Resurrection and the Spirit of Life…

by Travis Pickell

The following sermon was delivered at the Easter Sunrise Service (04/04/2010) at Woodside Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) in Yardley, PA.

Text: Romans 8:1-11

1Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, 2because through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death. 3For what the law was powerless to do in that it was weakened by the sinful nature, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful man to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in sinful man, 4in order that the righteous requirements of the law might be fully met in us, who do not live according to the sinful nature but according to the Spirit.

5Those who live according to the sinful nature have their minds set on what that nature desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires. 6The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; 7the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. 8Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.

9You, however, are controlled not by the sinful nature but by the Spirit, if the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. 10But if Christ is in you, your body is dead because of sin, yet your spirit is alive because of righteousness. 11And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.

He is risen! (He is risen, indeed!) Amen and Good Morning.

It is such an honor to be able to be with you all this Easter Sunday morning and to have the opportunity to proclaim the Word to you. As a young seminarian I admit that it can be a little bit daunting to stand in front of a group of people with the responsibility of “proclaiming God’s Word” – as if my paltry little words could measure up to so great a message. And yet, I’ve read the Book of Numbers and I am smart enough to know that if God was able to speak through Balaam’s donkey long ago then he may even be able to use me in some way to make his name known today. Besides, as my father-in-law reminded me last week when I was telling him about this sermon “If you can’t preach good news out of Romans 8…in a sermon about resurrection…on Easter morning…you may want to rethink this seminary thing and open up a Starbucks.”

Indeed, there may be no chapter in the entire Bible more majestic and hopeful than Romans 8. Paul begins, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” What more do we need to know? Amen…hallelujah…see you next Easter! This is the central message of Romans, and in a way, the entire New Testament: no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus. None. No matter who you are and what you’ve done there is forgiveness and freedom in Jesus Christ—not condemnation.

And yet, in a world in which “condemnation” is a four-letter-word, perhaps this news does not strike us, as it should. Maybe we think – “of course, if God is good, surely he wouldn’t be the type of God that would judge and condemn people.” According to Paul, however, this news is utterly shocking, world-changing, break out the champagne and celebrate, sort of news—and there is more to it than the absence of condemnation… it is really all about New Life, that is to say, Paul is talking about Resurrection.

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” One of the very first lessons that I learned about reading the Bible is that when you start to study a section of scripture and you see the word “therefore”—you had better check and see what the “therefore” is “there for.” Commentators virtually all agree that Paul here is drawing a conclusion from the entire previous seven chapters of Romans, and in this case it is relevant to know what those chapters say. You may be glad to know that I am not going to read those chapters to you this morning: that might turn this sunrise service into a sunset service. Instead allow me to sum them up in a couple of sentences.

Humanity is in rough shape. Despite having been created to be in a relationship with God, we—and I will use the word “we” here because I think that it applies to each and every person in some degree or another—we have a constant tendency to turn away from God and worship created things, be they idols, money, power, careers, popularity, or even religion.

Because of this, every single person, from the religious elite to the “desperate housewife,” from the beggar on the street to the C.E.O. in the penthouse needs God to save them from their own tendency to turn away from him—in a sense, to save them from themselves. And that is exactly what God has done: Romans 5 says “God shows his love for us in this: that while we were still sinners Christ died for us.” Because of this, we are enabled to live in “the newness of life.” And yet, even for the apostle Paul, life is characterized by an inner tension. The things we want to do, we struggle to do, and we are constantly doing what we know we shouldn’t be doing. Saint Augustine would later refer to this condition as an “intestine war”—a conflict deep inside between a divided will, wanting at one moment to love and serve God, at the next moment to turn to lesser things. And sometimes at the end of all our efforts, all we can do is lean upon God’s grace and say with Paul: “Wretched man that I am, who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”

Therefore!” – “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”  That is our starting point and our end point. But it is not the be all and end all…—for Paul goes on to tell us about the Spirit of Life that has “set us free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death” and it is to this Spirit of life that I now turn. What is this spirit of life? Or, better yet, who is this Spirit of life? Verse 11 tells us that the Spirit of life is the “Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead.” And here we have, for the first time in Romans 8, mention of the Resurrection—the most important event in human history and the reason why we are gathered together to celebrate this day.

As Christians, no matter what anybody else says, our faith does depend upon this one historical fact: the tomb is empty. The tomb is empty because Jesus confronted death head on, and death could not hold him. As we sung this morning, “Death cannot keep his prey, Jesus my savior, he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord.” And this all happened through the power of the Holy Spirit, “the Lord, the Giver of Life” through whom Jesus was able to live the perfect life and die the perfect death, and through whom the Father raised Jesus from the dead to everlasting life.

And it is this same Spirit, according to Paul, that lives in us and will give life to our mortal bodies. There are times in life when we cannot ignore the fact that we are mortal. Sarah and I recently traveled to Sun City West, Arizona. For those of you who are not familiar with Sun City West, all that you need to know is that it has a population of twenty five thousand all of whom are over 65 years old. The entire city is designed to accommodate the elderly. The roads are wide, the restaurants stop serving dinner at 7pm, and you are never more than a mile or two from a hospital. Sarah’s grandfather is 85 years old, and most of his friends down there have already passed away. When you are in Sun City West, mortality is never very far from your mind. But Sun City West is no grim place. The Church we attended was lively and joyful. The congregants may have been suffering through bodily decline and yet they knew that their hope was in the resurrected Christ, and that if the Spirit of God raised Christ from the dead, then that same Spirit would give life to their mortal bodies. The Spirit of Life had given them Resurrection Hope.

And not only that, but the Spirit of Life can give life to us today. Those parts of us that are dead, or feel dead, those desires that beat us down, those sins that are literally killing us—the Spirit of life is more powerful. “Death cannot keep his prey, Jesus my savior, he tore the bars away, Jesus my Lord.” And if the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in us—we can experience Resurrection even today. The Spirit of Life can resurrect dying marriages. We can experience resurrected relationships, and resurrected spiritual lives. If the Spirit that raised Christ from the dead lives in us, we can experience new life as a foretaste of the that final Resurrection, where “there will be no death, nor mourning nor crying anymore.” This is the hope that we lean into, that we proclaim, that we tell the world about. And we can trust in this hope because the Bible calls Jesus the down-payment – because the tomb is empty, we know that the Spirit of Life is more powerful than death and because of that, not only can we expect a final resurrection, but we practice resurrection today.