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Romans Chapter Eight
The easier option this morning would have been to talk about seeds that fall on paths, rocky ground, among thorns or on good soil but I was intrigued by the opening comments of a really quite recent book about Paul’s letter to the Romans that said “Romans 8 is without doubt, one of the best known and best loved chapters of the Bible.” Now that made me wonder, you see there is the annunciation, the nativity, the calling of Peter and Andrew just to start with, so I thought we might see how many of us agree with that. If Romans 8 is one of your best loved chapters of the Bible will you please raise your hand!
The thing about Romans is that Paul wrote the letter ahead of his going there. He had longed to go to Rome. Indeed, he tells us so at the very beginning of the letter; “I long to see you so that I may impart some spiritual gift to make you strong.” The book is not so much a letter as more an intricately worked and elaborate theological essay to prepare the fledgling church in Rome for his arrival. Now, theological essays, well worked or not, are not everyone’s cup of tea. Apart from anything else, the language is slightly unfriendly to our modern ears. The chapter begins, “There is therefore, now no condemnation for those who are in Christ.” (Later on we will meet the ideas of justification and sanctification too.) Well what do those words really mean? Little help is to be found in the volumes of commentaries that line my library shelves for many of them delve immediately into New Testament Greek in a curious attempt to make things easier. It is as they say “all Greek to me!”
Actually, though here is a case when the seventeenth century King James Bible does make the opening clearer and helps to illuminate the rest of the reading:
“There is no condemnation for them which are in Christ Jesus who walk not after the flesh but after the spirit.”
The key word is Spirit. In this single chapter of the book of Romans Paul will refer to the Spirit seventeen times, whilst up to now in the whole of the previous seven chapters Paul has mentioned the Spirit only once. You see, in getting to the climax of his argument, that is what the “therefore” is all about, Paul urgently wants to contrast the Jewish Old Testament dependence on the law for salvation with the new salvation offered by faith in Jesus Christ and the gift of the Holy Spirit. There is much autobiography here, after all Paul was a Jewish university educated intellectual who prosecuted the law of Moses with full rigour but who then received a truly blinding revelation of truth on the road to Damascus. When Paul says in his letter “The Spirit of God dwells in you” we should realise that he really knows what he is talking about.
When we spoke about the Spirit at Pentecost, we considered the images of wind and flame, large forces that reflected the invisibility, the untouchable but all pervasive effects of the spirit. One of the points that Paul is making in this chapter is just how powerful the Spirit is. It is more powerful than the law. With the Spirit we can be saved. With simply observing the law, we remain grounded in things human of which the most evident is our weakness and frailty.
Among the things I did this week, I met Jane, one of the young chaplains for LCET (Luton Churches Education Trust). She was telling us about a trip she took with nine inner Luton teenagers to Turvey Abbey where they spent a couple of days with the monks. At the end of their stay, these hormone infused girls and boys were invited to spend ten minutes in the chapel in complete stillness and silence.
Now, when I amass all that I know about teenagers neither “still”, nor “silent” are adjectives that come to mind. Yet under the spiritual aura of the abbey, with the guidance and example of the monks, the nine all managed the whole ten minutes. Not only that, they were so thrilled by the experience that they complained that the ten minutes had not been long enough.
Now that is certainly powerful.
It occurred to me that one of the most powerful forces that we know and are aware of is found in one of the smallest of things; the atom. The forces that hold atoms together are incredible and the splitting of the atom gives rise to unimaginable, abundant energy. Maybe we can think of the indwelling in us of the Holy Spirit also in this way. A tiny seed, just like those of Matthew, a small atom if you like, that can be borne inside us with Faith but when nurtured, when we set our minds on things of the spirit will release energy, grow and allow us to live the most amazing lives.