Sermon Commentary for Sunday, July 16, 2017

Romans 8:1-11 Commentary

When a passage is as landmark a one as Romans 8, it is no surprise to see it pop up in the Revised Common Lectionary more than once.  About half of this Ordinary Time lection was covered during Lent not long ago.  In that sermon reflection I focused on what it means to live “in Christ” and you can click here to read that.

For this particular Sunday, I will focus on a different aspect of Romans 8.  Because what is striking about these verses—particularly following the agony expressed in Romans 7 where our human inability to save ourselves through moral living is highlighted in excruciating detail—is how sharply Paul now turns the corner as we head into this new chapter.  These verses ring out with exultations about how there is now no condemnation, how there is in the place of such grim condemnation now wide vistas of freedom and joy.  There’s a whole lot of jubilation happening here!

Paul clearly states that after baptism, we as believers are re-located in a whole different realm and spiritual “place.”  The Spirit is in charge in this new land we inhabit and not the flesh, not death, not anything remotely gloomy.  Long gone are our struggles with a sin we are powerless to overcome.  Banished from our hearts and minds is the fear that comes from wondering if you are doing enough to please God, to curry his saving favor.

All in all, you would think that if we Christians took all this seriously and leaned into this Spirit-filled new realm of freedom and joy we’d be a pleasant lot of folks, the kinds of people others (even those outside the church) would love to hang out with, see, be around.

So why are all of us Christians sometimes—and altogether too many believers a lot of the time—often seen as prudes, as moralistic finger-waggers, as scolding folks who condemn and picket and shout out angry judgments in the public square?  Why have some people outside the church long since concluded that if they needed help or wanted reassurance, a church is the last place to which they would turn in an hour of need?

What’s more, ecclesiastically speaking, I am a first or second cousin to a couple of denominational traditions that are so tightly wrapped in fear and a loathing of anything other than straight-laced, buttoned-up piety that they doubt their own salvation half the time (and are exceptionally sure they know exactly what will happen to anyone who deviates from their narrow prescriptions for orthodoxy and behavior so much as a millimeter).  Indeed, I know of some believers who are so convinced that they cannot be sure they would not be eating and drinking judgment unto themselves that they refuse to partake of the Lord’s Supper—sin is so deeply entrenched, you can never be certain you are holy enough to take the sacrament.  Fear of making a mistake means you’re better off playing it safe and just skip the sacrament altogether.

There is just a whole lot of fear in these folks.  I won’t name names but I know of two church communions in this vein.  As a friend of mine grimly joked a while back, what is the difference between the very strict Denomination X and the hyper, super-duper strict Denomination Y?  Well, the folks in X are sure all of us outside their tradition are going to hell whereas the folks in Y believe that AND that they will be going to hell with us.

It goes without saying that when you can only condemn even what might be the virtues of the Fruit of the Spirit in your own life, the various vices of the wider world garner ever and only the fiercest critique and condemnation.  If there is still quite possibly plenty of condemnation for those who hope they are in Christ Jesus, there is no grace and no wideness in God’s mercy for the unregenerate out there in the rest of society.

But do we Christians seem to be breathing the Spirit of Romans 8 when we assess ourselves so grimly much less scowl at the wider world that so needs to know about the love of Jesus?  Indeed, if WE don’t believe in what Paul says about our status in Romans 8, how can we expect anyone else to think they’d have a chance to experience the freedom, confidence, and joy Paul talks about even if they did think about becoming a believer, getting baptized, etc.?

Now, let’s just admit that if it’s possible to be too serious about what our sinfulness may mean, it is also possible (and historically has happened) that you can swing too far the other way.  Indeed, Paul dealt with a version of this equal but opposite extreme two chapters earlier when in Romans 6 he counteracted the thinking of those who took all this freedom and grace and turned it into an excuse to sin more.  So let’s not take all this glorious talk about freedom and joy and confidence and use it to downplay the idea that there should be clear distinctions between believers and unbelievers, the church and the world.  There should be.  There must be.

But the question persists: what animates our lives as Christians?  What lights up our hearts and minds every day as we live “in Christ”?  What kind of vision do we want the rest of the world to catch when they glimpse into the lives we lead, the way we celebrate together as believers in the fellowship of the church?

Paul is pretty clear on how all this should go and we should be too.  And maybe if we were, Christians would be less about condemning (themselves and others) and more about celebrating a great freedom and a profound release from fear.  Yes, let’s take sin and evil seriously and point out what makes for life and what leads to death in this still-broken, keenly hurting world of ours.  But let’s do it from a position of joy and confidence, not from a well of lingering fear and grim suspicions about how God will deal with even his own alleged followers much less others.

Illustration Idea

It isn’t a Christian movie and it is not about a character who seems to have much religion of any kind.  Still, there is something so striking about the end of the movie American Beauty when the lead character—his voice coming from beyond the grave as it turned out—expresses a kind of gratitude for life that almost makes his heart burst like a balloon with too much air in it.  Seems to me that sums up what Christians who know the love of Christ Jesus their Lord should feel at all times.  Here is a piece that talks about this film.

I think it gives us much to ponder.


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