July 16 2017
Preached by Matthew Neufeld on July 16, 2017.
To Set the Mind on the Spirit
The scripture passages we heard this morning are very rich with meaning. I want to focus my comments on what they tell us about the power that lives in us, and how that power can shape our priorities. The power of the risen Christ is conveyed by the Spirit, infusing our short-term, ‘Now’ world with the long-term, ‘not yet’ world of God’s saved creation.
Let me start with Genesis 25, which Fran read so well for us. Here we have a story of the origin of two nations, Israelites and Edomites, descended from twin brothers. The story of vv. 29 to 34 is the somewhat famous account of how Esau, in a fit of overwhelming hunger, sold his birthright to Jacob for ‘a mess of pottage’, as the KJV had it. So, Esau was willing to give up a long-term, inherited honour, his birthright, to satisfy a short-term if painful desire for food. No doubt Esau was hungry again within the next 12 hours, but his birthright was gone forever.
Now, it makes sense that hungry people think mostly about meeting their short-term need for food. When there’s a famine, there’s not much time and energy to plan for the future. The mothers of South Sudan aren’t thinking about their crying children’s post-secondary education options if not feeding them means their babies soon will die.
The point of Genesis 25 is not for people in desperate need of food, because Esau wasn’t in desperate need of food. His family was wealthy, and if he could have waited a few minutes, he’d have got home and had all the food he wanted. But he didn’t want to wait. He wanted food, he desired food, now. His short-term thinking undermined his long-term interest.
Esau was overwhelmed by ‘now’, and so he lost out on a very important ‘not yet’, his birthright.
Reading this story reminded me of a report in the recent issue of Canadian Geographic magazine about Canadians and waste. Listen to what it says:
READ FROM MAGAZINE
Why are we so wasteful? Why do we spend money on things that occupy space in our homes for a short time but spend eternity in the landfill?
I think this urge to consume is partly down to our mindset, our way of thinking and our priorities—the things we put first. Consumers tend to put short-term thinking ahead of long-term. Perhaps you’ve heard of the term ‘retail therapy’? I’m feeling badly now, so I’ll go out and buy something to make me feel better now—even if I have to put it on my credit card. Even if it means I won’t be able to afford something I really need later on.
The Indigenous people in parts of North America reputedly make important decisions thinking about the previous and the future seven generations—which works out roughly to 150 years. How different would our decisions look if we thought about their 150-year consequences?
It used to be more common for people with European ancestry to think about generations into the future, certainly when it came to buildings. Last month I saw St Stephen’s cathedral in Vienna, most of which was completed 650 years ago. I am skeptical that Mosiac stadium in Regina, which is far, far bigger than any church in this province, will still stand in the year 2777.
By the way, if you want to know what a communities considers holy—its highest priority—take a look at its biggest buildings.
The danger of a short-time mindset—thinking about ‘now’ above all else—seems clear from the explanation of the parable of the sower in Matthew 13: 18-23. The Kingdom of Heaven is like seed thrown by a sower that produces different results, and one reason why the yields are different is the mindset of the people who hear the good news of the Kingdom.
People who fall away because of trouble or persecution are like the seed that fell on rocky soil.
People who let the ‘cares of the world and the lure of wealth’ take priority in their minds produce little for the kingdom.
‘Cares of the world’ here can mean the day-to-day worries of getting to work on time, preparing meals, paying our taxes, staying in touch with our families, trying to look after our health. But ‘cares of the world’ can also mean the things that the world prioritizes—that about which the world cares.
If you want to get an idea about the world’s cares, take a look at the covers of magazines the next time you go to a drug or book store. What do the pictures, what do the stories suggest are the world’s priorities?
The apostle Paul had a particular and powerful way of conceiving of the cares of the world which we read in Romans 8: he calls it The Flesh (Greek sarx).
You might have heard about the ‘sins of the flesh’, a concept that pops up in other of Paul’s letters, and is associated with sexual activity outside the bonds of matrimony. But The Flesh for Paul is far more than sexual sin.
The Flesh for biblical writers meant several things, including the basic stuff of animal life—what separates us from plants and minerals. Flesh is also ‘human being’, what is sometimes called mankind (“for no human being (flesh/sarx) will be justified in his sight,” Romans 3:20 NRSV). Human being is animated flesh—at creation God breathed into Adam’s flesh and gave Adam spirit/life.
Flesh is also human nature, Psalm 78:39: The Lord remembered that we were but flesh.
And connected to this notion for Paul is that flesh is ‘weakened human nature’. Where the NRSV at Rom. 3:8 has ‘the law, weakened by the flesh’, Phillips has it “The law never succeeded in producing righteousness—the failure was always the weakness of human nature’. At versus 5 of Romans 3, Phillips renders sarx as ‘carnal attitude’, which points to a crude but powerful cognate English word: meat.
Carnivores are animals, including most humans, who eat meat. It just so happens that we humans are also made up of meat—of flesh.
Human nature is ‘meat nature’, it is embodied, limited, incomplete, short-term, mortal.
Flesh is a word that points to the destiny of all meat, of all material life: death.
