First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Lent 5

William Loader

Lent 5:  29 March Romans 8:6-11

Paul has just reached a climax in his argument about the Law. In Romans 7 he has sought to demonstrate that perverted human nature is such that it subverts the Law. Confronting human nature with the demands of the Law does not bring about change. It tends rather to ensconce people in their rebelliousness. The Law does not then bring life but death. Intellectually people may affirm the Law as good, but there are other forces operating which lead people into more guilt and more captivity to patterns of behaviour which are destructive. "Who shall liberate me from this body/personality of death?" (7:25).

The situation seems quite hopeless, but for divine intervention. Paul sees that divine intervention in Christ. Its effect is to offer a relationship of love which includes forgiveness of sin, the overcoming of alienation, and the power to begin anew and to keep on going (8:1-4). What the Law could not achieve because of the state of human nature (8:3a) God has achieved in another way, through sending his Son right into this hopeless situation of humanity to deal with it (8:3b). 8:4 then reinforces Paul's claim. Rather than showing disrespect for the Law of God, enshrined in scripture, as some Christians suggested Paul was doing, he is proclaiming a gospel that liberates people to live in ways that fulfil and more than fulfil what the Law asks of them. They do so, however, not by trying harder but by becoming engaged in a relationship which has the effect of changed behaviour.

Paul has scored this point. In 8:5 he then explains the contrast. People live according to "the flesh" or according to the Spirit. They are two mindsets. By the first Paul means trying to improve yourself by your own efforts and remaining focused on yourself. By the latter he means opening yourself to the transforming reality of love through the Spirit. "Flesh" is not neutral here nor does it mean our human nature in itself,  let alone our sexual nature as if to be human is bad. "Flesh" is a certain way of living, a perversion of our true selves.

Our passage comes in at 8:6 where Paul elaborates further. If you set your mind or focus just on yourself in a selfish kind of way, you will not succeed. It is the way of death. By this he means the state of alienation described in Romans 7 and reflected in the cry of 7:25 cited above. The way to liberation is to let go of focusing only on yourself and of making yourself self sufficient, even when that means trying to help yourself by keeping the Law. It is to open yourself to being loved. That includes dropping the defences and the pretences which we build up when we are trying to protect ourselves and make ourselves.

We give up the struggle of justifying ourselves to ourselves and to others and to God and we accept our human frailty and sinfulness and we accept God's love. We can stop fighting. We can find peace (8:6). It is OK to let go and be loved. Sometimes it takes a lot of courage especially when we have spent our lives trying to maintain our own construction of ourselves, which has often meant kidding ourselves and others. We stop trying to make ourselves feel better by doing good. We give it away and accept grace.

Fighting to sustain our identity apart from God and by all this effort at achieving worth sets us on collision course with those who just want to look us in the eye with love and embrace us. We are then our own worst enemies and it also means we resist being loved. That includes resisting God (8:7). Sometimes our fear of love can even be violent, because love sees us as we are - we can't stand that. Such a mindset sets us heading not to life but death, even though we think it is the way we shall save ourselves. it is certainly debilitating. Even when we acknowledge God's law as good we won't be able to keep it because we lack the inner resources (8:7). We just can't please God like that and we also do no good to those around us and to ourselves (8:8).

Paul celebrates that love liberates people. It gives them hope. Here in 8:9 he speaks of God's Spirit entering people. In the same verse he speaks of Christ's Spirit entering us. It is really all the same. The God who meets in compassion in Christ is there for us in the present. We stop being isolates. We become God's (8:9). Much earlier Paul spoke of the glory which humanity has lost by its alienation and sin (3:23). Now we can become what we were made to be. 

8:10 could mean one of two things: the body, the old state of affairs, has come to an end. Then it reflects an answer to the cry of liberation from the body of death in 7:25. Or it may be that Paul wants to say we still have to live with these negative dynamics entrenched in our psyche but we don't have to be overwhelmed by them because the Spirit of love can set us on a new path. The latter fits more into our notions of gradual and dynamic change. Certainly Paul thinks change is possible in the here and now, but he also knows that we keep having to realise this potential and keep focused. It doesn't just happen automatically. The statement is so dense that it is hard to tell. Like a set of notes Paul contrasts: body/death/sin with Spirit/life/goodness. He knows we can choose the second cluster. Its result is goodness: love begets love.

To top it off Paul looks to the future. For Paul hopes for more than individuals having individual peace. He has a vision which sees the whole of reality transformed and liberated from alienation (8:21). As he heads that way he starts, at least, with our human frailty. For Paul that means a future resurrection when we will be totally transformed. Christ's death and resurrection is the model. Paul grounds that hope for the future in the present experience of love. Our images of the future may take a different shape from Paul's, but his vision sets helpful parameters. Hope without hope for all and hope for change and justice and also hope for creation itself is just private religiosity.

Paul has a big-picture understanding of what love does. It more than enables him to respond to the quibbles of those who think he is abandoning scripture because it is grounded in the bigness of God and is as defiant as Christ's resurrection to which Paul keeps returning. There can be change now and there needs to be change in the future. How else can one understand the movement of radical love?

Gospel: Lent 5: 29 March John 11:1-45

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