Sunday, October 25, 2015

This Week's Sermon: "Ancient Dwellers of Human Hearts"

Romans 8:1-11

So now there isn’t any condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. 3 God has done what was impossible for the Law, since it was weak because of selfishness. God condemned sin in the body by sending his own Son to deal with sin in the same body as humans, who are controlled by sin. 4 He did this so that the righteous requirement of the Law might be fulfilled in us. Now the way we live is based on the Spirit, not based on selfishness. 5 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. 6 The attitude that comes from selfishness leads to death, but the attitude that comes from the Spirit leads to life and peace. 7 So the attitude that comes from selfishness is hostile to God. It doesn’t submit to God’s Law, because it can’t. 8 People who are self-centered aren’t able to please God. 9 But you aren’t self-centered. Instead you are in the Spirit, if in fact God’s Spirit lives in you. If anyone doesn’t have the Spirit of Christ, they don’t belong to him. 10 If Christ is in you, the Spirit is your life because of God’s righteousness, but the body is dead because of sin. 11 If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead lives in you, the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your human bodies also, through his Spirit that lives in you.  (Common English Bible)

“With Sighs too Deep for Words: Verse-by-Verse Through Romans 8,” Week One

The 38th Parallel goes by many names today.  The Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ.  Panmunjom, the town on the parallel.  A Cold War relic.  And ultimately, the border between North and South Korea, a border drawn out of the same American-versus-Soviet brinksmanship that gave rise to the proxy wars of capitalism against communism throughout the world in the latter half of the 20th century, from Vietnam to Central America to the Korean peninsula.

When the sun fell on the 38th parallel and the border was closed for good as a result of the Korean War in the early 1950s, the stories of families being rendered apart as a result are absolutely wrenching.  Suki Kim, a writer who taught English in North Korea, recounts in her memoir Without You There Is No Us her own family’s harrowing experience of trying to escape to South Korea on June 25, 1950 when the border closes:

The goal is to get the hell out…if only the truck would move…

Shouts are coming from somewhere.  Somebody, some panicked mother or father, a desperate voice pleading with young men to give up their spaces to women and children.  Before the shouts register, before my grandmother has a moment to ponder the words or protest, (her) seventeen-year-old (son) rises.  “I’ll go,” he says, then reassures her: “I’ll find another ride, Mother.  Don’t worry.”  Then, just as quickly, he is out of sight, followed by the sound of the engine.  It all happens in a blink, and my grandmother, bewildered by this unexpected twist, turns frantically in the direction of where her son has gone, and the truck is moving suddenly, too fast for her to think clearly…this is war, and a split-second decision is costly.  There she is, my grandmother, dumbstruck on a speeding truck, without her oldest child…

Seoul was captured three days later…

My mother’s family stops in Suwon to wait for my uncle, but he never arrives.  Some days later, they run into neighbors who report seeing him dragged away by North Korean soldiers…the road back to Seoul is blocked now, and my grandmother waits in vain.

The line demarcating North and South Korea remains today as impregnable and lethal as it ever was.  But, on occasion, there is still hope.  This past week, four hundred South Koreans, chosen by lot, crossed the DMZ to reunite for a fleeting 72 hours with their relatives in the North for the first time in a year-and-a-half after the North finally agreed to another reunion.

And in 1983, thirty years after the war ended, the national broadcast station in South Korea aired an hour-and-a-half long segment designed and intended to reunite families who had been separated by the war, as sort of a face-on-the-milk carton campaign, but on television.  Originally only scheduled for those 95 minutes, it ended up instead airing continuously for 138 days.  Some 10,000 families were reunited as a result, three decades after stories like Suki Kim’s.

10,000 families.  We’re talking a population in the neighborhood of Kelso and Longview combined of people once separated, now reunited.  Once apart, but now reconciled.

Such is the way of goodness when we allow it to reign in our lives.  And it is that way because so too is such the way of the Holy Spirit when we allow it to reign in our lives, as Paul exhorts us to in Romans 8 as he swings us on the pendulum between being ruled by sin and being ruled by the Spirit.

This is a new sermon series that will take us all the way to Advent—otherwise known as the Christmas season (holy cow).  Of course, we’ll be talking about the Christmas story then rather than now, which is still firmly rooted in the Halloween-and-Thanksgiving season.  In that spirit of not only looking at what we have to be thankful for but also what cause we have to be loving and to experience such great love, we’ll be taking on a verse-by-verse treatment of the eighth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans.  Why this particular chapter?  Well, for one thing, it simply has been a while since we’ve had a series on Paul or his letters, and much like the USDA’s ubiquitous (when I was a kid, anyways) food pyramid, I strive to provide a balanced preaching diet for y’all; I’m like a spiritual lunch lady, doling out the religious Sloppy Joes. 