Finally, flesh for Paul is like a force or a power under which “meat-creatures live,” just like The Market is the force/power under which producers and consumers live, or The Climate is the force/power under which animals and plant live.
Flesh is something that seems abstract and distant but touches our daily lives and is a sense in control of our destiny.
Flesh for the apostle is an Order of Being that is doomed but still powerful; now, these days, Flesh—our meatly existence—seems unassailable, overwhelming. But its time is limited.
Flesh is the dominant reality in the world but not, Paul claims, for Christian people.
For Paul, the opposite, the antithesis, of flesh is Spirit, the spirit of God.
The spirit—the Greek word is pneuma, which can also means air—is definitely in the world, and since Christ’s death and resurrection, the Spirit is in believers. The coming of the Spirit heralds a new age in world history, and a new age in the story of God’s people.
The Spirit is power for living in the new age—the new reality—power for living a new kind of life: power for re-arranging our priorities. Life that is animated, empowered, by the Kingdom of Heaven. What we pray for everything we pray the Lord’s prayer—thy Kingdom come—we pray for what is coming (not yet) which has already partly arrived now in the life and death and resurrection of Christ Jesus.
Listen again to vv. 9 and 10 of Romans 8: But you are not in the flesh, you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” And then verse 10: But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
The key here is that life in the Spirit is the opposite of life in the flesh. Not because spirit is good and flesh is bad, but the power that drives life in the two orders of being is different. It’s like the difference between an electric car and a diesel car: one form of power and movement has a future—the other one does not.
The Spirit of God is like electricity for Paul: this Spirit is like a power-source that conveys energy, that enables movement and that makes something from nothing.
Put another way, the Spirit of God infuses the not-yet, future, long-term world, God’s redeemed world, into the now, mortal, short-term world (repeat).
Listen again to verse 11: If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
Which means, we don’t have to figure it all out on our own. We are not condemned to live under the cares of world.
A Spirit-infused life can see through the cares of world to the cares of the Kingdom of God.
A Spirit-infused life can see through the priorities of world to the priorities of the Kingdom of God.
A Spirit-infused life breaks through from the trap of short term versus long-term thinking.
Often we are stuck when it comes to setting our priorities: do we value the short-term gain at the cost of long-term pain, or vice versa? Let go back to environment again. Most of us want to ‘save the planet’ and pass it on clean and sustainable to future generations—a long term care. And most of us want people to have jobs and for our economy to grow—a short to medium term care. So, how do we, especially in Canada with its dependence on natural resource extraction, how do we reconcile our long term with our short term priorities?
Let me tell you the story of ERS—Edmonton recycling society. Back in the early 1980s, Dave Hubert of Edmonton was convinced that the church needed to show more concern for the earth—after all, John 3:16 says that ‘God so loved the world (literally, kosmos) that he gave his only begotten Son’. Dave also had two intellectually challenged children who he knew would struggle to find employment.
Dave worked hard to convince Edmonton officials to introduce curb-side recycling. The ERS began collecting, processing and selling recyclables in the late 1980s. By 1995 the ERS, which made a point of people with disabilities, was hailed in a report for “showing that economic activities that build and strengthen the community by preserving or enhancing the natural resource base, by providing meaningful employment of individuals, and by earning a competitive rate of return, can result in sustainable development and sustainable employment” (C. Guenther, Making Waves, spring 1995).
On an individual or family-level, a Spirit infused life can break through mental traps set by the care of this world—thinking that ‘now’ is forever.
The Spirit is the power that reminds us in the depths of depression, of crisis, of a dilemma, that now is not forever, that no matter how we feel today, or how we felt yesterday, “There is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus.”
Those of us whose ‘now’ is mostly fine and good, we have a responsibility to bring a bit of the ‘not yet’ into the lives of people whose ‘now’ feels bleak, weak, and even hopeless.
I’ll end with one last story. Rachel was an English prof at a small liberal arts college. In 1991 that college underwent a massive upheaval and lost a huge chunk of funding. One day in the autumn, Rachel and two of her colleagues were invited to meet the President. They learned that their jobs would be eliminated at the end of the academic year.
Rachel was deeply, deeply troubled. A female academic in her 50s, the future did not look bright. Rachel was also very hurt at how the college administration treated her—after decades of service, she was heading out the door.
So it was with a very heavy heart that Rachel attended the college’s annual student-faculty Christmas banquet in early December. She entered the banqueting hall alone, looked around furtively, scoping out the available tables for an empty spot. And then suddenly up walked a young woman, a student named Sarah. Sarah invited Rachel to sit at her table with her boyfriend and a few other people. Rachel accepted the invitation with deep gratitude.
Later that school year, Rachel told Sarah that when Sarah came up to her in the banquet hall, it felt as those Jesus himself had asked her to sit with him.
A small thing, really, inviting someone to sit with you at a banquet. But really also a big thing, a very big thing. An invitation that reminded Rachel that she was God’s child, that she was worthwhile, that she had a place at the table of God’s Kingdom—that her terrible, uncertain ‘now’ was not forever.
The Spirit of God is power for us to live as though ‘not yet’ was already now.
You are not ‘in the flesh’, you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.
So set your mind on the Spirit, and make not yet part of now.