A Sermon for the Sixth Sunday after Pentecost (12/07/20): No Condemnation

No Condemnation
Romans 8:1-11

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

This is Paul at his most dense, most theological. He crams more theological thought into these eleven verses than anywhere else in his own writing or anywhere else in the Bible. Paul is addressing the big question, life the universe and everything. Or at least the part of that big question that concerns us most: The human condition. Paul, like everyone eventually, recognises the stark reality of what it is to be human. Our bodies die. And it looks like we, what makes me “me” or you “you”, it looks like we die with them. We don’t like it. It is a miserable and disappointing prospect. All that we are turns to dust and ashes. It, all our striving, all our longing, amounts to nothing. But at the same time we are aware that there is something more. The danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard called the human condition: “Finitude flung against eternity.” There is “transcendent.” There is an overarching being, an “is-ness”, that continues. And what is more we have something in common with it. But something has been lost. The worst part about being human is not just that we die, but that we die knowing there is “everlasting”. We are aware that there is “transcendence”, something bigger and more lasting than ourselves. We aware that there is permanence and meaning, but we know that we don’t share it. The human condition, as the Bible tells it, is the fall. The overarching being which we are aware of is God. It is God’s image we still bear, that awareness of transcendence. One of our familiar  hymns rather elegently sums this up: “Your living likeness still we bear though marred, dishonoured, disobeyed.” (Great God Your love has called us here StF499/H&P500) And death is the result.
 
One response to the human condition, perhaps the most “natural” response is to declare, as  so many do: “Eat drink and be merry for to tomorrow we die.” That is to say with the author of Ecclesiastes: “Vanity of vanities! All is vanity” (Ecclesiastes 1:2). Everything is futile. That being so, you might as well enjoy it while it lasts. This is what Paul would call life according to the flesh. In its most lurid form perhaps what we would most easily recognise as “fleshy living”. Literally eating and drinking, and much else besides, and being merry. It is living a live which ignores the destination that human life is headed to. Or it is anaesthetising oneself from awareness of that destination, by living in the moment by indulging those appetites that we are happy to call “of the flesh”. 
But for Paul religion can just as easily be what he call life according to the flesh. One of the most startling features of the gospel, especially in Paul’s reading of it, is the stand the gospel takes against religion and even against morality. We might be tempted to soften that criticism by suggesting Paul opposes “religiosity” and “moralism”. But really his fire is directed against religion, even the most perfect religion he knows, the one he was brought up in.   Even as religion tries to answer the question of the human condition, even as it tries to restore what of the image of God that has been lost, even as it tries to restore us to the fullness of that image, even when that religion is the ideal religion, it can still be “life according to the flesh.” Paul in his own life had fully experience the paradox, the internal contradiction, of even an ideal religion. For him the Law, that is the Jewish Torah, the Law is perfect. It fully discloses the nature of God. And it directs human beings to what must be done to restore God’s image in us. The Law justly condemns the way in which humans have distorted God’s image in themselves. But the Law, even perfect as it is, cannot do what it sets out to do. It cannot restore humans to the image of God. It cannot solve the problem of the human condition. Because as Paul himself has experienced, we can will the Law’s requirements but we cannot do them. That is what lies at the heart of the human condition. We can be aware of God. We can be aware of the solution to our condition. But is the very nature of being human, trapped inside our bodies as it were, that prevents us from doing anything about it. It is the ultimate Catch 22. We can will the laws requirements but we cannot do them. And worse than that, the law reminds us of all the things we should not do and should not be. And that very reminder Paul observes, not least in himself, that very reminder places temptation in our way. In a very real sense  religion, even an ideal religion,  leads us into the very thing it is trying to prevent. It sets our minds on the things of the flesh rather than on things of the Spirit. To attempt to fulfil the Law’s requirements, and so to stand before God on our own merits, would be to have placed ourselves as the focus of attention rather than God. The attempt to fulfil the Law’s just and truthful requirements is to try to approach God in self-righteousness. This is something which is as false as it is impossible. And Paul knows it: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.” Religion, even the ideal religion, the Law, is as “fleshy” as the hedonism that we more readily condemn. The only thing that religion or moralism will do is leave us condemned by religion and moralism.
 
And it is at this point which Paul is able to disclose the Good News. What the Law could not do, God has done:
For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and to deal with sin condemned sin in the flesh so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled.
This is pretty much the whole substance of Paul’s Gospel Everything else,  the 16 chapters of his letter to the Romans, and all his other letters, is not much more than understanding and unwrapping the consequences of that one foundational thought. God does for us what we cannot do for ourselves with religion.
In Jesus the righteous requirements of the Law are fulfilled. To unpack pack quite how God does what the Law can’t, in Jesus, would take much more than one sermon or even a whole series of sermon. A whole life of discipleship might not get to the end of trying to grasp just how God saves us from ourselves. But perhaps at this point, like driving a car, we can drive it to get us from A to B, without necessarily knowing how it the car did it. We can accept that God has done something for us that we can’t do for ourselves. In fact God does something we shouldn’t even try to. In Jesus God opens the possibility for God’s image to be fully restored in human being. Paul draws one of his great contrasts when he reminds us that we are not in the flesh but in the Spirit. Life in the Spirit perhaps in largest measure is accepting our place in God’s order of things. It is, empowered by the Spirit of Christ in us, accepting that we cannot restore God’s image in ourselves. It is admitting that we cannot fulfil the Laws righteous demands. It is accepting that we cannot do for ourselves what God therefore must do for us. It is abandoning all prideful, self-righteous attempts to stand before God in our own merit. It is accepting and trusting that what God has done in Christ is sufficient, even if we never will quite understand how it works. The outcome of what God has done is that there is no condemnation for us. Methodists should recognise what that phrase, indeed the whole reading, is for Paul. “No condemnation now I dread” (And can it be StF345/H&P216) we sing. Paul’s experience of life in the Spirit is a song that that was sung with the same exultant jubilation by him almost 2000 years ago as we might sing Charles Wesley’s words now. The Law condemns us. The human condition is what it is. But that condemnation does not fall against those who are in Christ. There is nothing that we have done, there is nothing that we can do that will remove the restored image of God in us. Those previously lost and missing parts, transcendence, permanence, eternity are restored to us by God. There is nothing that can take that from us, as long as we place our trust in the fact that God has done what nothing else could do 
There is a scene in the film “Oh Brother where Art Thou.” The film is set in America, during the great depression. It is a comedy The central characters are three escaped convicts on the run. At one point they come across a revival meeting at a riverside. A preacher is baptising a large group of people in the river. Two of the three escapees rush into the water and are baptised. In the next scene they are exultant. Everything has been put straight,  they are set free. There is no condemnation for them. Their friend tries to puncture their jubilation They are straight with Lord but, as he points out, “The state of Mississippi is a little more hard nosed.” They haven’t escaped those consequences of their actions. In truth both sides of that conversation are correct. There is no condemnation that can fall us from God. The problem of the human condition has been answered. But we still must live with all the consequence of being human. 
We are still “finitude flung against eternity.” We still all die, but that is no longer a miserable disappointing prospect. Because of what God has done in Jesus Christ, death does not have the last word on us: 
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. 
Amen. 
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No Condemnation by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

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