Sunday, April 29, 2018

Life to Your Mortal Bodies: Sermon on Romans 8:9-11

He didn't especially want to do it. But he knew he didn't have that much of a choice after all. The aging scholar stood in the study of the school he'd founded in Caesarea; scrolls and manuscripts piled around him, and his new stenographers sat nearby, waiting to take dictation. Origen was the leading Christian thinker of the mid-third century. No wonder he'd been chosen for such a thankless job. He'd been born and raised in Alexandria, the dazzling city above all Egypt; his father had been a literature professor who, as an outspoken believer, was beheaded in one of the persecutions. Origen made ends meet by getting a job in the church schools, and did his writing late at night. His genius proved itself.

It was in those early days as a young teacher that he'd managed to win back from heresy a wealthy young government official named Ambrose. Ah, Ambrose – it was his fault he had to do this now. Ambrose, now his patron and sponsor, was always commissioning one book after another, and pressed him into labor like the Egyptians did the Hebrews! “God's taskmaster,” Origen grumbled – feh! Well, in time, both of them left Alexandria – Ambrose retired as a deacon in Nicomedia, Origen went to the Holy Land – but Ambrose's money bankrolled this school Origen started there, so he had little choice but to heed his friend's requests.

Usually, Origen didn't much mind. He'd enjoyed writing the treatise on prayer, he'd had fun with commentaries, but this last project was another matter. A few years before Origen was born, an Alexandrian philosopher by the name of Celsus had written a scathing attack on Christianity – the most comprehensive one to date. The church had responded to this so-called True Word by saying... nothing. It had been ignored, but still had currency with leading pagans. It was a challenge no one had dared take up. Ambrose commissioned Origen to be the first to do it, over seventy years after its publication. Origen personally thought it better to let Celsus' book fade into obscurity, but he found its contents insulting enough to raise his ire, and Ambrose wouldn't let up 'til he followed through anyway, so... here he went. Origen gritted his teeth as he read.

Celsus had found a lot of things to criticize about the Christian faith, which he considered a dangerous and base superstition for unlettered simpletons, something no serious philosopher would ever take up. He slammed Jesus as a petty magician and fraud, invented contradictions left and right, sneered at fundamental truths, but the greatest target Celsus found was the Christians' hope for their future: this absurdity called bodily resurrection. Celsus found it nauseating. Celsus didn't get why Christians were so hung up on the body. It's irrational, he said, to be “so attached to the body” as to hope to get it back – after all, bodies are impure. It's absurd to, “on the one hand, make so much of the body as you do, to expect that the same body will rise again, as though it were the best and most precious part of us,” and yet on the other hand to willingly face martyrdom and torture that wrecks the body (C. Cels. 8.49).

Celsus fiercely lambasted the Christian idea as “absolutely the hope of worms.” After all, what other kind of creature would want a body back after it's been rotted? And what kind of body could be restored to its original condition after complete decay? The body at that point, Celsus thought, should just be tossed aside as “more worthless than dung,” being “full of things it isn't pretty to describe,” and no good and reasonable God would want anything to do with them. More than that, no good and reasonable God would act so “contrary to nature,” contrary to his own reason woven into the universe, as to reverse the natural process of decay he ordained. And surely no good and reasonable God would do a 'shameful' thing like giving everlasting life to a body (C. Cels. 5.14). The very idea is stupid and obscene!

That's what Origen heard as he read Celsus' book. Celsus had no room in his philosophy for resurrection of the body. Neither had many of the scoffers who'd faced Paul at Mars Hill. Neither did many of the other critics of Christianity in Origen's days and the centuries to come – they all focused in on this idea of bodily resurrection as a problem, as an absurdity. The path of least resistance would, of course, have been to say, “You're all so right, what a silly idea. There is no resurrection; when we die, our immortal souls just live forever in a celestial realm with God.” Which is what many professing Christians today believe, and what many pagans believed, but not, as it turns out, what the Bible teaches or what the Christians of Origen's day believed. So for all the pagan objections, still Christians gathered in catacombs, still Christians treated kindly the relics of martyrs, still Christians insisted that these very bodies were not bridges to be burned or temporary 'ornaments' for the soul, but crucial to God's plan for us – and for our future.

Where did they get ideas like that? How did early Greek- and Latin-speaking Christians get so out of step with sophisticated Greek and Roman culture? How have serious Christians today gotten so out of step with popular American culture? It was from reading passages like the one we read this morning, and many others. For the first generation of Christian writers, bearing witness of what they themselves had seen and heard, make clear that when God sent his Son into the world, it wasn't as a mirage but in a real human body, in real human flesh: “Jesus Christ has come in the flesh” (1 John 4:2). The witnesses insisted that with their own hands they had touched the word of life (1 John 1:1-2). And so Jesus, the Christ, was really crucified and really died bodily – it was a real, tangible, material human body that died. And then, on the third day, “he was raised from the dead” (John 21:14). And what they meant was that his body – yes, the very same, numerically identical, material human body that had been pierced and scarred during the crucifixion – was restored to life – a new kind of life, but life all the same for that very same body of Jesus, so that Jesus was not playing pretend when he showed the disciples his mortal wounds, was not playing pretend when he ate supper with them, was not playing pretend when he let them touch him – it was the very same body.

Not everyone gets that. If Jehovah's Witnesses knock on your door, and you press them on the question, you'll find out they don't believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus. They don't believe in immaterial souls, so they think people are totally annihilated when they die. So when they talk about the 'resurrection' of Jesus, they think he was somehow re-created by God as an angel, and that what the disciples saw was not a real tangible human body at all, but a 'spirit being' in temporary human likeness. They say they believe in the 'resurrection,' but they don't believe in what the word actually means. They don't believe the body that was in the tomb was raised. But that's exactly what real Christians believe, because it's exactly what really happened that Sunday.

Celsus would scoff. He thought the report of Jesus alive again could be traced back to “a hysterical female” who shouldn't be believed and a bunch of liars who thought they'd impress their friends with the story (C. Cels. 2.55). But that doesn't hold water. Jesus is risen, Jesus is alive! And when we say that he's risen, what we mean is that he – body and spirit, the whole soul, the whole embodied human self – is alive in a real human body, numerically the same body that was born to Mary in Bethlehem, numerically the same body that touched the skin of lepers and the eyes of the blind and the tongues of the speechless, numerically the same body that broke the bread and passed the cup, numerically the same body that was pinned to the cross with Roman nails – yes, the same material human body is alive.

What happened? We read: “God raised him from the dead” (Acts 13:30). And that changes everything. God cannot be known the same way before and after he does something like that. For the people of Israel, when the God they knew did something so radical, it changed the way they talked about him. After the exodus, they had to talk about him in new ways: “Yahweh, your God, [who] brought you out of [Egypt] with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 5:15). And the same way, when we've looked at the cross and then looked to Jesus risen from the dead, we can't be content with the same way of understanding God. He's redefined himself by what he's done for and through and in Jesus. And now we understand him as a God of Resurrection. Now we know him as “the One who raised Jesus from the dead” – Paul repeats that title twice (Romans 8:11). Now, the first thing that should come to our mind when we pick out the real God from all the fakes and frauds is this: the real God is the one we can fairly call 'Jesus-Raiser.' That is the defining act of God in the world. That is who our God is: Jesus-Raiser, Christ-Raiser, God of Resurrection, “the One who raised Jesus from the dead.”

How? We hear a few things. “God raised the Lord … by his power” (1 Corinthians 6:14). “Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father” (Romans 6:5). And now we hear that the resurrection had a lot to do with the Holy Spirit: the Spirit is described in today's passage as the agency through which the Father raised the Son from the dead (Romans 8:9-11). And this same Spirit is active in believers. Paul does not say that the Spirit is active in believers who get it all right. Paul does not say that the Spirit is active in believers who do X and Y and Z. Paul does not say the Spirit is active in special elite 'super-Christians.' Paul says that the Spirit is for all Christians, all believers.

Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ” – that is, God's Spirit, which is the same as Christ's Spirit, because the Son is one with the Father – “does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). You cannot be in Christ without receiving the Spirit; nor can you receive the Spirit if you aren't in Christ. What follows is that, if you are a believer, the Spirit is in you – you don't have to doubt it! Paul writes elsewhere that “no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). If you can confess and submit to Jesus as Lord, if you can receive and believe the apostolic faith, it's because the Spirit of God is in you, making that possible. Without the Spirit, no one can confess him, belong to him, have their identity and their self wrapped up with him. No one without the Spirit can have their life “hidden with Christ in God” (Colossians 3:3).

What's more, it's true that our bodies are dead. Even now, before we die, there's something already dead about them – they're mortal, they're sickly, they're always slowly dying off. Why? Paul writes, “The body is dead because of sin” (Romans 8:10). That whole process is because of sin's infection, sin's grip, sin's diseasing and damning presence. That's the reason Paul had to lament that Israel, like everybody else in the world, lived in a “body of death” (Romans 7:24). “The wages of sin is death,” he said (Romans 3:23). Even James tells us, “Sin, when it is fully grown, brings forth death” (James 1:15). But there's more to the story.

Paul goes on to write, “If Christ is in you..., the Spirit is life because of righteousness” (Romans 8:10). That is, if you are connected to Jesus, it happened through the Spirit. If Christ is present in your existence, that means the Spirit is in you, is in your very body, owing to the righteousness and faithfulness of Jesus. And the Spirit of God is no lifeless thing, no tame thing! The Spirit of God is lively! The Spirit of God is exciting! The Spirit of God is wild! The Spirit of God fell with tongues of fire (Acts 2:3-4)! The Spirit goes wherever the Spirit wants – beyond our prediction, beyond our expectation, beyond our control – “the Spirit blows where he wishes, and you hear his sound, but you don't know where he comes from or where he's going” (John 3:8). Don't be fooled by the Spirit's tendency to whisper, because the Spirit is alive, the Spirit is lively, the Spirit is life in you.

And if the Spirit is life in you, if the Spirit is in your body, that changes everything about what you should expect – not just during the dash on your tombstone, but whether your tombstone is a permanent record to begin with. The trouble is, our pop theology falls so short of the biblical vision. Let's face it, what do we usually expect? How does that song go? “When we all get to heaven, / what a day of rejoicing that will be...” Except, the Bible says very little about Christians 'going to heaven when they die.' Oh, there are hints here and there about that, but the immediate fate of believers who are 'absent from the body' just doesn't interest the prophets and apostles very much. The focus isn't on life after death, but more on what one theologian nicknamed “life after life after death.” So why does our pop theology, why does our folk belief, focus so much on what the Bible is mostly silent on, and ignore so much of what the Bible screams?

The focus of the Christian hope is not about 'going to heaven when we die.' The focus of the Christian hope is about what happens after that. Paul didn't entirely look forward to 'going to heaven' – sure, he looked forward to being in the Lord's presence, but being “away from the body” would be like being “unclothed,” like being “found naked,” he lamented (2 Corinthians 5:3-8). The real good stuff, the best stuff, happens when we don't have to choose between being “at home in the body” and “at home with the Lord” – the day will come, Paul tells us, when we get both. To be at home in the body and with the Lord – that's the goal of resurrection. That's what we're ready for, what we're waiting for.

If God were to snatch our souls to heaven, and let that be the end of the story, it would mean that death has won. It would mean that either God switched to Plan B and settled for that, or that this whole good creation was just a weird tangent in the first place. And God refuses to endorse that kind of nonsense. God's aim has always been, and still is, embodied humans living in his presence in a good creation. God has not changed his mind. And the resurrection of Jesus is a promise that he never will.

And so Paul can write about how important our bodies are. It matters what we do with them. Some people in first-century Corinth thought it didn't matter what we did with our bodies, that everything was okay, that they didn't much count. Paul shoots back, “The body is not meant for sexual immorality, but for the Lord, and the Lord for the body” (1 Corinthians 6:13). Our bodies were meant to be devoted to Jesus, to be in his power, under his Lordship. But more startling is Paul's message that the Lord is 'for the body' – he came exactly to redeem our bodies, not just our inner selves or 'souls.' The Lord became human for our bodies. Paul goes on to say, “God raised the Lord” – bodily – “and will also raise us up” – again, bodily – “by his power. Do you not know that your bodies are members,” body parts, “of Christ?” (1 Corinthians 6:14-15). “So,” Paul concludes, “glorify God in your body” (1 Corinthians 6:20) – because our bodies matter to God, and even when the body dies because of sin, God isn't finished with it. Not a chance.

That's why Paul talks about the hope we actually have – not the hope of escaping the body, which Celsus could have swallowed, but the hope of the body being redeemed and restored in resurrection. At some point in the future, at the return of Christ, the cemetery outside this church building will become a very exciting place. I'd buy tickets to see that! It will be an exciting place, because when “the Lord himself will descend from heaven,” then “the dead in Christ will rise” to meet him and welcome him in (1 Thessalonians 4:16). The dead in Christ in this cemetery will get up alive out of the ground, out of their graves, better than ever!

That's what we're looking for. “We await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself” (Philippians 3:20-21). The same 'lowly body' that we walk around in now, will be transformed; it will be changed. It will be numerically identical – the same body – but in the same way that a seed is numerically identical with the tree that grows from it. The tree and the seed it sprouted from are two stages of the same thing, but very different in character. Just so, “what you sow is not the body that is to be,” not in quality, but “a bare kernel” compared to what the body will be like in resurrection glory (1 Corinthians 15:37). Living here and now, our bodies are lowly – they're perishable, dishonorable, weak, and powered by the human soul – but when raised, they'll be imperishable, glorious, powerful, and powered by God's Spirit (1 Corinthians 15:42-44). We'll have the best of both worlds – at home in an imperishable body and with an undying Lord, whom we can see and know face-to-face – the very face you have, and the very face he has.

And the reason you can have that hope is because “the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you” (Romans 8:10-11). That's such an exciting thought! God, the same God of Resurrection who raised Jesus Christ to a new kind of bodily life, will do the exact same thing for you – because what God does for Christ is what God has in store for all whom Christ stands for, all who are tied to him by the Spirit.

And so God will “give life to your mortal bodies” (Romans 8:11). Did you get that? The very same body, the very same material, human body that walked in here this morning, the very same mortal body whose mortal hand shook the mortal hand of a friend you saw here last Sunday with your mortal eyes – that's the very same mortal body, with mortal hand and mortal eyes, to which God will give resurrection life as an immortal body with immortal hands and immortal eyes! There's no getting around it, there's no fair way to twist and contort this scripture to say anything less.

Maybe, during the last year, last few years, last decade or so, you had to lay a spouse or a parent or a child or a friend to rest. They believed, they trusted in Jesus, they had the Spirit of God at work in their life, but then their body died. You comfort yourself that they're with the Lord in heaven. That's true – Jesus said we could be with him where he's going, because his Father's house there has many hotel rooms to spend the night (John 14:2-3). But it gets so much better. It gets better because God has promised to give life to their mortal body! Heaven isn't where they get glorified; body and spirit will be glorified together, right back here, at the return of Christ!

Those hands you held – you'll hold them again! Those eyes you gazed into – you'll gaze into them again! Those vocal cords that made the voice you loved to hear – they'll vibrate again, you'll hear it again! That brain's synapses will fire again, those lungs will breathe again, that skin will be warm to the touch again. And there will then be no more Alzheimer's, no more Parkinson's, no more cardiac disease, no more cerebral palsy. That's a big promise! But it's God's promise, to “give life to [their] mortal bodies.” God is not done with them.

Nor is God done with you. Unless Jesus comes back first, each one of us will one day take a leave of absence from these bodies. And these bodies will either, like the early Jews and Christians did, be buried in the earth, or, like their pagan neighbors did, be cremated. In either case, if the Spirit of God dwelled in your body, the Spirit of God is not done with your body. And no matter what sicknesses your body suffered from, no matter what aches and pains your body had, no matter how you die or how your body is handled once you've set it aside, God is not done with it, and neither are you. He will give life to your mortal body.

