Scripture: ROMANS 8:12-17
A man I know has yearned for years to own and drive a Maserati that he has long admired. So finally, after several decades, he bought the car of his dreams. And he knows it’s a fine car. I heard him say somewhat wistfully recently, though, that, after several months of owning it, it no longer excites him. It’s still the car he wants. But my sense is he was looking for something more from it, something that would continue to thrill him, something that would fill some sort of empty space in his life.
Maybe you’ve had something of the same experience. Perhaps it was a boat you longed for. Or a sofa for your den. Or a saw for your shop. Maybe it was something smaller but hardly less pressing in your mind—a special pair of shoes, a tattoo for your ankle, a particular phone or tablet. And you purchased the item you were searching for. And it was great for a time. And then that old longing reasserted itself. If only you had such-and-such a new item—then things would be alright, and you’d feel settled, and you’d know real satisfaction.
If something similar hasn’t happened to you, then God bless you—you’re more centered than I am. I still remember, during my first job after college, a co-worker who dressed beautifully. He and I were walking through a store together one day, and he pointed out this amazing pair of shoes. They were suede on the top, with a beautiful leather on the sides and back. And I was in love! I saved my money, and I bought those shoes, and I was thrilled. And I hardly ever wore them. Whatever unsettledness I was experiencing, those shoes were not going to do the trick—much as I wanted them to, and much as I believed they would. I kept them for years. They were like a cautionary tale for me: don’t expect too much from a pair of shoes, or from anything else, for that matter. They’re not going to come through for you. They’re just shoes. Or a boat. Or a car. Or a lottery prize.
The words of the apostle Paul are sometimes difficult to understand. They wind around and deal with apparently esoteric subjects that may not seem that compelling on first hearing. Perhaps you experienced that as you listened a few moments ago to the section we read from his letter to the church in Rome. “Debtors to the flesh.” “Put to death the deeds of the body.” “A spirit of slavery.” “A spirit of adoption.” To our ears, this may seem dense and obtuse, not at all nourishing or filling. Why not “The Lord is my shepherd” (Psalm 23:1) today, or “Let justice roll down like waters” (Amos 5:24), or “Peace I leave with you” (John 14:27)? Why are we stuck this morning with this apparently incomprehensible irrelevance?
And it’s a fine and pressing question. What sense can we possibly make of these ancient, and rather dense, words? As it happens, though, beneath that apparently obtuse exterior, Paul is speaking here about precisely that car and that sofa and that pair of shoes that we so commonly look to to fulfill us. Using concepts alien to our ears, Paul is speaking about why it is that the bloom on those seductive sirens fades almost as soon as they enter our possession. And the reason is: despite their alluring promise they can’t do for us what we most need. Tempting though they may be, they are little but wisps of seductive promise whose hoped-for benefits slip away once they’re in our grasp.
The language Paul uses here has befuddled generations of Christians. Paul tells us here we’re not to live according to the flesh, but rather according to the Spirit. That language has misled centuries of followers of Christ. All too often, people have thought Paul was denigrating the body, that he was saying the flesh is bad and the soul, or spirit, is good. So in a wildly unfortunate misunderstanding, countless Christians have assumed that any attention to, or enjoyment of, the body was misplaced, and especially that anything having to do with sex was somehow opposed to God. So we need to say as clearly and forcefully as we can that that is not what Paul is doing here. Paul elsewhere tells us the body is a temple of God (I Corinthians 6:19). He’s a passionate advocate of the fullness of life on this earth. He’s not saying we just need to give up on all earthly pleasures and get ready for the next life. This is the way he’s sometimes portrayed, but it’s not at all what Paul is about.
What Paul is telling us here is not that the body and daily pleasures and sex are bad. Far from it. What’s he’s saying is that when we look to those things for our deepest fulfillment, when we put all our eggs in the basket of the things and accomplishments of our lives, we have missed out on what really saves us and makes us whole.
When Paul urges the Roman church not to live according to the flesh, what he’s saying is: don’t make the things and achievements of this life your anchor. The body itself is good. What’s not good is living as though it, and the stuff of our daily comings and goings, are how we should orient our lives. If we look to the car or the purse or the golf clubs as the source of our happiness, if we look to the zip code or the promotion or the retirement account as the mark of our success, he might well say, then we’re bound to be disappointed. Those things can’t ground us. They can’t give us lasting joy. They can’t sustain us when the going gets tough. When the marriage goes south or the old addiction grabs us again with its ferocious power or we’re lying on our death beds, we’re not going to be wishing we’d only gotten just a few more things from Amazon and Etsy. We need something else to give us our bearings and to bestow on us the centeredness and peace for which we so deeply long.
So Paul wants us to live instead, as he says, “led by the Spirit of God” (Romans 8:14), to live, really, according to that Holy Spirit, to let that Spirit be our defining center. We are still very much to enjoy the physical life we lead—to savor our food; to bask in the trees and flowers and birds that give us shade and beauty and song; to revel in touch and tenderness and intimacy. What a violation of the Spirit it would be to miss out on the fullness of earthly delights. That’s not what God wants.
