A sermon delivered by David Hughes, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Winston-Salem, Nc., on May 23, 2010.
Romans 7:18b-24; 8:1-2, 9-17 (The Message)
Today is Pentecost Sunday, the official birthday of the Christian Church. Many churches today will focus on the primary narrative of Pentecost contained in Acts 2, and for good reason – it’s quite a story!
Let’s do a quick review. Three days after Jesus was crucified and buried, he showed up again, alive and well and in a very different but very real body. For forty days he lingered with 120 of his followers, teaching them more about the Kingdom of God. Then he left again, ascending into heaven, but not before promising them he would come again in a different form, or what he called “the Holy Spirit.”
For ten long days these 120 disciples waited in seclusion in Jerusalem. Then, during the Jewish Festival of Pentecost, they had a remarkable experience described in Acts 2. The Spirit of Christ, aka the Holy Spirit showed up in wind and tongues of fire, empowering first Peter, and then others to preach Jesus. Before the day was done, 3,000 new converts came to know Jesus, and experienced the Holy Spirit for themselves.
And history has never been the same.
This is the primary narrative of Pentecost. But there is a secondary, more personal narrative about the Holy Spirit laid out in Romans 7 and 8.
If you asked the question, “What does Pentecost mean to me personally?” you would turn not to Acts 2 but Romans 8 to learn the answer. For some reason this personal side of the story gets squeezed out most Pentecost Sundays by the pyrotechnics of Acts 2. I know that’s been true over the years in my preaching. But this year, I have opted to focus on the Apostle Paul’s reflections on what the fresh air of the Holy Spirit means for our lives.
In Romans 7, Paul puts his finger on a problem familiar to every person alive. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. It happens so regularly it’s predictable. The moment I decide to do good, sin is there to trip me up. I truly delight in God’s commands, but it’s pretty obvious that not all of me joins in that delight. Parts of me covertly rebel, and just when I least expect it, they take charge. I’ve tried everything and nothing helps. I’m at the end of my rope. Is there no one who can do anything for me? Isn’t that the real question?
In Romans 7 Paul has been talking about the role of the law in our lives. Insofar as the law of Moses describes the sort of life we should be living for God, it is a good thing. The problem, says Paul, is that the law by itself is not enough to help us live a godly life. In fact, in an ironic kind of way, the law provokes us to sin by forbidding us to do certain things. As one teenage girl observed about the Ten Commandments, “They…just put ideas in your head.” When the law says, “You can’t do that,” there is something in us that says, “Oh yes I can. Just watch me!”
In effect, all of us have a civil war going on inside. Part of us wants to do right, but other parts want to do wrong. This internal civil war is described in many places besides scripture. Centuries before Paul came along Socrates compared our inner soul to a charioteer. And each of us charioteers is driving a chariot driven by two horses. One horse, called reason, is gentle and tame. The other, called passion, is wild and out of control. And we’re holding on to the reins for dear life!
The problem, says the Paul, is not the law. The problem is sin. Sin doesn’t just refer to our occasional transgressions. Sin refers to a deep, dark, downward pull in our souls that pulverizes our will-power, drives our chariots into a ditch, and then rubs our faces in guilt.
Between Romans 7:1 and 8:11, Paul mentions sin nineteen times. He is serious, deadly serious about this personified, demonic power that lives within our hearts. It’s what makes us worship our earthly flesh more than our Heavenly Father. It’s what prompts us to push back against God and his rule over our lives. It’s what makes us doubt God’s love, and drives us to lie, cheat, and steal when nobody’s looking.
The problem of our sin is tied to our other, big problem—death. Left unchecked, sin slowly but surely eats away at our souls like a cancer, eroding our relationship with God and leading us to spiritual death. Eventually we reach the place where are hearts are beating but our souls are empty and lifeless. We’re existing, but not living, not really.
We may have a good run in this life. But eventually we get sick, and despite the wonders of modern medicine we die. And when we die, that’s it. Our bodies are done, and so are we…for eternity.
Friends, this is where we’d be without the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the fresh air of the Holy Spirit. Dead in our spirits. Dead in our bodies. Dead for all eternity.
Thankfully, that’s not the end of the story! Paul shifts gears dramatically when he writes in Romans 8: With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, (our) fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a lifetime of brutal tyranny, at the hands of sin and death.
If you listen to National Public Radio, you may be familiar with a program called “Fresh Air.” I enjoy listening to the host, Terri Gross, interview all kinds of people about all kinds of subjects. But public radio’s fresh air doesn’t begin to compare to Pentecost’s trash air to that gale force wind that flowed into Jerusalem, filling the new body of Christ, the church, with the Spirit of God. Or to the fresh wind of the Spirit that flows into our souls, clearing out the putrid stench air of sin and death, and replacing it with the pleasant aroma of freedom and eternal life.
While Paul mentions sin nineteen times in Romans 7 and 8, he refers to the Holy Spirit twenty times in Romans 8 alone. Why? Because the fresh air of God’s Spirit is the only antidote to the poisonous odor of sin. The Spirit of God, and only the Spirit of God can resuscitate our lives. To be clear, as long as we live in these bodies, even after we accept Jesus as Lord, we are vulnerable to the power of sin and subject to the power of death. We still sin, we still die.
