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Sunday, September 21, 2014

“Living In Color”

A Sermon Based Upon Romans 7: 14-8:6.
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   September 21th, 2014

“There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Rom 8:1 NRS)

I grew up when Westerns were king.   Some of you remember when they dominated Black and White TV and Hollywood Movies: Roy Rogers, Rawhide, The Rifleman, Gunsmoke,  and all those John Wayne and Clint Eastwood movies.   It was a different world and a very different way of looking at our world.

In most every Western, eventually the good guy wins and the bad guy loses.  All you had to do was figure out which ones are the good guys, and who was really on the right side of the law.   Life was a still great challenge, but it was simple and not complex.   Each Hollywood Western was the way America explained itself saying, “A man’s got to do, what a man’s got to do!” 

But things have changed.  The Buffalo are gone.  The railroad is finished. The red men now have lawyers.  The sun has set on Monument Valley.   Once John Wayne was said to have commented in frustration,  “They tell me everything isn’t black and white,” to which he answered, “Well, I say why the Heck not?”

In our text today the apostle Paul would be sympathetic, but would whole-hardheartedly disagree with John Wayne ‘s western-style of philosophy.  If the Christian life is only a matter of ‘black and white’, we’re all in trouble.   Paul sees himself as basically a good guy, but he’s wrapped up in a human body that is sometimes incapable of good and too capable of bad.  Instead of the one coming to the rescue, he’s the one who is tied up on the railroad track as the whistle is heard and the ‘train of truth’ approaches.  He cries out in all honesty and desperation:  “Who will rescue me from this body of death?” 

Normally, the law and the lawman was righteous and good in the typical Hollywood western.  In a similar way, Paul would agree that the “law” is good and has an important role to play in the Christian life: “If it had not been for the law, I would not have known sin…” (7:7).    He uses the commandment “Thou Shall Not Covet” as an example.  If it had not been for the commandment he would not understand that coveting is wrong.

If you take a trip to Washington DC, and walk up the steps of the Capital Building, you see 9 of the world’s great lawgivers in relief form.   The most dominate figure in the middle is Moses, who mediated the Ten Commandments.   The point is that we are a nation that is built upon law and it even hints, if not suggests, that the final source of law comes from God.

Assad Meymandi, is a medical doctor with a PHD, who lives in Raleigh, though he is a native of Iran.   He is also an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the UNC School of Medicine at Chapel Hill.   Last year, he wrote in the Raleigh Paper: “America is not great because of its prosperity. It is not great because of the proverbial American Dream of a brick home with a two-car garage. It is not great because it gives us security, opportunity and order. It is not great because of its advanced technology and its number of Nobel Laureates in science, medicine, literature and humanities….   America is great because it is a nation of laws and because of its absolute commitment to uphold and maintain the supremacy of the rule of law….

….”On the local scene, a couple of years ago, with astonishment and awe”, he wrote, “ I sat and watched the court proceedings of former Gov. Michael Easley on television. Astonishing, because a former chief executive officer of a sovereign state was being sentenced.  Awe, because of the unshakable and uncompromising supremacy of the rule of law in America…. 

He concludes: “America, from time to time, may go down financially and our state might have a $3 billion budget deficit, but nowhere on earth are the sanctity and supremacy of the rule of law so cherished and enshrined in the nation’s psyche as they are in AmericaGod has blessed our beloved nation, the United States of America, and we are blessed to be Americans….

Although Paul is speaking of the law mostly in religious terms, and while Dr. Meymandi’s assessetment is primarily political, they do intersect.  You cannot be a people, a nation, a religion, nor a decent human being without some sort of rule of law.   No nation, nor any people, no matter how free, how liberated or how religious we are, or will ever be able to sustain themselves without law.   The law is foundational, basic, and most necessary to all or any human life and existence.  

