Yr A – Lent 5 – Romans 8:6-11
The word #selfie (and yes, you pretty much have to spell it with the pound sign in front of it) was added to the dictionary and made the “word of the year” for 2013. If you’re connected to social media in any way – Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat – you know all about #selfies. Apparently there’s something irresistible about putting an easy to use camera in a device that you carry around all the time and with the touch of a screen you can share yourself with your friends and the world.
There’s nothing wrong with taking the odd #selfie. They can be fun! But for the younger generations they seem to take more than the odd one. It’s like an obsession for some! Not that us older people don’t have our own obsessions. We certainly do, and some of them are just as narcissistic as #selfies. And some of our obsessions with self happen right here in church. Some people obsess about their eternal destination, some live in a rose-coloured nostalgia that thinks the old days were so-much-better, some get huffy if you suggest changing the music style, or rearranging the chairs!
But none of this is new. It’s just human nature – well, it’s immature human nature. Obsession with self is not inevitable, even though it’s painfully commonplace. The bible is overflowing with stories of people who were so completely focused on themselves, or their own needs, or their own preferences, or their own way of understanding the world that they couldn’t see God and God’s way. Moses and the golden calf incident, David and the bathing Bathsheba, Solomon and his temple taxes, Pharisees taking on Jesus, Saul persecuting Christians, time after time we see the trouble people get in when they put themselves at the centre of the universe.
The strange thing, the incomprehensible thing about this is that obsession with self has never been a long-term satisfying answer for anyone, and yet we all seem to think that we’re different and it will be for us. Obsession with self is locked-in on immediate gratification, which undoubtedly feels good in the moment because it gives you a rush of what you think you’re looking for, but beyond those initial moments it becomes shallow and unfulfilling.
And so we need voices like Paul’s calling us back from our self-obsession and urging us to awaken to a deeper and more life-giving reality. This passage from Romans 8, especially in Peterson’s “The Message” translation, really shows how we’re not all that different from that first audience hearing this so long ago. Paul is clearly speaking to our reality too. He said,Romans 8:6-8 “Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what God is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.”
“Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life.” That really is the message for us. That’s the benefit of a life of faith compared to a life of no-faith. Obsession with self is a dead end. It goes nowhere fast. It leads you down a path that doesn’t accomplish anything or give you any real lasting benefit or growth.
The opposite of a dead end is openness, spaciousness, and freedom. How do you get those things? “Attention to God!” Notice it says attention to God and not obsession with God. There’s a difference. But being attentive to God, tuning-in to God’s presence, seeking the Sacred and spending quality time immersing in it brings that spacious freedom we yearn for.
Like the old country song said “looking for love in all the wrong places” – and we do! We look for satisfaction and pleasure and fulfillment and wholeness in all the wrong places too – and the world lets us down over and over again.
Paul says it’s because “Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what God is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.” (Romans 8:7)
That word ‘pleased’ in Greek also means ‘served’ as in doing the work intended for a person. If you’re all about you, you can’t be tuned-in to God’s way, and therefore you won’t be able to serve, to help bring about God’s dream for the world. What’s God’s dream for the world? Love, justice, wholeness, compassion, openness, spaciousness, freedom, fulfilment – you know, all the stuff we claim we want while we spin our wheels taking #selfies. To sum up, our #selfies = Jesus’ #facepalm!
Not very hopeful yet, is it? Do you think God will just leave us there in self-obsessed hell constantly disappointing ourselves and feeling out of tune? Absolutely not! After laying out the case against selfishness Paul says the magic word – But!
Romans 8:9 “BUT if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him.”
So the difference between life-sucking selfishness and life-enhancing spaciousness is whether or not God has taken up residence in your life. Isn’t that a great concept? – taken up residence – as in God has moved in, brought some furniture, hung a couple pictures on the walls, taken over a shelf in your medicine cabinet! God’s bumping into you as you make breakfast together. Residing in you, living in you, growing in you.
If that’s the case – if God is in there, in here, in you – then you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of God. If I moved into your house you’d certainly notice me – now visualize that God, and Jesus, and the Holy Spirit have all moved in. Now try thinking of yourself more than that lot. You wouldn’t be able to move without being surrounded by and bumping into holiness! Everywhere you turned there’d be holiness. Holiness would take over your life! Even your #selfies would be holy!
Then Paul brilliantly adds, “Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about.”
Paul’s right! To a world obsessed with #selfie culture, with hyper-materialism, with “it’s all about me and my needs and desires” as their creed, this talk of God taking up residence in your life and transforming you from the inside out sounds like craziness – which is exactly what #selfie culture looks like to people of faith.
Paul continues, “But for you who welcome God, in whom God dwells – even though you still experience all the limitations of sin – you yourself experience life on God’s terms.”
