“The Most Wonderful Chapter in the Bible: Life in the Spirit”
Rev. Tasha Blackburn
June 5, 2016
Many people believe that Christians are supposed to be perfect. In fact, this belief has even turned people away from the Church. Over the years when folks have peered into the windows of our sanctuary and sanctuaries around the world, they have learned that we are not perfect, in fact, far from it, and they have turned away scoffing. Those church-goers must be hypocrites, they say. Or they are in self-denial or they are just simply liars.
But Christians are not perfect. We can get ourselves into a lot of trouble if we pretend to be. And this place is not for perfect people. In fact, sometimes we are in Church precisely because we are so aware of our imperfection.
We are like the Apostle Paul who writes those now-famous yet anguishing words at the end of Chapter 7 of his letter to the Romans: “I do not understand my own actions,” he writes. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do…Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from the body of death?”
No, we are not perfect. We struggle as much as our neighbor. And even though we follow Jesus, we still sin. At times we can even feel buried in our failings. We are no different than those folks who have looked into our windows and then walked away. We are human and frail and, to use a term from Paul, we are “fleshy.”
There is but one difference between us and these others; one thing that sets Christians apart: we know there is something beyond Romans Chapter 7. We know there is a Chapter 8.
It is what the whole letter to the Romans has been leading to, this Chapter 8. In the first chapters Paul wrestles with the problem of sin and he struggles to understand the role of grace versus the role of the Law. He believes the Law is holy; that scripture is holy, but it only gets us so far because of our sin. Paul ends up acknowledging that everyone sins, everyone falls short and that there is this never-ending struggle between knowing what is right and actually doing it. And, in that struggle, we always lose.
Then begins Chapter 8. To complete and finish all he has written in the pages before, Paul writes, “therefore.” “Therefore ,there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Therefore, no condemnation. For those who are in Jesus, no matter their sin, condemnation is not possible. We have heard it. This is certainly not the first time. We have heard it before but do we know it? It is what the famous theologian Karl Barth calls the “impossible possibility”, the earth-shattering belief that those who are in Christ are outside of any judgment. That, in Christ, the impossible is possible. We hear it but do we know it?
Years ago I saw a short skit about the Parable of the Prodigal Son. In it, the story was acted out with a small twist. The younger son fought with his father and the argument ended with him throwing all kinds of things at his dad. He threw a book, a pen, and even his shoes. The skit continues with the parable we all know but, for the rest of its telling, the older brother stands silently in the middle of the stage holding out one of the thrown shoes. When the prodigal turns from his ways and decides to go home, there is that shoe hanging, waiting. When he returns to his father confessing, the shoe is there. Even as the Father reaches for him, there is the shoe. The younger son is waiting. Each of us is waiting. We are waiting for the shoe to drop.
How sad it is that we live much of our lives like that. We have met the Father and we know his love but we still believe there is this shoe. It hangs over us like a pall and affects our lives. Even in our best times, it casts a shadow. I tell you now and beg you to hear me clearly: that is not living in Christ. That kind of life, wondering when the other shoe will drop, it is a kind of a life but it is not life in Christ.
We put this pressure on ourselves. We pressure ourselves to get our lives right, to be good, to be faithful. We convince ourselves that if we could just get better at those things we will be “in Christ.” That, then we will be acceptable. In this, we are falling for the same lie that is told when it is assumed Christians should be perfect. We are falling for a false gospel. Paul cuts across this lie. For we are not acceptable. We never will be.
Remember, we are the wretched ones who need rescuing. The more we strive and strain under our own steam, the less and less we will be in Christ. And that is what we want! We want to be “in Christ” for, in him, there is no condemnation.
Being in Christ means we turn from ourselves. Whether it is turning from our bragging or turning from our worry, both of those behaviors put our own self in the center. Even worry about being good enough is, at its heart, self-centered and faithless. Do not look to yourself. You will not find the gospel there. Look to Jesus—look to what he has done—and there you will find good news.
Because Paul does not become a better person between the end of Chapter 7 and the beginning of Chapter 8. Nothing has changed there. But Jesus, in his life, death and resurrection, has condemned sin. He has put sin to death. When we look to him and not ourselves, we are no longer condemned either. It is not a matter of trying harder or getting better. It is a matter of trusting that forgiveness and grace are actually real. We hear it, but do we know it? God’s forgiveness and grace are actually real.
At the end of the skit, you can guess what happened. The father and his younger son are standing there. The shoe is hanging between them like a dagger. It gets dropped of course. We knew it had to sometime. It is what we have been waiting for, dreading even. Some of us have been dreading it for years. The shoe gets dropped and the father, he catches it. In midair, before it can fall all the way, he catches that shoe.
It is not our goal to be perfect. It never was and it never should be. Because that would mean that our faith is about worry. Worrying if we will ever measure up, fearing we will get caught out as a sinner. But our faith is not about that. Our faith is about living out of the knowledge and overwhelming joy that we have been caught. We have been caught in midair before we fell all the way.
“Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” That is what Paul writes. There is no condemnation for you. Not because you worked harder or impressed more but because Jesus caught you. Our calling is to show the world, not perfect people, but free people. People who know there is something beyond our wretchedness in Chapter 7, people who show the world another way to live, that we can live in the promise of Chapter 8. Amen.