Sunday, July 20, 2014

Faithful Living - Abiding (July 13, 2014)

Faithful Living – Abiding
Romans 8:1-11
July 13, 2014[1]

This morning, I have been hit right between the eyes with some pretty heavy questions.  And since I like to share with my friends, I thought I would share some of these questions with you.  Fair warning—these are some heavy duty questions, ultimate questions about the way we live and the way we love.
Who or what is the center of your life?  What is the primary motivator and driver of your decisions.  What occupies most of your life energy?  What do you treasure most?
This summer, we have been spending a few weeks exploring what it means to live faithfully as a disciple of Jesus Christ.  We have been using the Apostle Paul as a tour guide on this journey, using his letter to the church at Rome as a roadmap.  So far, we have talked about:
·      The freedom we are given by Christ:  freedom to live the way that God wants us to live (Romans 6:11-23);
·      We have talked about the dilemma we find ourselves in: sin still exercises power and control over our lives.  We want to do what is right, but we can’t; we don’t want to do what is wrong, but we do it anyway.  We fail, but Paul affirms to us that God through Jesus Christ can redeem us from what he calls this “body of death” (Romans 7:15-25a).  He proclaims “thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!”  (Romans 7:25a).
This brings us to Chapter 8, where Paul begins to discuss living in the Spirit of Christ.  Paul he assures us that “there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).  He doesn’t say that the struggle against sin is over.  He doesn’t say that we will not be tempted.  But he doesn’t say that when we fall down, we will be condemned.  He says, instead, “there is no condemnation.”  We are guilty, but we receive pardon.  Paul says boldly that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Romans 8:2).  And in Romans 8, Paul talks some more about what that “Spirit of life in Christ Jesus” means.  I sum it up in one word:  abiding.
Paul uses several catch phrases to describe this abiding:
·      Walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit (v. 4)--
·      Set our minds on the things of the Spirit (v. 5);
·      Live in the awareness that the Spirit of God dwells in us. 
In our world, it can be hard to connect, to live with this “Spirit,” who we cannot see.  This is doctrinally the right way to describe the life of God in us and of us in God.  But it can be hard to relate to Spirit.
So let’s try to put it into more concrete language.  Why are we here?  In the words of one spiritual writer of 460 years ago, we are here to “praise, reverence and serve God,” to live with God forever.[2]  David Fleming has given these words a more contemporary expression in this way:  “God who loves us creates us and wants to share life with us forever.  Our love response takes shape in our praise and honor and service of the God of our life.”[3]
God loves us and wants to share life with us forever.  We respond to God’s love by praising, honoring and serving God, who is the center of our life.  The implications of those words are huge.  Loving God becomes the central focus of our lives. 
I have been challenged this week to live so that my “only desire and [my] one choice [is] this:  I want and I choose what better leads to God’s deepening life in me.”[4]
In those statements, we find a current expression of what Paul was talking about living and abiding in the Spirit.  Don’t get too hung up on trying to understand in your head what “Spirit” means.  Rather, try to experience Spirit of God through Christ present in your life.
Walk in the Spirit.  Dwell on the Spirit.  Live in awareness of the Spirit living in you, loving in and through you.  When you walk in the Spirit, the Spirit walks with you. 
I have heard it said that although we have the Spirit of God living within us, the Spirit can only love through us as much as we are willing to open up our hearts to let it.  This means that if we close up our hearts to the Spirit, we limit God’s work in the world.  But if we open up our hearts to receive and express God’s love, we become part of the process in which God make us instruments of God’s peace.  We begin to love—not because we have to or ought to, but because we can’t help but love in response to the love we have received from God.
If you were to be aware of God’s presence walking at your side, how would that affect where you go, what you say, what you do?  How would that affect how you spend your money, how you relax, how you love?  How would it affect your choices in your job?  How would it affect the way you raise your kids?  How would it affect your choices in entertainment?  How would it affect your praying?  What if you began to understand God not as a presence out there somewhere but actually began to experience God as present in your very heart and life, closer than the air that you breathe?  How would it affect the way you think about, speak about, and behave towards your enemies?  How would it affect the way you think about, speak about, and behave towards the ones closest in your life?
What would happen if your focus throughout the day, throughout the week, throughout your life, would be on wanting and choosing what better leads to God’s deepening life in you?
But we are human.  We have a hard time remembering and recalling something or Someone that we cannot see.  Maybe that is one reason (one among many) that Jesus took some common, ordinary things in life and infused them with sacred meaning.  May that’s why Jesus took bread and wine and transformed them into a something that is more than a way of remembering—He gave us to re-experiencing His life in us.  He started with a meal that reminded God’s children of the way that God delivered them from slavery.  But then Jesus transformed that memory of deliverance into a means of grace by which we can receive God himself into our lives.  By receiving the bread and the cup, we remember God’s deliverance—both from slavery in Egypt and from slavery to sin, and yet there is more!  In some way that we cannot fully understand or explain, we receive in the present tense the real presence of the Spirit of Christ in us, today.  Christ truly lives in us, enabling us to live in Christ.
Who is at the center of your life this morning?  We can think about it, debate it, be troubled by it, or feel guilty about it.  But Jesus invites us this morning to become aware of God at the center.  He invites us to celebrate the presence of God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in the breaking of bread and sharing of the cup, and then to go out and live with that presence in the center of our lives.  Will you join me this morning in this challenge to live, to want, to desire only what will deepen God’s life and love within you?
May it be so!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, VA.
[2] Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, trans. by David L. Fleming and printed in Draw Me into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises—A Literal Translation & a Contemporary Reading, (St. Louis:  The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 26. 
[3] David L. Fleming, Draw Me into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises—A Literal Translation & a Contemporary Reading, (St. Louis:  The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 27. 
[4] David L. Fleming, Draw Me into Your Friendship: The Spiritual Exercises—A Literal Translation & a Contemporary Reading, (St. Louis:  The Institute of Jesuit Sources, 1996), 27. 

