A congregation of the United Church of Canada
Yr A – Lent 5 – Romans 8:6-11
The word of the day is ‘self’. We love this word.
Self-serve gas. Self-checkout groceries. Self-sealing envelopes. Self-employed. Self-assessment.
Self-interest. Self-isolation. Self-esteem. Self-love.
Or that thing when you point a camera at yourself – selfies!
Some aspects of ‘self’ stuff are positive, and some are very negative. You need to take care of your ‘self’, but you should not overindulge your ‘self’. You need to focus on yourself, but not so much that you become obsessed with yourself. Obsession with self is what the scripture warns us about.
As much as we may not want to admit it, we all have our obsessions with self. We may not be taking a thousand selfies a day and posting them all over the internet, but we definitely have our obsessions. And some of our obsessions with self happen right here in church.
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, 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.
And then we have the nerve to be bewildered at how we’re lost in the wilderness of not being happy with who we are.
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
“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.
Being attentive to God, tuning-in to God’s presence, seeking the Sacred and spending quality time immersing in it – noticing – 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 (Romans 8:7) “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.”
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, joy, abundance – you know, all the stuff we claim we want while we spin our wheels taking selfies.
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 – like you’re in quarantine together.
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, with a hundred rolls of toilet paper – to them this talk of God taking up residence in your life and transforming you from the inside out sounds like craziness.
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, joy, abundance – 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 bad theology 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!
God’s Presence, God’s Spirit, is certainly living, dwelling within you, but you still have to say yes for that Spirit to really move you.
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, if we allow it – will come alive in us, burst out through us like turning on a tap.
Awakening to God’s Presence in us doesn’t bring something that we’ve never had; it brings forth that which we’ve always had but have forgotten, or turned away from: love, justice, wholeness, compassion, openness, spaciousness, freedom, fulfilment, joy, abundance.
Romans 8:10 – “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.”
And that’s how we become our best…self.