Lesson 16: You Do Not Travel Alone (Romans 8)

In the last lesson I spoke about “faith active in love” being the best roadmap for living in our time. Paul sometimes describes it as living “in Christ”, sometimes as living “in the Spirit”. He is obviously talking about the same thing.

“What is the Holy Spirit?” was a very common question throughout my ministry. Let me provide some insight before tackling Romans 8, the classic text for understanding Paul on the Spirit.

“Team spirit” is a pretty good metaphor. Anyone who has played a team sport realizes success involves more than individual talent. “Team spirit” is the élan that brings together and energizes the group. It is often more than the athletes’ will to co-operate. It can involve the whole community that supports the team and the shared history of that community. So, too, we shall find the Holy Spirit always goes beyond individual ability to the community and its traditions. In order for “faith active in love” to operate correctly the support and the guidance of the community and its traditions have to be involved.

In the scriptures the Spirit is always associated with wind, that which comes and goes as it pleases, and breath, that which gives life. You see both in the two creation stories. In the first God’s Spirit moves over the waters to bring order to chaos; in the second he breathes into the clay figure to give it life. The Gospels describe Jesus being able to do what he does, because the Holy Spirit gives him order and life. They promise that same Spirit will guide his followers in the future, so that they will know the truth, especially when they are being persecuted by the great powers of this world.

That brings us to Paul’s picture of the Spirit in Romans 8. Jesus act of love enables that Spirit to lead us into a new family not a kingdom, in which God is father not king, and we are adopted children living in love not subjects living under the law. We never travel alone. We are always part of God’s family, a community with traditions. (Romans 8: 14-17)

The whole world yearns for this kind of community offered by the new Age of the Spirit. Although we have begun to experience it in the community entered through our baptisms, we can not yet completely enjoy its joy. In this overlap of the Age of Sin and the Age of the Spirit, we are all participating in varying degrees, but none completely, except maybe Jesus. There is still pain and suffering until Jesus comes to rule. However, knowing what we know, we regard these as birth pains, like a mother’s labor, with which we can cope, because they lead to new life. “…The creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8: 18-25).

Paul then lists some things that the Spirit does in this overlap of the ages. God is not only with us “in the Spirit” but he also “helps us in our weakness”. (Romans 8:26) 1) The Spirit first assures us we are God’s children, especially when we have a hard time believing he could love us this much.(Romans 8: 16), 2) He makes up for our inability to pray for the right things, 3) “The Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God”, 4) The spirit helps us conform to the image of God’s Son, the image of perfect humanity, (Romans 8:26-28), and 5) Above all the Spirit assures us this is an unbreakable relationship, because it depends on God’s unconditional faith and Jesus’ unconditional love.

“If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else? Who will bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? It is Christ Jesus, who died, yes, who was raised, who is at the right hand of God, who indeed intercedes for us. Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8: 31-39 )

I have been making a case that this relationship is never simply God, Jesus, and me. It always involves a community with its traditions. Remember in I Corinthians 12: 4-7 Paul makes clear “there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” Any gift the Spirit grants us is given to be used in coordination with the gifts given other members of the community. That means when I decide “faith active in love” might mean this particular action, the other members of the community might well question my inspiration. And they do this with the help of the tradition, checking to see if what I have chosen falls in line with what past generations thought was involved in “faith active in love”.. That does not mean I must rigidly fall in line with what past generations thought, but it does mean that I can take for granted there will be some similarity, at least enough to provide me guidance and perhaps check. This is not the rigidity of absolute law, but rather the helpful guidance of past experience.

This leads to a number of questions 1) Does the church provide the kind of community which supports our living by “faith active in love”? 2) Which of our traditions give us standards for judging if our decisions about how “faith active in love” abides by the will of God? 3) What do we do with the tough ones, such as deciding whether homosexuals should be ordained? And I am sure you can think of many more.

Next time, I’ll look at Paul’s understanding of Christian ethics in Romans 12 and 13.

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