Friday, 8 July 2011

3rd Sunday after Trinity: Who are you? What do you want?

Romans 8:1-11
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 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, 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. 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. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 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, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

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. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.

Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
That same day Jesus went out of the house and sat beside the lake. Such great crowds gathered around him that he got into a boat and sat there, while the whole crowd stood on the beach. And he told them many things in parables, saying: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seeds fell on the path, and the birds came and ate them up. Other seeds fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, and they sprang up quickly, since they had no depth of soil. But when the sun rose, they were scorched; and since they had no root, they withered away. Other seeds fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain, some a hundredfold, some sixty, some thirty. Let anyone with ears listen!’

‘Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises on account of the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.’

I have heard people declare that Romans 8 is not just one of the pinnacles of scripture, but that it is the best chapter that St. Paul ever wrote. Well I’m not sure about that, but I think it’s certainly one of the most difficult ones to understand, which is why I’ve wrestled with it for several days this week while trying to figure out how to unpack it.

I think of it as a little like one of those suitcases that someone else has packed for you. They had to get everything in, but then they had to really force the lid down in order to lock it, but that leaves you with a problem. When you open it there is a real risk that your clothes are going to be launched, cartoon-style, all over the room.

I cannot hope to do justice to the entire passage in one sermon, but maybe I can at least open the suitcase enough to take a few clothes out for us to wear, without creating too much mess! So with that in mind, let’s have a look at this first section of the chapter.

It’s only a few weeks since we celebrated Pentecost Sunday, the day when the Lord sent the Holy Spirit to dwell within his people. However on the ground at least twenty five years have passed between that event recorded by Luke and the time St. Paul wrote to the church in Rome. That’s enough time for people to begin to think about what this spiritual life means.

The result of that comes in this chapter in the letter, a chapter that mentions pneuma, the word for Spirit, twenty one times, which is more than one finds in 1 Corinthians 14, the chapter that is most normally associated with the things of the Holy Spirit. However it is not as clear cut as that. This is not a chapter about Holy Spirit theology. Instead St. Paul is writing about the effect of the presence of the Holy Spirit.

What he sets out before us is actually quite disturbing. Now you will often hear me talking about how our Christian walk is one of shades of grey. Some commandments we are better at keeping than others, but for most of us there are always at least a couple of aspects to our lives that we struggle with; things that we know are wrong yet seem powerless to deal with.

But here St. Paul seems to offer us a very black and white distinction. We either live our lives according to the Spirit or according to the flesh; there is no middle way. He seems to be saying that we either live spiritual lives or we obey our own desires for what we want.

What are we to make of that? You see I don’t know about you but at first reading that makes me think that I must be walking according to the flesh because I know how often I give in to temptation, and if you’re honest you will know exactly what I mean. If we read it like that then this passage will be quite condemnatory.

So let me first set your minds at rest. This quote comes from the end of the immediately preceding chapter in Romans:
For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it.
For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me...
Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin.

Basically St. Paul is saying that his experience of the Christian life is just like ours. He knows what is right but keeps doing what is wrong. But if that’s what he says he finds in his own life, what then does he mean when he talks about living according to the flesh or living according to the Spirit? It’s clearly deeper than a behavioural matter, but what exactly does he mean?

I think our first clues comes in this verse:
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. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.

The key word in there is ‘mind’. What is our mind set on? What does it feel like to have our minds set on the things of the flesh, or to have it set on the things of the Spirit? The reason I ask this is because I’m fairly sure that some of us will be struggling with guilt and self-condemnation because we’re sure that we’ve got our minds set on the flesh. So let’s think a little about what this means.

Those of us who are married or who have long term partners may be worried that the desire we feel for our other halves means that we have our minds set on the flesh, so let me reassure you first that this is not the case. Physical desire in the context of a covenant relationship such as marriage is a gift from God.

It’s meant to be there because it is all about the couple, and indeed those who have been together for many years may well have discovered the spiritual side to their physical relationship. Strangely, something that we may think of as being of the flesh is actually of the Spirit. But it can be of the flesh too. Those who go looking for sex as a primary means of self-fulfilment have got it the wrong way around, and they have their minds set on the things of the flesh.

In other words, in the context of our physical, sexual relationships, the act is the same but the meaning behind it is different. In the context of relationship it can be of the Spirit, but if it is about getting what ‘I’ want, then it is about the ways of the flesh.

A similar thing applies when we start focussing on ambition: it can be of the flesh or of the Spirit. For example, over the years I have seen two types of ‘climbers’ within the priesthood. There are those who recognise, in all humility, that God has given them gifts which will enable them to take on senior leadership roles. They have, with their servant hearts, allowed themselves to go forward and apply for senior roles. That is the way of the Spirit.

I have also seen those who have needed recognition for their own selves. They have also gone forward for senior roles, but that is to set the mind on the ways of the flesh. Are you beginning to see, therefore, that it is not what we do, but how we approach what we do?

To set the mind on the flesh is to set the mind on personal wants for the greater good of me. To set the mind on the Spirit is to aim for what is for the greater good. That may mean prayerfully, cautiously, permitting oneself to be in a senior position because, in all humility, you know you are the right person for the job. But if, then, you see someone else’s job, and you covet their responsibility and their public visibility that is a sure fire way of knowing that your mind is set on the things of the flesh.

When we are considering our life journey the question we should be asking over every decision is, ‘Is this purely because I want it, I need it, or can I lay it aside?’ Ambition and desire can be the ways of the Spirit in those who are spiritually self-aware. But they can also be our undoing.

I remember watching a sci-fi series many years ago called Babylon 5. It had a deeply spiritual side to it and I’ve never forgotten the episode in which the two characters who were being called to lead a number of species through a crisis were put through an almost desert like experience where they were asked if they could lay down their leadership and die, trusting that there may be someone else who was better qualified to lead the people.

It was only when they reached that point that they became qualified to lead. It was, in effect, a very Christlike thing to do. Jesus’s quality of leadership came by the way he was willing to lay down his life because that was what was asked of him.

That series, I believe, distilled this question of the ways of the flesh and the ways of the Spirit down to two questions: ‘Who are you?’ and ‘What do you want?’ Which one of those questions are you continually asking yourself? ‘Who are you?’ is to set your mind on the way of the Spirit. ‘What do you want?’ is to set your mind on the way of the flesh.

But now let me finish with some good news. St. Paul began the chapter with these words: ‘There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.’

We’re going to sin, all of us. We’re going to get things wrong. You probably already have before you got here. But if we’re on a spiritual path in Christ Jesus, then listen again to that opening phrase, ‘There is no condemnation’. There is no condemnation. There is no condemnation.

I recently read an article by someone who imagined what kind of response a church may get if they hung a banner outside the church with just those two words, ‘No Condemnation’. If you walked past that, wouldn’t you be interested? Trouble is, that’s not the message most people hear from the church. Instead they think we say, ‘Don’t do this, don’t do that, don’t do the other - yes definitely don’t do the other.’ Why? ‘Because Jesus loves you.’

But here, this is the good news. There is no condemnation if we have our minds set on the things of the Spirit and are in Christ Jesus. And if you’re not sure what your mind is set on, ask yourself, ‘What is my primary question? Is it, “Who are you?” or is it, “What do you want?”’ Knowing the answer to that will help you decide what your mind is set on, and if you don’t like the answer, you can always change your mind. Amen

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