Originally preached at Alger First UMC on 7/16/2017
So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. People whose lives are based on selfishness think about selfish things, but people whose lives are based on the Spirit think about things that are related to the Spirit. The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God.
But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you. If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you. (Romans 8:1-11, CEB)
One of my favorite shows is Parks & Rec. On that show, there’s a main character named Jerry. Jerry was the guy in the office that nobody really liked. He was kind of prone to mistakes and embarrassing himself, so his coworkers just assumed that if something went wrong, it was probably Jerry’s fault, that Jerry had messed up somehow. Now, it usually was Jerry’s fault, but still.
I think Jerry can clue us into a truth about our world and about ourselves: we tend to define a person by their actions.
What happened in Parks & Rec happens in real life too. If someone we know makes an embarrassing mistake, we keep making fun of them for that mistake. If we say something hurtful to a friend or family member, they might hold it against us for the rest of our life.
On a more serious note, if someone goes to prison – for whatever reason – they’re forever known as a convict or an ex-con. They can’t leave behind that one mistake or action that put them behind bars, no matter how much they’ve changed.
We have a tendency to define a person by their actions. Do you understand what I mean? There’s a person and there’s a person’s actions and decisions and behaviors. The two are separate, but we have a tendency to conflate a person and their actions into one identity.
We tend to do that very thing to ourselves. If we fail a test in school and get a bad grade, we tell ourselves that we’re stupid. If some hurtful words slip out of our mouth at a friend or family member, no matter how much we apologize or make up for it, and no matter how sincere their forgiveness is, we might still internally call ourselves a bad person for that mistake. We have a tendency to define ourselves by our actions.
And when we do that – when we define ourselves by our actions and define others by their actions – we start down a path that leads us to condemnation. But Paul tells us about a brand new world which Christ’s death and resurrection opens to us.
Paul says “Now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” (Romans 8:1-2)
Condemnation is an important word for us here, so I want to make sure we’re all on the same page. When we condemn, we declare that something or someone is wrong or evil or unfit. When we condemn, we also pronounce someone or something guilty of a crime or wrong or sinful, etc.
So the physical world we live in is a world of condemnation. When we do something wrong or make a mistake, we’re pronounced wrong and we’re punished.
For example, if you steal something and you’re caught, you get convicted of theft. You’re condemned as guilty and condemned to some form of legal consequence – jail time, probation, etc.
Now, condemnation like that isn’t necessarily bad, that’s not what I’m saying. It’s necessary, to a certain extent, for a functioning human society. But condemnation turns into a problem when we take this condemning mindset into other parts of our life. Like I said earlier, we tend to define each other and ourselves with our actions. When we combine that tendency with our bent toward condemnation, we get some really unhealthy results.
First, we make a mistake, we fail a test, or we hurt someone. Then we condemn ourselves as a screw-up, a failure, a bad person. Then we start to think “If I’m just a screw-up or a failure, how can God love me? If I keep hurting this person, if I keep doing things like that or saying things like that, how can God forgive me?” So we conclude that we’re not worthy of God’s love.
Then we go further and project it outside of ourselves. We come to the conclusion that we are unworthy of God’s love, so we conclude that “person x” is unworthy too. Then it just turns into this vicious cycle.
Almost none of that pattern is conscious, at least not most of the time. But the thought pattern is very present whether we realize it or not. We condemn ourselves and each other all the time.
But Paul offers a different word in that passage. “Now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
I can see this in my own life.
I might have shared this before, so just sit and nod if this is your second time hearing it. My self-esteem is noticeably lower than most people’s. That means I have a tendency to think of myself in negative terms.
It shows most obviously when I make a mistake or hurt someone or mess something up. I rush to condemn myself faster than the average person. But I also let that condemnation circle around in my head, over and over, and I won’t let go of it very easily. And so I convince myself that I am a worm and I’m not worthy of much because of my actions.
Usually, someone or something has to help break the cycle. When I was growing up, and still today, one of the most effective ways to break this cycle was my Dad simply saying “Don’t worry about it” and meaning it.
