What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Holy Spirit

Resurrection and the Spirit of Life…

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.



An Geadh-Glas…

Every week I meet with a group of guys to talk about the bible and pray for each other. This past week, we were talking about Acts 20. Specifically, the following verse, in which Paul is telling his friends from Ephesus why he will probably never see them again.

“And now, behold, I am going to Jerusalem, constrained by [or ‘bound in’] the Spirit, not knowing what will happen to me there, except that the Holy Spirit testifies to me in every city that imprisonment and afflictions await me.” Acts 20:22-23

What did it mean for Paul to be constrained by the Spirit? Did he hear God’s voice, from heaven, giving him an imperial command? Did he have an unrelenting urge within him to go to Jerusalem, which he could only explain as being God-given? What does it mean to “listen” to the Holy Spirit? How can we do likewise? And, what would our lives look like if we did? These were some of our questions.

A friend told me recently about an experience that he had while attending a bible study at his church. During the course of the study, he felt like he should ask a certain question–not simply that he wanted to, but that he should. As he explains it, though, he missed his opportunity to ask the question, and the leader of the group moved on to another topic. At the end of their time together, the leader did something uncharacteristic. He asked the group if anyone had anything else that they felt compelled to share. So my friend took the opportunity to ask his question, the group discussed it for a few minutes, and then they adjourned. Later, an older man in the group, who was still visibly grieving the death of his son, came up to my friend and thanked him profusely for the question that he asked. He said that the ensuing discussion was exactly what he needed to hear.

I believe the Spirit still speaks, moves and acts in our world, and in our daily lives–if (!) we let him. What grieves me, is that I used to be way more attentive to these sorts of leadings. There is something about “learning” and “knowing” about God, that can, if we are not careful, tame our experience of the very God we seek to know. Not that God is actually tamed- as CS Lewis reminds us, Aslan is “not a tame lion” (The Last Battle, 20). But rather, when we think we can figure out God, put him in a box so to speak, then we stop actually listening to him, and thereby we are tamed!

Celtic Christianity, from what I understand, has a great metaphor for the Holy Spirit: An Geadh-Glas… “the Wild Goose.” Geese are wild, unpredictable animals. Have you ever tried to run by a gaggle of geese  while they are taking care of their goslings? It can be a scary thing! The Holy Spirit, in the bible is described as a dove – an apt metaphor to convey a sense of the peace and beauty which the Spirit brings. But as John 3:8 reminds us, “the spirit (or wind) blows wherever it pleases.” It is unpredictable and wild!

There is ultimately a paradox involved here. The Holy Spirit is unpredictable and wild, yes. But, we mustn’t think that God, then, desires not to be known. On the contrary, God “wants all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). Only, God wants to be known on HIS terms, not ours. Perhaps we do not hear God’s Spirit speak because we still want to be God of our own lives. God does not waste words (cf. Isaiah 55:11) on those who refuse to listen. The irony is, that until we are willing to be tamed [constrained,bound] by the Spirit , we will live lives tamed by the world.

This has been on my mind a good bit these past few days. The Spirit is way beyond my comprehension. I cannot explain it (Him) to myself, let alone to other people. Some people make it seem as if they have the Holy Spirit figured out. They “have” the Spirit. When I compare myself with these folks I wonder whether I am not missing out on something. That is when I have to remind myself that, if I take the effects of sin seriously, any inkling that I have to know and love God, must come from God alone, through the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit is active in ways seen (yes) but also in so many ways unseen, in the heart.

For the past 4 weeks I have been teaching a class at church on the Apostle’s Creed. Because of the excitement of the new semester, I had not even started to prepare for this Sunday’s class until this morning. In fact, because I was just out-of-town, I had not even thought about it until today. Unsure of whether I would have enough time to prepare, and a bit preoccupied with all my recent thoughts, and questions, about the Holy Spirit, I sat down and tried to focus. That is, until I realized the topic for this Sunday’s class,

“I believe in the Holy Spirit”

Wild. Just like God.