IT’S A SPIRIT WALK                                  Reflections on Romans 8:4

We’re on a Christian walk! Last week we discovered the landscape opened by resurrection of Jesus. Our primary Christian message is not, ‘You’ve got to change’, but rather ‘The world has changed!’ Jesus’ death and resurrection make a profound difference to the way we live. We in a different place and we need to awake to deep change Jesus has brought. This week we look at Paul’s second use of the idea of the Christian walk. In Romans 8:4 he talks about this change means we walk (not ‘live’ as in NIV) in the Spirit. He’s dealing with the issue of how to draw best out of human beings. How do live creatively and with energy, with balance and wholeness, exhibiting both beauty and character? Paul’s great insight is about how ‘the law’ functions best in human lives. He says: ‘through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.’ (Romans 8:2)

The way of rules 2-3a

So let’s consider this ‘law of sin and death’ first. I’m going to call it, ‘the way of rules. Israel was probably best rule-based people to date! They represent the highest humans can aspire to by using the way of the law, of rules. Until then ancient cultures had grown by brute force conquering chaos threatening human communities. ‘Anything’s better than chaos!’ they said. And today, Iraq and Syria tell us, there’s much sense in this approach. However, it’s not the best for us. What we call ‘the exodus’ was Israel’s way out (literal translation of the word) from under the jackboot of brute force. They were delivered for a better way. God offered them an alternative at Sinai. It was an experiment in which they choose freely to follow God’s way. It was called ‘Torah’, often translated ‘Law’. It had richer allusions than our rather cold, institutional word ‘law’. What does this teach us? Let me explain how ‘law’ function in four steps.


Rules are necessary. The ‘law’ is a good thing. Paul teaches us this in Romans 7:12. We need rules to live life well. Talk to any tolerably good parent and they know full well their child needs rules. It’s not for discussion, maybe or possibilities. It’s ‘Do this or else!’ And we know teenagers need to go through a time of black and white. Things have to be a clear choice, and if they get the basic rules of healthy living right they can move on to explore the grey areas in due course. This is what I call ‘the external voice’ – the voice that says: ‘This is the way. Now walk in it.’


Rules need internalising. This is where it starts to get interesting. We know if that’s all our children learn, it won’t be enough. They also need to develop an internal voice to live well by the rules. The same process happened in Israel’s history. They discovered that while they freely accepted God’s way, it wasn’t so easy to work that out in real life. It got messy because they couldn’t live up to it. They did stupid things. We all do. We’re weak.  (Paul said much later, the law was made powerless because ‘it was weakened by the sinful nature.’ Romans 8:3) So the prophets reminded them of that original decision, and some yearned for a time when the Law came from within peoples own hearts – ‘written on their hearts.’ Instinctively they knew something deeper in ourselves and our communities was needed. Then Jesus came, and much of his ministry was spent living out the way the prophets could only dream about.  Seeing the way the people laboured under the ‘rules-mafia’ of the day – the Pharisees – he said: ‘Take my yoke (a word used about adopting the Law of God) upon you, and learn of me, for my yoke is easy and my burden is light. If you do this you’ll find rest for your souls.’  He spoke of a way and lived it that was beyond rule-based living.


Rules divide human beings. Paul discovered this insight. If you live by rules, then there are the keepers and the breakers, the insiders and the outsiders. Paul, before he saw this, was of course a super-duper keeper. And it made him very unpleasant! And on the Damascus Road it crashed upon him that the very thing he described as holy and good, had turned him into a monster.  And this is what happens with all rule based groups whether it’s a nation or a religion, whether it families or a group of friends, whether it’s a gang or in the school playground, rules turn human communities into belonging systems.  ‘This is the way we do things around here. We’re right because if you look at them, they don’t keep the rules.’ So rules – perhaps good in themselves – become destructive and corrosive when they meet our not-so-good, old, human nature! We need setting free from this system that plays itself out the world over. Ahah! That’s precisely what 8:2 says. But there’s one more thing to note, which is obvious in what’s been said thus far.

