Sermon Commentary for Sunday, May 15, 2016
Romans 8:14-17 Commentary
“She’s a free spirit” we sometimes say of a certain person. “He exudes a spirit of kindness” we might say of someone else. Or “She has a fiercely independent spirit about her.” And what we mean in every situation is that most people “breathe” or exude a certain ambiance, a certain energy or vibe or . . . or, well, we’re actually just not sure what to call it or how to identify it and so “spirit” sometimes is the word we reach for.
For its Pentecost Epistle reading the Common Lectionary has carved out four verses from the landmark chapter of Romans 8, the first of which (in many translations at least) starts right in the middle of a sentence. It just makes more sense to at least go back to verse 12 to make a sensible Scripture reading out of this (perhaps the Lectionary wanted to avoid all that sin-talk in verses 12-13—not sure). But the upshot of these verses for Pentecost are clear enough: when it comes to Christian people, what kind of spirit do they exude? What’s it like to be around these folks? What rubs off from them onto others? What is your mood after spending time with these folks?
We know how this goes once you start to think about it. Your spouse goes and spends a couple of hours with a relative who is known to be a bit difficult. The spouse comes home and you ask “How’d it go?” only to hear the answer “I’m always so down when I get done visiting with him—he just breathes out so much negative energy.” Or, “I always feel like I need to detox or take a shower or something after being with her—everything she says comes out as a sneer and after a while you just can’t take it. It’s like after a while the room fills up with noxious vapors.”
Alternatively, spend some time with an upbeat, sunny-side-up sort of person and you might say “I just feel younger after being with her! Or “She has a certain spirit, a kind of je ne sais quoi I can’t explain but that just gives me a lift!”
So what is it like to be around Christians? What spirit—or Spirit—do they exude? What’s it like to be with them? Better framed: what is it SUPPOSED to be like to be around believers?
Well, let’s admit that in history Christians have often been lampooned as sour, dour killjoy types who are most decidedly no fun to be around. What’s the old acerbic joke: I’d like to go to heaven for the climate but to hell for the company. Ouch. Or there is the old barb against Puritan types about whom it is said that their #1 worry at any given moment is that somewhere in the world, someone is having fun.
These are huge broadsides and significant caricatures. And yet . . . maybe we all do this ourselves sometimes and we certainly can think of some fellow Christians who fit this bill. There are a lot of Christians who seem, frankly, to evince a spirit of fear and anxiety. Over against the advances of science, over against a sinful world (whose sinfulness often seems utterly surprising to some Christians, even to those with some of the deeper theologies of Total Depravity), over against most anything that seems “new,” Christians often appear to be threatened, edgy, and flat out afraid.
Some are actually afraid of their own salvation. Some of the more extreme wings of the Calvinist Reformed movement have many churchgoing, Bible-believing adherents who refuse to take the Lord’s Supper, so convinced are they that their sinfulness means they cannot help but “eat and drink judgment unto themselves.” Sing “Jesus Loves Me This I Know”? Well, best not do that because HOW can you KNOW? And it goes without saying that when there is this level of spiritual uncertainty and fear AMONG fellow members of the same church, their views of those outside that fellowship and in any church that seems even mildly different or more liberal than they are downright dim.
I won’t say which denominations this is about but I know of two deeply conservative denominations that traffic heavily in doom-and-gloom talk that fosters a radical uncertainty about one’s spiritual status at any given moment. But one is a little more hopeful than the other and so the joke is told “What is the difference between Denomination A and Denomination B? Well, Denomination A believes you are going to hell if you are not part of their church whereas Denomination B believes you are going to hell for not being part of their church AND that they are going with you.”
“But you did not receive a Spirit that makes you a slave again unto fear” the Apostle Paul writes in verse 15. Instead the Holy Spirit poured out on Pentecost—among so many other things—assures us that we are now in the divine Family. We are sons, we are daughters, we are the children of God. We get the whole inheritance along with Jesus the Son—we are co-heirs, joint inheritors of the whole kingdom of God.
Those who know how to cry “Abba, Father” and know that this cry is welcome by the God of Heaven must also know that they are free from anxiety, free from fear, free from feeling that threats to our status with God are around every corner. As children of God, we breathe the Spirit of joy, of hope. Christians should radiate with a positive energy. We should be fun to be around! We should make people feel young again.
When Jesus was on this earth, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that he was “the life of the party” wherever he went. He was quite literally the life of the party at a certain wedding in a place called Cana when he provided what was needed to let the celebration go on in full swing. He was invited to so many dinner parties and was sought out by so many of the very ‘sinners’ that the religious establishment had written off that you simply sense that he was an attractive social presence, that he, too, breathed a Spirit that was a lot different from what it was like to hang out with the average Pharisee. As Philip Yancey wrote in The Jesus I Never Knew, “[Jesus] would accept almost anybody’s invitation to dinner, and as a result no public figure had a more diverse list of friends, ranging from rich people, Roman centurions, and Pharisees to tax collectors, prostitutes, and leprosy victims. People liked being with Jesus; where he was, joy was” (p. 89).
Maybe that was because Jesus was the pioneer of possessing this Spirit of God that set him free from fear and set him free FOR joy and a certain joie de vivre that was contagious. And as such Jesus is the pace car for all who were to follow him, especially after Pentecost and the Spirit’s drenching the rest of us with his goodness and with the assurance that the God of Heaven is indeed our very Abba, our Father.
Yes, yes, we Christians need to be serious about sin. We need to point out sin’s corrosive effects on human relationships, on the environment, on culture. We are not supposed to just radiate joy and smile all the live-long day when faced with the horrors of human sex trafficking or when witnessing a neighbor beat the living daylights out of a spouse or a child. Sin and evil are real and they are raw and they need confronting. These situations need Jesus, they need the Gospel. All true.
Still, at the end of the day—even when confronting what is wrong with this world—do we convey a Spirit of confidence that God in Christ has overcome the world and can offer hope in these dire situations or are we only judgmental as we present a God who is more interested in whacking what is evil than saving all he can? Do we show that we know how wonderful it is to be related to God as our Abba in ways others will find attractive and want to have in their own lives or are we those dour, sour prudes caricatured by some—the kinds of people the average person would just as soon not spend an afternoon with (much less be a fellow member of a church with)?
Romans 8 begins with the world-changing, exuberant declaration that there is now NO condemnation for those who dwell in Christ. And that’s not some message from the outside coming in if we are believers—we have that truth sealed right inside each one of us by the Holy Spirit. And THAT, then, is the Spirit we breathe and exude to all others.
Back in Kindergarten, maybe you did a craft in school as a Christmas present for your parents. Perhaps it was a papier mâché ornament for the Christmas tree. Years later maybe you took another look at that ornament: it’s not round by a long shot but kind of funky-shaped. There are clumps of glue here and there and several places where your paintbrush failed to make contact, leaving bare spots where you can still read the classified section of the newspaper you used. But when you handed your folks that trinket, their eyes shined. They took the gold and crystal Saks Fifth Avenue tree ornament that Aunt Louise had bought in New York City and stuck it on the back of the tree so that your ornament could be front and center. “Do you like it, Daddy?” you maybe asked. “Honey, it’s just perfect.”
When you are in your father’s love, that’s the kind of answer you always hear. “Do you love me, Father?” “Honey, you’re just perfect.” When you are God’s child, co-heirs with Christ; when the Spirit of freedom and love is inside you releasing you from all fear, this is how it always goes.
And that is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ.
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