Those simple words always remind me that I’m not condemned, that I don’t have to live in that world of condemnation. I might have made a mistake, my actions might have been wrong, a decision I made might rightly be condemned as wrong or hurtful. But because of Jesus, I myself am not condemned. I am more than my actions. And thanks to the Holy Spirit, I can leave that life of condemnation behind and enter this whole new world that Paul talks about here.
“So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
We can see any number of examples of this throughout the church’s history in the world. Throughout our history, the Christian church has planted itself in this brand new world of the Spirit and invited the rest of the world into it.
We in the UMC have our roots in the 18th century Methodist movement in England. These Methodist societies were known for seeing this brand new world and working to bring their neighbors and their whole society into it.
For example, the British Methodist preachers were known for hopping into the cart with someone condemned to hanging as they were on their way to the gallows. And this preacher would talk with them all the way to the gallows about God’s love and grace, about God not condemning them, no matter how bad their actions were; about the new world that Jesus opened up for them and about the Holy Spirit ready to usher them into this new world.
There are also so many examples of how the church today lives in this new world and invites our neighbors into it.
My church in Circleville had a ministry called One Community Ministries. It was a prison and re-entry ministry for the incarcerated in Pickaway County. This ministry would come alongside people in prison or just released from prison and offer a witness of Jesus’ love and grace by helping them re-enter society.
That ministry saw that those men and women were not condemned themselves. So they embodied this passage from Romans by actively affirming and loving these people. Their actions said “You are a person separate from your actions, Jesus loves you, and so do we.”
And here’s the ultimate good news here: This new world without condemnation that Paul tells us about – this is not only an after-death reality. Jesus has opened this world up to us now, and the Holy Spirit can usher us into this world today. There’s only one element necessary to live in this new world, this new life: believing in Christ.
When I say “believing,” I mean more than intellectual assent. Paul tells us “If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness…”
Paul isn’t talking about just mentally and intellectually assenting that Jesus existed and died and rose again. As Paul understands it, believing in Jesus means that we live in Jesus, that we live in this new life and we throw our whole selves into it.
So I think there’s some obvious comfort for each of us here.
I’m sure all of us and each of us feel ashamed for some of our behaviors, decisions, thoughts, or actions. We feel condemned and we wonder whether God can forgive us. Does God even want to forgive us?
But Paul tells us that if the Spirit lives in you, then “the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.”
In this brand new world, we don’t have to live a life of death anymore. God has already raised Christ from the dead, so God is very much able and willing to give life to our human bodies too. Because like Paul said, “now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.”
To find this brand new world and live in this Spirit-life, all we have to do is believe in Jesus Christ. But not just believe – let’s throw ourselves into this and live in Jesus Christ.
There’s also a calling for us here.
I think all of us here today feel this condemnation in some area of our lives. But that means others who are not here – our neighbors, our family members, our coworkers – feel that condemnation too.
This brand new world of life and peace is open to all who believe and live in Christ.
The Spirit has set us free from the law of death, but this world of ours is still trapped in that death. This world is still broken and gives all of us constant reminders of that brokenness.
Families are broken by divorce, unfaithfulness, abuse, and death.
Maybe our own brokenness and mortality is pushed in our face.
We are surrounded, even here in Alger, by the heroin and opioid epidemic covering Ohio.
We see these and so many other things that make us want to yell “This can’t be how God intended the world to be!
We’re not the only one’s feeling that. Our neighbors and family and friends and coworkers feel it too, all these reminders of death and brokenness. Jesus has opened a whole other world to us, but how will they know that there’s a whole other world unless someone tells them?
If we don’t invite our neighbors into this brand new Spirit-life, how will they know about it, how will they escape this world of condemnation and death?
This is the calling which Paul lays before us. Jesus has opened a whole new world to us through his death and resurrection. The Holy Spirit stands ready to usher each of us and our neighbors and family and coworkers and everyone around us into this new world. We who are here today might see this world. But we are not the only ones who need this new world. We are not the only ones tired of death and brokenness. So let’s tell people about it. Let’s live like this world is real so everyone around us can see how good it is.