Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 2, 2017
Romans 8:6-11 Commentary
Romans 8: is there a better loved, more soaring passage in the New Testament than this one? There is much here to linger over, savor, celebrate. The Lectionary carves out only six verses but the truth is, Romans 8:1-17 form such a logical—and also lyric—unit that I would suggest reading all 17 verses, and indeed, this sermon commentary will take in all of these verses, including the lovely “Abba, Father” ending to this unit.
A hallmark of Pauline theology is the breathtaking claim that by virtue of having the Spirit of God in our hearts, we have been spiritually relocated. We now live “in Christ.” Seldom in history has such a short, two-word prepositional phrase packed such a wallop. Romans 8 tells us right off the bat that now there is “no condemnation” for us. With God’s Spirit within us, we are liberated, set free, righteous in the sight of God. Our entire mindset is directed toward God. Our spirits are alive and victorious. We do not lead fearful lives but bold and free lives in which we can call God our Father even as we celebrate our status as children of God. Paul cannot say enough as to what this change of status means.
Yet everything in Romans 8 depends on that central idea that we now are “in Christ.” This is a change of cosmic position and status so grand, and so mind-boggling, that you surely can understand why some think that it should be as plain to see as the nose on someone’s face.
Think of it this way: picture in your mind’s eye some ball park loaded with people to watch a baseball game. You scan the crowd and see there the full array of typical humanity: you see white people and black people, Hispanic people and Asian people, skinny people and fat people and every gradation of body mass in between. You see young, middle-aged, and older folks. Just by looking at all these thousands of fans in the stands, you can maybe tell a lot about any given person. But the one thing you will not determine just by looking at them is also the single-most important fact of them all: namely, which of them are living “in Christ” and which of them are not.
You cannot detect this status just by looking at somebody. Yet we claim it is the most important fact of all. So what does it mean to be “in Christ”? It’s a curious concept when you think about it. You almost never hear such talk in other areas of life. For instance, no matter who is President in the United States at any given moment, that person would love to be compared to Abraham Lincoln, generally regarded as the best President ever. But the most you would expect any politician to say in such a regard is that he or she tries to emulate President Lincoln, tries to embody the same principles that undergirded our Civil War leader. It’s one thing to say that you would want to be like Lincoln but it would be oddly startling if you claimed to be “in Lincoln.”
Or think of it this way: what meaning would you ascribe to a Muslim who claimed to be “in Mohammed” or a Jew who went around saying she was “in Abraham”? We Christians throw around the phrase “in Christ” very casually, as though its meaning were self-evident. But even as we would ask someone to explain just how in the world he could be “in Abraham,” so we should be able to come up with something in answer to the question of what it means to be “in Christ.”
There are several options. “In Christ” could be a way of identifying with the ideals of Jesus. We all have our role models in life. Most of us find figures in history, or in this present day, with whom we like to identify ourselves and whose core principles we hope to imitate in our own lives. So a president of this nation may hope to find inspiration and direction in the examples of past leaders like Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. A CEO may want to identify with and learn from someone like Bill Gates or Max DuPree so as to be a better executive him- or herself. Even someone like Mahatma Gandhi said that he took much inspiration from the words of Jesus in the gospels and found the symbol of the cross to be utterly moving. Conversely, I have learned a lot from Gandhi and find in his life’s example an inspiring kind of role model. But I would no sooner claim that I am “in Gandhi” than Gandhi would have wanted to say he was “in Christ.” So there must be something more radical about being “in Christ” than merely drawing inspiration from Jesus’ example.
A second option would be to say that being “in Christ” is perhaps a way of indicating where you have placed your hopes. If a person says that a good deal of his money is “in stocks,” that can be a way of letting you know where his financial future is located. If before a battle a military commander tells his troops, “All my confidence is in you,” he is conveying what he sees as the source of his hope for victory. So also perhaps when we say the words “in Christ,” maybe we are sort of indicating where our hearts are, where we have invested our hope and our confidence. But this option doesn’t seem right, either. After all, Paul does not say that we have placed something like our hearts, our love, or our fondest wishes “in Christ,” but rather we ourselves are completely “in Christ.”
So being “in Christ” means more than just taking inspiration from Jesus or using him as some kind of an historically interesting role model. And being “in Christ” means more than just indicating the place where you’ve made your emotional and spiritual investments in life. So what does it mean? Taking a cue from Lewis Smedes, perhaps it means to live in the new cosmic situation that Jesus brought about through his death and resurrection.
Really to understand what it means to be “in Christ” requires first that you believe Jesus made a difference in some utterly real, cosmic sense. You have to believe that what Jesus did in his death and resurrection turned this universe around, caused reality to turn the corner from darkness into light. Because of Jesus, the balance of power shifted in the universe such that the devil has ever since been losing ground and God has ever since been drawing all things back to himself. We are not talking about the realm of ideas here but the realm of concrete reality, of the ways things simply are.
What we must believe as Christians is that the work of Jesus has resulted in a true change in the cosmic situation–a change every bit as dramatic as the chasing out of a dictator or the toppling of a regime in some nation here on earth and every bit as concrete as what can be seen when a new boss takes over a corporation and instantly institutes a whole series of new policies that generate better working conditions for the employees. The work of Jesus had just such a real effect in the universe.
So to be “in Christ” means consciously living within the new situation that Jesus brought about. It means knowing that the powers of darkness are in retreat, that the devil has been chased out, and that your life has changed as a result. You are under new management. There is now a power active within you that makes you alive, free, and joyful. The whole situation has changed and so there are possibilities open to you that were not there before. You can choose to do right things instead of being stuck in a dismal pattern of ever and only opting for what you know is wrong.
The cosmic situation has changed for the better. For now it takes faith to see the changes that have been made by Jesus. We are still “between the times,” to invoke a traditional theological phrase. We are in “the already and the not yet.” That is why the daily newspaper still contains as much bad news as good news. For the same reason this is why we also struggle with sin yet. But if we really are “in Christ,” then those sins do not define us, do not cause us to give up on ourselves.
And if it seems strange to affirm that the Holy Spirit lives inside people who still sin, that really should not seem quite so odd after all. What you or I experience in our daily lives is really no more than a micro-example of what happens globally all the time: this world belongs to God, he holds it firmly in pierced hands, and because Easter is true, the balance of power has shifted decisively in the direction of God. But still people manage to perpetrate evil deeds. The world is God’s even though it doesn’t always look like it.
Yet that very nuanced way of putting it, this “both/and” perspective of “the already and the not yet,” of being “in Christ” and yet still struggling with sin, represents precisely those shades of gray many people would just as soon live without. If only life were more clear-cut, if only we could tell precisely who’s who just by seeing some outward mark. But we dare not be impatient with God’s way of doing things. We live by faith and it’s enough.
We patiently listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit who testifies with our spirits that we really are children of God (as verse 16 puts it). We have to believe that if we are children of God, then we will inherit what was promised to us. We have to believe that for now, although our sins have not yet become ever and only a thing of the past, that grace really is powerful enough to wipe them out every time.
Of course, living in this new situation is not like some extended vacation at a luxury resort. We are not to put our feet up, chill out, and just revel in being safely ensconced inside the new cosmic situation brought on by Jesus. No, being in Christ energizes us and equips us for service, for displaying the lifestyle and grace and goodness of this new situation in how we behave. But this is not some grim obligation placed on us—it is instead pure joy! As Paul puts in verse 11, the Spirit of God has given LIFE to our mortal bodies in the here and now already. That new life needs to show up. And by grace and in Christ, it most assuredly does!
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 Lois 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.” In Christ it will always be so.
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