Doors to the Eternal—Romans 8 (7/28/02)
Rev. Gary Cox
University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas
I received an interesting story over the Internet a few weeks back, and want to share it with you to begin this morning’s sermon. It seems this guy was driving along the interstate. Nature called, as it tends to do from time to time, so he stopped at one of those rest stops and proceeded to the restroom facility. As he started reading the words of wisdom written across the walls, somebody in the stall next to him said. “Hi. How ya doin’?” Well, even though he was unaccustomed to making conversation under such circumstances, he said, “Just fine, thanks.” And the voice came back, “What are you up to?” The answer to that seemed plain enough, but rather than being overly graphic he simply replied, “Well, same as you, I suppose.” And then the voice came back, “I’m going to have to call you back. Some idiot in the next stall keeps answering all my questions.”
Sometimes when we read the Bible, we sort of feel like that, don’t we? Like the message we’re hearing isn’t really intended for us? And frankly, we should feel that way, because not every line of the Bible is relevant to every person in the world at every moment of his or her life.
I have a regular morning routine of prayer and Bible reading, and I have a favorite prayer book I use to guide me through that process. Every day there is a new scripture to read, and some days the Bible passage just doesn’t fit. For example, if I wake up in a great mood, and feel like the luckiest, happiest person in the whole world, it is not helpful if the scripture text I read is, say Psalm 102, which says, “Hear my prayer, O Lord; let my cry come to you. Do not hide your face from me in the day of my distress. My days pass away like smoke, and my bones burn like a furnace…All day long my enemies taunt me…” Gee, I woke up feeling great, and after ten or twelve seconds with the Bible I feel like jumping off a cliff!
Likewise, if I have the flu, a sick stomach and a throbbing head, and drag myself into my prayer space to begin my day, the last thing I want to read is Psalm 66, which begins, “Make a joyful noise to the Lord; all the earth sing the glory of his name…” Chances are I’ve spent much of the night making noises that are anything but joyful, and there is no passage of scripture that is going to change that.
So the Bible must be read carefully, intelligently, and selectively. But there are a few passages of scripture that always work for me. I can turn to those passages any time of the day or night, whether I’m feeling marvelous or feeling like something the cat drug in, and they call me into the presence of God. These passages convey something that is so true, and so meaningful, I am called to the very depths of who and what I am—that center of centers where all the pulls on my life disappear and I find myself in the presence of the mystery that calls me into being. These passages are, for me, doors to the eternal.
Now, this doesn’t happen unless we allow it to happen. When Jesus told us to knock and the door would be opened, implicit in his message is the fact that we have to knock. God doesn’t kick the door down and say, “Here I am, ready or not.” If we’re not ready—if we’re not knocking—then we’re never going to find ourselves in the presence of the eternal. But if we knock—if we honestly open our hearts to the possibilities of life lived with God at the center—then the door opens over and over again, and we see God in places we would never have imagined before our hearts were open.
I’ll tell a story on myself. There have been a few occasions when I have frantically searched the house for my glasses. I’ve looked in the bathroom, the bedroom, the living room, and Leigh finally asks, “What are you looking for?” And I tell her I’ve lost my glasses. And even as the words come out of my mouth, and before she gives me that look that says I’m the biggest dummy that ever came down the pike, I realize I am wearing them.
Well, our search for God is similar to that. We keep looking for God, and don’t realize that God is not only everywhere we look—inside, outside, above, below, behind and before everything we see—God is also within the one doing the looking. We are filled with God. It is in God that we live and move. We keep pulling back the curtain in our attempt to find God, not realizing that God is in the curtain. God is in the hand that pulls the curtain back.
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Most of us can’t find God either because we look too hard or because we don’t look at all. For those of us who look too hard, our rational brains get in the way of the truth. Most of you know my undergraduate degree is in business management, and there is a passage from Tom Peters’ In Search of Excellence that not only applies to management techniques, but also, I believe, to the search for God.