Monday, July 7, 2014

Faithful Living - Failure (July 6, 2014)

Living Faithfully – Failure
Romans 7:15-25a
July 6, 2014[1]

Last week, we talked about freedom.  We said “freedom means that we are no longer separated from God.  The freedom that Jesus offers to us is the freedom to realize who we really are—we are children of God—free to live and to love as God wants us to live and to love.”  Yet, there is another part of this discussion that we need to address this morning.  There is a painful reality.  Sometimes, I don’t feel so free.  Sometimes, I find that the power of sin in my life is overwhelming.  Sometimes, I fail!
“I failed.”  I have had to say those words many times.  I have failed at times to live up to my hopes for what I might achieve.  I sometimes have behaved in ways that I didn’t want to behave.  Sometimes, I did this despite my good intentions.  Sometimes, my intentions were not so good. 
Sometimes, the stories seem funny in hindsight.  Sometimes, not so much.
Sometimes, my failure was caused, at least in part, by the conduct of others.  Sometimes, the fault was all mine.  Either way, the bottom line result was the same.
I know that I am not alone in this room—there must be others of you who have failed—at least once!
Although we like to speak of success, failure seems to be much more universal.  There are familiar quotes—some historically accurate and some not—in which somebody acknowledged failure or spoke of overcoming failure.  Let me point out two of them.  When Robert E. Lee surveyed the battlefield at Gettysburg the day after the battle, he was quoted as saying, “All this has been my fault.”  In the movie “Apollo 13,” Gene Kranz, the Flight Director says in a dramatic moment, “Failure is not an option.”  (Apparently, that line was more Hollywood than history.  I am told that Kranz didn’t actually say those words, but those words embodied the attitude that NASA took in responding to the issues that threatened the spacecraft.[2]) 
 “I failed.”  In our Lesson from the Book of Romans, note that the cry of despair doesn’t come from someone who deliberately rejects God; this cry comes from someone who has tried hard to do the right thing—in fact, he has tried so hard that he found it was impossible for him to be good enough.
Biblical Scholars read our text from Romans in a couple different ways.  Some read it at face value and believe that Paul was confessing his own difficulty in living faithfully the Christian life.  They read his frustration that “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…” (Romans 7:15).  They hear Paul’s cry of despair—“O wretched man that I am” (Romans 7:24a)—as a personal cry of desperation about his own inability to live rightly. 
Other scholars think that this was more of a rhetorical device (one that was frequently used in Greek writing) to put in the first person a statement that is universally applicable.  It somehow brings Paul back down to human level. 
I asked my Carla Worth, one of my seminary professors, about this question.  She told me that it doesn’t need to be an “either/or” proposition.  Paul could have used a rhetorical device to express his own personal failure as part of the failure of all of us.
There is yet another way to read this passage.  One could read it, instead of being a reference to personal, individual conduct, as referring to a way of life in which we put our trust but it turns out to be wrong.  Think of the Germans who placed their whole trust in the National Socialist Party in the 1930s, and only upon defeat had to face the fact that they placed all their hope and trust in a failed and flawed system.  In similar fashion, some scholars think that Paul was thinking out loud about the entire Jewish people who trusted in the Torah but found that they were incapable of living up to the Torah’s demands. 
These scholars would say that Paul was acknowledging that earlier in his life, Paul had put his whole faith and trust in the Law of Moses to save him and his world.  He did so to the point of persecuting the Christians, only to discover that the Law could not save him.  It was only by putting his faith and trust in the grace of Jesus Christ that he could be saved (See Ephesians 2:8-9).
Unfortunately, it isn’t possible for us to go back to Paul and ask him what he really had in mind.  But whatever the circumstances may have been that led him to write this chapter, one thing is clear.  He ultimately realized that he could not, on his own power, be “good enough” to deserve God’s love; he could only receive God’s love as a gift—a gift that God gave him “just because” God loved him.
