In today’s epistle, St Paul describes for us the invitation to new life brought about by God’s unconditional love for us, and of what happens when we ground ourselves in the Holy Spirit.
He does this by contrasting two states of being: life governed by the flesh and life governed by the Spirit. In verse 5 he writes:
Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires; but those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.
— Romans 8:5 (NIV)
In the following verse he goes on to describes the respective impact of each kind of life: ‘The mind governed by the flesh is death [or, we might say, deadened], but the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace.’ (Romans 8:6 NIV)
Do we want to feel truly alive, and experience the fullness of life that Jesus promised, the peace of Christ, or do we want to reduce life to going through the motions, seeking out what pleasure we can for ourselves along the way?
I don't know what the language of ‘life in the flesh’ conjures up in your mind. The Church’s teaching, historically, has linked it to morality and hedonism and such like. It might certainly include that but it is a rather narrow understanding of what Paul is talking about here. After all, it is still possible to live a clean-living life but not be living through the Spirit.
Put more simply, Romans 8 contrasts a life that is closed to God with a life that is open to God. Do we navigate our way through life empowered and guided by the Holy Spirit, God’s energising and affirming life force? Or are we mainly occupied with the much more limited (deadening) experience of pleasing ourselves?
Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.
— Romans 8.2 (The Message)
What is this ‘brutal tyranny’? In the previous chapter of Romans, Paul describes the tension between the human ego and life in the Spirit. ‘For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.’ (Rom 7.19-20 NIV).
It is a bit of a tongue twister but is nonetheless a wonderful description of the inner conflict that I am sure is familiar to all. We've each had the experience of making a wrong choice, and falling short of our best intentions or hopes for ourselves. Perhaps we want to be kinder to others, less judgemental or gossipy or critical. Perhaps we want to be more disciplined about living a healthy or ethical life. Perhaps we want to practice being more loving and generous, but the fears and worries of life cause us to contract into ourselves. This inner struggle is the original meaning of the Muslim word Jihad (a term hijacked of late by extremists). I rather wish Christians had such a word that describes this inner wrestling. The closest we get is perhaps temptation but I find that a bit passive, not quite encapsulating the same tangible struggle Paul so memorably articulates in the above verses.
Today’s reading follows on immediately from that section, and describes the power of the Spirit available to us to win this struggle. It is nothing short of God’s offer to us to be transformed through life in the Spirit. I’ve been very helped in understanding Paul’s sometimes tortuous and slightly opaque writing style by the African-American theologian Israel Kamudzandu. With his help I want to make the following three points:
1. Life in the Spirit is not a matter of conservative or liberal theology (preferences that divide Christians in the same way that church denominations do). It is a matter of being citizens of the kingdom of God. Do we lay claim to that status for ourselves? Do we truly understand what it means to take up that citizenship, and define ourselves not as Anglican or Catholic or Pentecostal, nor as Evangelical or Traditional or Progressive, but simply as citizens of God’s kingdom living life in the power of the Holy Spirit? Doing so allows us to focus on what matters most in our walk with God, living as followers of Jesus.
2. Secondly, when we choose to live in the Spirit, we are transformed. For some, that transformation may be radical and swift in taking effect. But for most of us it is a lifelong process. Conversion is not a moment in time, but a long journey, one in which we do better at some points than at others. There will always be moments when we stumble, but it is the act of picking ourselves up and continuing to journey forwards that allows us to grow as Christians. Conversely, when we spend too long idling on that comfy-looking bench by the side of the spiritual path we begin to lose the impetus, falling into the old habits of a life closed to God.
Fortunately, as far as God’s concerned, the number of times we stumble is irrelevant. Nobody is counting. Life in the Spirit is about what God continues to do in us when we are open to God, not a record-keeping of our past failures. Paul suggests that while gratifying ourselves may give momentary pleasure, it doesn’t lead to deep down lasting fulfilment. Even when we face tough situations in life, we will still feel blessed when we ground our lives in the Holy Spirit. That's not always easy, but the door is always open to us to enter into such a way of being.
3. Finally, life in the Spirit means being willing to leave our comfort zones. We must always be ready to break habits and patterns, to step out in faith into new ways of living. And when we are living through the Spirit we become more alert to what these new ways might be.
[The Spirit] opens our minds to new world views, insights and strategies… open to the guiding role of the Holy Spirit whose work is to teach, sustain communities of faith, and guide believers along their faith journeys.’
— Israel Kamudzandu.
This is a kind of liberation, which opens up for us new possibilities in life. We discover new ways through life that break old patterns which can leave us feeling stuck or deadened.
How do we open ourselves to being guided by the Spirit in this way? Through prayer. It's as simple as that. We need prayer-filled lives.
Without prayer the human condition will indeed dominate and destroy one’s relationship with God.
— Israel Kamudzandu
Prayer is like gym membership for the soul. When we keep exercising our prayer life it becomes easier to access all that God is offering us through life in the Spirit. This is why those who live in religious communities have a cycle of prayer that sustains them throughout the day. It is also why Matins and Evensong are still part of the daily tradition of the Church of England (although we call it Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer these days). We have to regularly check in with God in order to keep the Holy Spirit at the centre of our lives.
Have you, lately, asked for God’s Spirit to be present in you, to guide you? Do you pray regularly for the Spirit’s leading? Have you rested quietly, meditatively, in God’s presence letting love and acceptance engulf you? If so, you’ll know what a great gift is offered to us. It's a gift that strengthens us every day, keeping us feeling full of God’s presence, living with a constantly evolving sense of new life, one in which, in St Paul's words, he who raised Christ from the dead also gives life to our mortal bodies because of the Spirit who lives in us (Romans 8.11).