Life in the Spirit
Romans 8: 12-17
My blessed siblings in Christ, I am so honored to share the Word of God through Paul’s Letter to Romans. With a thankful heart I greet you in peace. I am ever thankful because of your love and dedicated life to Christ and your beloved church.
It is the strongest desire of my heart that our United Methodist Church will offer God’s abundant blessings and be a house of prayer for the many uncertain challenges around us.
Many inquire about our denomination’s future and express to me that the division within the church is a great source of discouragement and anxiety. I would like to say that the leaders of our Wisconsin Conference churches are doing faithful ministry in the midst of uncertainties, and we pray we may be a beacon of hope as Christ’s witness in the world. In the Spirit of God, we are living and serving faithfully everyday and everywhere no matter what happens.
Today my focus is on three parts of Paul’s message to the churches in Rome. First, life in the Spirit, second, unity in the Spirit, and third, Paul’s vision of the church, the body of Christ. My hope is that Paul’s message will enhance our common direction for mission and ministry together in today’s context. We belong to God in a deep, personal, communal and unshakable way, whatever we may be going through.
Paul tells us what life in the Holy Spirit does for us.
“For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.” (14,15)
When Paul writes that we have received a spirit, he means it quite literally – God possesses us with a spirit of good and we are directed by that spirit in what we say and what we do.
Paul believes the Holy Spirit is always present with us, always communicating within our experiences, in order to guide us in all our decision making.
Our scriptures speak to us of spiritual possession, but we generally focus on evil and demonic possession. We have not done as good a job retaining the
understanding of the work of God’s Holy Spirit in the same way. Just as evil influences could “possess” an individual, benevolent – even holy – influences could possess as well. When the author of Hebrews wrote that we might entertain angels without realizing that they were angels, it followed a common belief that angelic forces could “possess” human beings for good works.
This was very real for Paul who one day was inciting crowds to stone Christians to death, to then find himself the next day transformed by an encounter with the risen Christ. Such total transformation could only be explained in one way: the spirit of life and goodness conquered the spirit of slavery and death.
For me, this passage puts words to the profound mystery of what it means to live with God in the midst of our suffering world. We need to experience that Christ Jesus is alive and at work in our world today and we delightfully become his witnesses.
“For all who are led by the spirit of God are children of God.”
We are children of God. It is said in the Bible that we are loved, accepted, and forgiven by God in Jesus Christ. Spirit-centered life makes this real for us. Jesus Christ died for our sins, Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, defeated the dark powers, and lives beyond crucifixion. The Holy Spirit makes this real for us. Jesus Christ becomes redeemer, healer and the promised messiah and Lord of the whole world. Spirit-centered life empowers us to witness God’s healing grace in this broken and troubled world. By the Spirit we are called to be witnesses that Jesus Christ is indeed risen and assures us of an abundant life.
“For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption.”
When I was searching as a teenager first amazing truth I discovered is that Jesus loves me, died for me, and rose again and is alive today. I did not receive a spirit of slavery instead the spirit of adoption led me to follow him as his disciple for the rest of my life.
Life in the Spirit calls us into Unity in the Spirit. Paul writes, “When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, 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.”
So, for Paul, the possession of our lives by the very Spirit of God makes us true children and heirs of God, uniting us as one body in Jesus Christ.
This is another central understanding of Paul’s thinking in the first-century world. The sense of binding, connecting, uniting, and tying together was essential
for Paul. Strength in numbers and unity of purpose were important for survival and endurance. Being completely recreated and reborn into a new family and tribe was a powerful image in the first century. Paul would not have understood the concept of “personal salvation.” The Hebrew people were a “people” of God – the actions of the individuals reflected on the entire tribe or nation. The word “you” in most of Jesus’ teaching and Paul’s writing is plural, rather than singular. The same Spirit of the Christ that is in you is the same Spirit of Christ that is in me. We cease to be “you and me” and we become a singular “us or we.” In Christ, there simply can be no division, but we are all made one, together.
Paul’s larger message in Romans is all about life in the Spirit. We – collectively – are given new life in Christ through grace. We are raised to a new level, a level that not even death can touch. We are no longer conformed to worldly ways but transformed by renewal of our whole essence to discern and do the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. We are one body in Christ – the incarnate body of Christ for the world – all by God’s possession of our very beings by the Holy Spirit. His language is mystical and mythical, reflecting a worldview that is not commonly held today.
So, what does Paul offer us today, and how can his thinking provide a framework for transformative and lasting faith? I want to examine what it might mean for 21st century Christians – particularly United Methodists – in our Western culture to embrace the concept of life in the Spirit.
I believe Paul would challenge us to reintegrate our whole person – body, mind, heart, soul, and spirit – into one cohesive essence. Our post-enlightenment world delivered many wonderful advances, but also caused a number of unnecessary and unhelpful divisions and oppositions – head or heart, faith or science, fact or fiction, intelligent or ignorant – artificial separations that created false dichotomies.
I will focus on the fallacy of reductive either/or thinking. Many post-enlightenment cultures preference “the mind” over “the heart.” Intelligence is
viewed as superior to faith; science to religion, education to intuition, etcetera.
Paul would have been unable to understand such division and compartmentalization. “The mind” and “the heart” are one. Both learning and
faith are gifts to us from God. The physical and the metaphysical are two facets of the same gem. Ignorance in one area is compensated by proficiency in another.
