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.

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