Our first reading from Paul’s letter to the Romans began with a statement which at first sight what appears rather strange:
“Therefore, brothers and sisters, [it says] we have an obligation – but it is not to the flesh.”
This suggests that accepting our own sinful nature as being something which is unavoidable, is a decision which is unacceptable in God’s eyes. Reading that, I already feel as though I have been taken into the headmaster’s office to be spoken to (did any of you ever experience that or was it just me?): I already have a sense of guilt and a feeling that I must try to do better and we haven’t even started yet!
Paul goes on to warn us that:
“if we live according to the flesh, we will die; but if by the Spirit we put to death the misdeeds of our bodies, we will live.”
I sometimes find Paul’s way of writing rather verbose and circuitous, so let’s stop for a moment and try to make sense of it. First of all let’s get rid of that word ‘flesh’ and insert ‘our human wants and desires’ into that statement. And secondly, let’s replace ‘put to death the misdeeds of our bodies’ with ‘stop sinning’. So we now have:
“if we live according to the our human wants and desires, we will die; but if by the Spirit we stop sinning, we will live.”
And finally before we move on, let me ask, was Paul really trying to say that if we enjoy ourselves too much, it will bring a sudden end to our earthly existence?
Well let’s clarify that straight away — from the way Paul is speaking, it appears he is referring to our spiritual lives, something which can be further translated as our relationship with God. A relationship, which he later says, needs to be so close and intimate that we are able to turn to God and address him simply as Abba — or Daddy. So Paul is saying, if we allow ourselves to be led by God’s Spirit instead of our human wants and whims, and if we manage to control our own free will to avoid sin, we will become known as children of God and attain a life with him which will last until eternity.
Simple! Let’s go and do just that and I’ll sit down … and yet … I fear that as soon as I put my foot beyond the threshold of the church door I will be back to square one — I am fully aware of my obligation to God and I try my hardest to avoid sin and all of the pitfalls, but somehow, I still manage to fail on a regular basis … and I know that I am not alone.
Someone sent me a beautiful prayer the other day which contained the words:
I am truly sorry for all my thoughts, words and actions which I know do not come up to what you would expect. I am so thankful that, because of your great love and the sacrifice shown by your son, you see me only as I should be and my sins are blotted out. I have a new start.
Those words, even though they were penned by someone who would call themselves a complete amateur when it comes to theology, give me hope because they remind me that, even my failures can and will be forgiven provided my heart remains true.
During my fairly lengthy career in the chemical industry I had numerous bosses as I moved around the company but there were only ever two of them to whom I felt I could turn if and when disaster struck — which it inevitably did from time to time. My reason for saying this is that there were times when I was trying to do new things, things which no one had ever tried before, and pushing at the boundaries of what was physically possible, and one of these bosses used to say to me;
‘If you never fail, you are not trying hard enough.’
True to his word, when things went wrong, he ignored the failure as we sat down together to analyse how the issue had come about and how we could do it better next time — because the answer was never to walk away from the problem.
It’s so easy to opt out when things get difficult or you fear you have failed, and it is equally easy to opt for the easy life. For example, why not become an ‘armchair evangelist’, sitting in the comfort of your own home, praying that ‘Bob’, who lives just two doors away, will come to know God in his life. It is far riskier to knock on Bob’s door to invite him along to church or to an Alpha course isn’t it — but it could be far more beneficial for both of you. And isn’t it far easier to accept the words of a notable theologian and remain quiet, than it is to speak up and question any misconceptions or prejudices you may feel have crept in to our corporate faith or belief structure.
In their own ways staying at home and remaining quiet are sins brought about by our lack of confidence in ourselves and lack of trust that God will support us in whatever we are trying to achieve through his Spirit.
As Paul points out, being led by the Spirit and foregoing some of our earthly passions doesn’t make us slaves. Nor should we be fearful of the times that will inevitably end in failure but rather, the Spirit will continue to lead us towards that intimate relationship with the Father as we move ever onward. In the end, we will succeed, not because we always get it right, but because we try, and because we are fully aware of our failures for which we are truly sorry and we pray that next time, and the time which follows, and the time after that, God will help us to do better, rather than us accepting sin and failure as the norm.
But no one ever said this would be easy! You only have to read Paul’s story to see how he was shipwrecked and spent time in prison because of his ministry. And then of course, we turn to the cross, to see God’s own son hanging there in pain and in torment. If that is the case, why should we be spared the troubles that life throws in our direction? Is it not right that we should share in Christ’s sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory?
That doesn’t necessarily mean that we need to share the physical pain of the lash, but it certainly may mean that there will be times when we find things mentally tough. But when that happens it is important to have a support team around you, people you can trust, people of a similar mindset … Jesus knew that.
One day when he was talking to a crowd of people, his mother and brothers stood at a distance, wanting to speak to him, it seems that they may have been concerned about his mental condition. But when he was told they were there his reply again sounded a little odd.
‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’
He then pointed towards his disciples and said,
‘Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’
The implication is that Jesus is being quite negative and finding the presence of his family no more than a distraction or an interruption. But in reality he was being positive about his disciples. There were those who regarded his work as dangerous, subversive and possibly demonic but he had gathered people around him who did not peeled threatened by his work. They were discovering that when they listened to Jesus, they were being brought into the presence of God and finding a knowledge of his will which they were able to put into practice — sometimes with great success but occasionally with spectacular failures.
That is now our challenge: to listen to Christ’s word and to be led by the Spirit to do God’s work. So let us pray,
Lord, you are the God whom we dare to call Daddy.
We pray for your strength and courage
to lay aside our wants and desires
so that we may do your will.
We know that you have promised to be always here with us
and we should not fear anything,
even if we were to walk through the shadows of the valley of the dead.
Grant us the peace to stop worrying and forgive our failures
so that we may live the way you want us to live.
Copyright © 2015-2018 St John the Evangelist, Ashton Hayes. All rights reserved.