Connection Successful

June 30, 2024

    Series: June 2024

    Speaker: Rob McClellan


    Today's Sermon


    "Connection Successful"


    Romans 7:14-25

                14 For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. 15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. 16Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. 17But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. 18For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. 19For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. 20Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

                21 So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. 22For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, 23but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. 24Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? 25Thanks 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.

    Connection Successful

                We are now on our fourth of ten sermons exploring the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Romans, the fullest accounting of his theology we have, one that becomes the defining voice Christianity making meaning of what happened and is happening in Jesus.  Our goal is so see Paul through new eyes and clear up what has mistakenly clouded our vision of him, so we might see more clearly as we walk our own road. 

                For someone sometimes hard to access, Paul here lays out a struggle that is all too relatable.  He says, “15I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).  We know this feeling, right?  Oh, you’re telling me you’ve never been a pastor in a mid-size church who finds himself alone in the building on a Monday when the leftover donut holes from Sunday are in the refrigerator calling out like the sirens’ of Homer’s Odysseus.  Excuse me, I guess you’re just a better person!

                Paul goes on to describe this feeling of doing what we know we shouldn’t.  It’s almost out of body, “it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me” (v. 18).  It is the veritable “the devil made me do it,” but it’s not so much an excuse as an earnest query of what’s going on inside of him.  As we’ll get to, exploring what’s going on inside is important work.  “I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do” (v. 18-19).  Contrary to what you may have thought Paul is not a holier than thou religious figure.  He isn’t condemning anyone else; he is wrestling with what’s going on inside of him.

                Because of the terms he used, or their English translations, some may have assumed the bad guy in his struggle is the body.  We have learned that Paul wants us to hate our bodies. The whole point is to learn to deny our bodies.  He writes, “For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh” (Romans 7:14).  It’s an unfortunate language choice.  New Testament scholar Udo Schnelle says the term we translate as flesh (sarx) “refers to life as separated from God and in rebellion against God,” against what is good.[1]  Yet this language choice is partly responsible for Christianity’s historical prudish treatment of sexuality, and its default position of shame around any number of thoughts, actions, or desires. 

                You could argue this is at the root of our somewhat estranged relationship with the natural world because we have transferred a disregard or disdain for our physical bodies to the physical world.  The world is made of objects to be used, rather than beings with which to be in relationship.  We have artificially separated spiritual matters from material needs, but, of course, that’s not at all how Jesus and the prophets saw it.  The Bible has plenty to say about the distribution of resources and Jesus is inseparable from the plight of the poor and marginalized, the material plight.  Relegating religion to the confines of personal devotion or “spiritual matters,” done with intention or not, functions to keep people from asking the kinds of ethical questions about society our faith should compel us to ask.  It’s not just feeding people, but asking why are they hungry.  Spirituality is not about escaping the material world but learning to inhabit it faithfully.

                Paul, like many spiritual teachers, is simply pointing to a struggle between competing forces competing within us.  As Schnelle puts it, those two powers—helpful and hurtful, generous and selfish, good and evil if you’d like—Paul names Christ and sin. Sin, you’ll remember, isn’t just naughty thoughts or deeds; sin is a force at work in the world.[2]  The ancients understood the world spiritually.  There were spirits all around, including within us.  Paul wants us to invite in, collaborate with, nurture the good Spirit and not give in to the temptations presented by the other one or ones.

                Any binary is an oversimplification; this is a tool to help us sort out what voice to which we are to listen.  On the individual level, we listen for Christ’s voice by attending to the conscience, to use a secular term.  The conscience is a reasonably tuned instrument.  This is the contemplative side of faith.  Richard Rohr decries what a crime it is that Christianity in the West has not offered its people the contemplative, and so not surprisingly people have gone to where they can find it—Buddhism, New Age spirituality, yoga, the Calm app, and who can blame them?  We have to learn again the Christian practice of going to that quiet place to listen.  It’s not just Bible and theology, and that’s good news.

                If contemplation is how we do the inner work as individuals, deliberation is how we as communities, as groups, determine what is the best way to live as a people.  The Reformed tradition is particularly committed to the notion that discernment is best done in groups.  We believe, as Paul puts it, we only see in part (1 Cor. 13:9), so it’s together that we can see more fully when we really honor one another and the Spirit.  The community is the guardrail for those whose consciences are broken or who are unable to or choose not to pursue the good.

