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Jan 10, 2016

No Condemnation

No Condemnation

Passage: Romans 8:1-11

Speaker: Bruce Van Blair

Series: Sermons

Category: Love

Keywords: condemnation, love

No Condemnation

January 10, 2016

Romans 8:1-11


         We pause for station identification. This early in 2016, it might be a good thing to stop for a moment and try to get our bearings, don’t you think? Lots of joyful and beautiful gatherings took place last month. It was not everybody’s experience, but essentially our society put many things “on hold” and took time to remember loved ones, hear wonderful music, have parties, and try to look on the brighter side of life.

         My only complaint is that a lot of it seemed shallow and groundless. We have a better hope than that, and I keep wishing we could turn to a truer Christmas – the one that really can save us. Yet perhaps a little hope is better than none. Perhaps. But on the other hand, false hope often leads us into despair. Besides, a lot of our fears and hatreds are also shallow and groundless. A little respite from the “weary round” can at least give us a chance to catch our breath and get ready for the trials and challenges of another year. However, it doesn’t take long to feel the returning weight of all our normal problems, issues, and responsibilities. I don’t really believe that Jesus was front and center in the consciousness of our culture three weeks ago. And it’s pretty obvious to everybody that Jesus was not front and center in the consciousness of our culture three or four days ago – or indeed any time in this past week.

         But here, in this place and with each other, we want to remember and honor and learn to trust more and more this Jesus and the presence of His Holy Spirit – and the God that Jesus went so far out of His Way to reveal to us. That is not an easy or automatic affair for me or any of the people I know. It is wonderful, it restores my soul, and it puts all life back together again in ways that make peace and love and hope and truth seem viable and real again. But it is an eerie and otherworldly awareness all the same. I never ever seem to get it “once and for all.” So the Bible helps to remind me. And some of you help to remind me. And each time I truly pray, it helps to remind me. Even so, the Message – the truth of the Gospel, the way I start to think when I am aware of the presence of the Holy Spirit – something about it is never really “natural.” It does not fit easily here in our realm. I can even hear it and believe it, like from the Scripture reading this morning, and still be only semiconscious of what I am actually hearing.

         So let us pause for station identification. Where are we? Who do we really belong to? If the Almighty, Omnipotent God really loves us, whom do we fear? Of what are we still afraid? We do not like all the mayhem and cruelty and pain and evil going on in the world all around us. That’s for sure. But is it really bigger or more powerful than our God? Can it separate us from the love of God? Do we still think it is a bigger part of our future than the Kingdom that Jesus is inviting us into?

         So I am not trying to “save the church,” or encourage you to tithe, or even ask you to love each other more. Not this morning. I simply read to you a comment from Paul’s letter to the Romans (chapter eight, verse one). But nobody stood up and cheered. Can you believe that? We are probably just too well trained or too polite to break protocol. But now I want to ask you: Did you hear it? Can we really hear it and just sit here quietly as if it doesn’t really much matter?

         “There is now no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

         If you want to believe something audacious and outlandish, try carrying that message with you through the coming year. Or maybe you have never been truly or consciously aware that you were ever under the law of sin and death. Is such a thing possible? Well, I suppose it is possible that this is not the language some of you would use to identify with all the turmoil, fear, angst, confusion, and uncertainty that goes on behind the scenes and deep inside of us – in our inner lives.

         I know, perhaps more clearly than most of you even, that there is a time gap – a difference of perception and reality – between New Testament times and our time. Paul, for all his brilliance, thought the world was flat. He had no awareness that the sun was the center of our solar system, or that all the major lights of night were in orbit around the sun. There were approximately fifty million people on the face of the earth when Jesus walked and taught here. Most of them were far away from Judea, and nobody was concerned about clean air, clean water, or whether the pigeons or the bison of a continent still unknown would one day be extinct. Nobody had a wristwatch or a cell phone or even an accurate calendar. And most of you travel farther in one month than any of them traveled in their entire lifetime.

         Those are just externals, we would all say. But external realities impact how we think and feel about many things. What does it mean to “love your neighbor” when your whole life is lived in a small village where everybody knows everybody else? And what does it mean to “love your neighbor” when you don’t know the first names of ninety percent of the people who live within five miles of you? Are any of us certain that we even know what Jesus meant by “love”? We talk about love all the time, but do we mean pleasing other people, or enabling other people, or being nice to everybody in need? Trying to match how Jesus behaved, what He cared about, and how He made His decisions with what we think “love” means is unnerving, to say the least. And if you really think it would be a good idea for everybody to love everybody, what happens when you go from a world of fifty million people to a world of nearly seven and half billion people? Much of our standard, knee-jerk reactions to good morals and a loving life are complete gibberish today, and lots of people don’t even realize it. The ancient world did not like homosexuality because it was not helping to populate the world. We are still giving tax breaks and lots of benefits to people for having children. Instead, we should be giving huge tax breaks and bonuses to every gay person we can find.

         Despite all the differences between 30 a.d. and 2016 a.d., there are endless similarities that cut deeper than we might at first imagine. We still cry when our loved ones are suffering. It still changes our world when we fall in love. If we cannot find a purpose to live for, we get depressed. If we nourish any kind of hatred deep within us, it eventually poisons everything we think or do. If we are not the children of light, we become more and more the children of darkness. Many of the principles and dynamics of life transcend all time and space, and they find recognizable expression in whatever time we live in.

