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!

No comments:

Post a Comment