But still according to Paul logic, the law has a big problem.  It does not really deal with, nor does it curb our ‘desire to sin’ or break the law.   Paul says, that this is not the law’s fault, but the problem is still sin.  The power of sin still uses the law to awaken all kinds of sin (7.9).   The very law or commandment that promises ‘life’ proves to be ‘death’ because it does not get rid of our desire to sin, but can in fact, increase it  (7.13).    Again, this does not mean that the law is bad, because Paul still affirms that the law is necessary (7.7) as it is ‘holy and just and good’ (7.12).  The law is a great spiritual resource (7.14) not because it gets rid of sin, but because it shows us just how strong the power of sin is at work in each and every one of us (7.13).
Even though the law is good, spiritual, and holy (God’s and human), it still doesn’t stop evil desire that brings death and destruction.  Our human situation, both moral and spiritual, is exactly what Paul wants us to see as he takes us into one of the most autobiographical texts in all of the Bible.  Even though Paul has the law, knows the law, teaches the law, and tries to live the law, he says, the law cannot give him a new desire to do good:  “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”  (7.15).   Here we see within Paul’s own desire to do good an inability to perfectly do good in every situation.  The law has its limits.  Even though the law is perfect, the human person can never follow the law perfectly.  The law can affect us externally, in that it can make us realize our need to do right; but it cannot affect us internally; it can’t make us always want to do right.  If we only live by the law, we will find that ‘sin’ keeps raising its ugly head.

An interesting thing happened in Vernon, Vermont, several years ago, when a driver by the name of Bryan Condo stopped at a stop sign, saw a police car coming down the street, rolled down his window, waved for the police officer to stop and then asked the officer to arrest him for drunk driving.   It seems that Bryan Condo had been out drinking, and he had four times the legal limit of alcohol in his blood.  But instead of pretending that everything was OK and that there wasn’t any problem, Bryan Condo decided to admit that he had done wrong.   ("Drunken Driver Pulls Cop Over, Asks To Be Arrested," Associated Press, 8/10/04).

What I can tell is that the law alone did not make Mr. Condo do what he did– to admit that he did wrong, he messed up, that he sinned.   There was something else at work in him that made him want to fess up on the spot.   We can say that Paul, too wants to fess up.  As Paul looks at his own life and at the lives of others, he realizes that deep down inside, most, if not all of us want to do what’s right.  Deep down inside, most, if not all want to do good and we want to live the kind of life that God intends for us.  But the problem, Paul realizes, is that there is often a difference between the good that we want to do and what we actually end up doing.  And the source of that problem, Paul reminds us, is the law of sin.  Even though we might have the best of intentions, even though we might have the loftiest of goals, sin has a way of sneaking in and turning something good into something worse than good.

When Paul concludes in exasperation, he is being brutally honest with himself and with us.  He has been a teacher and follower of the law, but the law has not enabled him to move his life from black and white into living color.   In other words, if he only has the law, he is neither set free from sin, nor from death.   If he only has the law, he remains the person he always has been, though he sincerely tries to obey.   If he only has the law, he remains enslaved and captive to an even greater ‘law’ in his heart and mind, the law of sin.   The point is that even God’s law cannot change him, transform him, or give him a new level of living that helps him overcome his fears and flaws so he can fulfill his greatest potential.

But what the law could not do, freeing him from the power of sin, and the desire to sin, Paul is now thankful that God has rescued him “through Jesus Christ.” (7.24-25).    It sounds good, but how can this be real?  How can we get the man in Vermont to change so that he is able to curb his desire to drink and drive?   How can we get the person we can be to be able to overcome our own weaknesses, shortcomings, and to live life on a higher level?  This is what the Christian life is supposed to be, a life that gets us from the darkness of sin, and even beyond mere black and white, into a life that is lived if full color and hope.

We have no condemnation     The Christian Life doesn’t begin where you think it should.  It does begin with admitting your weaknesses, but it does not begin with admitting all your wrongs.   The Christian life begins by finding God’s pure, unmerited, and unconditional love.  “There is no more condemnation!”  Any religion that does not begin here and is not founded on Jesus Christ, but has reverted back to legalism.  No condemnation means simply this: None! Nada!  Zilch!  Zippo!  Zero!

Now this is a strange way to start a religion.   Only God can do something like this.  In John’s gospel we get clarification that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him” (John 3.17), and furthermore, John writes, that ‘those who in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already….” (3.18).   The point here is not that God wants to condemn everybody that does not believe, but the point is that those who do not believe live in condemnation already.  The only way out of ‘condemnation’ is through belief in God’s love shown to the world through Jesus (John 3.16).   