Don’t get hung up on the word ‘sin’ here. Paul simply means that even with God at the centre of your life you’re still going to slip up and make mistakes from time to time. You don’t stop being human and start being Superman or Wonder Woman just because you awaken to the Sacred in your life.
But if God’s Sacred Presence dwells in you, is an operative reality in your life, is the touchstone that grounds and guides you, even though you’ll still goof up on occasion you will experience life on God’s terms! And what are God’s terms? We listed them just a minute ago: love, justice, wholeness, compassion, openness, spaciousness, freedom, fulfilment – these are the benefits of God’s indwelling presence!
And finally, verse 11 “It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!”
Three things out of this verse. First, I love the phrase “alive-and-present God.” God is alive and present! What’s the opposite? – dead and absent. Sadly, that’s how I think some people think of God – as dead and absent – that God is out there far away and therefore doesn’t matter, or that God does not even exist and therefore doesn’t matter.
I can’t put into words for you how God is alive-and-present for me. I can’t tell you how it works. I CAN tell you that I’m not delusional, it isn’t a figment of my imagination, and it isn’t just wishful thinking. The Holy Mystery we call God is an alive-and-present reality in my life. I think many of you, hopefully all of you, can understand that and claim it for yourselves too! I’m as sure of it as I’m sure that love lives in me as husband and father and friend, that music lives in me, that passion lives in me – God is definitely alive-and-present, and to not feel that would seem like death to me.
Verse 11 also speaks of God “moving in” – now this turn of phrase I don’t think is all that great because it suggests that God is apart from us and has to be invited to move in to reside in us. I get the imagery; I just think it’s not true. It’s not true because God can’t move in because God already lives within! God is not apart from anyone; God is present in us all. The “move in” language should really be “awaken to” language. It isn’t “Spirit come down” but rather “Spirit come forth!” It isn’t “I can’t find God out there” it’s “I’m asleep to God’s presence in here.”
Our hymns talk like this all the time and they reinforce this idea that God is separate from us. That is simply not true. God does transcend us! That’s absolutely true! But God’s transcendence doesn’t stop God from being utterly within us. So, rather than saying “When God moves into your life” I’d say “When God moves in you because you’ve awoken to God’s presence within you, God brings you alive to Godself.” In other words, when you become present to God’s Presence, you come to life!
And that’s the third thing. This is a resurrection verse. It says, “When God lives and breathes in you, you are delivered from that dead life. With God’s Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!” #Selfie life is a dead end. The Spirit-filled life is the opposite. So when you awaken to and embrace the reality that God lives and breathes in you, you are delivered from your “dead” life, and are reborn, renewed, resurrected – pick whatever word you like. Resurrection doesn’t come when your body dies and your life is over, it comes when your obsession with self dies, and your new life begins, here, now, today!
I’m almost done so I’d better explain my message title. Not so long ago the Occupy movement dominated our news. It started as a group seeking to Occupy Wall Street in New York – a group of idealistic outsiders moved into the halls of capitalism to shine light on the injustice of the outrageous and increasing gap between the richest 1% of people who control the levers of power and finance and the other 99% of us who seem powerless to do anything about it.
The Occupy movement tried to remind the financial #selfies that they had become so obsessed with greed that they had lost sight of what is fair and right. It isn’t that the so-called 1% don’t know about the concepts of love and justice – after all, they have to be pretty smart cookies to have acquired so much wealth – the problem is they’ve lost sight of justice, they’ve become blind to it, they’re so obsessed with self that they ignore God. So the occupiers literally moved in and forced the 1% to notice. They became a tangible expression of the consciousness that the rich people couldn’t apparently see or feel on their own.
Now, it didn’t change the system and suddenly Wall Street saw the light and we now have reasonable wealth distribution and financial justice in the world. But it did raise our consciousness. It did impact our understanding. And it did make a difference.
Here’s where I tie it in to faith.
God does not “occupy” us forcibly. God does not coerce. God does not move against our will.
God simply shines the light of God’s love and yearns for us to catch a glimpse. Then, if we see a sliver of Sacredness, if mystery catches our imagination and moves our spirit for a moment and opens us to a new possibility then God – if invited – will occupy us, come alive in us, burst out through us like turning on a tap. If we pray that prayer, “God, Occupy Me!” then the Holy Spirit will do just that. And if we let God occupy us God doesn’t bring something that we’ve never had, God brings forth that which we’ve always had but have forgotten, or turned away from: love, justice, wholeness, compassion, openness, spaciousness, freedom, fulfilment.
“But for you who welcome God, in whom God dwells – even though you still experience all the limitations of human weakness – you yourself experience life on God’s terms.”
God, occupy me!