         Recently I was in a Disciple Band that was studying a passage about Jesus casting out demons. For just a little while, we were acting like “demons” were a reality in the ancient world but had no relevance to us in our time. We believe in germs – not demons. We have things figured out well enough to know that there are no such things as demons. That was how we were thinking until one of us was bold enough to inquire: Have none of us ever dealt with any demons?

         Suddenly we were deep into the passage. Of course, we do not think of demons in precisely the same way that people did in Jesus’ time. But do we live in a world without demons? I am an alcoholic. You think I have never wrestled with any demons? My daughter is bipolar. Can you imagine that she has never wrestled with any demons? Mariana has been a faithful wife to me for almost sixty years. Do you think she has never wrestled with any demons? Keeping love-bonds strong, learning authentic forgiveness, loving others as much as you love yourself – do you think that is just doing what comes naturally and automatically? We all have friends who have lost their jobs; friends who wrestle with depression; friends who have faced serious illnesses. But we live in a world without demons? Most of my friends say that the demons are far worse than the disease. The demons try to steal our courage and our confidence and our resourcefulness so that we will not be able to deal with our real problems.

         The real truth is that the demons plague us just as much as they ever have. They try to wreck our lives, and they never go away for good and for all. They often come on acting like they are a great blessing, and then cheat and lie and pull the wool over our eyes – just like they always have from the beginning of time. I have never met a person in my entire life who did not struggle with their demons. And yes, Jesus can still cast out our demons. But in our modern pride and superiority, we often forget to ask Him to do that for us.

         “There is now no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

         No condemnation? Can I even imagine living in a world where there is no condemnation? Can you imagine living in a world where there is no condemnation? What would I give – what would it be worth to me – to be able to live the rest of my life, in this world and the next, without any more condemnation? Can I even imagine such a thing? Can you?

         To be sure, we do not carry the marks of our condemnation out in the open – not if we can help it. That would only bring more condemnation down upon us. So we learn to hide it, shield it, pretend it never happened and is not there. But the memories do not go very far away. And it does not take much to make us uncomfortable or defensive. It does not take much to make us feel inadequate, unacceptable, unwelcome. Often we get angry when we feel the condemnation. Sometimes we do not even realize until later that some of the anger is at least partially because we agree with the condemnation and do not know what to do about it. I know grown men and women who do not come to church because they are shy. They would have to mingle with people they do not yet know, and they are not sure how well they would be accepted.

         So how in the world can Paul write such an amazing thing? “There is now no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death.”

         Paul is not an idiot. He gets condemned regularly from endless different directions. The amount of condemnation that I have endured is miniscule in comparison to the condemnation he had to endure. But clearly Paul has stopped giving any credence or authority to the condemnation that comes to him apart from God. If it is not from God, it is smoke and mirrors: someone’s unfounded opinion; someone’s own personal discomfort projected onto him. That may be unpleasant, but it is hardly something to be deeply concerned about.

         Only, Paul is also familiar with the condemnation that he believed was coming from God. That’s how he was raised. That’s how all of us were raised. And as long as we suspect or believe that God is condemning us or is on the verge of condemning us, then the condemnation of other humans piggybacks on the condemnation we are afraid may be coming from God. That can get really serious really fast.

         But here in the eighth chapter of Romans, we are hearing Paul’s emancipation proclamation. In the relationship Paul has discovered with Jesus – starting on the Damascus Road – Paul has finally realized that the condemnation he had imagined was coming from God was not the truth. There is no condemnation coming from God. There is support, approval, appreciation, understanding – what we call LOVE – coming from God. However (and many of us do not like this part very much), Paul could not know this or believe it or experience it until he turned away from his old life and turned to the New Life being offered: a Life guided and inspired and directed by the Holy Spirit of Jesus the Christ.

         Yes, this means turning away from the normal life we are all born into: a life where we are in charge of what we do and how we do it, where our survival here is the top priority, and where our success and our attempts to satisfy our own needs and desires are the top purpose of our lives.

         While we’re at it – that is, while we are trying to understand the true significance of what is being proclaimed here – “condemnation” is a word with a clear definition. It means a serious and final rejection. To condemn someone is to consign them to Hell. They are worthless, useless, hopeless, beyond help. They have no value worth working with. To condemn is to write somebody off, totally and completely. “That seldom happens,” you say. Maybe not. It had not happened to me recently – until I agreed to come be the Pastor of this church. And I usually get hated the most by people who are strong proponents of “unconditional love.” But never mind.

         With a precept as big as the one Paul is declaring to us, we need to be sure that we do not develop false expectations. If we think Paul is promising that God will always be totally pleased with us and easy on us – if we think the Christian Path is all about and only about warm fuzzies – then we will think we have been lied to. There is no condemnation, but this does not imply or promise that there will be no room for growth – that there will be no evaluations, no corrections, no pruning, no guidance. There will be no CONDEMNATION. Through it all, we will realize that the Spirit is on our side. And for that very reason, the guidance will sometimes be very challenging. At first, we may not even like it. But in the end we will be exceedingly grateful, and in time we will realize that it was for our benefit – leading us toward ever greater purpose and light.

         Even so, to know that there is no more condemnation is a huge weight lifted off of us. A huge primordial fear is taken away from us. Our relationship with God is no longer in question; it is no longer a vague or partial hope.

         If in truth all of us could and would believe this, it would transform 2016 – and every other year we will ever face. When we know this, the dark side without and the shadow side within can never again frighten or control us, consciously or unconsciously.

         I thought perhaps we should remember this – and claim it afresh – as we begin a new year.

         “There is now and from now on no condemnation for those who are united with Christ Jesus. In Christ Jesus, the life-giving law of the Spirit has set you free from the law of sin and death.”