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Romans 7:25b – 8:1-11
July 12, 2020
Last week we celebrated the 4th of July, which is all about the American ideal of freedom – well that, and apparently terrorizing and traumatizing pets with illegal fireworks.
One of the biggest services of the year at the church I attended before I went to seminary was the Fourth of July, because they particularly celebrated the freedom from our bondage to shame, addiction, resentments and regrets.
Whatever form it manifests as, the bondage of sin is what holds us down and limits our life.
I remember our minister, Dr. Peggy, using a particularly graphic image, “Don’t drag the corpse of a mistaken past into your future.”
It was an image I needed as I was visualizing a new, healthy life.
Last week, we dipped our toes into Romans chapter 7 which Paul concludes by saying (Romans 7:25b) I want to serve God with all my heart and mind, but am pulled by the influence of sin to do something totally different.
This is the Paul that people love to hate.
Back in seminary I remember some people ranting that the Gospel is all about God’s love, but Paul is sin, guilt and condemnation.
Unfortunately, that is how Paul has often been used, for example, to shovel shame on people for their sexuality.
But people’s objections arise from misunderstanding both of the context of those phrases like “the way of the flesh”, the actual meaning of “sin”, and fuller context of where Paul takes these concepts.
I always like to remind ourselves that sin means broken relationship with God, our community or our true self.
Immoral behaviors, shame, injustice and such that people normally call sin are just manifestations of those disconnections.
As we saw last week in Romans 7, it is human nature to rebel against God’s desire for us to live in peace and cooperation.
We’ve all learned that good intentions and willpower alone are incapable of overcoming this hard reality.
Rather, Paul says, we are ground zero of a spiritual battle played-out in every individual alive.
Paul concluded that this human impulse to rebel against connection with God is so strong and persistent that it can feel like a living presence within us – like it’s taken the steering wheel of our life.
He writes, (Romans 7:20) Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.
Also, let me clarify that phrases Paul uses like “the way of the flesh” today might be translated as “human perspective” or “human point of view” – which is what The Message translation does.
The way of the flesh leads to a diminished life.
Paul constructs such a tight, persuasive argument in the opening chapters of Romans that it can feel like there’s no way out of this conundrum.
But, then in chapter 8 Paul practically bursts into songs of hope.
Because through Jesus, God has stepped into the mix, and with that we are not as doomed as it had appeared.
Romans 8:1-3 Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit who gives life has set you free from the law of sin and death.
Back in about 2 BC – that would two years before Coronavirus – I was toying with the idea of hanging a banner on Balboa and Superior that just says “No Condemnation Sunday”.
Then I was imagining a woman who grew up in the Valley … I imagined her as Crystal.
In my imagination, as Crystal drives by our church a couple times a day, she might start to wonder what that banner means.
You see, when she was in her evangelical church’s youth group, she was taught that following Jesus was all about purity.
That meant pure thoughts, no sex before marriage, no affairs, no divorce … and she’s failed on all counts.
On top of that is her shame for not finishing college, not visiting her ailing mother as often as she should, and a secret habit that she can’t shake.
Even though she’d long since abandoned church, from all she’d heard the pulpits were still preaching a load of condemnation – and she already carried enough shame.
Then an imaginary Friday turns into hell day of condemnation for Crystal.
She begins her day by stepping on her bathroom scales, instantly shamed by her weight gain.
At the office, her red-faced boss chews her out for some accounting mistake, and that evening her teenage daughter slams the door as she screams that she hates her and is going to live with dad – followed by a late-night call from her ex saying that she’s a lousy parent.
So, her mind drifts to that banner and wonders.
“No Condemnation Sunday”
What might that mean?
Well, first, let me tell you what that does not mean.
What it does not mean is that if you say a little prayer that you believe in Jesus that everything is ok … that with a rote prayer your sins are gone, you’re going to live a pure life, and you’re good to go for Heaven.
What Paul wrote is there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
Metaphorically, Paul is saying when we move into a new Christ-filled ecosystem, away from a world broken by sin, our old hurts, habits and hang-ups lose their power.
Moving into a world where we are reconnecting with God, a faith community, and our true self gives breathing room for the Holy Spirit to go about its healing, transformative work within us.
Far from being all about guilt and damnation, Paul’s letter to the Romans is all about liberation.
Paul shows how liberation comes through reconciliation with God so that now Christ, and not sin, is the master.
Anyway, imaginary Crystal has had a tough couple of days, so she throws caution to the wind and parks her car near our “No Condemnation Sunday” banner to see what it’s all about.
During the service she’s invited to join others in writing down one thing in particular that she regrets … maybe something she’s done that has plagued her through the years, or something that’s been done to her, or something that’s kept her angry or bitter.
There’s a trash can up front where she can throw that old hurt away and be done with it … or, if she’d rather, she can put it into the recycling bin so that she can continue brooding, blaming and berating.
She shares in a prayer of forgiveness and gets a little taste of liberation from her past when the preacher says, you’re not condemned, you are free … so what now?
The pastor then reads a scripture to the congregation, Romans 8:10 It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself?
That’s when she’s handed a second slip of paper that says, “Now that I have set you free, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”
She shivers with a moment of anticipation about what life might hold for her as she learns this new way of being where she not only lives free of condemnation but is now filled with potential and promise as the Holy Spirit begins to lay down its first little roots in her heart.
People often stop with Paul’s message of (Romans 3:23) We’ve all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.
They complain that we need a little good news in our life, not more finger pointing.
But what they miss is that Paul is sharing a powerful message of liberation – the power of the Holy Spirit to bring new life to what was dead.
Romans 8:11 When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!
In recent months, we’ve had to sit on the sidelines helplessly watching the surge of COVID-19 cases kill over 134,000 Americans with no end in sight;
on the sidelines as our leaders spin crazy conspiracy theories and tout ridiculous snake oil cures;
on the sidelines while people refuse the decency of wearing a face covering;
on the sidelines, stunned and hurt at how some of our friends have joined with thinly veiled racism in response to the growing voice of Black America.
Feeling helpless on the sidelines, our anxiety grows and our patience thins.
Anxiety, impatience and fear are breeding grounds for “the way of the flesh”, as Paul puts it … the breeding grounds where we can lose our way, give in to anger, surrender to discouragement and disconnect from God.
Max Lucado tells the story of a team of demons sitting in Satan’s conference room listening to the frustrations of a colleague who was not able to claim an unshakable saint.
“No matter what I do,” he complains, “he won’t turn his back on God.”
“Take his purity … that always works for me,” one suggested.
“I tried, but he’s too moral.”
“Take his health,” another chimed in.
“I did, but he refused to complain,” replied the demon shaking his head.
“Take his belongings,” suggested another.
“Are you kidding? I’ve stripped him of everything and yet he still praises God.”
For a few moments there was silence, and then came the cold, measured voice of Satan himself from the back of the room.
“In a case like this it is not enough to take his purity, health or possessions. You must take from him what matters most.”
Satan stood and pointed his bony fingers at his frustrated underling, “You must take his prayer.”
The Coronavirus, isolation at home, staying at home in a tense relationship, political turmoil, Facebook rage … they all conspire to distance you from God.
Prayer gives you space, prayer lays down connective pathways to God, and when you’re frustrated – prayer reminds you of what matters and what’s true.
Prayer keeps you close and secure to the presence of Christ.