Paul would view the person as a unity where even seemingly unreconcilable thoughts and beliefs could exist side by side – until truth is finally revealed by
God. Paul regularly writes to the churches that they should set aside the differences and divisions and focus instead on that which unites and unifies. He appeals to the larger single essence that ties all parts together.
Paul’s most compelling vision of the church is the body of Christ, and he writes to the Roman believers:
“—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.”
This was Paul’s vision for “the church” that can inform us today. Paul’s understanding of the Holy Spirit as a spiritual glue that binds all things together in Christ can offer us a guiding metaphor for today’s global Christian faith. We may disagree, we may create human institutional divisions and denominations, we may fight over beliefs and behaviors, and we may fixate on buildings and property, but those are the vestiges of “slavery and death.” Beyond our human divisions is the Holy Spirit of God that binds us all together and is greater than every excuse we
have to not get along.
This idea is most fully expressed in the Pauline letter to the church at Ephesus in chapter 4, verses 1-6: “I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to
lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every
effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord,
one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.”
This is the true power of the Holy Spirit – to unify and unite. Where God’s Spirit is fully present, you will find a deep unity of purpose and performance.
Growing, healthy, thriving Christian discipleship requires community. Together we are greater than the sum of our parts. Together, we join gifts and knowledge and experience and understanding to be a stronger witness for Christ. Together, the power of God’s own Holy Spirit transcends our differences and calls us into beloved community with one another. Life in the Spirit is life together.
Paul yields a powerful vision for church – a unity of mind, body, spirit, energy, soul, belonging, and engagement possibly only through the presence and empowerment of God’s Holy Spirit.
And this vision is not possible for a large number of individuals who do not understand the nature of the church as defined by Jesus and Paul.
Our faith is a corporate faith, and as John Wesley taught, there is no holiness but social holiness. The shift in focus from joining the large and growing community centered in Jesus Christ to a personal and private relationship with Jesus caused an artificial dis-integration of truly ecclesia.
And this is where is it imperative that we cultivate and nurture effective spiritual leadership for our congregations and churches. We must utilize our very best thinking, our deepest wisdom, our widest vision, and our highest values to move forward as a witness to the world of the love and grace and mercy and justice of God.
Our Wisconsin vision of radical inclusion and racial justice is an outward and visible expression of our most deeply held United Methodist beliefs. We offer in our communion liturgy a phrase that is much more than a nice sentiment or a pleasant poetry. When we pray that God, “By the power of your Holy Spirit make us one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world,” we are asking God to create in us Paul’s understanding of what it means to be church, to be God’s people, to be the body of Christ.
We are asking to be transformed, to be possessed by grace and goodness, and to be the incarnation of Jesus the Christ for the twenty-first century. We are making a commitment to create together beloved community, defined by radical inclusion and racial justice, to embody mercy, justice, and compassion, to be agents of peace and grace, and to witness to the whole world that God’s ways are not our ways, and that human divisions and disagreements are as nothing to the uniting love of God.
I believe we can become beloved community together in our Wisconsin Conference – in each one of our congregations – if we will make a few commitments based on the teachings of Paul.
First, to work together to become whole people, integrating our best thinking, feeling, believing, and acting in ways that honor and glorify God.Second, if we will set aside personal and individual needs and demands for the greater good. When we serve one another in love and compassion, we live fully into the will of God to which we are all baptized and called. We lay down our lives for each other, thinking not only of our own needs, but considering the needs of others as important as our own. We empty ourselves of ego and anxiety and aggression and selfishness so that we might be filled and possessed by God’s Holy Spirit.
And third, we commit to show the world that fighting and bickering, power struggles, disrespect and violence, are not the only way to live in this world. God has a better option to offer. Our communal lives as the body of Christ should be characterized by great good for all. Paul teaches in Galatians chapter 5, verses 22-23 that when people live together in beloved community, the produce of such unity is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Wouldn’t it be wonderful that when people outside the Christian faith
look at United Methodists they saw such love and joy and kindness instead of division and struggle and disharmony?
But life in the Spirit is not imposed on us as a burden but is freely offered and given as a gift from God. It is God’s desire to make our lives better, and this happens when we allow God’s Holy Spirit to work through us to make life better for each other. The Spirit calls us to be radically inclusive – welcoming every beloved child of God to be blessed and loved, cared for and cared about – no matter who they are, what they do, or what they think or believe. The Spirit calls us to make peace and be fair and just and kind to everyone, especially those who are not part of a dominant culture, race, or ethnicity.
God calls us to be better together than we can be on our own. God gives us everything we need to make this call a reality. I pray that as we move forward out of the shadow of this pandemic time that you reflect on these teachings of Paul, and that they may give you strength and direction in the months to come. I invite you to receive the gift of life in the Spirit, life in all its fullness and glory.
“Spirit of God,
Lord and Giver of Life,
moving between us and around,
like wind or water or fire;
breathe into us your freshness that we may awake;
cleanse our vision that we may see you more clearly;
kindle our senses that we may feel you more sharply;
and give us the courage to live
as you would have us live,
through Jesus Christ our Lord.
(John V. Taylor, A Matter of Life and Death, London, SCM, 1986, 15)