First Thoughts on Year A Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 5

William Loader

Pentecost 5: 13 July  Romans 8:1-11

Last week we saw Paul depicting the human condition as one in which even God's good Law is turned to ill effect. "Who shall liberate us?" he asks in 7:24. We need to see that Paul is still defending his understanding of the Christian gospel which gives no prominent place to the Law. His opponents think this is a betrayal. Surely Israel's Messiah would want them to uphold Israel's God given Law! Otherwise people will just turn to sin. This is even more acute now that the movement has opened itself to Gentiles. Paul has been countering their view by arguing that, good as the Law is, it cannot produce the kind of change required in people to set them free from the syndrome of sin, guilt, death and condemnation.

In Romans 8:1 he asserts: there is now no condemnation when we enter the sphere of Christ's influence and power ("in Christ"). Why? Not just because there is forgiveness; nor just because we have someone else to reinforce the authority of the Law in telling us how to be good - not at all the latter! Paul explains immediately what achieves the difference: "The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has liberated you from the law of sin and death" (8:2). This is ambiguous. Does "law" here mean "the principle" or does it mean the Law? It is hard to tell. A reference to the Law is doubtless in there somewhere because it is a major issue of concern. But it hardly means: "The Law when it leads to life in Christ Jesus". Whereas "the Law which leads to sin and death" is doubtless intended to reflect on the Law. After all, Romans 7 has been labouring to make that point.

The following verse also confirms that there is a contrast between the Law and what Christ brings. So it seems Paul is referring to a new law or principle when he speaks of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus which effectively replaces the Law of Moses. This becomes clear as we read on. 8:3 declares that the Law was weak, undermined by human personality in its corrupt state which keeps using it for its own ends. Romans 7 made that point. In response to this situation Paul sees God taking the initiative to bring about liberation. He send his own Son right into the thick of the human predicament to deal with the situation. Paul has many ways of explaining how this was achieved, often linked with notions of vicarious suffering. Here the focus is on the disempowerment of sin as it is found in the human predicament. Earlier he talks about an initiative of God's goodness which restores a broken relationship. That good news is so powerful it sets people free (1:16-17).

The effect of God's goodness not only liberates people from the sin syndrome which he has described in Romans 7. It also produces fruit, as he stated already in 7:4-6. Now the just requirements of the Law have a chance of being fulfilled, but it is not by way of trying harder to obey the Law. It is rather by allowing  transforming love to liberate us from sin and its power which consists in guilt and fear. In Galatians he speaks of the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace and much else (5:22-23). In other words, by opening ourselves to God's Spirit which brings transforming love we are transformed to become loving people. When that process starts happening we more than fulfil what the Law intended. Its goals are achieved, but on the basis of a loving relationship. Love begins to reproduce love. Human experience tells us that this really does work. While there is a role for behaviour modification and rules, nothing changes a person so much as the experience of being loved - we see it in young and old. This process is foundational to Paul's argument.

Recognising this process also sets the agenda for Christian living. It is life in relation to the Spirit of Christ. It is, as 8:5-7 suggest, focusing oneself on the Spirit which brings love instead of on "the flesh", that is, the systems and priorities of our human personalities when they are caught in the sin syndrome and not liberated by love. Both options represent more than two sets of rules. Rather they represent two different ways of centering one's being. Each way initiates and perpetuates a process. When we operate out of sin and fear, we reproduce sin and fear. When we operate out of love and hope, we reproduce love and hope. In both cases this is more than living by ideals. Paul does not personalise the negative focus - as others might have by speaking of the devil. He is too aware that this is a system created within ourselves for which we need to take responsibility as it cripples our will. But on the positive side it is clearly a life in relationship with the Spirit of Christ. He can say "Spirit", "Christ", Spirit of Christ", "Spirit of God" - all effectively meaning the same thing.

8:9-11 expands the celebration. Not only do we have this process happening in us - and we need to keep focused to keep it going - but it also holds the promise that one day we will be fully liberated from the negative aspects we have instilled into our human condition. For Paul that means a resurrection body. Until then we need to face the reality that we carry about with us both systems and can easily lose focus and surrender ourselves again to the sin syndrome. The ruts and routines don't magically disappear! Some have deep roots. The difference between this state of affairs and what Paul described in Romans 7 is that here in Romans 8 he speaks of a liberating power which the human being pictured in Romans 7 did not have and desperately needed.

Paul is optimistic and would be shocked to hear some Christians in later times seeing themselves in Romans 7. Paul would see no liberation in people with plagued consciences. Paul's gospel lifts people beyond such self preoccupation so that they are now free to "get on the with the job" of living. Death does not reign. Life does. There is now no condemnation. There is the Spirit of life. As we allow ourselves to enter this powerful new way of being set free, we ourselves have some chance of also embodying such good news and being good news for others.

 Gospel  Pentecost 5: 13 July Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23

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