“A New Spirit”
June 12, 2011
“If the Spirit of God dwells in you, the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give new life to your mortal bodies through God's Spirit that dwells in you.”
Several years ago now, people began to express a renewed interest in “spirituality.” A quick look at the bookstores suggests that this interest continues to be quite strong—and in some sense more sophisticated. Sure, some people still hope to escape into some “inner world” in order to avoid the ever growing problems around us. But most seek to recover forgotten resources for living more fully in the face of all the frustration and fear and joy that they encounter.
Ben Johnson teaches down at Columbia Theological Seminary, near Atlanta, Georgia. His voice is one of the strongest as he calls for people to seek the Spirit of God. He says: “The time has come for a concerted emphasis on Christian spirituality. Increasingly we are recognizing the importance of spirit, both divine and human. The encounter of this human depth with the Divine Reality defines our deepest hunger and need.”
I agree that “our mortal bodies”—as Paul calls them—need new life, in particular, the new life that God's Spirit can and will give. Congregations need leaders and members with a new spirit, refreshed for life and for serving God.
Where do we start?
If we are interested in the renewal of our spirits, we need to start with our bodies.
Now, when you hear Paul writing about “sinful flesh” and contrasting “flesh” and “spirit,” you’re likely to think that our bodies have little to do with spirituality. For Paul, however, “flesh” has more to do with an orientation that is separated from God, from other people, and even from the best in ourselves. “Flesh” for Paul is not the same as our bodies.
When we listen to Paul, one thing becomes clear: Paul cannot imagine any form of human life without the body. Whether he writes of our mortal life or of our transformed existence after death, he always assumes we will have a body.[i]
So too did those Christians in the early centuries of the Church whose experience and debate forged the words of the Apostles’ Creed: “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”
Our bodies are central to who we are. Having a body makes me a separate being. I am only so tall, so wide. My arms reach only so far, my legs stretch only so far. Like you, I look out at the world from a unique point of view. No one else can see just what I see at any particular moment. Each of us is separate and limited.
But because I am a separate body—and you are a separate body as well—there is always the possibility that we can relate to one another. Because we are not the same people, there is the chance that we might come to know each other better.
And being separate from God in our own bodies, we might also find a relationship with God. Because we are not God, there is the opportunity to know God.
Our bodies give us the possibility of a spiritual life.
Of course they also give us a lot of problems.
They get fat. They grow flabby. Our joints ache. Our arteries clog up. And after a day of work—at an office, in the yard, or chasing all over after the kids—let’s face it, those bodies are tired!
Because we are bodies—mortal bodies—we need renewal. We need contact with other people—friendships that affirm who we are. We need contact with God—a friendship with the One who gives us life.
Our bodies are the starting points for the renewal of our spirits.
The good news is this: God's history with humankind is an effort to restore a broken relationship.
Do you know what it is like to seek out someone you love, to tell them about yourself, to desire what is good for them as well as what is good for you?
The divine/human story is something like that. God's loves us with a deep, searching love—a love that will not rest until we are found and embraced.
Where do you hide from that love?
Do you keep busy running here and there so that you're hard to find?
Do you hide behind your sense of self‑sufficiency, or your own goodness, as though you don’t need the love of God?
Is your anger or bitterness that life has not gone as you planned a mighty fortress against God’s persistent love?
Are your satisfaction and your success enough to keep you insulated from the never ending love of God?
The Bible is the story of a God who continues to seek, even though we come up with all sorts of hiding places.
Traditional "spiritual disciplines" include reading a small section of scripture and pondering it during the day, private prayer, public worship. Many people today also find regular exercise, music, or acts of service in the world to be forms of spiritual nurture. Traditional or modern, these activities are ways of coming out of hiding, at least for a short period of time. They give us the opportunity to stand before God as we are and discover that we are accepted as we are.
When we are tired of hiding, when we are weary from living, God makes contact with us, reaching out to renew our spirits, to feed our hungry hearts and minds.
Even in our worn-out separation, we hear some good news: God seeks to restore broken relationships.
Jesus came with a body like our bodies, knowing strength and weariness, feeling pain and hunger. He came, as Paul says, "in the likeness of sinful flesh." That is, Jesus did not come to change this world, with its orientation toward sin; Jesus did not come to make us morally perfect. Jesus came, as the theologian Karl Barth put it: "To announce the resurrection of the flesh; to announce the new human being who recognizes herself/himself in God, for we are made in God's image; and to proclaim a new world in which God needs no victory, for the victory over death has already been won."
What all our efforts cannot do—make us new men and women—God has done in Jesus Christ. Now we are a new creation and we have the freedom of the children of God.
Our relationship with God is deeply individual and personal, but it is not solitary. As a congregation we are invited to live as the people of God, with new hearts, new spirits. We are invited to live like this together.
A Kenyan proverb says: “I am because you are.”[ii] We cannot and do not start from scratch. It is not by chance, nor is it optional, that we find ourselves among others.[iii] The spiritual life is not lived in isolation.
We are a community of individual human beings. And if we look around we will discover God at work among us. In Christ God does what we could not do on our own—gathering us together, increasing our love for each other all the more as we see what is unlovable in each of us, taking our weakness and using it that we might be strong. And then for the sake of the world that God loves, we are called to continue to show that love to one another and to the world outside these walls.
All this happens because of the new reality, in which we live—or rather, the new reality that lives within us. God's Spirit dwells within us and among us. This is the Spirit that gives us life and enables us to love. The promise of a new spirit is fulfilled in Christ.
Because of this new Spirit within us, Paul says, "there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus."
Think about that for a minute.
There is no condemnation. We are no longer under a "death sentence."
People who were once trapped in a life diametrically opposed to a life pleasing to God—that’s Paul’s understanding of you and me—such people are now set free to pursue another kind of life. In Christ a New World is born and a new life is possible—for us as individuals and as a community.
We are free to act, knowing that when we fail we will be given the grace to start again. All of our actions have unforeseeable consequences—some good, some bad. We are set free to act, knowing that even when we fail, we will find new opportunities to work for the good.
God will not condemn. God will forgive. Let us keep this knowledge within our hearts and among each other in our life as a congregation and as we seek to show the love of God to the world.
Who knows? If God will forgive, maybe God will also work among us so that we, too, might forgive. If God will give us life, maybe God will also work among us so that we can do the things that make for life and not death.
God, who raised Christ Jesus from the dead is also
giving life to our mortal bodies,
giving us a new spirit
and calling us into hope.
[i] Paul Achtemeier, Romans, pg. 132.
[ii] Patrick Henry, The Ironic Christian’s Companion, pg. 136.