Your tombstone will not be your permanent record. Your body will be alive a lot longer than it'll be dead. Your tombstone will mark a temporary blip, a brief hiatus or pause in your life. If I get struck by lightning this afternoon, the dates on my tombstone should not just read “1988 – 2018,” as if that's the whole story. There should be a comma, followed by “Christ's Return – Infinity.” That would be the whole story for this body of mine. And the same will be true for you. That's what you can count on. And whatever aches, whatever hurts, whatever doesn't work right now, whatever's subject to death and weakness now, will be life and health and glory and power in the resurrection! You can bank on that!

It may sound crazy, but the best days for your body are the ones ahead of you, not the ones behind you. Even on the day they lower your casket in the ground, even a century later, the best days for that body and for you as an embodied human person are the ones ahead, not the ones behind. Celsus would call that crazy, insane, stupid – and Celsus would be wrong! Because Celsus didn't account for God's Spirit. Celsus thought things could be boxed up in nature as he knew it. But God's Spirit blows wherever it wishes (John 3:8). Celsus thought our bodies were worthless. But God not only made them for a reason, he put his Spirit in them for a reason. Celsus thought our bodies would be too impure and weak to make a permanent home. He didn't count on, he forgot to read about, how they'll be raised incorruptible, immortal, imperishable, raised in glory and power, governed by the Spirit in place of the old rulebook. And what's beyond the power of nature to achieve is hardly out of the reach of God's “mighty hand and outstretched arm” (Deuteronomy 21:5) – because this God is the God of Exodus, this God is the God of Redemption, this God is the God of Resurrection, this God has a Spirit of Life to give!

This really is our hope in Jesus Christ. Our hope is not to fly away to the sweet by-and-by, way beyond the blue. That's cheap. Our hope is so much better, so much brighter, so much fuller. Our hope is for the Spirit to give life to these very same now-mortal bodies and, in raising them up, to make them as new and powerful and glorious as the one Jesus will have forever. And then, being at home both in the restored body and with our embodied Lord Jesus, we'll really have a home for good – all of us, body and spirit. It isn't a prison; it's home.

So however much the specifics weren't clear to him, Origen couldn't, wouldn't be cowed by Celsus' invective and sneering mockery. Origen refused to give up this hope for his martyred dad, or himself, or any other Spirit-indwelt believer. And neither should we. When Origen answered Celsus, he stuck by the same thing he wrote when he commented on today's passage: that real believers, Christ's people, “know that they are going to be made alive and resurrected from the dead in the likeness of Christ through the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead in a similar manner … For if the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, it seems necessary that to the Spirit his own dwelling-place should be given back and the temple restored” (Commentary on Romans 6.13.6).

Like Paul said, “Your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God” (1 Corinthians 6:19). And that Spirit is wild, that Spirit is burning, that Spirit is life – life now and life for his temple forever! So the Christ-raising God will indeed “give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you,” in the temple he's building from you (Romans 8:11). That's when we'll “sing and shout the victory!” Yield today to the wild Spirit of God, yield today to the life-giving Spirit of Christ, yield today to the unpredictable and untameable Holy Spirit, and remember that, because he claimed you (body and spirit), no funeral can ever say he's done with you (body and spirit)! Remember your hope of resurrection, look to the risen “man Christ Jesus” in his glorified body (1 Timothy 2:5), and look forward to being like him (1 John 3:2) – at home!

Sunday, April 22, 2018

Mind of the Spirit: Sermon on Romans 8:5-8

Imperial Russia was a bustle of controversy already in the year 1866 – ten years past the close of the Crimean War, just one year before Tsar Alexander II sold off the territory of Alaska to a burgeoning power across the sea called the United States. In a little village not far from Lebedyan, on a day in mid-January, a boy was born to a family of unlettered peasants. His parents had him named Simeon – Simeon Ivanovich Antonov – and, of course, baptized in their local Russian Orthodox parish in his infancy. It started out as a life not that much different from any other in the village. At the age of four, though, Simeon had a formative experience. His father Ivan welcomed a passing bookseller into their home, only to learn thereafter that the bookseller was an outspoken atheist, who sought by many questions to dissuade them from their faith – in the hearing of young Simeon, who for the next fifteen years would wrestle with doubt and uncertainty born from the encounter.

Still, under Ivan Petrovich's tutelage, and in company with four brothers and two sisters, young Simeon grew large and strong. In his late teens, Simeon became a carpenter, laboring with a working commune on a princely family's nearly country estate. Simeon's was, in so many ways, the life of many other Russian villagers in the 1880s, I suppose. The things that concerned him were the simple pleasures, or what he thought were the simple pleasures. He loved to play music and carouse. His eyes were bewitched by all the eligible young bachelorettes of the village, with whom he flirted, and occasionally more than flirted. And he drank. Large as he was, he was reputed to drink more than one bottle of vodka at a time – though a great fondness for the stuff was by no means unfamiliar to all his neighbors.

A day came when Simeon and a friend were walking down the street. It was a local holiday, the feast-day of the village's patron saint, and that afternoon everyone was outside for the festivities. Simeon was aiming to mind his own business, playing a little accordion-like instrument called a concertina. But a pair of brothers began to walk in Simeon's direction – the village cobblers. The older one was a rough man, burly and tough, and was thoroughly swimming in vodka already even by the afternoon. He mocked Simeon and moved to take the instrument, which Simeon handed to his friend. The cobbler was itching, though, for a fight.

Simeon wasn't inclined for it. But on second thought, all the pretty girls of the village were watching. What was important here, Simeon thought to himself, was whether they liked him, whether they'd be impressed by him – he didn't want them to laugh at him, didn't want them to think him a coward. And so he put up his fists for the brawl. Only Simeon was even stronger than he looked. With a well-placed punch to the chest, he laid the drunk cobbler flat – hard. Hard enough to knock him unconscious. Hard enough that drool and blood ran from his mouth. Hard enough that Simeon worried he'd just committed murder. The injured cobbler's brother tried attacking Simeon with a rock, but was chased from the scene by the threat of like violence. Simeon fell harder into a life of carousing, but for quite a while had to watch his back, for his victim's family and friends waited in dark corners with clubs and knives to avenge their wounded brother.

Aside from being stronger than most, the sorts of things that mattered to Simeon, the sorts of things Simeon put the focus of his day-to-day life on, the sorts of things Simeon savored and enjoyed and desired – all those were not that different from most people in the world. He was focused on his carpentry job. He was focused on fitting in. He was focused on being well-liked. He was focused on protecting himself from the judgment of others. He was focused on attraction to pretty girls, and gratifying his desires. He was focused on setting his priorities in a way that would further his immediate goals. He was focused on having a good time with music and with drink and with companionship. He was focused on his family and focused on himself, and if benefit to him came at the expense of romantic rivals or belligerent drunks, well, they sat rather low on the pecking order. Simeon learned to think a certain way about the world, learned what to focus on and what to believe and what to see when he looked around or looked in a mirror.

And that mentality, that way of looking at the world, is one expression of what Paul refers to as “the mind of the flesh,” or “the mentality of the flesh.” Simeon's focus, his thoughts, his general outlook – they were all caught up in fleshly concerns. And the thing about our flesh is, ever since it became rudely aware of its vulnerability in the garden, it's tried aggressively to protect itself, compensate for itself. When Paul talks about 'the flesh,' he's including all the things a person might use to establish his or her place in the pecking order, all the ways a person might try to gain a legacy or earn bragging rights, all the ways we try to manage the world to tame it and keep ourselves safe and in control, all the way we satisfy the first instincts of our wayward and self-protective fleshly selves.

