“Christ’s Spirit, and Just Us”
Romans 8: 1-11
In addition to being a pastor, and now a campus pastor, I have also served as a hospital chaplain. I did Clinical Pastoral Education work at St. Mary’s Hospital, in Huntington, and I served as a midnight-shift, on-call chaplain, with occasional substitute-chaplaincy shifts, at Cabell-Huntington Hospital. As I love being a pastor, I also love the work of chaplaincy. I love the work, despite this rather jarring smack of reality: Both pastors and chaplains are often surrounded by death.
Both as a pastor, and as a chaplain, I have been with people as they died. Some were friends, and others were strangers. Some were peaceful deaths, and others were struggles. Some were surrounded by family. Some were completely alone, not counting my presence. All of them were hard, and all of them were holy.
We know that all life ultimately leads to death. For our loved ones, and for ourselves, we pray for long life, and death which is distant, not imminent. Christianity teaches that life—all life—is absolutely good, sacred: from God, reflecting God, belonging to God.
You know, this topic brings to the surface of my consciousness a dramatic sea change that has evolved within me over a few years. I used to think nothing of growing old. There was a time in my life when thirty was old; now thirty is well passed stage of life, and forty looks extraordinarily young. Fifty and sixty, maybe even seventy, are looking pretty spry to me now, too. I once even had a preoccupation with famous people who died young. I can remember having what felt at the time like a deep conversation with a couple of my buddies from college, canvasing all the legends from pop culture who died extraordinarily young: James Dean; Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Hank Williams Sr., Kurt Cobain, to name just a few. When I was in my late teens and early to mid twenties, I truly believed that Billy Joel song, “Only the good die young.”
Then, I grew up.
Then, through my work as a pastor and as a chaplain, I met some incredible human beings who were older, aged, elderly, who still loved life, valued life, and wanted to their life to go on, for as long as possible. In my last church, I had friends in their nineties still living lives of vibrancy, passion, and service. Here at Trinity, we are blessed with a lovely lady, Edna, still going strong at 100.
I no longer admire those pop icons who died incredibly young, some of them through the disease of addiction, or because of poor, youthful decision making. Today, my heroes are the ones with gray and silver hair, bumps and bruises, wounds and scars—the badges of life, of living, of surviving, of fighting on…because all life belongs to God and God lovingly names every life holy. God wants us to want to see tomorrow, and I love the folks who earnestly fight to make it to tomorrow.
The apostle Paul opens today’s passage by reminding us of the challenges of human living, all the pitfalls of living “in the flesh.” To be sure, human sin is always at the forefront of much of Paul’s writing. He likes to remind us that we are heirs to Adam and Eve, living in the very footsteps of God walking through the garden in the cool of eventide—so close to God in relationship, and so intimate with God’s ways and habits, we even recognize the sound God makes when God takes those sunset strolls—but so far away from our Creator because of “the law of sin and death.”
Earlier in my life—and I am embarrassed to admit how recent earlier actually was—I didn’t really understand sin. Oh, from the time I had self-awareness, I could recognize how imperfect a being I am. Beyond my all-too-natural inferiority complex, I still couldn’t grasp what sin or sins I had committed, so terrible the Son of God needed to die for. I can remember thinking, “I’m not all that good, but I’m not all that bad, am I?”
And then, once again…I grew up. I lived. I learned. I made mistakes. I sinned. I came to realize my sins were bad; I had hurt other people. I came to realize I needed to confess, repent, and try to live a better life. I also learned along the way—thank you seminary! Thank you John Wesley!—that there isn’t just personal sin. We also live within corporate sin, communal sin, societal sin. It’s not just what I do against God. It’s what we do, collectively, that abuses and hurts our fellow human beings, and thus God. I came to take seriously the words of our Prayer of Confession, which I here paraphrase, “Forgive us for the bad we do that we shouldn’t do. Forgive us for all the good we do that we refuse to do.” What we do is sin. What we do not do is sin.
Yes. Life put some age on me, and I realized how much sin weighed down my soul, breaking my heart, and God’s. I hope you don’t think I am trying to rationalize my yesterdays, or give myself a free-pass when I say that I have also come to realize that sin is simply the way of life, like the coming and going of the tides, like the eternal turning of the seasons.
Not only do we move from youth to maturity to old age.
We move from innocence and naivety to comprehending and knowing—like Adam and Eve, we tear into that fruit of knowledge.
We move from Matchbox cars to real cars; we move from playing house to keeping house.
We move from needing care, to being the one who gives care, and in the fullness of God’s time, we become the one needing care, all over again.
Like the natural, holy progression of life, we will make mistakes and need to ask forgiveness for them. We will get broken, and need love to make us whole.
Paul writes God gives the world Christ, and Christ’s love overcomes our human frailty, dare-I-say, sin, or to borrow Paul’s word, the flesh? When we focus on Jesus’ death on the cross being God’s way of forgiving us of our sins, I think we miss some depth, and rhythm, fullness and poetry that God wants to give us, to make our hearts whole and our souls sing.
It’s not just his death, or the cross. Jesus’ entire life brings grace to our lives. God cried like a baby, because God was a baby. God was whisked away like a refugee, because a powerful king wanted him dead and his parents had to make him become, with them, a refugee. God was tempted like us, because God became like us. God died like us because the world happens to us all, including God, as person. God rose from the dead and in so doing, Jesus redeems us all; Jesus loves us all.
Like my ninety something year old friends who insist on living, so Jesus said, “My love will not be killed by death. My love, my life, will go on.”
So God invites us all to know and love Christ. Paul makes it very clear that there is no distinction between a Christian, and a Christian with “the Spirit.” All Christians have the Spirit. In our United Methodist baptism liturgy, we pray for the Holy Spirit to come upon the baby, the child, the adult whose heart the same Spirit drenches in those holy waters, the waters of creation, the waters of the Jordan, the waters of the womb of God’s creative being.
So my fellow Christian, you have the Holy Spirit. You may not always feel it—faith must be deeper than mere, fleeting feeling—and we need to all strive for assurance and a daily dose of God’s infinite grace. With the Spirit, we can overcome. We can overcome—here it comes, Paul—the flesh, the frailty of life, the brokenness, the jagged edges, sin. In our baptism, we die like Jesus died, and we rise again, as Jesus is risen. We are reborn, in hope, in grace, and love. We can overcome even death, because Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you,” and heaven, like the communion of saints, is just a whisper of wind apart from us.
In Christ, in the Spirit, life goes on, and beautifully so. Thanks be to God.