However, Paul is also a very dense, sometimes esoteric, theologian, especially in Romans, but when it comes to actually talking about the nature of God’s love, Paul’s prose genuinely begins to soar, and we’ll be spending this plus the next four Sundays trying to unlock exactly what the Holy Spirit has placed within Paul for this extraordinary chapter, beginning with its first eleven verses, which may sound circuitous at first, but try imagining it as a pro/con list where on the pro side you have the work of the spirit, and on the other side you have the work of the sin, and it becomes much easier to grasp, I think.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome is a bit of a unique beast.  Firstly, it’s the longest letter of Paul’s that we have in the New Testament, and secondly, it reads almost more as a theological treatise rather than a pastoral response to the concerns and obstacles that the church was facing—read through any of Paul’s other letters, especially the letters to Corinth or Galatia, and you’ll see the stark difference in subject matter and tone almost immediately.

Perhaps more than anything else, Paul—not just in Romans, but in all of his letters—is insistent on avoiding division and strife within the church, and to instead approach it with an eye towards unity and reconciliation, for we are led by the same Holy Spirit after all (except for when he sarcastically tells the opponents of the Galatians on the matter of circumcision to go castrate themselves, but that’s another kettle of fish).

The eighth chapter of Romans is a core part of this theological treatise because Paul really begins to explain how the Holy Spirit is meant to work in us.  The end product of the Spirit’s work, of course, is that famous passage from the aforementioned crankypants letter to the Galatians, contrasting the sinful fruits of the world with the virtuous fruits of the spirit.  But how we even get to these virtuous fruits, well, that is what Paul is trying to answer here, by basically saying that selfishness, that age-old characteristic that is laying deep within each of us, that selfishness that dwells within us is what has dominated us for so long.  It had dwelled in our hearts for so long, all the way back to the most ancient of times, to Adam and Eve, Cain and Abel, that its hold on us was impossible to uproot.

But then Jesus arrived.  And the possibility of all that changing arrived with Him, ironically because the world largely refused to reconcile itself to Him.  Jesus wasn’t welcomed in with open doors, arms, hearts, or minds, He was welcomed with insults and threats from the powers that be that were all eventually made very, very real.

And those threats and insults came from a place of selfishness, from powerful people who wanted to hang on to their power and position, from wealthy people who wanted to hang on to their wealth and status, and from prejudiced, narrow-minded folk who just could not bring themselves to believe that the Messiah, the son of the living God, could ever have crawled out of a backwater, Podunk hole like Nazareth in the boondocky backwoods of Galilee.

Jesus’s resurrection, then, is not *only* a triumph of life over the grave and love over hate, it is also a triumph of selflessness over selfishness.  The ancient dweller of our hearts, as ancient as the words the serpent spoke to Eve in the Garden of Eden, that selfishness had finally seen its winning streak come to an end.

The problem, then, is not that our selfishness is invincible or unbeatable, because we know that it can be beaten.  The problem is that it so often truly is, and that it rarely really has been ever since that first Easter when the stone was rolled away and the tomb was discovered empty.  Over the course of the subsequent 2,000 years from that day to this, selfishness has another pretty epic win-loss record.  It has picked up some pretty substantial, shameful victories from massive, worldwide sins like the crusades and the transatlantic slave trade to even the tiny stuff between two people that nobody else sees, but that one person can end up crushed by another for.

And there’s no excuse for that.  There really isn’t.  We’ve had 2,000 years to get our houses in order; that we have not is emphatically on us.  Which means it is way, way past time for more caring and less fighting.  More praying and less bickering.  More loving and less hating.

It is time for all of that because it has always been time for all of that.  When Adam and Eve took from the tree, they gained the knowledge of good versus evil, they were able to tell the difference between right and wrong.  We are, in that singular sense, their heirs, for we know the difference and then refuse to act on our knowledge of that difference.

If we are genuine Christians, then, if we truly do follow Christ not only to the cross but to the empty tomb that follows, then our refusals and protestations must end here.  No more exclaiming that it is too hard, too difficult, too impossible for us to comprehend, much less live out.

We know what we must do, because Jesus Himself told us: love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind, and love our neighbors as ourselves.

On these, He says, hangs the entirety of the Law and the Prophets.

And Paul follows this up by saying, in its purest essence, may the God who gave you the Son to tell you these things also give you the Holy Spirit by which you shall have the strength to do these things, strength enough to let selflessness rule so that you may indeed be reconciled to one another, for if reconciliation can happen across the most heavily-guarded border in the world, with sixty-some years of complete separation layered on top, then reconciliation is indeed possible anywhere.

And may the same Spirit that gave Paul so much strength to do the great and story-changing things that he did indeed give you that same strength as well.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington

October 25, 2015

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