But…and this is a big but!…we can make steady progress against the headwind of sin in our lives, thanks to the fresh air of the Holy Spirit.
In preparing for my sermon this week, I came across an autobiographical writing called Journal of a Soul. This journal was started by Pope John XXIII when he was just a teenager, and it continued after he was named Pope in 1958. One of Pope John’s earliest journal entries reads, “The good Jesus sees that I have no other desire than to serve him…And yet I still fall, and so frequently!” No surprise there. We know what he’s talking about.
As a seminarian in Rome he writes, “I foresee more backslidings, alas! But they will be against my will, O Jesus, against my will.” In the year he was ordained as a priest John writes, “Today I have been looking back over my progress this past month to see how my spiritual life is faring…I have made progress, to be sure, but very little. In fact, I am still a sinner and slow to reform.” Later in his ministry he writes, “In twenty-five years of priesthood what innumerable failings and deficiencies! My spiritual organism still feels healthy and robust, thanks to God, but what weaknesses!” (And then he lists them).
Still later, as a middle aged priest, he writes, “I have now formed a constant union with God in ‘thought, word, and deed’, of bearing in mind the two-fold prayer: ‘thy kingdom come, thy will be done’, and of seeing everything in relation to these two ideals. But how unsatisfactory are my daily actions and religious practices!” Later, after he became pope, John writes, “I am very far from attaining holiness in fact, although my desire and will to succeed in this are whole-hearted and determined.”
Now maybe you’re surprised to hear a pope sound like he is making such modest progress in his spiritual life. But don’t overlook the obvious—at least he had the opportunity to make progress that would have been impossible had John not invited the Spirit of the resurrected Christ into his life. With the fresh air of the Spirit at his back, Pope John chooses obedience over sin more and more often. He never completely escapes the downward pull of sin…and neither will we. But he makes significant progress during his 81 years of life, maybe even more than he knows. He becomes a little more like Jesus every day, and when dies in 1962, he dies one of the most beloved and revered popes in Catholic church history.
We don’t have to be a pope to have this experience. Every Christ-follower possesses the Holy Spirit. And every Christ follower can updraft on the fresh air of God’s Spirit to overcome the down draft of sin.
But there’s more. Every Christ-follower automatically becomes a child of God. And thanks to the Holy Spirit, they know it in a way that makes them feel secure forever. Or to quote Paul, God’s Spirit touches our spirits and confirms who we really are. We know who he is, and we know who we are: Father and children. And we know what’s coming to us—an unbelievable inheritance!
Friends, the reason Pentecost is so important is because its fresh air of the
Spirit blows the cobwebs of our heart away and enables us to communicate clearly with God in the deepest levels of our souls. This is a spiritual interaction that can’t be quantified or explained. It can only be experienced. Like Jesus, we inherit the privilege of praying to our “Abba,” our Heavenly Daddy. Like Jesus, we can live with the fresh air of the Spirit flowing through our souls. Like Jesus we can lay claim to eternal life on the other side of the grave.
How can we claim this same inheritance as Jesus? Because we are adopted sons and daughters of God. Yes, there is only one Son of God. But every believer is a child of God, and that makes all the difference.
Fred Craddock tells of eating in a restaurant one day while traveling on vacation and striking up a conversation with an elderly man. Pointing out a window of the restaurant, the man said, “See that mountain over there? Not far from the base of that mountain there was a boy born to an unwed mother. Every place the boy went as he grew up, he was teased and asked the same question, ‘Hey, Boy, who’s your daddy? Whether he was at school, in the grocery store or drug store, people would ask the same question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’
“He would hide at recess and lunchtime from other students. And he would avoid other stores because the question hurt so badly.
“When he was about 12 years old, a new preacher came to his church. The boy would always go into worship late and slip out early to avoid hearing the question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ One day the new preacher said the benediction so fast that the boy got caught and had to walk out with the crowd. When he got to the back door, the new preacher, not knowing anything about him, put his hand on his shoulder and asked, ‘Son, who’s your daddy?’
“The whole church got deathly quiet. The boy could feel every eye in the church looking at him. Now everyone would finally know the answer to the question, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ Before he could answer, the preacher said, ‘Wait a minute! I know who you are! I see the family resemblance now. You are a child of God.’ With that, he patted the boy on his shoulder, and said, ‘Boy, you’ve got a great inheritance. Go claim it.’
“With that, the boy smiled for the first time in a long time and walked out the door a changed person. He never was the same again. When anybody asked him, ‘Who’s your daddy?’ he’d just tell them he was a child of God…’
“As the distinguished gentleman got up from the table he said, ‘You know, if that new preacher hadn’t told me that I was one of God’s children, I seriously doubt I would ever have amounted to anything.” And he walked away.
Fred Craddock called a waitress over and asked, “Do you know who that was that just left this table?” The waitress grinned and said, “Of course I do. Everybody knows him. That’s Ben Hooper; he’s the governor of Tennessee!”
Friends, listen to this preacher when I say, “Thanks to the fresh air of the Holy Spirit, you are a child of God. You have an unbelievably great inheritance! Now, go claim it!”