Remote controlled vehicles, whether cars, boats or even airplanes, make wonderful toys. So wonderful, in fact, that children sometimes argue and even fight over who will control them. There’s something about completely controlling something’s movements that can prove to be almost irresistible.
But you’ve ever watched two children grapple over the same “joystick” you’ve probably seen the kind of wild gyrations that the remotely controlled vehicle can make. It may switch from moving forward to backward, or from side to side within a split second. Or the dually controlled vehicle may careen around until it finally crashes into something.
Among this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s themes is that of control. After all, the apostle’s message there includes the word “controlled” three times in most English translations of Romans 8. “The mind controlled by the Spirit,” says Paul in verse 6, “is life and peace.” He goes on to say, “Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God” (8). “You are controlled not by the sinful nature,” the apostle continues in verse 9, “but by the Spirit.”
Of course, the Scriptures’ original language never uses a Greek word for “control.” Verse 6 literally means the “mind of the Spirit” (phronema tou pneumatos). In verse 8 Paul literally speaks about “those now in flesh” (hoi de en sarki). The apostle then goes on in verse 9 to mention how Christians are “not in flesh” (ouk esti in sarki).
The New Testament scholar L. Ann Jervis says that Romans 8:6-11 shows that “Paul is convinced that because of Christ’s life, death and resurrection a new reality is available for humankind”. Jesus Christ, in other words, gave humanity an unprecedented opportunity.
Yet Paul says that what the Spirit graciously makes possible for all of humanity is already a reality for Jesus’ friends. It’s not just that our sinfulness and sin longer condemn us to eternal death (1). It’s also that the Spirit empowers God’s adopted sons and daughters to live in ways that lead to life and peace.
“The mind” (phronema) clearly plays a central role in that. But preachers may want to spend some time exploring what Paul means here by “the mind.” He doesn’t seem to primarily refer to an intellectual exercise, as if people can somehow think our way to holiness. Phronema seems to, instead, refer to more of a mindset.
Yet modern translations like the NIV and NRSV are wise to suggest that that worldview is in some ways dictated by some great power. Certainly that’s true for the mind of “the Spirit.” Human beings are, after all, naturally sinful. Our inclination is to allow sin, Satan and death to control the ways we act, speak and even think.
That tendency expresses itself in our determination to be our own bosses. We want to control every part of ourselves, as well as who and what surrounds us. Human beings naturally want to be moral “free agents” who get to choose for ourselves (and, sometimes, others) how we will act, talk and even think. We don’t want to surrender that control to any person or thing, much less any divine being.
With that in mind, preachers can explore what Paul says about what a sinful mindset looks like. It is, he says in verse 6, the way of “death” (thanatos). The Greek word can refer to either physical or spiritual death. So Paul may not just be grieving how a life controlled by the power of sin is a deadly, death-dealing life. He may also be lamenting how it leads to the spiritual death that is separation from God and God’s loving purposes and plans.
What’s more, the apostle adds in verse 7, the mind controlled by sin is “hostile to God” (echra eis Theon). It does not “submit to God” (Theou ouch hypotassetai) because it “can’t” (oude dynatai). People whose sinful nature controls, Paul goes on the lament in verse 8, quite simply “cannot please God” (Theo aresai ou dynatai).
People whose ways sin and its allies, Satan and death, dictate are in complete opposition to God and God’s ways. While we don’t naturally want to align ourselves with God, Paul strongly suggests that we aren’t even capable of aligning with God – at least not without substantial help.
Even a cursory scan of the media reveals a terrible problem with and among humanity. As I write this, Ukrainians are just emerging from bomb shelters after enduring another day of Russian brutality. Authorities are struggling to understand why an elderly man slaughtered and injured Jehovah’s Witnesses in Germany. Our church’s Food Pantry recently served nearly 3,000 of our neighbors who are hungry in one of the most materially wealthy counties in the most materially wealthy country in the world.
So what in the world is wrong with us? In this Lenten season as Jesus’ friends continue to follow Jesus toward Jerusalem, the cross and empty tomb, Paul would answer it’s not just tyrants, thugs and greedy people. It’s not, in other words, just others.
What’s wrong is each one of us. The Spirit has graciously freed Jesus’ friends to live in ways that honor God and bless our neighbors. Yet even Christians easily and sometimes eagerly lead deadly lives that are hostile to God and those whom God carefully creates in God’s image.
This Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson invites God’s dearly beloved to a cruciform life. The Spirit has, after all, freed us to live a life that’s controlled by the Spirit. A life that Paul says in verse 6 is “life and peace” (zoe kai eirene). It’s a life that not only leads to Life, but also promotes life in others and, in fact, in God’s whole creation. The life dictated by the Spirit is a life that’s not just at peace with God, but also leads us toward peace with our neighbors.
That Spirit, insists the apostle in verse 9, “lives in” (oikei en) God’s dearly beloved people. Much like the Word who was Jesus Christ graciously made his dwelling among us, God’s Spirit makes God’s dwelling among us.
Preachers might want to spend some time exploring the absolute wonder of that assertion. Paul insists that God himself makes God’s home among God’s people. The God who is present to the whole creation lives within God’s people, both individually and corporately.
It’s striking that while English translations capitalize the “S” in the “Spirit of God” (10), Paul uses the exact same word (pneuma) to refer to human’s spirits. While that’s at least a bit mysterious, it suggests that the Holy Spirit somehow entwines the Spirit’s self with that part of us that the apostle calls our “spirit.” The Holy Spirit enlivens our spirit.
But, Paul continues in verse 11, the same Spirit also works in our bodies. The Spirit who lives in us is the same Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead. Someday soon that same Spirit will raise Jesus’ friends’ bodies from death to life. Very soon, in other words, death will no longer have control over God’s adopted sons and daughters’ bodies any more than it now has control over our spirit.
Mary* was the victim of almost unspeakable childhood abuse. Her (ostensibly Christian) father, brothers, and a man for whose family members she babysat already sexually abused her. Their ways with her were marked by death, hostility to God and obstinate refusal to submit to God’s law. Those men scarred her physically, emotionally and spiritually. Their abuse of Mary distorted her mind and view of the world.
God, however, graciously asserted God’s control over Mary, her mind and view of the world. God produced physical, emotional and spiritual health in her. Her whole person bore deep scars for the rest of her life. Yet God so graciously filled Mary’s life that she found peace not just with God, but also, in varying degrees with the men who’d so horrifically abused her.
*Not her real name
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, March 26, 2023
Romans 8:6-11 Commentary