As you’ve learned by now, in our three weeks together, every week before I preach, I pray that the Holy Spirit will come and fill this room and each of us. When I pray that prayer, I always have in my mind an image of God hovering over this place—filling it and refreshing it with God-breathed air that we then take into ourselves with each of our breaths.
When I was with my family for our 4th of July get-together, I was holding my little two-year-old cousin Lincoln. When he leaned his head back, I started doing something that I had done with Peyton when she was a baby—blowing gently on his throat. He reacted the same way Peyton did—his eyes drifted closed and he slowly smiled—that “ahhhh” kind of smile. I’d stop, and he’d open his eyes just a little, and lean back further, inviting me to do it again. That’s what I hope for us when I pray that pre-sermon prayer—that we will lean back, inviting God to breath onto and into us, and that we will be able to feel the Spirit’s presence around us and on us and in us. That’s really what Paul is describing—life lived in the Spirit, guided by the Spirit, immersed in the Spirit of Christ.
Last week we heard Paul’s description of what my Bible calls “the inner conflict”—how no matter how much we want to live according to Jesus’ teachings, we are unable to do it, any more than the ancient Hebrews were able to perfectly follow the Torah. The reason, Paul said, is that we are sinful creatures, and regardless of our intentions, we are no match for the sin that dwells in us. And the sin that is in us separates us from God, which means death for us. So disturbed is Paul by this situation, he asks a desperate question: “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Then he answers his own question: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” In our passage today, Paul elaborates on the good news that we have been saved from the sin that leads to death.
Paul makes this clear in the opening statement of the passage: “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! For the law of the Spirit of Christ has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Jesus has dealt the death blow to the power of sin in us. It’s still there but, Paul tells us, God sent God’s own Son to condemn the sin that is part of our mortal bodies and earthly lives.
That sin that once had the power to rule our lives is responsible for all kinds of misery. Paul uses the word “flesh” as a kind of short-hand for this sin. He’s not actually condemning our physical bodies or our earthly lives; Paul has great respect for our God-given bodies and the lifetimes we spend on earth; both body and soul are created in the image of God, after all. But here, when Paul uses the word flesh, he is using it to distinguish the things that keep us from growing closer to God, or to each other, or to the true selves we were created to be.
Paul lays out the bad news. Those for whom the things of the flesh are the most important things in their lives set their minds on those things. Fleshly things become their all-encompassing goals and desires. I don’t personally know the hell of addiction, but I suspect that when we live according to our fleshly desires, the effects are similar—all our efforts and thoughts are focused on how to get our next fix. In Paul’s words, our minds are set on the things of the flesh.
What are these things of the flesh that we set our minds on? It’s easy to come up with a list of bad stuff, usually things we don’t personally do. But I like the description in the first letter of John. In the second chapter the writer says, “Do not love the world or the things in the world…the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride in riches—comes not from the Father but from the world.”
John Wesley offers some pretty clear and, I think, helpful explanations of what these are. Desire of the flesh is, quite literally, the stuff our bodies tell us we need or want: food, drink, shelter, and so on. They are the things that appeal to our senses. They aren’t bad in and of themselves. But the problem comes when we start to want more than we need or more than is healthy. Certainly, it includes the things that are bad for our bodies—alcohol and drugs and tobacco and over-eating or unhealthy eating.
But Wesley also warns against what he calls a “regular, reputable kind of sensuality” which doesn’t cause immediate health problems or apparent mental impairment—things that society encourages us to want beyond what we need or is good for us. It’s being dissatisfied with a good meal because it’s not a gourmet meal. It’s needing that high-priced bottle of water when a glass of tap water will do.
We are indulging “desire of the eyes” when we want whatever new and exciting trinket crosses our path. This is when we are focused on things and experiences we do not need, simply because of their appearance or their entertainment value or just because they’re new and we are curious about them. Again, things that are beautiful or excite our curiosity are not intrinsically bad. The Bible is full of passages that celebrate what is beautiful in the world. It is not wrong to want that beauty around us. And where would we be if Moses hadn’t been curious about a burning bush and hadn’t stepped aside to find out why it wasn’t being consumed by the flames?
But the world encourages us to set our minds on things simply for their newness or cosmetic attractions. When we desire a piece of clothing, or expensive jewelry, or a fancy car, or maybe even the latest I-phone, we are courting trouble, whether we can actually obtain it or not. May be even more true of experiences. We hear of so many whose lives were changed because of curiosity about what it would feel like to smoke a cigarette or have a drink or get high, to steal something from a store or contact an old flame on social media. Indulging the desire of the eyes can lead to a world of hurt.
