An Abundant Life
July 13, 2014 Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13: 1-9. 18-23
I believe there is an important debate that is occurring in the first century church which is helpful for our conversation this morning. The debate focuses on bringing Jewish believers and Gentile believers into a single community, and it hinged on the law.
For Jewish believers, Jesus Christ was the fulfillment of all they believed. He was their messiah, the Christ. They saw in Jesus a continuation of their faith. And because at no point did Jesus do away with the law, in their mind, the law still held.
That is not to say that Jews quite understood what was behind the law. Hence throughout Romans, Paul has a running commentary on the law which would have made Jewish Christians very uncomfortable.
Whereas for Gentile Christians, everything was new. They had no law. In particular they had no dietary restrictions, no Jewish Holy days, and no circumcision. These three aspects of the Law, above all others, were important to the Jews because they had become the markers that Jews lived and died by during the Maccabean revolt, mid 2nd century BC. These markers were what separated the Jews from the rest of the World.
So the conflict that arose centered on the Law and the texture of a life in Christ.
In Christ Jesus. That simple idea changes everything. In Christ everything is made new.
Paul is telling us that in Christ we find liberation from the law of sin and death. That, in Christ we recognize the law cannot save us. The law only brings an understanding of what sin is and everyone knew that sin leads to death. Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. In Christ we are no longer condemned as sinners by the law.
But this does not mean that we are not called to obedience of the law. Sorry for the double negative. You see only now, in the Spirit, are we able to follow the law. It is only now that we are able to acknowledge sin and instead of being enslaved by sin, forced to obey our sinful desires, we are able to choose obedience to Christ.
For most of us, the conflict is that we come to this text having grown up in the church. Not knowing a time that preceded our relationship to Christ and his Spirit. Many of us have never known what it means to be enslaved to sin and death. In this way we are dis-similar to the audience that would have been listening to Paul’s letter. They were first generation believers. They had made a conscious decision to follow Christ. They all knew a life outside of Christ and the Holy Spirit.
Christ had freed them from the condemnation of the law and of sin and death through his death. And through his resurrection he freed them to life. To life a life of obedience. A life of putting off the old self and putting on the new self. Of weeding sin out of their lives. For Paul’s audience there was this life prior to a union in Christ. A life of poverty, imprisonment, blindness and oppression. A life enslaved to sin. And now in Christ, a new life.
Consider a time when you met someone who was enslaved by sin. Someone outside of Christ. For me the first image that comes to mind is that of an addict. An addict is driven by a craving to make choices that likely, you and I would not make. I have come to know several guys in the neighborhood that I live in, who are enslaved by their addictions. One guy in particular comes to mind. He lives out of an old dodge caravan. He drives two blocks every morning to park in the lot of an Advance Auto where for a couple of bucks he will help people fix their cars. His name is Mike, and I actually really enjoy spending time with him. But you’ll never find Mike without a beer in his hand.
One day he came down the street in the passenger side of a brand new Honda accord. As the car pulled up alongside of me, he introduced me to his mother. She was this older, well dressed, beautiful woman. I was struck by the fact that Mike is functionally a homeless man, while his mother seemed to be doing fairly well. I don’t know their story. Mike doesn’t talk much about his mother. But there are many stories where families have abandoned their children because of an inability to manage an addiction. Can you imagine the amount of pain addiction brings into a family like this? Sin destroys relationship, and addiction is an extreme example of enslavement to sin. The inability to make a different choice.
Another example comes from my own life. Up through High School I lived a fairly moral life. The most trouble I got into was a result of poor grades. That changed in college. I quickly developed a drinking problem. I drank almost every night of the week. I stopped attending class and my grades plummeted. I was even placed on academic probation at one point. I did things I would never had expected I was capable of doing. There were times I woke up in a location, not knowing how I had gotten there. On the rare occasion there was even the angst of waking up and knowing that I had driven drunk the previous evening.
I know what it means to be enslaved by sin. I knew a life outside of Christ.
Some of you may have a similar story. You may remember a life before Christ. And so for you, when you read Paul’s letter to the Romans, it makes sense. For the rest of you, I think this can be a difficult letter to read. For those of you who don’t remember a time before Christ, there is not the contrast of an old self and a new self, as Paul talks about it. And so you don’t necessarily understand the difference between being enslaved to sin, and sinning.
For those of you who have grown up in Christ, you can look at your life and see sin. You may even find yourself currently in a position of habitual sin. Do not be discouraged, because here is the beauty of Grace. Paul is telling us, that in Christ, our chains have been broken. Sin is no longer our master. The law no longer condemns us, but instead it helps us identify sin. Without the law we would have never known what sin was. But now, in Christ, everything has changed. In Christ you have been freed to live in obedience to the Law. If the law can be summed up as loving God and loving our neighbor, than the Law shows us what love means. How to love. The beauty is that now, In Christ and through the Holy Spirit we are able to make a different choice. To acknowledge sin and to fight the inclination to obey it. For those of you who have grown up in the church, this is your promise. Don’t be discouraged by sin. It is a battle that we fight every day, and because of Christ in you, you now have the ability resist sin. Without Christ, there is no fight.
