When I was growing up in southeast Kansas, I was certain that our state was at the center of the United States. Whenever I looked at a map, there it was, right in the middle. Then I moved to Missouri. It’s right next door to Kansas, so I didn’t move very far. As I taught fourth grade music classes, I ran up against something called Missouri State History month every year, and that meant setting aside the music curriculum for a few weeks, while students learned “The Missouri Waltz,” “Fifty Nifty United States,” and a poem that begins like this…
“I’m from Missouri, the Show Me State,
Right in the middle of the forty-eight…”
Now, which is it? Is Kansas in the middle, or Missouri? Well, the answer kind of depends on where you come from. As we move deeper into Paul’s letter to the Romans, we find ourselves approaching the very center of his theology, the heart of his argument. In this case, it doesn’t matter where you come from. What matters is where Paul is leading us, as his careful writing brings us to the main point he wants to make.
Here’s what we know so far, from the first seven chapters:
God’s righteousness has been revealed in the midst of human sin. Whether Jew or Gentile doesn’t matter: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (3:23). Paul’s point is that righteousness does not come through the Hebrew Law, but through faith alone. Even Abraham came to God’s righteousness by faith (4:3). In fact, the Law does not have the power to make us righteous, because its purpose was always to show us our sin. Sin has been our problem ever since Adam, and we are all condemned to death because of it. But there is hope. In chapter six, Paul says we are buried with Christ in the waters of baptism, and we are raised to new life in Christ. Last week’s reading told of a battle between the law of God and the law of sin. As human beings, we are bound by the law of sin, and we cannot obey God’s law even when we want to. “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” Paul writes. “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, with my mind I am a slave to the law of God, but with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin (Romans 7:22-23). ”
This brings us to chapter eight, which opens with the strong word, “Therefore.” Paul has reached the point in his letter where we find the real meat of his message. Because of everything that has gone before, we are about to learn what Paul thinks is most important as we move forward into our life as Christians. Hear the Word of the Lord, as given to the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church at Rome.
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. For 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. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and 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. 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. – Romans 8:1-11
In mathematics, there are a couple of little symbols that Paul could have easily borrowed for this passage. They both consist of three dots, in the form of a triangle. The triangle with a broad base at the bottom and the small tip at the top stands for the word “therefore.” If you flip it upside down, the same triangle of three dots means “because.” As Paul sets out his central idea, and then explains how he has come to this conclusion, his explanation is filled with ‘becauses’ to support his ‘therefore.’ And what is the central idea? It’s the heart of the gospel message: you are not condemned if you are in Christ Jesus.
Paul has spent seven chapters explaining why we should be condemned, under the Law. Sin condemns us. We aren’t just talking about our little individual sins, the ones we ask forgiveness for before we fall asleep at night, if we remember. Paul means Sin with a capital S. The Law was given to God’s people because of Sin, but the Law could never save us from Sin. In fact, Paul tells us, the Law condemns us to death by making us aware of our sinfulness.
Yet Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” It’s as if we have been found guilty in a court of law, and we know that the punishment for our crime is the death penalty, but when the judge pronounces our sentence, we hear, “You are free to go.”
It’s more than a “Get Out of Jail Free” card. It’s more than having all the charges dropped, or having our sentence commuted to time served plus parole. We are not condemned, after all. We have been found to be in the right, instead. How can this be?
Paul says, it is because we are in Christ Jesus. So, what does it mean to be in Christ? It means that the law of sin and death no longer rules us, but the law of the Spirit of life in Christ has set us free. How did this happen? Through the Cross of Jesus Christ, Paul tells us. God has condemned the sin that condemns us. Paul has been making this point in nearly every chapter. God sent his own Son – which means God came in person (he didn’t send a substitute) – “in the likeness of sinful flesh” (v. 3) to deal with sin once and for all by condemning sin in the flesh.
Flesh is a word we need to understand clearly, for all this to make sense. The contrast Paul gives us here is not between body and spirit, but between flesh and Spirit. Paul is not talking about our bodies, but what we choose to do with them. The Common English Bible translates the word for ‘flesh’ as ‘selfishness,’ and this might be a better way to think of it – when we are focused on ourselves, our attention turns away from God, where it should be. We become our own idols. We serve our own desires, and this is sin, which leads to death. Listen to verses 4 – 8 from the CEB, and see if this helps Paul’s argument become clearer.
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.
People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God, Paul writes, and if that were the end of the message, we would be doomed. “But that’s not you!” he goes on. Thanks be to God, that’s not who you are!
You are in Christ, because Christ’s spirit lives in you. Christ’s spirit lives in you because you are in Christ. Back in chapter 4, Paul reminds us that Abraham had faith, and God credited it to him as righteousness (Gen 15:6, Rom 4:3). That word righteousness is a big word. It means acceptable to God, found to be ‘in the right.’ It’s the very opposite of ‘condemned.’ Being in Christ Jesus is more than agreeing with ideas about Jesus, it’s more than being loyal to Christ or even trying our best to follow Jesus. Being in Christ is a new way of being, an entirely new system of living that is centered on Christ and surrounded by Christ. Instead of self-focused lives doomed to death, we have been changed, and are continually being changed, into what theologian Karl Barth calls, the “impossible possibility.” Barth writes, “The negation of sin is not a possibility among other possibilities, but the possibility beyond all other possibilities … and we possess [this], the impossible possibility of walking after the Spirit.” (Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 282) Eugene Peterson puts it this way in The Message: “It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!” (v 11).
Therefore, you are no longer condemned. You are in Christ. You are changed.
On Thursday, I attended a district gathering, led by our District Superintendent. As he spoke, he reminded us of our purpose as Christ’s church. Everything we do, he said, needs to be grounded in this goal: that lives will be changed. That’s what Paul is writing about here. Being in Christ means being changed, being transformed into a “little Christ,” to borrow a term from C. S. Lewis (Mere Christianity, 171). When we wipe off a table after a Wednesday night meal, or hand out a bulletin on Sunday, or pick up a bit of trash that blew into our parking lot, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we move our youth ministry into the main building of our church campus, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we serve a meal at the Salvation Army in Mankato, we do it so that lives will be changed. When we set up a place for parents to change a baby’s diaper at the County Fair, we do it so that lives will be changed. And as we do these things, with this goal in mind, we bear witness to the Spirit that is alive in us, the very Spirit of Christ Jesus.
“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus,” Paul writes, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free.”
If you haven’t stepped into that freedom yet, I invite you to do so today. If you are still struggling under the weight of your own sin, know that Christ died so that your sins could be wiped out – not just forgiven, but completely destroyed. It’s time to step out of the old life and into the new one, a life of joy and peace. Then you can join us in saying to others who long for something more, “Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, home of the uncondemned, home of those who are in Christ, because Christ is in us. Welcome to First United Methodist Church of New Ulm, where lives are changed.” Amen.