Grace Presbyterian Church

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Not Condemned

Grace Presbyterian Church

July 23, 2017, Pentecost 7A

Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9

Not Condemned

If last week’s reading from Romans 7 – “I do what I don’t want to do, I don’t want to do what I do” – was marked by linguistic difficulty and a person shift to make a composition teacher weep, today’s reading from the next chapter does one thing exactly right in terms of written composition and exposition: it starts with a wonderful topic sentence.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Not only is it fair to call this a spectacular topic sentence for today’s passage, it’s quite possible to say that this is the pinnacle of this whole epistle. The first seven chapters of Romans point to and lead us toward this truth; everything in the rest of the book follows from it.

One might argue that a wise preacher would stop here. I could just go ahead and say Thanks be to God. Amen. And be done with it. It’s that good as good news.

But no, not quite. There’s a reason Paul didn’t stop here, and there’s a reason a wise pastor can’t stop here. As good a word as it is, this sentence — “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” – is not, in fact, the end of the story. In many ways it’s only the beginning.

You see, this isn’t a detached, abstract reflection floating about in some undefined ether or atmosphere. This is a direct statement, with a concrete, tangible, and even unavoidable effect on the lives of those who are, as Paul says, “in the Spirit,” who “walk … in the Spirit,” or for whom “the Spirit of God dwells in you” or “Christ is in you.”

Paul goes about saying this in so many different ways, but all of them point to a same basic idea; a life that is so bound up in Christ, so completely occupied by and contained in the Holy Spirit that there is no longer any room for the sin that had previously occupied and dominated what Paul has so far called “flesh.”

A word of clarifiction about that: when Paul uses that word “flesh” (the usual epistle translation of a spectacular Greek word, σαρχ (sarx), he isn’t referring merely to the human body – for that he uses another really good Greek word, σωμα (soma). No, when Paul speaks of “flesh” (or sarx) he is referring specifically to the human in its sin-occupied condition, the human who does what it doesn’t want to do and doesn’t do what it knows is right to do – the Chapter 7 human torn between the desire to do right and the compulsion to do wrong.

So it’s not about human bodies being all sinful and irredeemable; Paul will make that clear in verse 11. Reminding his readers of the One who was once dead but lives forever, Paul goes so far as to say that “If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.” It isn’t about “conquering” or “subduing” our mortal bodies – which, after all, are every bit as much a part of God’s creation as all of nature around us – but of no longer being enslaved to or bound by the sin that once held sway over those mortal bodies. And if we are truly in the Spirit, or in Christ, then that power of sin can no longer hold that sway.

Even the Law is redeemed. Remember how Paul spoke of even the good Law being twisted by sin? With sin no longer having power over us, as verse 4 says, “the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled” in those who are in the Spirit.

In short, we are set free – not by anything of our own doing, but by the action of God, in Jesus Christ, working in us through the Spirit. Sounds very Trinitarian, doesn’t it? Paul never does articulate a specific doctrine or idea of the Trinity, but sometimes he sure sounds like it.

Notice how in the central section of today’s reading, it almost seems as if Paul’s focus has shifted. Whereas in previous chapters Paul has spoken so much of the flesh – that sin-dominated body – now he begins to speak of our minds. Take verse 5: “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” That wonderful first verse of the chapter, in other words, is no excuse to disengage. Quite the opposite: now that there is no condemnation, the challenge of living in the Spirit begins.

Last week’s sermon alluded to Paul’s past as Saul, a Pharisee-turned-persecutor of the early followers of Jesus in and around Jerusalem. You might remember the story, told in Acts 9, of how Saul, on his way to Damascus to root out other Christ-followers, was overwhelmed by an appearance of Jesus on that road, losing his sight for a time and being convicted of the sin of his ways. To borrow from the parable Jesus tells in the gospel reading for today, Saul might have seemed the hardest, rockiest soil possible, yet nonetheless Jesus’s word takes root in him strongly and deeply.

But Paul doesn’t respond to this dramatic intervention by disappearing. He does go away for a while, after a few early attempts on his life, but by Acts 13 Paul (with the new name) is back, and the rest of his life is devoted to the proclamation of the good news of Jesus Christ. The news of “no condemnation” was no resting place, but the beginning of a new and challenging life for Paul himself, as it is for any of us who are in the Spirit.

Paul will have a lot more to say about what this “no condemnation” means for us, particularly in chapter 12 of this epistle and after, that great stretch of this letter where “the rubber hits the road” as Paul begins to speak of what the life of one who is “in the Spirit” looks like. But for now he points us to examine where our minds are focused. Are our minds focused on the things of the flesh? And let’s not confuse that with mere bodily pleasures – the “things of the flesh” include such earthly pursuits as riches, power, fame, and so many of the things the world calls good. It doesn’t take a whole lot of looking to see how many of those around us – even those who call themselves Christians, even those who call themselves Christian leaders – have given themselves over very publicly to these “things of the flesh.” They strut about in the halls of power, glorying in their “unprecedented”[i] access to presidents and congressmen rather than rejoicing in being in the Spirit. Anyway, Paul does not have a good word for those whose minds are set on “things of the flesh.” Don’t overlook verse 6: “To set the mind on the flesh is death.”

Fortunately, that verse continues: “…but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” “No condemnation” is not an end, but a beginning; a beginning of a life lived in the Spirit, lived with Christ living in and through us, wholly submitted and obedient to the freedom of God, serving God in perfect freedom.

There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.

Praise be to God. So what now?

Thanks be to God. Amen.

 

Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #405, Praise God For This Holy Ground; #282, Come Down, O Love Divine; #53, O God, Who Gives Us Life; #313, Lord, Make Us More Holy

 

[i] Adelle M. Banks, “Conservative evangelicals revel in their ‘unprecedented’ presidential access,” via Religion News Service, 19 July 2017, religionnews.com/2017/07/19/conservative-evangelicals-revel-in-their-unprecedented-access-to-the-president/ (accessed July 20, 2017, via Twitter).

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