You can’t deserve God’s love.  As a spiritual advisor of mine says that we should write in big capital letters “CDL,” shorthand for CAN’T DESERVE LOVE, and keep them in front of us.[3]  He goes on to explain that we can have as much of God’s love as we are willing to accept.  It occurred to me this morning that we have limits on our capacity to receive God’s love—limits that are the created by the stuff we accumulate in our souls as a result of living.  That stuff may be possessions, but I am thinking more about an analogy of “spiritual silt”—the stuff that accumulates in our lives just as a river accumulates silt that runs off from the shore.  We experience pain, suffering and failure in our lives and it leaves its mark—sometimes as callouses to protect us from pain, sometimes as guilt, sometimes as exhaustion.  We find that our spirits get so clogged up with this “stuff” that we have no more room to receive God’s love.  That leads us to more failure!
We still have this tension.  God invites us to faithful living; and yet we find that we can’t do it, at least not on our own.  There is a balance between committing ourselves to live the way God wants us to live, on the one hand, and experiencing God’s grace when we fail, on the other.  Our efforts to show how good we are can easily turn into attempts to live faithfully into an attempt to earn our way into God’s grace.  It just doesn’t work that way.  At this point in my own journey, I keep finding areas of my life that get clogged up.  In our life’s journey, we need periodically to have a “dredging” of our spirit, just as a river or harbor must be dredged from time to time to maintain its depth.  But we don’t dredge ourselves!  We have to let God, through the work of the Holy Spirit, clean out the crud in our lives.
Jesus says that the disciples know the Spirit because the Spirit abides in them—present tense—and will abide in them—future tense (John 14:17).  We will speak more next week about abiding in the Spirit as part of “Faithful Living.”  For now, let me just point out that the disciples don’t seem to realize that they have the Spirit abiding in them at that moment—At his last supper with His disciples, the disciples were upset because Jesus, the One that they gave up everything to follow, told them that He would be going away and they would not be able to see Him anymore.  They were upset, of course, and Jesus urged them to not let their hearts be troubled (v. 1).  The Spirit abides in them.  After the Resurrection, Jesus appeared to the disciples behind locked doors, breathed on them and invited them to “receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22).  It seems as though we have the Spirit with us, but we need to be reminded of the Spirit’s presence. Sometimes, we forget.
But this much is clear in today’s reading.  Paul needs (and we all need) to be delivered from the brokenness and bondage of sin.  We can’t do it by ourselves.  Paul asks, in desperation, “who can free me.”  And he answers by exclamation, “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.”  The Lord who calls us, ironically, to obtain freedom by taking up a cross and following Him, but who also assures us that His “yoke is easy” and His “burden is light” (Matthew 11:30).
I invite you to bow your heads this morning and prayerfully reflect on a few questions:
·      What has been your struggle this week?  We all have them.  In what area of your life have you found that you know what is right—what you should do, but you have failed to do it.  Or maybe it’s an area in which you know that certain things are bad for you but you do them anyway.  You fail.  What is it for you?
·      How have you struggled to fix the problem?  Have you tried to fix the problem yourself but failed in whatever “do it yourself” approaches you have tried?
·      Can you accept this morning that God loves you today, right now, just as you are, and that you can’t, in your own power, ever deserve God’s love?
·      Are you able this morning simply to place your hands in the living stream of God’s grace and accept the love that God gives you, and trust in God’s power to change and transform your life?
Who can rescue me, and who can rescue you from this body of death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven and transformed.  Glory to God!  Amen!
Copyright © 2014 by Thomas E. Frost.  All rights reserved.

[1] Preached at Cunningham United Methodist Church in Palmyra, Virginia.
[2] See “Apollo 13 (film)” in Wikipedia.  Viewed on the internet on July 6, 2014 at
[3] This quote is from Fr. Joe McCloskey of Washington, D.C.