Paul explains, in another letter, the sorts of behavior this can lead to, the sorts of things that flesh will engage in if unrestrained, the sorts of things that the flesh naturally inclines toward: “The works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these” (Galatians 5:19-21). Again and again, he calls those “the desires of the flesh” (Galatians 5:16-17). And it's not hard to see how Simeon found himself falling into just such works. Drunkenness – his flesh wanted vodka, and ever more on the holidays. Sensuality – his life was all about enjoying whatever his senses could bring him. Sexual immorality – his lusts for the girls of the village carried him there, when he didn't come home to his family one night. Jealousies and rivalries – he wanted to be liked, wanted to be popular, wanted to be top dog. Fits of anger – what else could have propelled his fist into the cobbler's chest with so much force, if not a determination to treat him as an enemy? Such is the life of the works of the flesh.

But having 'the mind of the flesh,' or some translations would say, 'setting one's mind on the flesh,' can't just be measured by those specific actions. If Simeon had stayed away from the vodka, had stayed away from the girls, had kept his hands to himself, his would no less have been 'the mind of the flesh.' His thoughts were still on what we usually call ordinary things, but really should call fleshly things. His way of looking at the world was still the one he was born and raised with. The things that mattered most to him in practice were about this life, this world. He was focused on what he could play, what he could eat, what he could drink, what he could enjoy. He got up, he ate, he worked, he drank, he did it all over again. Ask him what his life is about, and whatever his honest answer is, Paul would look at it and say, “Yep, that's flesh, alright.” The governing, regulating principle of his life and the way he sees it and thinks it and lives it – that's his flesh. What he thinks about most, what he wants most, what he focuses on most – his flesh has set the agenda. And hasn't the same often been true of us? In practice, what sorts of things do we think about most, do we want most, do we focus on most? What basic principle governs the way we see the world, the way we see each other, the way we see ourselves?

Paul explains that, if nothing radical changes, then the underlying principle for our whole lives will be 'the flesh' – and we'll have a mentality that prioritizes what the flesh wants, and we'll have an outlook, a way of thinking, for which our flesh, our self-protective, self-satisfying, thisworldly flesh, has ultimately set the agenda. Even Paul says that, when he devoted himself as a Pharisee to pursuing righteousness under the Law and to valuing himself by his religious attainments, it really amounted to “confidence in the flesh” (Philippians 3:4).

Paul adds that people's behavior, or in his words, the way they 'walk' through life, 'walk' through their world, is closely connected to how they really think, how they really view themselves and their world. 'Walk' and 'mind' go hand-in-hand: People walk as their mindset is, and their mindset is how they walk. That's why Paul says, “Those who walk according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh” (Romans 8:5). And it goes both ways: Not only does what you focus on then direct how you live, but how you choose to live shapes what you focus on. The little choices we make, day in and day out, mold our mental and spiritual habits, just as those mental and spiritual habits give rise to the choices we make. Focusing on fleshly concerns, and thinking about the world in fleshly ways and evaluating things in terms of fleshly standards, is going to shape a way of living that the flesh dictates, that the flesh sets the agenda for – even a deeply religious person like Saul the Pharisee had his agenda set that way, and so, in a different lifestyle, did Simeon Ivanovich.

Paul wants us to really understand what the consequence of living that way is. He tells us that “the mind of the flesh,” this mentality or mindset focused on fleshly concerns, is fundamentally hostile to God. The way we think, left to our own devices and under our own steam, is hostile to God. Even Saul the Pharisee, in his life chasing after God's favor through religious attainments under the Law, had a way of thinking that was actually hostile to God – and certainly Simeon, though raised in a churchgoing family, had a way of thinking that really was hostile to God (Romans 8:7).

Why? Because God – the real God, and not the mental picture of God we make up – this God intrudes on our fleshly concerns. He breaks down our fleshly defenses. He invades our world, and what he wants is not what our flesh wants; his agenda does not mesh with our flesh's agenda. We want to protect ourselves; he tells us to give ourselves away. We want to measure our worth by our natural talent, our natural appearance, our natural accomplishments; he tells us that it's like filthy rags, and our worth is elsewhere. We want to live our lives the way we want them, the way our flesh wants them, undisturbed in our chase of pretty things or pretty people – but God interrupts, God intrudes. We want to think about what food we'll consume next, what beverage we'll consume next, what media we'll consume next – and God has other priorities. We want to reduce our lives to our daily routines, we want to tame it and keep ourselves safe, we want to fit our world into the boxes of our crossword puzzles, we want everything to add up in a way that reassures our flesh – but God is another story.

That's why Paul says that “the mind of the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God's law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:7-8). A fleshly mindset, a thisworldly and self-concerned and self-satisfying outlook and way of thinking, will inevitably try to resist God's meddlesome ways. An outlook caught up in 'flesh,' focused on the sorts of things we naturally think about and absorbed in all the assumptions you've been taught since childhood, has no power to line up with God's instructions. Even Saul the Pharisee had to learn that; even Simeon had to learn that; how about us, in twentieth- and now twenty-first-century America? Even here, many of the mental habits we learn as children, many of the mental habits we continue throughout adulthood and beyond, so much of what matters to us – it's all about the flesh.

And Paul warns us that people living out a fleshly pattern, living out of fleshly resources, can't please God, can't satisfy God, can't fulfill God's vision for a healthy human life. Can't be done. The way our flesh tends to look at the world, the things our flesh tends to value, the behavior that the resources of just our flesh can generate – it has no way of reaching the kind of life God means for us to live. That's why “those who are in the flesh cannot please God” (Romans 8:8).

And Paul says that the result is not a good one: “The mind of the flesh is death” (Romans 8:6). For all its self-protective instincts, our flesh is so caught up in here-and-now, the things it can see and taste and touch, that it really will starve itself of the Source of Life, because the Source of Life seems to it like a threat. Living the village life Simeon had might seem bucolic, romantic, idyllic; but really, it amounted to slowly starving, slowly dying. Around us, the lives of the richest of the rich and the poorest of the poor – if they're caught up in everyday life as the flesh defines it, it's a slow death. And even the visible church isn't immune, or else Paul couldn't have charged many in the Corinthian churches of being “fleshly” (1 Corinthians 3:3).

That adds up to a sad picture. But when we met last Sunday, we saw that there's another way to live. We heard Paul say something about a way to have the Law's God-pleasing requirement met in us, even when our mindset has heretofore been powerless to measure up. Paul mentions that those in whom the just decree is fulfilled do not, then, walk according to the flesh; there's another way – to “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit,” God's Spirit (Romans 8:4). And Paul goes on to explain that, just as walking according to the flesh is linked with adopting the flesh's outlook, so walking according to the Spirit means having “the mind of the Spirit” – having the Spirit as your focus, adopting the Spirit's outlook and way of thinking (Romans 8:5).

If we're to have “the mind of the Spirit,” well, we can't create that mindset through our fleshly resources. We can't go to a college to get it, can't pay money to get it, can't find it on a mountaintop or through meditation on the inner depths of ourselves. God must transform our minds through the grace that appeared in Jesus Christ. God must turn us into 'faith-thinkers,' 'Spirit-thinkers,' people who process the world and process our lives and our identities through God's trustworthy word, in spite of whatever we may feel, whatever we seem to see, and whatever may loom largest to worldly eyes. Actually, faith makes us open to a radical new way of thinking – a way of thinking that isn't ours at all. We become open to God's Spirit thinking God's thoughts through us, God's Spirit living God's life through us.

The result of having the Spirit's outlook, a rich faith-outlook, is peace. We learn to see others as God sees them. We learn to see ourselves as God sees us. We learn to see circumstances as God sees them. When we see our reflection as God sees it, we gain peace from all the needless self-criticism we do, and we gain peace from all the interruptions of pointless pride. When we see others as God sees them, we want to love and cherish them, to help them gently receive God's wisdom, and so we gain peace from the strife and envy and rivalry and division and dissension that are works of the flesh. And when we see circumstances as God sees them, they no longer loom so large or so threatening; we put off the flesh's self-protective instincts, trusting God to work all things for our good, and our anxieties and aspirations are put into a peaceful context. Because the Spirit's outlook is one that focuses firmly on God and yields a trusting disposition – like Isaiah said, the Spirit “keeps in perfect peace the one whose mind is fixed on [God], because he trusts in [God]” (Isaiah 26:3).

