12 So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh— 13 for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. 14 For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. 15 For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” 16 it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 17 and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.Romans 8:12-17
(This is the second sermon in a Lenten series on sin. The first sermon is based on Romans 5:12-6:11 and entitled “Possessed by the Past.” The third sermon is based on I Cor 12:12-27; John 3:16-17 with the title “The One and the Many.”)
Last week we looked at sin as it related to the past. We saw how the past can enslave us, and we examined what the church was trying to say with its doctrines of original sin and the demonic – that we are born into a world scarred and distorted by centuries of evil, evil which we did not create but into which we are born, and that evil is so powerful, it seduces us into conformity. When we say “Yes” to that evil element from the past, we become not only victims of the past but also preservers and nurturers of that evil. Our assent to evil is OUR sin.
This week we will look at sin as it relates to the future. Sin becomes a reality as we give in to a fear of the future. We do so because in some way we see the future as death. Now, death is not sin, just as the past itself is not sin. But when death and the future as the carrier of death are seen as all threatening, they can lead to sin.
Death can come to us out of the future in many forms. It can come as a morbid and destructive obsession with our physical deaths and a consuming anticipation of what will one day happen. And this obsession with and anticipation of death can cast a wide and dark shadow over our present lives.
Death can also come to us out of the future through the loss of relationships. We might call this emotional death. There is a nourishment which comes to us through relationships and when important relationships end or become broken, that nourishment ceases. At such times, we experience a form of death because with the loss of a vital relationship, there is a loss of ourselves. We even say things like, “A very real part of me died when I lost her.”
Death can also come to us out of the future through the loss of meaning. Spiritual death involves the death of meaning. An intense loss can occur when we experience threats to the meaning of our lives. A crisis of faith can occur when some tragedy has happened in our lives or when we simply can no longer believe as we once did and still be honest with ourselves. And when such crises occur, we find ourselves threatened by a form of death. Why? Because the way we have come to understand God and the world becomes a very vital part of who we are, and when we find that essential faith perspective shattered, we lose a real part of ourselves.
Now, it’s important to understand that none of these forms of death are sinful. They are all a part of life. Death will come, relationships will be lost or broken, and our belief system and the meaning of our lives will be threatened (the latter form of death is inevitable when we realize that our perspectives are so limited and when we are humble enough to admit that our private constructions of God and the world cannot possibly mirror exactly the way things really are). Sin enters the picture when our response to these forms of death is to close ourselves off against a future that is still possible for us – when we say “No!” to the potential that is ours.
It’s easy to see how death can come from the future to people obsessed with their own mortality and physical death. Some of these people spend all their time running from any reminder that one day they shall die. Such reminders come with the realization that we are aging or in the progression of diseases or in the physical limitations we experience as we grow older. (When I look in the mirror, often my questions are, “Where did that old man come from? How can that possibly be me?”) But what about emotional death and the death of meaning? How is sin involved in our response to these?
With emotional death, there is a loss of relationship. Physical life goes on, but emotionally life can be a living death. And in time we ask ourselves whether we can risk giving ourselves again in a relationship? Dare we risk sharing our hearts, souls, and inner-most thoughts with another? (Please note that I am not limiting such relationships to those which are romantic or marital in nature.) Many people won’t take the risk. They resort to safe forms of relating such as shallow friendships, superficial commitments and surface sharing. There is a place for all this immediately after the loss of a relationship. It is a form of healing, and we all need the emotional space and therapeutic distance to deal with such a loss. But there comes a time when these safe forms of relating become sin, and the turning point comes when the refusal to go beyond the surface is not for the sake of healing, but for the sake of protecting ourselves against a future that is too threatening. At this turning point, that initial protective wall begins to grow all out of proportion. In sin we build a prison for ourselves, and the refusal to live toward others from the depths of who we are then acts as a way of filling those depths with stones until finally they have been reduced to shallowness and there are no longer any depths to give. When that happens a future alive with adventure and sharing is denied.
And it becomes apparent, doesn’t it, that this way of life is a deeper form of death than that which would be experienced in another failing or lost relationship. Sometimes we escape one form of death by choosing another. But the death we choose is worse than the death we escape, and this choice involves sin.
And what about spiritual death when the meaning of life is threatened. How can sin emerge here? We’ve said that this spiritual death may come in two ways: (1) Through a tragedy or crisis when the circumstances and experiences of life contradict the faith we have and which has kept us going or (2) When our belief system and our sense of meaning are threatened by an expansion of our knowledge – by an awareness that things are far more complex than our kindergarten creeds will permit.
Sin occurs when we choose one of two options: (1) We can purposely limit our vision as we choose a constricted faith and flee from the future by turning toward an idealized and distorted past. We want security, so we turn to an outmoded faith which we believe will give us security. And it does, but it is the safety of a maximum-security prison! 2) We can deny all faith and religion as an illusion and a lie as we choose either bitter cynicism or sad resignation. Yet here, too, we build a prison – this time a prison against our own past when we experienced God and faith as real and against the possibility of a future emerging from a new walk with God.
So, what are we to do? Last week we said that sin as a force from the past is too awesome for us to escape alone. We need a force strong enough to break the powerful grip of an ancient evil, and in Christ God from eternity shatters those chains.
Today we see that we need a force in the future stronger than death. Death is the end of possibilities, whether we are talking about physical, emotional, or spiritual death. But God is the source of all possibility. In each and every circumstance of life, God is there offering us possibilities and opening the way into the future. Those possibilities may not be the ones we were used to or the ones we prefer, but there are always possibilities for life to begin again if we look for, listen to, and feel the liberating presence of God. Ultimately, our future is dependent on our openness to what is possible with God. God offers the possibility, but we must take the risk of embracing this newness with the faith that God does not offer “a stone when we need bread.”
And when physical life itself comes to an end, God opens the door into that eternal dimension with possibilities no eye has seen, no ear has heard and no heart has conceived. What gave the early church its courage and joy was the resurrection of its Lord. Resurrection comes in many forms and should be a familiar experience of those who trust One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life; those who trust in me, though they die, yet shall they live, and whoever lives and trusts in me shall never die.” As the comedienne Gracie Allen once said, “Never put period where God has put a comma.” With the living God and with children of faith, there are no ends, only horizons. And horizons are nothing more than a limitation of our sight.