                So, it’s not that the body is bad.  Flesh and spirit are stand-in terms for the struggle within us.  The contrast is between living into a higher consciousness, a higher calling, a way of being that is in better relationship with God and the world around, a more caring way, and living out of baser desires, a lower calling, selfish at its core.  This is what Paul means when he says with my mind—my higher consciousness—I am a servant to the way of God, but with my flesh—my separateness from God—I serve sin, destruction. 

                It's much bigger than merely avoiding everyday temptations, though that is a part of it.  When Abraham Lincoln concluded his famed First Inaugural address with a hope that “the better angels of our nature” would win out, this is what he was referring to.[3]  I have been rewatching Ken Burns’ old documentary on the Civil War with my son, and how some of those same forces are swirling again today.  This struggle within us and between us is about far weightier and more consequential matters than donut holes.  It is about the holes shot through us and the fabric that holds us together. 

                How do we successfully prevail against the destructive forces, what Paul calls “the flesh”?  The answer is not through the individual will alone, which is where our culture always turns.   It’s not about suppressing our desires through willpower.  It’s not about being personally stronger, though discipline is good.  The way is not through the ego.  It is about opening the self, and the community, up to a greater Spirit, guidance, and strength.  It’s not about greater heroic activity, but greater connectivity. 

                Remember, Paul at the heart is a mystic.  He had a miraculous transformation from someone who persecuted Jesus’ followers to becoming a leader among them through a direct experience of God.  It’s said he encountered a blinding light, something that changed the way he saw the world. It was a presence that knocked him off his footing, perhaps that he might learn to stand on different ground. If Schnelle’s description of “flesh” is living a life separated from God, the way of Spirit is marked by living connected to God, and therefore differently connected to the world around. 

                Get in touch evermore with God, Spirit, Christ, whatever words you want to use.  We need to stop quibbling over the words and get to the relationship.  When you finally get there, or experience glimpses of being there, when you let go of the expectation managing this through your own strength and resources, and you give yourself over to this connection, there’s this incredible relief, a surge of energy and possibility.  Have you ever had the experience of struggling to connect a blue tooth device and when you finally manage it, you hear those blessed words, “connection successful.”  It's like that.  That’s what we’re going for, though it’s not a one-time thing.  You have to tend the relationship with God, wear well the path to your meeting place with the Christ. 

                So, the last question is where does this God live?  Up there?  That’s not very helpful.  All around? That’s a little vague.  For the ancient people of Israel, Jesus’ people, God lived in the Temple.  That was God’s dwelling place and why there are all these references in the Bible to people going to Jerusalem, to the Temple, for feasts and holy days.  Many of the Psalms are pilgrimage songs, prayers the people sang as they traveled by foot to the seat of God on earth.

                Richard Rohr pointed out something interesting.  After the Temple was first destroyed a second was reconstructed, but with the Second Temple the Bible never says the Shekhina, which means the dwelling or settling of God—it’s a feminine term by the way—the Shekhina never descended into the Second Temple.  God didn’t again make the Temple home. 

                So, where is the dwelling of God?  Paul answers this very question in I Corinthians (6:19). Any guesses?  The Temple of God is…the body.  It is the individual body, and if you know Paul at all, you know it is also the communal body.  We know Paul doesn’t hate the body because he calls the collection of the faithful the body of Christ.  That same body we were taught Paul wants us to be ashamed of is where God calls home. The whole point is not to deny your body, but to embrace it as the dwelling place for God.

                Your flesh isn’t bad.  Your flesh holds you; it protects you from pathogens, it carries you around magically through this world, even in its sometimes brokenness, it gives unique shape and beauty, self-expression.  This thing that some Christians were taught their whole lives was rotten, corrupt, dirty, or the culture taught was ugly, fat, to be ashamed of. This is the seat of God, where her spirit dwells and comes knocking in search of a good home.  How can you be a good home for God?  How can you live in such a way that when people encounter you, they feel something bigger, something loving, is at work?  How can you see the ways in which God has taken up residence in your neighbor’s body as well?  To be spiritual is to inhabit flesh well and to care about the flesh of others. 

                Look at your blessed hands, consider your heart, your brilliant mind.  You are looking at the Temple of God.  Is your door open?


    [1]Ibid., 336. 

    [2]Udo SChnellee, Apostle Paul:  His Life and Theology  trans. M. Eugene Boring (Grand Rapids:  Baker Academic, 2003), 337.

    [3]Abraham Lincoln, “First Inaugural Address”