And then there is what 1 John calls “pride in riches” and Wesley calls “pride of life.” This is a desire for other people’s approval. It’s often bound up tightly with the other two, because the stuff we have suggests how much money we have, and our society often assigns our value based on our net worth. But “pride of life” can also be more insidious, I think. We can do lots of wrong or harmful things so that people will think well of us. We share gossip so we will look like we’re in the know. We laugh at jokes that are at the expense of others. I think of the posts I see on Facebook that are so demeaning of others, and I am surprised at the people I know who “like” them.
Pride of life is pretty closely connected with peer pressure. If you have children or young people in your life, you’re probably especially concerned about this, because the pressure is strong for young people to fit in by gaining the approval of their peers.
Peer pressure and the desire for others’ approval can certainly lead us to do things we wouldn’t otherwise think of doing. But we can also do all the right things out of the same pride of life. We may find ourselves volunteering, giving money, working hard, even going to church so that other people will think highly of us and speak well of us rather than God being pleased with us. It ls easy to fall into the trap set by the pride of life.
Setting our minds on these things, Paul says, is death for us. It keeps us on a treadmill of always wanting more. John Wesley says this: “Nothing can be more certain than this: Daily experience shows, the more [these desires] are indulged, they increase the more.” There is no end to the wanting that comes with setting our minds on fleshly things, whether they are physical objects or experiences or the approval of other people.
When our minds are set on these things, there’s not much room for God. But Paul goes further. He goes so far as to say that “a mind set on the flesh is hostile to God.” The Greek word he uses is a strong one—hostility is a synonym for hatred and enmity. And why wouldn’t these things of the flesh cause us to hate God, or at least resent God? Because loving and desiring the things of the flesh can’t co-exist with loving and desiring God alone—one or the other has got to go. As a result, the more we set our minds on things of the flesh, the less we can love and please God.
Left to our own devices, we would be drowning in the desire of the flesh, the desire of the eyes, the pride of life. That’s the bad news. But the good news is that the law of the Spirit of Christ has set us free from the law of sin and death. In his gift of his Spirit to us, Jesus has freed us from the things that lead to death and offered us life in him. Now, Paul tells us, we can experience life empowered by the Holy Spirit rather than life overpowered by death-embracing sin.
Life live in Christ Jesus couldn’t be more different from life lived without him. Life guided by the in-dwelling Spirit of Christ couldn’t be more different than life guided by sin. And Paul makes the contrast between the two plain by using one, little, three-letter word: the word “but.” For every death-dealing aspect of life without the Spirit of Christ, Paul offers a “but.”
“Those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God, but you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him, but if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” That little word “but” carries a lot of good news!
Paul spells out the consequences of life lived apart from God, without the Holy Spirit’s presence but, he tells us, we have been given an alternative. Jesus has answered and defeated every claim sin tries to make on us, and he has given us his Holy Spirit to enable us to reject the power sin will continue to try to exert. With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we are freed from the need to satisfy our inner longings—physical or emotional—according to what the world says will satisfy them. We have something more satisfying and more life-giving to set our minds on—the love and grace and power of Christ Jesus. With the Holy Spirit dwelling in us, we are freed from being driven by always wanting more of things that cannot last—more stuff, more money, more admiration from others. We have something that is eternal—abundant life lived in the presence of God.
When we set our minds on things of the Spirit, the barriers of hostility toward God, erected by our fleshly desires, come tumbling down. We move from being enemies of God to friends with God. As the Spirit continues to work in us, we are more and more able to live in ways that are pleasing to God. Paul assures us of this graceful promise of grace: if Christ is in us, the Spirit of life is in us.
That is not just good news; that is great news! And it doesn’t stop there. So often we think of eternal life as something that starts after we die. But the joy of eternal life in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is something we can have now. It’s like a river flowing all around us. Maybe you’ve jumped in already. Maybe you’re standing at the edge, with the water just up around your ankles. Or maybe you’re standing on the banks, still trying to decide whether or not to take the plunge and fully commit yourself. But the river of freedom is already flowing around us, at this very moment. As Paul tells us, there is now no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.
Sinful as we still may be, the offer of Spirit-filled life is for now, as we live every day—working at jobs or caring for our children, preparing meals and doing laundry and mowing the grass. In every moment of every day, we can experience the life-giving presence of the Holy Spirit. As Paul says, “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.”
There’s something I’d like for you to do. I’d like for you to take a pencil and your bulletin, and cross out the sermon title. Paul does speak in our passage of being freed from the death-dealing consequences of setting our minds on things of the flesh. But this passage is really about the life-giving power of the Holy Spirit in us. So cross out that title “Freed from Death,” and write in “Freed for Life.” Because that is the gift Jesus offers us. Through our faith in him, we are given his own Spirit. And his Spirit turns us away from the things of the flesh which lead to death and points us in a new direction—toward freedom, toward righteousness, toward life. The good news is that we have been freed from the power of sin and death. But the better news is that we have been freed for abundant life, lived in Christ Jesus, with Christ in us, by the power of his Holy Spirit. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young