In having this “mind of the Spirit,” which we receive with the open mind and open heart of faith, we come to think about things and look at things and focus on things with the Spirit's outlook. And we become equipped with the Spirit's resources – which is God's very own life, as displayed on earth as the life of Christ – so that we can, in keeping with this new mindset, actually act accordingly, “walk according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4-5).

With the just decree of the law fulfilled in us, with the Spirit sharing God's outlook with us, with the Spirit and faith opening God's world of peace to us, fleshly concerns stop defining us, the flesh stops setting the agenda for us. The limitations of the flesh diminish their hindrance. While the mind of the flesh couldn't please God, the mind of the Spirit can (cf. Romans 8:8)! If we really look at the world with the Spirit's eyes, if we really focus on what matters to God's Spirit, if we really let the Spirit think God's thoughts through us, and if we prioritize the Spirit's agenda and walk according to the Spirit, how could that not please God? And, with the Spirit having fulfilled in us God's just decree of life, how could we not live?

Paul describes “the mind of the Spirit” as yielding “life and peace” (Romans 8:6). That's what we have in the Spirit. And that same phrase shows up in the Book of the Prophet Malachi. God through his prophet issued a rebuke of a corrupt priesthood, who walked according to the flesh (Malachi 2:1-3). And God contrasted this with the way a priest of God was meant to live – God calls this ideal priest 'Levi.' Such a priest would walk with God in uprightness. “True instruction was in his mouth, and no wrong was on his lips. … He turned many from iniquity, for the lips of a priest should guard knowledge, and people should seek instruction from his mouth” (Malachi 2:6-7). In the middle of that, God describes the relationship he had with this idealized priest, “my covenant with Levi” (Malachi 2:4). God says, “My covenant with him was one of life and peace, and I gave them to him” (Malachi 2:5). Life and peace – that's the gift of God to a priest living well, a priest in good relationship with God, a priest who sets an example for others and who reveals God to others and who intercedes with God for others. And that is exactly what having “the mind of the Spirit” will make of you, as you walk according to God's Spirit and not according to your own flesh.

When I try to envision what it looks like to really, intentionally walk according to the Spirit, I'm reminded of a scene nearly eighty years ago. It was September 1938. On a mountain in northeastern Greece, there stood an old monastery, then already over half a millennium old. In a small cubicle in the lower ward of the monastery infirmary, there was a bed. And in the bed was an elder monk. His dark eyes were closed. His hair was thick, including his bushy eyebrows and shaggy beard, no longer black but white. His strong features were now pale. A few days earlier, he'd admitted to not feeling his usual strength. Then he received his final anointing. Letting others lead in prayer, he concluded his days in silent attention to God, as far as he could. He had been a monk for over forty years, sharing in communion at least twice a week and laboring in the mill and in the storehouse.

Elder Silouan was known for his spiritual counsel. His chief goal, his chief activity, was to humble himself more each and every day, and to bask in the peace-giving love of God and show it to others. He lived a quiet life, but his walk was the work of the Spirit of God, and few were surprised that he seemed to know more than a man could know, could have insight into situations far removed from the mountain where he'd lived for almost half a century. Though separated from the world, he spent his waning years especially in constant prayer for the entire world to receive and be changed by the love of God. Here was a monk, here was a Christian, here was a man who walked according to the Spirit, and not according to the flesh.

But he wasn't always that way. I wonder, in the final weeks of St. Silouan's earthly tenure, if his thoughts ever flickered to the first portion of his life. For his name was not always 'Silouan.' It was once 'Simeon' – the man of vodka and brawls and village girls, the man with a mind of the flesh who walked according to the flesh. Simeon's early days as a monk, fresh from military service, were rough. Simeon, increasingly aware of 'the mind of the flesh' that ran his life, was tormented by darkness and despair; he felt God would surely never hear his prayers. But then one day, during evening prayer services, as he stood outside the sanctuary in front of an icon of the Lord, he had a fleeting vision of the risen Christ. And in that moment, something radical changed inside Simeon. He knew himself born again. The Spirit of God got hold of him. He was never quite the same.

He returned to his daily labors in the mill, but he knew then that he'd been freely and fully forgiven; he knew himself filled with the thoughts of God, the life of God, and as he worked, his focus was on God and on the things God cares about. Oh, Brother Simeon still struggled, and even after his vows and tonsure and renaming, Silouan struggled with walking according to the Spirit. But over long years of struggle to submit more and more to the Spirit's way of thinking, Silouan – Simeon – learned from the Spirit how to walk the walk of the Holy Spirit's divine life. And so he humbled himself day by day, he turned his focus to God, he lifted up the entire world with tears daily, and amidst the inner torment he always carried with him, he found the peace of God that gave him hope within the flames. And by the time those decades of walking in the Spirit led him to the infirmary, he'd left behind reams of jottings of what the Spirit had shown him – things like these:

The Lord gave the Holy Spirit on earth, and by the Holy Spirit the Lord and all things heavenly are made known; whereas without the Holy Spirit, man is but sinful clay. … In heaven, everything has life through the Holy Spirit, and the Lord has given us on earth the same Holy Spirit. … In every place, Christ's warriors who fight the good fight live by the Holy Spirit. … Every day, we feed the body and breathe in air, that it may live. But what the soul needs is the Lord and the grace of the Holy Spirit, without which the soul is dead. … He who has known the sweetness of the Holy Spirit, knows that it is beyond compare. … The Holy Spirit is wondrous sweet and pleasing for soul and body. … The Lord gave us the Holy Spirit, and we learned the song of the Lord, and so we forget the earth for the sweetness of the love of God.

That's what Silouan learned – what changed Simeon into a saint. If you are in Christ, you have received this same “wondrous sweet” Holy Spirit, for “anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him” (Romans 8:9). But are you fleshly or spiritual? Do you still act in accordance with the old ways, with the mind of the flesh? Or do you have the mind of the Spirit? What outlook, what mentality, what way of thinking, what focus? Take stock of how you think, what you think about, what you focus on, what you do: What does it suggest your life about? Yield prayerfully to God's Spirit; let him change your thinking, change your walking, show you real life and real peace. May you know, in full, “the sweetness of the love of God.” Amen.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

No Condemnation: Sermon on Romans 8:1-4

Monday, August 18, 1879, was a rainy afternoon in Lebanon, Pennsylvania. Inside the courthouse, Israel Brandt and three of his five associates stood in the presence of Judge Robert Henderson, all looking at the judge with eerily matching blue eyes. A fifth member of the crew was present, but Henry Wise stayed seated with his eyes closed, overcome with penitential grief. The sixth member, George Zechman, was absent; he'd been granted a new trial. Their case, the case of the Blue-Eyed Six, had taken the whole state by storm. These six gentlemen, joined not just by poverty and by mouths to feed but by the unanimous blue of their eyes, stood accused of a shocking crime. They had taken out an insurance policy on an elderly hermit they'd befriended, one Joseph Raber, in expectation of a quick payout. Frustrated by Raber's good health, the scene ended with him drowned in a creek. The Blue-Eyed Six were tried for his murder; five, all but Zechman, were convicted.

Standing before Judge Henderson at the sentencing hearing, Israel Brandt cut a fine figure. Unlike co-defendant Frank Stichler, whose corpulent frame had wasted away in prison, Brandt – a local innkeeper, 47 years old, nearly six feet tall, balding with a high forehead and dark goatee, missing an arm but nonetheless widely deemed a handsome and foreboding man – well, Brandt had somehow grown stronger and healthier in his confinement. Standing second of the five, clad in white shirt and dark coat, Brandt had no further words to speak in his defense. “I have nothing to say now,” he answered. “When the proper time comes, I'll tell it.” Those were the last words before the sentence was passed. Judge Henderson spoke carefully, methodically:

You have been convicted of murder in the first degree, and the punishment is death. It is wisdom to punish crime. It has divine sanction. Everything worth living for demands it. We pity the criminal..., but the crime calls for the judgment of the law. … We commend you to the mercy of Him who will hear the cry of the penitent and cleanse you from the guilt of all unrighteousness. Indulge no vain hope to escape from the penalty of the law. It is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man.