It goes like this. Take two empty Coke bottles and place them in a dark room. Outside each bottle, near the bottom, place a lit candle. Now, put a bee in one bottle and a fly in the other. Eventually, the story goes, the fly will find its way out of the bottle, and the bee will die inside the bottle. The reason? The bee is smarter than the fly. The bee knows that the only way to escape from darkness is to fly toward the light, and the bee spends what is left of its life banging against the bottom of the Coke bottle. After all, that’s the direction from which the light is coming. The fly, on the other hand, is not nearly as smart as the bee. It has no idea that the logical thing to do would be to fly toward the light. So it simply starts flying around in all directions, banging here and there against the inside of the bottle, and eventually comes flying out the open top.
In management, the idea behind the story is to allow people to experiment—not to constrain them in their thinking, even if it sometimes seems their creativity is running amuck. Because once in a while somebody will be experimenting in some area that everybody knows is wrong, and they will stumble upon something important. Applying that to the search for God, many of us let our minds get in the way. We look too hard. We think we know where the light is coming from, and we bang our heads repeatedly against some invisible religious wall, determined that if we keep banging away we will eventually find ourselves in the presence of the light. Since Jesus told us the door will be opened if we knock, if the door doesn’t open at all we might assume we’re knocking on the wrong door.
On the other extreme are those of us who don’t try to find the light at all. It seems like all of us would like to have some sort of major transformational experience in which God bursts into time and space and makes known the Eternal Presence in some unmistakable way. But the fact is, the life of faith is lived in days pretty much like this one. And real commitments to God are made by people pretty much like you and me, who go through our daily routines without the unexplainable intervention of the Sacred, the Holy, the Divine.
The best way to seek God with real honesty is through prayer. Now, it’s time for a confession. I do not spend enough time in prayer. Considering my every breath is dependent upon God, I spend far too little time in honest and intentional communion with God. The main problem is that most of the time I’ve spent in prayer over the years hasn’t been especially productive. Do you know what I mean? But I’m getting a little better at prayer as I go along.
I think it works something like this. When I see somebody play the guitar, I am always a bit envious. They make it look so easy. They sit down, grab the old six-string, and start picking away as if playing the guitar was as easy as walking down the street. And I wish I could play the guitar like that.
Similarly, when I read the writings of the great mystics, and the great contemplatives, I get a bit envious. They make communion with God seem so real, so important, and yes, so simple! They enter their prayer space, get on their knees, and within moments are in the undeniable presence of God. They make it look as easy as sitting in a chair and watching television. And I wish I could pray like that.
Of course, if I had spent thousands of hours blistering my fingers on a guitar, I could probably play one of the darn things. I didn’t put in the time. And the same thing can be said of prayer. If I spent as much time in prayer as I do watching television, I’d probably be a lot better at it. I once read that the shortest distance between a problem and a solution is the distance between your knees and the floor. I confess to frequently taking a much more circuitous route to the solution.
Okay, it may seem like I’ve gone a bit astray from the subject of scripture, and how some passages speak to us at certain times in our lives, and other passages simply seem to be meant for somebody else. But I’ve found that reading the Bible is a lot like playing the guitar, and praying. The more time we spend at it, the easier it becomes to do it effectively. The more time we spend reading the Bible, the more we are able to hear things—to see things—clearly. And while my personal temperament often seems to preclude me from spending hours on end in devotional prayer, there are parts of the Bible that can call me into the presence of God almost instantly, if I open my heart to the message. Let’s take a look at one of those passages that in my eyes at least, serves as a door between our lives and the eternal.
In the 8th chapter of Romans, Paul writes about what it means to live in the Spirit of Christ. But to grasp the full power of his writing you have to know what happens in the 7th chapter of Romans. In the previous chapter—chapter 7—Paul discusses the conflict that goes on inside of him. It’s a very disturbing passage. Much to the dismay of my New Testament professor, I once called it Paul’s psychotic breakdown. But what happens in the 7th chapter of Romans is this. Paul looks deep inside himself and doesn’t like what he sees. He says, in effect, “I know what is right, but sometimes I do what is wrong anyway.”
And then he has this sort of schizophrenic episode, where he says, “Okay, I want to do what is right. But instead I do what is wrong, even though I don’t want to.” It’s as if there is more than one Paul—the good Paul and the bad Paul, and at least one other Paul who is trying to choose between those two. And no matter how hard he tries, he can’t be the good Paul all the time. And the good Paul gets mad at the bad Paul, and Paul tries to do better, but the bad Paul keeps popping up.