So do not give up. We have been called by Christ to live. To live a restored life that points to the Kingdom of God. Since we have been freed from that slavery to sin, we are now capable of living a life where our minds are set on the Spirit and the ability to submit to God’s law. We are now able to stand against sin. Sometimes we will be conquerors. And other times, well we give thanks that God hears our prayers. Either way, know that in Christ, you are no longer condemned by your sin. But this is not a freedom to sin. A couple of chapters earlier Paul challenges us, if you have been freed from sin, why would you obey its cravings any longer.
The law simply defines sin. It reveals those aspects of our lives which are not pleasing to God. We should be thankful. Because in Christ and through the Spirit we are empowered to acknowledge sin and to choose a new response. This is the good fight, to choose a life of peace. To love both God and our neighbor through submitting ourselves to God’s law. To live in obedience to it. To fulfill what it has outlined as an abundant life in Christ.
In Christ you have been justified. You have been freed from the bondage of sin and its consequence, death. You are now able through the Spirit to live, a life marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Galatians 5:22. As Christians, this is our battle. To spend the rest of our lives, through the power of the Holy Spirit, learning to live in obedience to Christ through submitting our lives to the law. It sounds simple, but we all know how difficult this can be. We must set our minds not on the sinful nature, but on the will of God. We must fight the good fight.
This leads us into Matthew and the parable of the sower. In life there are struggles that we will encounter. We all know this. Matthew gives us three images to pay attention to.
First we find those who hear the message of the kingdom of Heaven, but don’t understand it. They are in danger of the evil one robbing them of this blessing. If we come across something in God’s word which doesn’t make sense, don’t simply ignore it or overlook it. Wrestle with it like Jacob wrestled with God. There is a blessing to be found in God’s word, and even more so when we wrestle with it. Look to God’s word. Use the passages that are explicit and clear to unpack those that are more difficult to understand. God will not contradict himself. Don’t be content with something you don’t understand. If after that wrestling you are not content with your understanding of a text, than give it to God. Trust that God will bring you wisdom at another time. It is interesting how many times we can come back to a text through our lives and see God in a new light. My point is this, don’t simply skip over a difficult text. There is a blessing in God’s word.
Our second image is that trouble and persecution will follow God’s word. Do not permit these to discourage you. The more time we spend in God’s word the greater the impact it will have on our lives. While that impact will be good, it will not always be easy. At times it will cause conflict within ourselves and at times it will cause conflict between us and others. Paul’s encouragement is that we would submit ourselves to God’s word. As a community we need to support and encourage one another through these times. It is my belief that the denomination is currently struggling here. Society is going in one direction, and through my own study of God’s word, scripture is leading us in a different direction. We should expect this. There should be places where we do not agree with the greater culture. This doesn’t mean we hate or despise those who would disagree with us. This brings us back to Paul. For those who are not united with Christ, our expectation should be, that they should be living
apart from God. Their lives would evidence an inability to submit to his Law. The expectation too often from the church is that those outside the church would live moral lives. The letter to the Romans has a lot to say to the modern church. If God gives people over to their desires, why would we expect something different? The troubles and the persecution that comes from being united to Christ, need to be responded to out of love. A love that was modeled for us by Christ, when he ‘ate with sinners.’ It is much harder to hate someone you know. (Sometimes at least) It is easier to hate the idea of something than the actual person behind that idea. Spend time in prayer, meditating on God’s word and rooting it in your heart.
The third image is that of the worries of life and the deceitfulness of wealth. These two areas make our faith unfruitful. They choke it, restricting the ability of God’s Spirit to work through us. This might be an unpopular reading of this text in a reformed tradition. I trust in God’s sovereignty. Nothing could have intervened in a manner which would have restricted God’s will for the creation. And yet the fruitfulness that God desires for our lives can be restricted when we permit worries and wealth to become our focal points. When we move from thankfulness to fear, we do not reflect the generosity of our Lord. This text doesn’t say that these individuals are outside of the kingdom, it merely says they do not bear fruit.
Finally, If we can resist these struggles and pitfalls, then what we see in Matthew is that through us God will produce a crop a hundred, sixty or even thirty times that which was sown. Think about the parables of the Kingdom of God. They are powerful images of its growth. The Kingdom is contagious. It is intended to transform the world. Reading from Isaiah, Christ proclaims,
The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to set the oppressed free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.
This is abundant life. This is the Kingdom of God. It is a life marked by freedom from sin and lived in obedience to Christ. Not out of obligation but in thankfulness because you understand that sin destroys relationship and the law leads us to this abundant life. Rejoice.
The summer I was building my house I had a number of guys stopping by looking for change to feed their addictions. My response was always the same. If you are hungry I might have something in the fridge. Several guys took me up on that offer. Well, several months after we had finally moved into our home, one night right before dinner, a guy knocked on the door. After saying hello, he asked me if I had remembered him. In honesty, I didn’t. He went on to explain how I had fed him that summer and how grateful he had been. I invited him to join us for dinner.
I don’t always live according to the Spirit. But when I do, sometimes it bears fruit. In Christ, we have been freed to live a life of abundance.