With that, the judge ordered the five defendants to be returned through the falling rain to their prison, and later, at the appointed hour, to be “hanged by the neck until you are dead, and may God have mercy on your soul,” he told them. With those words, Israel Brandt's healthy complexion whitened with fear. Being found guilty hadn't rattled him much. But now he stood condemned. His appeals were fruitless. In January, the state supreme court rejected his case. In March, Gov. Henry Hoyt signed the requisite paperwork. In April, the Board of Pardons refused to commute his sentence. Brandt considered poisoning himself with chloroform; he tried breaking out of jail. Neither effort bore any fruit. And so, on May 13, 1880, after a breakfast of ham, eggs, and chocolate, Brandt marched calmly with two others to the scaffold; men shrouded their heads in white hoods, and at 11:17, the condemned men were hanged. Brandt's pulse stopped eleven minutes later. Justice had been done.

Behind him, Brandt left a wife and six children. I'm glad he did; my best friend is his fourth-great-grandson. Even so, I rather wonder what it would've been like to have been there – not, I mean, on the thirteenth of May, but on the eighteenth of August, when the sentence was passed. You see, I used to be a big Law & Order junkie – you know, “In the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups: The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders.” I'm not alone in that; there's a reason the main series ran for twenty seasons. Crime dramas, forensic shows, true crime exposés – they're all the rage these days. My mother can while away many an evening in front of Forensic Files. For me, though, the thing I always liked most about Law & Order wasn't so much the investigation; it was the courtroom scenes. I've always been fascinated by that back and forth maneuvering between the defense and the prosecution, all culminating in a verdict by the jury and a sentence by the judge.

But there's always another episode, and real life is the same way. The trouble with laws is, they may be able to restrain crimes, they may be able to punish crimes, but there are plenty of things they don't tend to do well – for instance, they can't totally stop crime, they can't expunge criminality, they can't remedy or relieve the criminal heart in us all (cf. Romans 3:23). They're all about “condemning the guilty” (Deuteronomy 25:1).

That's what Paul's been on about. In Romans 7, he took up something really vital about the human condition, seeing it was clearly Israel's condition. The Old Testament had gone so far as to call Israel God's 'son', you know (Hosea 11:1). And the Old Testament makes clear that Israel received, not just any law, but a special Law inspired by God. That's why the psalmist delighted in the Law (Psalm 119:77), that's why the psalmist valued the Law more than riches (Psalm 119:72), that's why the psalmist hoped to get life from this very same Law (Psalm 119:93). After all, Israel was told, “Whoever keeps the commandment, keeps his life” (Proverbs 19:16).

So Paul agrees: “The Law is holy, and the commandment is holy and righteous and good” (Romans 7:12). The trouble is, though, that Israel's experience under the Law was very different from the promised ideal: “The very commandment that promised life proved to be death to me; for sin, seizing an opportunity through the commandment, deceived me – and, through it, killed me,” Israel might say (Romans 7:10-11)! The trouble, he finds, is that sin has a knack for hijacking the Law: “For apart from the law, sin lies dead … but when the commandment came, sin came alive and I died” (Romans 7:8-9). And so Israel found that the Law made her a battleground: “I don't do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. … So it's no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what's right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I don't do the good I want, but the evil I don't want is what I keep on doing!” (Romans 7:15-20). No wonder Israel has to cry out, in the end, “Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Romans 7:24). How to be rescued from being cosmic felons?

That's the experience, Paul says, of Israel – the nation God called his chosen son – as they tried to gain life, not just by any law, but by the Law of the LORD. The trouble was that this Law was “weakened by the flesh” – it was made sick by contact with the criminal heart of God's own people (Romans 8:3). The harder Israel tried, the more obvious its incurable evil became (Romans 7:21). And if that's true for God's son Israel using God's Law, how much more is it the case for any other nation trying to chase freedom and life through man-made laws of their own concoction? It's always like those lines from the T. S. Eliot poem: “Between the idea and the reality, / between the motion and the act, / falls the Shadow.... // Between the conception and the creation, / between the emotion and the response, / falls the Shadow.” Whether it's what he meant or not, it fits: there's a Shadow called Sin, infesting human flesh, that falls between our every idea and its reality, between our every motion and the act it produces, between our every conception and its creation, between our every emotion and the response it triggers. “If I don't do what I want,” Paul writes, “it's no longer 'I' who do it, but sin that dwells within me” (Romans 7:20). And no human law, and not even God's Law, proved up to the challenge of itself freeing us from indwelling sin, the criminal heart. Laws pronounce sinners guilty and prescribe a sentence; they administer, Paul says, “God's wrath on the wrongdoer” (Romans 13:4). Laws do for us what they did for Israel Brandt, just like they did for Israel the nation: they don't free us from death's jurisdiction, they don't liberate us from indwelling sin, they simply condemn crimes and the criminals attached to them.

I imagine that all of us have experience being condemned. Maybe not, like Brandt did, in a court of law. In the court of public opinion, maybe. In the little tribunals set up by a spouse, a parent, a child; a neighbor, a boss, a co-worker; the media, the demagogues, the culture – they all write their own laws, their own definition of what's good and what's bad, what's right and what's wrong, and so do we. And the world is a whirl of condemnation – we know what it's like to be weighed in the balance and found wanting, not just by God (though we're guilty as sin), but by each other and by our own selves. Often, our own heart condemns us (1 John 3:20) – and a line forms behind it or ahead of it of other people, other institutions, other forces, other rules and systems, all aching to do the very same thing: condemn. I know what it's like to be judged, to be condemned. So do you.

Something had to change. And so Paul tells us, in this morning passage, about the only solution there ever was to our plight. “God has done what the Law, weakened by the flesh, could not do.” And to do that, he sent his own Son. Not the adopted son called national Israel, but the real and true Son who existed with the Father and their Spirit before all time, before the first spark of anything created – his own Son,” Paul can't stress enough, is the one whom God the Father sent down to this hive of scum and villainy called a fallen world, a criminal world. He could have sent his Son like a flash of light, like a consuming flame, like a whirlwind and a tempest, like a meteor colliding with our dark little orb. But instead, he sent his Son in a replica of our pinstripes – or, as Paul says, “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (Romans 8:3). His body was flesh, but not sinful flesh; his was an unfallen human nature, untainted; his innocently corresponded to what's corrupted in each of us. His flesh was as vulnerable as ours, but never put up the defensiveness that provokes so much of our sin; nor did it succumb to sin's false promises: he “in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

No one less could do the job. But this Son, the one who bore the human name 'Jesus' and who was called the 'Christ,' the Messiah, the True Heir of Israel – he did everything the Law couldn't. Sin took the bait, triggered the trap. When it dared to attack the sinless Son of God, he submitted to human condemnation and carried Sin itself to the scene of an execution. God didn't condemn Jesus; he could never condemn his perfect Son. But in his flesh, the likeness of sinful flesh, God condemned our sin, condemned Sin itself, and passed the sentence of death – for “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). And so we read that, “by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh..., [God] condemned sin in the flesh,” in the flesh of a crucified Christ (Romans 8:3). He was sent to be a sin-offering, like the ones Israel used to offer every time sin's shadow fell between their idea and their reality (Leviticus 5:1-19). But Jesus was the final offering, the one up to any task, the one sufficient to carry away and dissolve every crime. And in his offering, sin itself was condemned, sin itself was sentenced – “not 'I' … but the sin that dwells within me,” Paul would say (cf. Romans 7:20).

If our lives are leading to a courtroom drama, this makes all the difference in the world (and beyond the world). I've never seen a story like this on Law & Order! Because how could any courtroom drama play out the same way when Guilt itself, Crime itself, Sin itself, has been executed before we even knew court was in session? How could our case be the same when the Judge and our Defense Counsel have been in cahoots since long before we ever got on the docket?