After Paul ties our minds up in one of those impossible hoodoo knots that seemingly cannot be disentangled, he rescues us with chapter 8. He calls the bad Paul a person of the flesh, and the good Paul a person of the spirit. Now, when Paul talks about a person of the flesh, people often think he is talking about physical pleasures, such as gluttony, drunkenness and sexual promiscuity. But that is not what “the flesh” means in his eyes. A person of the flesh is a person who is thoroughly of this world, and for whom power, wealth and prestige are the greatest things in life.
Paul comes to recognize that an inner conflict is unavoidable—the Paul of the flesh and the Paul of the spirit are going to continue doing battle with one another. But he says that even though this inner conflict is unavoidable for each and every one of us, we will either attempt to set our minds on the things of the flesh or the things of the spirit. And to put it in the simplest terms possible, Paul points out that the flesh dies, and the spirit lives forever. And when we commit ourselves to life in the spirit and surrender ourselves to God, the spirit starts working through us.
That idea—the idea of the Spirit working through us—is what Paul is all about. Paul’s whole point is that once we surrender ourselves to God and vow to live life in the spirit, it is no longer you and I who do our work in this world; instead, it is Christ working though us. We surrender ourselves to God’s love and simply say, “Hey, I’m only dancing on this earth for a short time, anyway. God, do with me as you will.”
We are then transformed. And once we make that commitment, we need never fear again. Because nothing—nothing—can ever separate us from God’s love. And that is the power of Romans 8. I’m going to read the closing passage from that chapter. You’ve heard it before, but for now, in this moment, open your hearts to it anew. This is one of those rare Bible passages that can change people. It really is a door between this world and the eternal. Paul writes:
If God is for us, who is against us?…Who will separate us from the love of Christ?…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.
If I could give every person in the world a few words to carry through life, those would be the words. There is nothing that can separate us from God’s love. Nothing. When I see young children terrorized with visions of an angry and judgmental God as people try to scare them into the Christian faith, I want those children to hear this passage. When I see people of faith casting judgments on those who worship differently from them, I want them to hear this passage. When I see a person who has done a terrible wrong, and who believes his or her life is no longer worth living, I want them to hear this passage. There is nothing in all of the universe that can ultimately separate us from God’s love.
Now, some people might think, “Well, if there’s nothing I can do that would separate me from God’s love, I can really take advantage of this situation.” That person has really missed the point. They’ve missed the point of Paul’s words, and they’ve missed the point of life. Because we make a choice in this life to live in what Paul calls the life of the flesh or the life of the spirit. And if we are looking at the world through a selfish lens, we are thoroughly anchored in the life of the flesh.
Does God love us even then? Of course. That is God’s nature. But in spite of the way it may sometimes appear, this is ultimately a just universe. And that which is of the flesh returns to the dust from which it came, and that which is of the spirit is eternal. I really believe that every part of a person that deserves to live forever will.
Well, this sermon got a little heavy, and that was not my original intention. After all, we started out in a bathroom stall somewhere along the interstate. I’m still not sure how we wound up here! But you know, this is important. Life in the spirit—that’s not some abstract philosophical concept—it is a real way of living in this world. And it has nothing to do with wearing huge gold crosses around our necks, or plastering religious bumper stickers all over our cars, or having pictures of Jesus hanging in every room of our houses. Life in the spirit is simply seeing beyond our natural selfish impulses. It is acknowledging that everything about God is eternal and parts of us are not. It is recognizing that the answer to the old question, “Am I my brother’s keeper,” is a resounding yes.
None of us is capable of living completely in the spirit. It seems to me that Jesus was able to do that, but I know that I don’t even come close. Still, we can work on it. We can work on it together. We can start by asking ourselves as we go through our days, “What would Jesus do?” And who knows? Maybe, just maybe, the day will come when instead of asking ourselves, “What would Jesus do?” we’ll just surrender ourselves—heart, soul, mind and body—to God, and let Jesus do it himself.