The Christian life is founded not upon what we’ve done or could ever do, but it’s founded upon what Jesus did and only Jesus could have ever done.  Shown us God’s unconditional love on his cross.     Tony Campolo tells about getting a phone call at home. A voice said, "We need a minister.  Our friend died, and we need a minister to do the funeral."
        "When's the funeral?" Tony asked.
         Tony said, "I will be there." So the next day, he put on his preacher suit and went over to the cemetery.
          He was walking up to the graveside to do the service as people were gathering. Not knowing the man who died, he was putting together some thoughts as he walked. Just when he resolved to do this, he looked up to smile at the people who were gathered. There were about a dozen men. No women, all men. Something began to dawn on him, so he asked, "How did your friend Jerry die?"
            One of them said, "He died of AIDS."
            Tony said, "Did Jerry have any family?" 
            "They haven't talked to one another in years. We looked in on him when he got sick. I guess we were the closest thing to family he had."            
            Tony said, "Did Jerry have a church background?"
           "Sure, Preacher, all of us grew up in a church. That's why we wanted a Christian minister."
           Tony said, "Well, it's my privilege to be here. I thought I would read some passages from the Bible."  One man said, "Could you read that passage from John 3:16?"   Tony said, "Sure." He started, "God so loved the word that he gave his only begotten Son," and suddenly the rest of them chimed "so that whosoever believes in him would not perish but have eternal life."

Somebody else spoke up, "How about that passage about many rooms in the Father's house?"    Tony said, "Sure," so he read from John 14: "In my Father's house there are many rooms...." By the time he said the first half of the Bible verse, all the guys were joining in, "and I go to prepare a place for you, so that where I am, you may be also."

Someone else said, "I remember where Paul says, 'Nothing shall separate us from the love of God,' " and most of them started completing the verse. Tony said, "Here I was, a straight guy, with a dozen gay men, doing a funeral for their dead friend.  Every single one of them knows the scriptures. They grew up memorizing those words. We stood there trading verses for about half an hour. It was incredible!"

Finally he said, "All of you know your Bible. Where do you guys go to church?" And they got very quiet.  They didn't say a thing.   Tony said, "Friends, I'm going to give you one more verse, and then we're going to have a prayer. The verse is Romans, chapter 8, verse 1: 'Therefore, there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.' "  That verse was still hanging in the air, when one of the men said, "I wish I knew a church that believed so strongly in Jesus that it would take me in."

"No condemnation." I believe it says, "No condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."   Is there anybody here who really believes in this verse?  It is not easy, and it does not mean we have to agree with everyone nor condone sin.  But the Christian life does begin without any condemnation.  We can come to Jesus just like we are.  We can repent of our sins, and we can even come "while we are still sinners" (as Paul said in Romans 5.8).   God does not condemn us, no matter what.  

We have the power of the Spirit   When you know that you are not condemned, but are loved, a new power can be released in your life.   And when you are not condemning, but are loving, a new spiritual power can also be released in you.   We are not motivated by hate or condemnation, but the Christian life is motivated by the Spirit of God's love.   

I witnessed that power first hand back in the 1980's.   This was that time when the AIDS epidemic first started and no one knew what it was, nor how contagious.  I was a chaplain at Baptist Hospital, and I was the one who was asked to go and see an AIDS patient who was dying.  It might be risky, they told me.  They said, I did not have to go.  I prayed about it, and I decided to go in.  I dressed up in all the protective gear; including gown, gloves, and mask.  He was angry and might spit at me, they said.  That could have been as dangerous as a loaded gun.  I went in anyway.   Where did the power come from to do this?  I'll tell you this; it didn't come from me!   I did not have the power not to condemn.   I did not have the power to go in.  But I went in and prayed for the man anyway.   And when I got home that night was afraid to tell my wife about it.  It wasn't me that was so brave.   Telling her scared me to death!

The only way I can explain why anyone would live a life that followed the Spirit that takes us beyond what is right and wrong; beyond what the law says should or shouldn't be done, and then it is a Spirit that moves us to offer forgiveness, love and grace, no matter what.   The only kind of power that would inspire us to do something like that is the same kind of power that kept Jesus on that cross, no matter our sins.  "Even while we were still sinners, Christ died for us...."  Paul says (Rom. 5.8).    Jesus is the one who started this crazy way of living without condemnation, I just hope he was not the last.   Amen.

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