See, God condemned sin in the flesh already! So it doesn't matter who tries to condemn you for what sin did in you, through you, to you. It doesn't matter if your heart condemns you, because “God is greater than our heart, and he knows everything” (1 John 3:20). It doesn't matter if the Law condemns you for all the crimes you never wanted to do anyway (cf. Romans 7:15-20). It doesn't matter if the court of public opinion condemns you, exposes you “publicly … to reproach and affliction” (Hebrews 10:33). It doesn't matter if your family or your friends or your neighbors condemn you for not measuring up to the laws and standards they wrote. God has already condemned the only condemnable things, and he did it in his Son's flesh at Calvary.

So any warrant for you has been run through the shredder. A full pardon has been issued. The sentence has been set aside. Your verdict has been rewritten entirely, from 'guilty' to 'righteous,' if (and only if) you belong to Christ, if (and only if) you are in Christ. Your crimes, your guilt, your shame, your sins, your struggles past and present and future, can never more dictate the terms for who – and whose – you are! Failure leading to blame, failure leading to shame, failure leading to condemnation – that was then, when you were under the rule of sin and death, but this is now, in the Spirit's world, after crime's condemnation has set you free (Romans 8:2)!

So Paul can stress: “There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1)! 'No condemnation' – couldn't you just shout it from the rooftops? Paul puts maximum emphasis here: No, nada, zip, zilch, zero! But it doesn't come about because of what was, or will be, done by us or through us. Indeed, that's our problem! Our rewritten verdict, 'Uncondemned,' rests in what was done for us and in us. Paul's very clear here: the result of God condemning our sin in Christ's flesh was so that “the just requirement of the law,” or the just decree, “might be fulfilled in us – those who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit” (Romans 8:4). It's just like the prophets of old promised (Ezekiel 36:27). This Spirit of God fulfills in us, for us, everything the good Law required; and more than that, the Spirit working in us fulfills God's just decree of life. Where God's just decree against sin was death (Romans 1:32), God's just decree for Christ, and those in Christ and ergo righteous in Christ, is a life sentence – literally! Life, and freedom, and glory!

If you are in Christ, really in Christ, then God can never view you unfavorably on balance, he can never see you as condemnation-worthy, because you're buried in Christ. Christ is forever part of your equation, and as long as you're linked to him, the organic unity of you-and-Jesus can never be condemned, can never be weighed in the balance and found wanting – not if you're in Christ!

Reading today's passage, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who would be tried, convicted, and condemned to death by the Nazis, saw that their attempt to condemn him and his Christ could only backfire on them. For God's part, he said, “God is pleased with God's saints,” and that's exactly who those in Christ, whatever their past and whatever their struggles, are. Those in Christ learn to rise above the rules of the flesh and to walk according to a Spirit of life and freedom – but are never condemned for faltering footsteps.

During the years of his vicious life and vicious deeds, Israel Brandt was not a religious man, and certainly not a man who walked according to the Spirit of Life. A week before his execution, a reporter asked him what he thought of Christianity. Brandt replied that he respected the Christian faith, but didn't have any himself; he just couldn't buy it, couldn't accept it, wouldn't follow it. During those next days of his imprisonment, however, three local Lebanon pastors tirelessly visited, by night and by day, the county prison where three of the Blue-Eyed Six were being held. And the patient, fervent witness of those pastors, coupled with the witness of God's own Spirit, slowly broke down Brandt's defenses and perhaps softened his heart.

You see, the night before the execution, Israel Brandt asked to be received as a member of the Lutheran church. And then he shared in the Lord's Supper alongside Pastor George Trabert and fellow convict Josiah Hummel. The morning found him singing hymns, and as he stood at the gallows with a noose around his neck, observers watched his lips move in silent prayer. Behind him, he'd left a poem written in his final days:

O loving wife and children dear,
I love from heart you all,
But I am here in jail secure
Hemmed in by lock and wall.
But here I sing and pray –
O Jesus, take me o'er the way,
Forgive me all my sins.

Yes, Israel I was christened,
Jesus' name I see;
In Him I've found all comfort;
O precious blood for me.
Holy home I wish to go,
My faith in Thee alone I show,
For you will be my Savior.

On God and not on mortal man
To build all hope, I must,
To gain my life salvation
With all my soul I'll trust,
And when my walk is ended here,
O take me to you, Savior dear,
O God, Thy will be done!

Now, I can't tell you what was in Brandt's heart during those last hours and minutes of his earthly journey. But if what was in his heart was Jesus Christ, then before noose ever tightened around Brandt's neck, he stood uncondemned by the one tribunal that really matters. As Judge Henderson had hoped for him, Brandt had been “cleansed from the guilt of all unrighteousness.” And there was no condemnation left over for him, in life or in death, if he was found in Christ Jesus in those last days. Nor, if you walk according to the Spirit of Life in Jesus Christ, can there be any condemnation left for you. Because if you're in Christ, the Christ in whose flesh our sin was already condemned, then sentence was passed, the pardon was granted, the verdict is rewritten. Live free!

Sunday, April 1, 2018

The Day God Laughed: Easter Homily on Luke 24

It was, without a doubt, the most important day in human history. It was also, without a doubt, the greatest and most beautiful day in human history. And I have a sneaking suspicion it may have been the funniest day in human history. Imagine that scene. Two days ago had been the great darkness, the spine-chilling horror, of the death of Life. The order had been given to secure the tomb, to ensure that nothing out of the ordinary could possibly happen. And now, in the early morning hours, a gaggle of Galilean women, lugging spices and ointments aplenty, come with very clear expectation: to ask the soldiers to move the heavy stone and let them in to visit a corpse. When they come, they find zero soldiers – which is no problem because there's no stone in the way – but then there's no corpse behind it, either (Luke 23:55—24:3)!

The women are totally perplexed – they're at a loss, they're speechless, they're confused and discombobulated. And that's before a couple heavenly folks pop into visibility next to them: “Surprise!” It's a surprise party (Luke 24:5)! And the reason for the party is this news: “He is not here; but he has risen” (Luke 24:6). And so the women race off through the garden as fast as they can, going to go find Jesus' forlorn best friends to pass along the news: “Remember how he told you, while he was still in Galilee, that the Son of Man must be delivered into the hands of sinful men and be crucified and on the third day rise” (Luke 24:6-9). And then, in a twist, nobody believes a word they're saying (Luke 24:11)!

But that doesn't stop Peter – I don't think Peter was really the sharpest, I think he was just the one with the least filter between his instincts and his mouth – it doesn't stop Peter from running full speed through the streets of Jerusalem, running full speed to the garden, racing over grass and flowers, maybe crashing into a tree on the way, maybe stumbling over a root or a rock, and making it to the vacant tomb, full of nothing but the linen cloth they'd wrapped the late Messiah in. And we're told that as he beat his retreat, “he went home marveling at what had happened” (Luke 24:12). Peter was surprised! Maybe his eyes bugged out of his head, maybe his mouth gaped open, maybe a line of drool ran over his lips in his stupor, maybe he giggled giddily and inexplicably to himself. What does it look like to really wonder, really marvel, to be totally and completely caught off-guard?

And I wonder what God, what Jesus, was thinking – surely Jesus, unseen but nearby, was keeping an eye on the proceedings; we know he wasn't far away, not in any sense that mattered. Now, the Jesus we meet in the Gospel texts may be described as a man of sorrows, but he's not really a dour figure. If he were, he wouldn't have been invited to so many parties among the decidedly not-so-pious crowds. Ancient Jewish humor is notorious for putting heavy emphasis on puns and irony, and his teachings are full of them. A few scholars have pointed out that, in his first-century setting, Jesus' teachings are full of humor, even playfulness. I have to think, as this God watched his close friend Peter wandering gobsmacked through Jerusalem by a rock and some fabric, it might have been quite the scene to behold – and may well have been an occasion for the risen Christ to laugh!