Rules deceive human beings. The breakers may be in the eyes of the keepers, an awful lot. But the problem lies also what law does to the keepers.  They imagine they’re OK. Paul had no conscience whatsoever persecuting the early believers. He was doing God a favour. This is the same mind-set as Islamic extremists. But after Jesus confronted him, Paul recognised within himself a pride that had blinded him. He had a buzz words for this that pops up in his letters, ‘boasting’. You can listen to him reflecting how he boasted in Philippians 3:4-6. Now confronted by Jesus, his unpleasant side was laid bare.  In other word he was locked in a system of goodness which requires baddies. It’s sad, but true to say, good people get trapped by their own goodness!


The way of Spirit 3b-11

Jesus broke out. Paul reflecting on his own deeply personal experience said it was ‘through Christ Jesus the law of the Spirit of life set me free from the law of sin and death.’ Even though he’d never seen Jesus, he recognised he had operated in a completely different way from his own rule based approach. Jesus saw what it had done to the teeming crowds that were drawn by his ministry – ‘harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd’ and ‘They (teachers of the law and the Pharisees’ tie up heavy loads and put them on the people’s shoulder, but they aren’t willing to lift a finger to move them.’  He saw what rule-based society did to people, making them feel failures and outsiders. He lived in an entirely different way: compassion, mercy and love.


Jesus was broken by the rule system. I want you to imagine what was going on inside Jesus; what was happening to his spirit. ‘I can see this system makes people outsiders. I’m going to have to face the effect of this myself. I need to become an outsider, bear the disgrace as I become the ‘cursed one’, abandoned by God because I led people astray. It will involve me in betrayal, being abandoned, and ultimately death at the hands of people who run this system of goodness.’ But the wonder is that he dwelt in this place peacefully, graciously, returning with only forgiveness and not condemnation. He is the forgiving victim of the system. And in this way Jesus prizes open the traps of our human goodness-belonging systems and release mercy that flows through the open door of the cross.


Jesus breathes out the new way. So what kind of human being does it take to travel such a road when even those closest said, don’t go that way? And what kind of spirit does such a person have? Someone who is willing to put himself in the place of the despised, rejected, the one considered smitten by God and afflicted? I tell what kind of spirit such a person has. We have a name for it: a holy spirit. Holy Spirit! And that’s precisely what’s going on here. ‘Into your hands Lord I commit my spirit.’ And with that ‘he breathed his last.’ Then, just a few hours later, ‘he breathed on them and said, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive…”’ Jesus offers life and peace to and through his disciples. And what does Paul say a few decades later to the Roman Christians? ‘The mind of the sinful person is death, but the mind of the Spirit is life and peace.’ (Romans 8:6) This is what it means to walk in the Spirit – a life with a deep desire to be as Jesus was when he died. This is what we are being called to cultivate and what the Spirit of Christ, God’s Holy Spirit grows within us.


For reflection

  1. Rules are necessary and good. Share experiences from family life or other walks of life. Can we be too strong a voice as parents, especially as our children grow? Does this teach us about the Christian life?
  2. Look at Jeremiah 31:31-34 & Ezekiel 36:24-28 and the visions of a new way & covenant. Chat about the contrast between feelings you ought to do something, with the desire to do something.
  3. How has Jesus fulfilled these prophets’ hope in your own experience? Does guilt and a feeling of ‘ought’, drive us as Christians at times? Is this healthy? Why is desire important in healthy Christianity?
  4. Have you felt an outsider because you didn’t share the same values and practices of a group? Share what it felt like? Think about situations where you see the Law or rules dividing communities.
  5. How did Jesus move beyond living by a set of rules himself or setting rules for others? Think of incidents in his life that illustrate this.
  6. How did Jesus become a victim because he taught and lived in this different way?
  7. Finally look at Romans 8:1-6. In what way does your discussion/reflection help you to understand this very difficult passage of Paul’s?