St Paul is a man on a mission.He is determined to spread the news of Jesus Christ to every corner of his world.
By the time he is writing his letter to the churches in Rome,
he and others had travelled all around the eastern half of the Roman Empire and planted churches in every major city throughout all the provinces,
Now, Paul has set his eyes on the wild west, on Spain. We may think of Paul as a lone traveler working to spread the good news of Christ
but in fact he worked with a team and had the support of a network of friends and supporters.
So if he is to go west, he needs the help of people,like the people in Rome
who can support him.
But the Church in Rome is beset with divisions and rancorous disputes,
primarily between those Christians who were Jewish and those who were gentiles.
So before Paul can go west, he must first find a way to unite these fractious groups so that they can devote their energies to mission.
In the excerpt from his letter that we heard today, Paul says
that “those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh…[and] the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God.”
What he’s talking about is the ways in which we seek to be right and to assert ourselves over othersAnd to always get our own way,
goes against what God wants for us.
To set our minds on the way of the flesh, is to be worried about ourselves above and beyond all other concerns, and to think our needs and desires are the most important.
But one of Paul’s key insights is that to a large extent, we are not able to do what God wants on our own. I think it was only last Sunday when we heard Paul talking about not being able to do the things he wants, but instead doing things he abhors.
I don’t know about you, but this certainly is something I’ve experienced. I rarely lack for things to confess to God. I often seem to get in my own way.
And recent research into the brain confirms Paul’s insights and suggests that our capacity to rationally choose our behavior is, actually, pretty limited, if it exists at all. Instead we are driven by unconscious desires and impulses, our motivations deeply enmeshed in a web of genetics, family dynamics and cultural conditioning.
The beliefs and values we see around us, the expectations of family, friends and society matter. Not just our genes, but our surroundings and our caretakers begin to set the patterns of our lives from the minute we’re born. How and where we grow up matters. And it matters because we are not isolated individuals but members of society. Humans are inherently social beings.
And as a father, this worries me because America today seems a much meaner, angrier and harder place than it has been in a long time. The powers and principalities of the world, what we might call evil seems to be running rampant. Too many in this country have turned their backs on their fellow citizens to look only after themselves.
We have placed the individual and the individual’s rights in a place of prominence which too often seems to lead to boorish behavior at best, and violent hatefulness at worst.
Too often, public discourse, in the larger society but also in the church, is beset with personal attacks and the denigration of those who disagree with us.
Our appeals to morality and to ideal, just like the ancient Romans appeals to Mosaic Law or Greek Philosophy, are clubs we use to force submission or separation of those who disagree.
Getting your way by shouting louder than everyone else isn’t what I want my daughter learn. I don’t want her to look at the people around her and be thinking of ways to manipulate them to her own advantage. I want her to look at the people around her and see her neighbors and be thinking of ways to show her love and respect.
Abraham Lincoln said that a house divided against itself cannot stand, and in saying so he was echoing the wisdom of Paul and the gospels that speak of the need for recognition of the common humanity of all our brothers and sisters who walk this earth with us.
Paul writes; “But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.”
Think about that for a second, because it is as true for us it was for the ancient Christians – the Spirit of God dwells within us.
Paul is reminding the Roman Christians that they are more and better than the divisions that were consuming them,
that they are immersed in Christ and filled with the Spirit.
God has come amongst them in Christ and has promised to stay.
To stay and take on all their fears unto himself so that they may be freed of the burden of carrying them around.
Rather than living in a culture of fear and privation, they are to live in a culture of hope and abundance.
And that promise is the same promise that has been given to us.
God’s Spirit is alive within us. Along with our genetics and our psychic conditioning, the Hoy Spirit is also at work driving our actions and reactions.
Inside of us as baptized Christian, alongside our DNA, our family systems, our cultural conditioning, there is God. The spirit of God dwells within us, in our innermost being, so that God also becomes part of the unconscious underpinnings of our daily lives.
If there is hope for our society and our nation then, it lies with God, and with us. We are called to live in the hope and abundance of God’s promise to us – that we are to share in Christ’s resurrection.
We must invite and allow to grow that spirit which dwells within us. It is not enough to be believers in Christ, we must become doers of Christ, humble and tireless laborers in the vineyards of the Lord.