And that would be quite in keeping with the rest of their day. What happens later? A pair of followers walk the dusty country roads away from the city, heading toward the village of Emmaus. One of them is Cleopas, and early church historians mention he was in fact Jesus' uncle. The two of them are having a conversation about all that's gone on, and Jesus out of nowhere just walks right up to them. That's a major plot twist, but wait! They don't recognize him! Why not? Because he doesn't let them – even if just in their eyes, he's in disguise. So a disguised Jesus comes in and starts questioning them on what they're talking about. Oh, he knows good and well. But he wants to surprise them. In disguise, along the way he gives them the Old Testament run-down, of how all the Law and the Prophets make sense of the things that happened (Luke 24:13-27).

When they reach Emmaus, Jesus pretends he's got a longer walk to make, pretends to resist their requests to stay with them, until he pretends to give in. And then they gather around a table – just like we are today. It's just like a meal from four evenings earlier – just ninety-six hours separate this meal in Emmaus from the one in the Upper Room, the Last Supper (Luke 24:28-30). You see, he's explained to them that it was “necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory” (Luke 24:26). Because it was. It was necessary for our sakes that the body of Christ should be broken. It was necessary for our sakes that the blood of Christ was to be poured out. We confess our sins, and he welcomes us to the table where the host is Jesus and the meal is Jesus, and that means life everlasting – because we trust him, we have a relationship with him, we behold him.

When these two lost disciples gather around the table with their strange guest, he takes the bread and blesses it – that's the host's job, isn't it? – and then he breaks it and gives it to them. And when he gives it to them, they get to recognize who he really is; the disguise is gone, and at the table he becomes truly visible to them – and then vanishes from sight, remaining with them in their hearts and in their meal (Luke 24:30-31). As they were in total amazement, I have to think that as soon as Jesus was out of sight, he was laughing. The disguise, the surprise, the twists and turns, the delight – he fooled them, and he fooled them into sharing his life! And even Ecclesiastes tells us, “Bread is made for laughter, and wine gladdens life” (Ecclesiastes 10:19)! So right now, on this day of gladness, we're going to approach the table, and, confessing our sins, we ask Jesus to pull a fast one on us, too, before we resume our exploration of this astounding Easter day.

{Here we pause to celebrate the Eucharist}

As soon as they'd finished eating, those followers in Emmaus raced back to Jerusalem, finding not just the main core of Jesus' disciples, the Twelve minus Judas, but also others who'd gathered along with them. I bet those women were there. Maybe some others, too (Luke 24:33-35)! And just as they were swapping stories and tales, just as they were laughing and pondering, surprise! Jesus jumps out at them from thin air – surprise! Naturally, it makes them jump, gives them a shock! If Jesus had wanted, he could have appeared outside and just knocked on the door, right? But he chose to unveil himself in their midst – is it a stretch to think it was for dramatic effect, it was to shock and startle them just like that (Luke 24:36-37).

And they figure he's a spirit, a ghost, an apparition. They worry they're in a horror story; they think this is still a tragedy. And what comes next, it's as if Jesus is saying to them, “Can't you guys get your genre straight? This ain't no horror story! This is a divine comedy!” He starts munching on broiled fish, invites them to inspect his scars and holes, lets them put their hands on him (Luke 24:38-43). At first, we know, they weren't sure what to think. Luke tells us that they disbelieved, but he says why, too: they “still disbelieved for joy.” They didn't trust what was before their eyes, at first, because a risen Jesus was just too good to be true! It was too amazing, too astonishing, too magnificent, too hilariously perfect. But the really risen Jesus presents us with the truth of what was too good to be true, yet is.

I have to think, when the ice was broken, when the disciples and others really grasped that it was Jesus, when their disbelief was broken, they were left, Luke tells us, with the joy and with more marveling (Luke 24:41). I have to think that, in the joy and in the marveling, the disciples laughed! And I have to think Jesus laughed with them – they laughed for relief, he laughed to celebrate their joy! And he gave them the same run-down he'd given Cleopas and friend already in Emmaus – how all of this fit perfectly as the capstone of Israel's story, that “the Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead, and that repentance for the forgiveness of sins should be proclaimed in his name to all nations, beginning with Jerusalem” (Luke 24:44-47). Here, I think, Luke is summarizing the whole forty days after the resurrection – this is the basic gist of what Jesus told them the whole time. And you know what? I don't think it felt like boot camp, for the disciples. I don't think it was an unpleasant experience, for them to be reunited with Jesus for those weeks. I think they had a great time.

Time passes; Jesus leads them to Bethany, and he ascends to heaven while in the midst of blessing them with God's favor to carry on their mission (Luke 24:48-51). How do they respond? Luke tells us, “They worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy, and were continually in the temple blessing God” (Luke 24:52-53). And that's the note on which Luke ends his Gospel. The whole closing chapter is suffused with marveling and sprinkled with joy that increases at every turn. Every step of the way, I think Jesus was ahead of his friends in joy – I think his joy was even greater, even bigger, even more full and brimming. I think Jesus loved seeing them puzzle over what was happening, loved giving them the dramatic twist, loved the questions and the ploys and the set-ups and the punchlines. I think that if Palm Sunday was the day God wept, Easter Sunday was most definitely the day God laughed!

Because think about it! What else are all these anecdotes, if not a series of holy pranks? He pranks the women with an empty tomb, unsealed and unguarded, and a surprise scare from a couple angels. He pranks the pair on the way to Emmaus with disguises, questions, and a final unveiling around the table. He pranks the Jerusalem crew with a surprise visit from thin air, with more supper and more festivities. I'm sure he has more to lighten their hearts each day for his duration with them, and even when he goes, he fills them with great joy. These are the joy-giving works of the Lord, and the portrayal of the loving God we find in scripture is one who savors the spread of holy joy and holy mirth.

The older books tell us that, when God laid the foundations of the first creation of the earth, “the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy” (Job 38:7). And when Jesus rose, he was the foundation and cornerstone of a new creation, even more glorious than the first. If every heavenly creation shouted and laughed joyfully at the first, what kind of raucous laughter and exuberant singing pervaded every hall of heaven the day he rose and the day he came home?

Job's comforter Bildad was wrong about plenty, but not about one thing: ours is a God who delights, in the end, after all the suspense and dramatic tension, to finally “fill your mouth with laughter and your lips with shouting” (Job 8:21). The psalmist likewise tells us that, when God restored his people's fortunes – and never did he do so more dramatically than on Easter morning – “our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy” (Psalm 126:2).

And we know the psalms talk about God laughing at the pointlessness of resisting his onslaught of joy and victory – he laughs at those who oppose him (Psalm 2:4; 37:13; 59:8). How much more, than, must God have laughed at sin and death and Satan as he played the biggest prank on them, as he turned the tables on them, as he set them up for the punchline of his life beyond their reach? And how must have God laughed as he let the disciples in on that big prank, as he told them the happy jest over and over again – the true joke he'd played to destroy all the works of the devil? Blessed were we who wept before over the cross, over the seeming victory of death; because now that the tables have turned, now that the punchline of life has been spoken, we get to laugh and laugh and laugh, just like Jesus promised – and we're laughing with him (Luke 6:21)!

Today, we remember the best prank ever pulled, the best joke ever played – that just when Sin and Death and Hell and Satan thought they had the upper hand, the rug was pulled out from under them, and their foolishness was exposed for all to see and laugh at. And we get to marvel and rejoice when we see and hear the punchline that is the indestructible life of the risen Lord Jesus. This is the day God laughed! And he laughs still, laughs with a laughter that can never be silenced as long as Christ shall live – which is to say, eternally!

Today, he invites you to get the joke. Don't let it pass you by. Don't let it be lost on you. Don't have a lack of humor, which is a lack of faith, that makes you miss out on the punchline that saves you and opens up a world of joy to you. Believe in the risen Christ; trust him, follow him, enjoy his joy. Let him fool you with his crazy ways of true living; get in on his good news. And go forth today, see everything in light of Easter's brightness, and hear in all things the echo of the laugh of our God. For Christ is risen!