SERMON PREACHED BY THE REV’D SAMUEL L. WOOD AT THE CHURCH OF THE ADVENT,
SUNDAY, JULY 10, 2011, THE FOURTH SUNDAY AFTER PENTECOST

You may have noticed that we are in the middle of what an old rector of mine used to call the “Summer of Romans” – a series of Sundays in ordinary time of Year A when our NT readings come from Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Later today my family will start to pack for our annual trip down south to visit our families, but if, instead, we were packing to be shipwrecked on a desert island -- if I knew we weren’t coming back, and I knew I had to pack all my “desert island books” – I would put Genesis and Exodus in there, and the Psalms and John’s gospel and Revelation; but I would definitely throw in the Letter to the Romans.  It is one of the most majestic books in the bible.  The old lawyer in me likes the way Paul meticulously builds his argument, and the pastor in me likes how all the central messages of the bible, all the great truths of Christianity, are here in this one book.

Truth be told, I’d like to be able to preach for 2 months on Romans, but what we have today is a few minutes tp look at a portion of chapter 8, one of the best known and loved chapters in the whole bible.  And let’s look for two things in it:  First, the passive position of the Christian, and secondly the active obligation of the Christian.

First, the passive position of the ChristianYou are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you.  Any one who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.  But if Christ is in you, although your bodies are dead because of sin, your spirits are alive because of righteousness.  (8.9-10)  Who here has heard of something called “Barth’s Distinction”?  Apparently my theological hero, Karl Barth, first observed that there are two types of people in the world:  Those who divide people into two types, and those who don’t.  Paul was certainly one of the former, and his classic division here was people who are “in the flesh” vs. people who are “in the Spirit.”  To be “in the Spirit” means to have the Holy Spirit dwell in you – in short, it means to be a Christian – and there’s no middle position: you are either in the Spirit or you aren’t.  And a Christian becomes a Christian, is put in the position of being in the Spirit, not by anything she does but by the sheer grace of God.  It’s not active, it’s passive.

One thing that draws me to the Episcopal Church is our practice of infant baptism.  It is at baptism that a person, in this case a child, is indwelled with the Holy Spirit and becomes a Christian.  After I was made a priest the first person I baptized was Flannery, my little girl, and she was just a month old.  Now, not only didn’t she decide to become a Christian, not only hadn’t she done anything to earn the gift of the Spirit she was about to receive at her baptism, but just the contrary was true -- she already carried within her results of the Fall.  All kids do. An email I heard about this week:

A mother was preparing pancakes for her sons Kevin, 5, and Ryan, 3.  The boys began to argue over who would get the first pancake.  Their mother saw the opportunity for a moral lesson.  “If Jesus were sitting here,” she said, “he would say ‘Let my brother have the first pancake.  I can wait.’”  Kevin turned to his younger brother and said:  “Ryan . . . you be Jesus.” 

Kids show their cards early.  Selfishness and sinfulness are ingrained in Kevin, Ryan, in Flannery and in us.  Psalm 51 says:  Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.  There’s nothing we can do to make God love us, and nothing we can do to obligate him to put his Spirit in us (which is what being “in the Spirit” really means).  But the gospel says that’s done for us. 

The second thing we see, though, is not just the passive position of the Christian, but also the active obligation of the ChristianSo then, brethren, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh – for if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.  (8.12-13)  I say a lot:  “If you hear the message of the gospel and don’t say ‘That’s too good to be true,’ then you haven’t understood the gospel.”  We are so hardwired to think we have to earn recognition and acceptance in our culture, that we almost can’t make sense of a gospel that says God accepts and loves us regardless of whether we earn it.  In fact, we can’t earn it.  But there’s a flip side to the gospel, as well, which is what Paul is getting at here:  Once we understand how great is the grace that has been given to us, from that moment on we become, to use Paul’s word, “debtors.”  Precisely because God made us his sons and daughters, we are now under obligation to change our lives.  God’s love is absolutely free – which is why Isaiah said “Everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!  Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.”  (Isa. 55.1)  But while the gospel is free, it is not cheap.  Indeed, it is a gift “costing [us] not less than everything.”[1]  And, for Paul, it means that by the power of the Spirit we are obligated to start putting to death the deeds of the body.

How do we do that?

First, we make up our minds to do it, and then we start putting forth effort.  We study the Bible and we pray.  We practice spiritual disciplines like fasting and simplicity and giving.  It’s why we join community groups, why we go on mission trips.  That’s how we grow.  But that doesn’t contradict what I said about the passive position of the Christian.  Dallas Willard said:  “The path of spiritual growth in the riches of Christ is not a passive one. Grace is not opposed to effort. It is opposed to earning.”[2]  When we understand we can’t earn God’s favor through our own effort, surprisingly we find that we want to and are free to use any means available to us to change our lives to become more like Him.

One last point:  Active effort and discipline are the ways we grow as disciples, but they can go terribly wrong in two ways.  First, they can crush us under the weight of expectations when we fail at them, and we will fail, again and again.  And if we find that we’re really good at them, there’s another danger:  They can make us proud of our spiritual accomplishments.  That’s why we always have to remember why we care about being holy in the first place -- because God loved us and put his Spirit in us!  And it's that same Spirit that allows us to put to death the misdeeds of the body.  Look closely at what Paul said:  If by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.  And the Sprit of adoption, the grafting into God’s family, is never the result of our effort, but only because God loved us and pursued us first.  Bryan Chappell talked about this in a book called Holiness by Grace:

Spiritual change is more a consequence of what our hearts love than of what our hands do.  The spiritual disciplines are important, but not as important as developing a heart for God.  Hands and hearts coordinate and reinforce each other’s functions in the biblical model of sanctification, but the heart is the command center for every battle . . . .  A full and consistent apprehension of why we love God is the most effective piece of armor in the Christian arsenal, because the Devil always begins his attack with an alienation of our affections.  Thus our most powerful spiritual weapon is consistent adulation of the mercy of God revealed in Christ.  We preach the Gospel to our own hearts, telling others and ourselves of God’s eternal love, of Christ’s humble birth, sinless life, selfless sacrifice, victorious resurrection and coming glory.[3]

If you really want to change your life, keep your heart set on the experience of being God’s beloved.  Keep your heart set on the cross.  Preach that gospel to your own heart.  And find yourself pulled inexorably toward holiness by the audacious grace of God.

In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.


[1] T. S. Eliot, The Four Quartets, Quartet no. 4, “Little Gidding,” ¶ V.

[2] Dallas Willard, “Live Life to the Full,” Christian Herald (U.K.), 14 April 2001 (available online at http://www.dwillard.org/articles/artview.asp?artID=5 (last visited 9 July 2011)).

[3] Bryan Chapell, Holiness by Grace: Delighting in the Joy That Is Our Strength (Wheaton, Ill.: Crossway, 2001): 154.