What God does want is for us to plant our roots in soil that’s deeper. It’s when we’re grounded in that Spirit that we know true freedom and peace. The endearing and imaginative image Paul uses for this spiritual orientation is that we have received, as he says, the “spirit of adoption,” and that we are thus “children of God” (8:15, 16).
We’ve been adopted by God in love. This is at the core of every moment of our lives. We are treasured and adored. We are cherished and blessed. Just as with any adoption, God has chosen us and embraced us in the divine family. And the truth of the matter is that this all that really matters. It doesn’t matter what we’ve done or not done. It doesn’t matter how we may have failed or let others down. It doesn’t matter how what we thought of as our potential may never have been realized. You and I have been adopted by God in love. That’s what matters. And it’s all that matters.
If you’re like most people, though, you may well wonder how we ever really take that in. Oh, it’s a fine-sounding idea—God has adopted me and loves me—but how can I experience that, how can I fully take it in, how can I make that the ground on which I stand?
For most of us, I imagine, this doesn’t happen without some sort of regular practice. This is not something we learn once and then we’re good for life, like learning addition and subtraction. If we’re to know God’s love, we kind of have to go to God for regular visits. If we’re to receive the embrace God promises, we need to step inside God’s house again and again. I know how hard this is. Many of us may well think we simply have too much to do to spend time in listening and receiving. God doesn’t talk, so why should we give up that time to listen for a presence that makes itself known in the deepest silence? I feel this myself, so I get it if you do, as well. Days will go by with me neglecting a visit to God’s inviting home, neglecting the one thing that can restore me and give me what I most deeply need. So, yes, I get it.
Yet it’s in that deep silence that our anchor is found. What’s asked of us, I suspect, is that we keep turning to God, that we keep coming back around even when we’ve been away for a while. Because the real center of life isn’t that we have to do everything possible to find God. It’s not that we have to practice all the right techniques, jumping up and down and waving our arms so God will notice us. The deep truth is that God is doing everything possible to find us. And our role in this drama is to let ourselves be found. As a teacher of Mary’s once said to her, “You have to let Jesus love you.” We can push Jesus away all we want, but Jesus is that proverbial hound of heaven who is going to seek us until we give in to that fierce and relentless love. You and I have to let Jesus love us.
Another crucial key to this recognition of God’s adoption of us is that we need to give up the expectation that God’s adopting love is going to give us what we want or make our lives go smoothly. God’s love doesn’t make our business go well or heal pancreatic cancer or smooth over every difference we have with our spouse or children or parents. God’s love has a different character altogether. I knew my parents loved me. But that love didn’t stop me from being really discouraged in my twenties. It didn’t stop me from twice getting blood clots to my lungs. And to my everlasting disappointment, their love didn’t win me the Vax-a-million lottery this week. What my parents’ love has done is give me the sense that I matter and that I am embraced, no matter what struggles I might be facing. It’s that love—not profit or health or absence of friction or cars or shoes or sofas or promotions or salaries or anything else in all creation—it’s that love that saves us and makes us whole.
I want to leave you today with two prayers that I hope will lead you into that place where the love of God fills you body and soul. The first is by Therese of Lisieux, and it’s something that Mary and I only this week saw again in a local store. It’s really more of a charge to all of us. This is how it goes: “She said, ‘May today there be peace within. May you trust that you are exactly where you are meant to be. May you not forget the infinite possibilities that are born of faith in yourself and others. May you use the gifts that you have received, and pass on the love that has been given to you. May you be content with yourself just the way you are. Let this knowledge settle into your bones, and allow your soul the freedom to sing, dance, praise, and love. It is there for each and every one of us.’” What marvelous words: may you be content with yourself just the way you are.
And then this prayer of Thomas Keating’s that I’ve loved, and that our Director of Children’s Ministries Kristin LeFeber read to us at a recent staff meeting. Here’s how it goes: “Welcome, welcome, welcome. I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it is for my healing. I welcome all thoughts, feelings, emotions, persons, situations, and conditions. I let go of my desire for affection, esteem, approval, and pleasure. I let go of my desire for survival and security. I let go of my desire to change any situation, condition, person, or myself. I open to the love and presence of God and God’s action within. Amen.”
Imagine that: “I welcome everything that comes to me today because I know it is for my healing.” To be able to pray this prayer is to trust that God is working in us in every single moment, that God’s love is all-embracing, deeply healing, and looks out for us at every moment. It’s not our things that do this for us. It’s not our accomplishments that make us whole. It’s God. Seldom does everything go the way we wish it did. When we trust, though, that even when things go incredibly awry, God is still working in the midst of it all, then we can rest in arms of heavenly grace, we can know ourselves as enfolded in the Trinity of love, and we can be bearers of that love to each other. For we live by, and are led by, the Spirit and that all-embracing Trinity. And because of that, no matter what should happen, as Julian of Norwich long ago said, and as you’ve heard me say many times before, “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.” May we trust in that grace.