Sunday, July 20, 2008

Pain and Gain

Pain and Gain

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Sixteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time: July 20, 2008
Romans 8:12-30

All this flesh and spirit stuff that Paul writes about, what does it amount to for us really? “We’re not debtors to the flesh, we should not live according to the flesh, we should live by the Spirit...” what does it all mean? If we are being advised to live by the Spirit, how do we go about doing that? Starting at breakfast tomorrow morning, how will my life look different if I choose to live by the Spirit instead of by the flesh? Will I choose Cheerios over Raisin Bran? A bagel over eggs and bacon? Will I walk to work instead of driving?

What are the decisions lying before me that are the more spiritual choices about my life, and how have I been failing to see them so that I could find myself trapped into a life lived, as Paul says, “according to the flesh”? I am struck by the observation in my own life that decisions appear more ambiguous than that, and I don’t think I am alone. Every life choice does not appear to boil down to “flesh or spirit.” We eat, we bathe, we sleep, we awaken, we love our families and friends, we play, we work. Is there hidden in all these daily activities the secret of choosing Spirit over flesh? How many times per day? A dozen? A hundred? A thousand?

I read once that a man who committed suicide in New York left behind a note which said, “I’m not really needed, nobody gives a hang for me. I’m just a peanut at Yankee Stadium. I’ll step on myself once and for all.”1 Is this the comment of a person who lived life according to the flesh? Is the question of our personal value a spiritual question which this man saw only in the flesh?

If we dare to ask who we are and what our life’s value is, we will find some brightly lit markers in the New Testament. To the Roman believers Paul says, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.” To the congregation of Thessalonians he said, “You are all children of light.”2 Writing to Galatian Christians he declared, “because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts.”3 Of the Corinthians he inquired, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple?”4 Peanuts on the ground at Yankee Stadium? Hardly. Indeed, we are, if Paul is to be believed, children of God, children of light, heirs of God, the very temple where God dwells.

Some say they have a difficult time believing in God. How much more difficult must it be to believe the New Testament’s estimate of us! Acknowledging the dark side of human nature is a cinch. We see its evidence all the time, just watch a single evening of news.

Playwright Tennessee Williams once said of the human condition, “We all live in a house on fire, no fire department to call, no way out, just the upstairs window to look out of while the fire burns the house down with us trapped, locked in it.” Albert Einstein declared, “It is easier to denature plutonium than to denature the evil spirit of man.” Oscar Wilde’s take on human nature was this: “It is absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious.” Karl Kraus, critic of early 20th century German culture as it moved toward World War I, wrote, “The devil is an optimist if he thinks he can make people meaner.”

Clearly, Paul disagrees with these dour statements, claiming for humanity a God-granted nobility which is not always readily apparent. While Paul calls us by elevated names, there is no shortage of witnesses to the dark side of human nature. One writer said it’s as if we are three-storied kinds of creatures. We live on the first floor, but there is a higher floor that beckons us to be more than we are, to be, as the psalmist said, “a little lower than the angels.”5 That is the side, perhaps, for which Paul makes his appeal. But there is also a basement level where we can actually stoop below ourselves, find ourselves in sin, rebellion, disobedience, estrangement, like the man who thought he was as low as a peanut in Yankee Stadium.

So Paul writes of living according to the flesh — I take that to be the basement level — and living according to the Spirit — which I take to be life on the upper floor. Most of us find ourselves living most of the time here on the first floor, with the doorway to the basement standing open, its musty odors finding their way up the steps into our living room. The stairway to the upper floor beckons us to a higher place that we know is there because we have been there from time to time. Yet here we are, stuck on the first floor, neither fully spiritual, nor fully demonic, just living life as best we can in between pure Spirit and pure flesh. How can we find our way to the spiritually fuller life that Paul describes?

Unfortunately for those of us who were hoping that access to that upper floor would be pain free, Paul describes the spiritual life in terms that include the possibility for the sort of worldly suffering which Christ knew. Not that we all will be crucified or persecuted for our faith, but that some things we have believed to be of overriding importance will have to be set aside if we are to attain and remain on the upper floor; and setting them aside is painful not only for us, but often for those around us who do not or will not see the sense in it.

We are not the first generation of believers to wonder these things about Paul’s words concerning flesh and Spirit. One of the wisest of the early church leaders, a man named Origen, wrote,

“Putting to death the deeds of the body works like this: Love is a fruit of the Spirit, but hate is an act of the flesh. Therefore hate is put to death and extinguished by love. Likewise, joy is a fruit of the Spirit, but sadness is of this world, and because it brings death it is a work of the flesh. Therefore it is extinguished if the joy of the Spirit dwells in us. Peace is a fruit of the Spirit, but dissension or discord is an act of the flesh; however, it is certain that discord can be eliminated by peace. Likewise the patience of the Spirit overcomes the impatience of the flesh, goodness wipes out evil, meekness does away with ferocity, continence with intemperance, chastity with license and so on.”6

Yes we all find ourselves living mainly on the first floor, with occasional trips to the basement as well as the upper story. But, unlike the cynics whose words were quoted early in this sermon, Jesus knew that the basement was not all there is to us, knew we were not all to be remembered by the worst moments of our lives but by the best. He knew what it was to be spat upon, to be crushed with the burden of his own cross, to see his meager garments divided up among his tormentors, all because of betrayal and denial and the reptilian actions of people responding according to the work of the flesh. But he also knew that within each person — even among his tormentors for whom he prayed forgiveness — there was something which could be related to God, that within the heart of every human being there is a place for an angel to be made. Wordsworth once wrote in his own elevated way,

There’s not a man
That lives, who hath not known
his godlike hours.

There was something in the prodigal son, something in the Christ-denying Peter, in the tax collecting Zachaeus, something in them which attracted Jesus to them. Within each, where the world might have seen only sin and shortcoming, Jesus saw potential for a love-driven relationship with God.

Paul wants nothing much more than to remind the Romans — and us — who we really are: people who can let the flesh follow rather than lead our lives, people who are so precious in the sight of God that the apostle can call us God’s children, even God’s heirs, as though we are placed on an equal footing with Jesus himself by his own gracious action. And we are. And we are.

copyright 2008 © Robert J. Elder, Pastor

1 Myron J. Taylor in Pulpit Digest, May/June 1995, p. 49 ff.
2 I Thessalonians 5:5.
3 Galatians 4:6.
4 I Corinthians 3:16.
5 Psalm 8:5.
6 Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, Gerald Bray, ed., Vol. 6, InterVarsity Press, p. 214-215.