another because we all are offspring of the same loving parent.
Fred Craddock: “I’ve told some of my friends what a shocking thing it was to discover I had not really heard the story of the prodigal son when I preached those sermons about his coming from a far country, about them bringing the ring & the robe & killing the fatted calf. Then they bring the musicians, & there is a party, & there’s music & dancing, & all of that. I preached that sermon as though this was the wonderful, natural, easy, right thing to do.
“I had never thought about that party until a family up the street divorced & left 3 or 4 youngsters, all girls, one of them attractive, prematurely mature, & about 14 years old. She was truant at school, into marijuana, always in trouble, always up before the judge, chasing around & hanging on the tail end of every motorcycle that went roaring through the neighborhood. She finally was so truant & so involved in misdemeanors that the judge said, “You’re going to the reformed school in southern OK.” She was sent away to a detention home for girls. About the fourth or fifth month that she was there, she gave birth to the child she was carrying. She was 15 at the time.
“Word came to the neighborhood some months later that she was coming home. ‘Will she have that baby with her?’ ‘Is she really coming home, back to our neighborhood?’ The day we heard she was to come, all of us in the neighborhood had to mow our grass & watch the house. She did not show, nobody came, & we kept watching the house & mowing the grass. I was down to about a blade at a time, you know, watching the house, when a car pulled in the driveway. And out steps… ‘It’s Cathy. She has the baby. She brought home the baby.’ People in the house ran out & grabbed her & took turns holding that baby, & they were all laughing & joking, then they went in. Another car pulled in, then another car, & another car pulled in. They started parking on the street. You could not have gotten a Christian car down that street, just cars on either side, & they are all gathering there, you know. Suddenly I got disturbed & anxious & went in my house. It suddenly struck me, what if one them saw me out in the yard & said, “Hey Fred, Cathy’s home & she has the baby. We’re giving a party, & we’d like for you & your wife to come.”
“Well, I’ve got a lot of papers to grade & all.” Would I have gone? If you lived next door to the prodigal son’s father’s house, would you have gone over to the party? It’s easier to preach on the text than to go to the party.”
So, our Scripture is an invitation to us today to find our meaning not in the achievements that divide us from one another but in the grace that unites us. Barriers of denomination, doctrine, practice, & piety give way before the gift we all share: The Spirit God gives us through Jesus Christ our Lord.