Last Sunday, during the sermon, we were wrestling with the tension between the Old Testament and the New Testament in terms of how they understand the Spirit. If you’ll remember, we looked at a number of passages in the Old Testament that teach that humans receive God’s Spirit from birth, and that its God’s spirit-breath sustains all life. So, we asked, “what about passages in the New Testament that talk about us not receiving the Holy Spirit until we have faith in Jesus? In answer to this, we pointed to Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus, where Jesus says “Spirit gives birth to spirit.” When we have faith in Jesus, the spirit within us is born again, and we become a new creation, we become children of God. There is continuity in the Old and New Testament, but also difference, growth, expansion. But this only gets halfway towards answering the question of the difference that there is between people before and after they have faith in Jesus. Yes, the Holy Spirit births something new, new Spirit, in the person who believes, but something else happens as well. This is what Romans 8 is all about. When a person has faith in Jesus, they are set free from the law of Sin and Death. When a person becomes a Christian, its not just that they’ve been born again and the Spirit has been renewed within them. When a person becomes a Christian, they are freed from the enslavement to sin and death. Paul tries to help us understand the significance of sin and death in Romans 1-7.
In Romans chapter 1, Paul explains that sin and death came into the world because humans, though they knew God, they did not honour him as God or give thanks to him. Humans turned away from God and became fundamentally warped as a result. Paul says that humans turned away from God by giving the glory that only God deserves to other creatures. This permanently warped the human spirit resulting in sin and death. Paul says humans became filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious toward parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Paul is not singling anyone out or focussing just on a particular type of people, in fact, he is doing the exact opposite. He says all have sinned, all have fallen short of the glory of God. Apart from knowing Christ, all are enslaves to sin. He unpacks this in Romans 7. Adopting the persona of a person who doesn’t know Jesus, he talks about what it feels like when you’re enslaved to sin. Of course, when a person is in slavery, it means they no longer have freedom to choose. So a person enslaved to sin has lost the freedom to make choices apart from what sin dictates. According to Paul, even if they wanted to do good, a person enslaved to sin would sound like this, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate…. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my body another law at war within the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells within me. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?” That’s what it looks like to be enslaved to sin, you’re stuck, you’re not free to do otherwise.
According to Paul, the problem isn’t simply about the individual choices a person makes. The problem isn’t just that a person did this or that thing that we say is bad. The problem is deeper. When Paul describes sin, he’s talking about a systemic problem. When Paul describes sin, he’s describing a relentless cycle of destruction that people cannot escape apart from Jesus. When Paul describes sin, he’s describing a force that locks all people into making choices that can only lead to death.
The Bulkley Community received the horrific shock when the body of Jessica Patrick was found. I haven’t heard anything official about what happened to her, but I have heard a lot of stories. A friend told me that Jessica was kicked out of her house when she was 14 years old. She said that Jessica called her a few years ago wondering saying that she felt like she needed to be in school but had no idea how to enrol. Last night I learned that she got a lot of support at I-Count in Witset. Many people accept it as a foregone conclusion that she was murdered. I’ve talked to some people who worried that Jessica was being hunted down by a drug dealer. Some wonder if it was an overdose. But if you go onto Wikipedia page titled, “Highway of Tears Murders” you will see the names of 36 women, mostly girls, who have been murdered or gone missing in the Highway 16 corridor since 1969. Most of these girls are between 14 to 18. Most of these girls are First Nations. If you go onto that webpage, you will see that sometime during this last week, somebody has added Jessica Patrick’s name to the list.
These are just some speculations I’ve heard from people trying to make sense of what happened. Even these speculations show us how mistaken we would be if we simplistically reduce sin to some choices that people make. According to Paul sin is horrifyingly deeper, its a relentless cycle of destruction. Look at the evil systems that all worked towards the death of Jessica. And it must be said that she is not alone, we find these systems working for the demise of billions under sins slavish influence. Broken families. Children being kicked out before they’re remotely ready. We’ve seen how this can happen generationally, when parents haven’t had parents, they don’t know how to be parents. Drugs. People enslaved by addiction. Going bankrupt, losing their health, losing their closest relationships to feed their addiction. People not being able to think straight, being mentally damaged, mentally damaging their children. Drug dealers hell bent on supporting and keeping this system going, making sure their clients remain enslaved. Selling products that are impure and lethal. Drug dealers being willing to kill to make sure they don’t lose their market share. Murderers. Murderers preying on people, vulnerable people. People who don’t have the same protections as the privileged. Murderers who prey on those vulnerable. Only two murders have been convicted. Racism. I honestly have no idea how to speak about racism in a way that isn’t alienating or that will just get our backs up. But that’s pretty much the vile fruit of racism is it drives a wedge, a gulf, between two groups of people who otherwise need each other.
When Paul talks about sin, he’s not simply talking about sinful choices people make. He’s talking about systems of death. People who are enmeshed in systems of death. We are all enmeshed to one degree or another. Broken families, addiction. Racism, Homicide… I’m sure each of us could easily and 10 more things to this list. And as Paul says, people don’t stay in those systems because they want to. Paul says, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate”. People don’t stay in those systems because they want to, they stay in those systems because they are stuck. When we see someone stuck in these systems, systematically being worked through cycles of destruction, the impulse is to run. The impulse is to lock our doors and put up strong boundaries. But then we might never hear their cry, “Wretched one that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death!”
Who will hear that cry? Who can respond to that cry with these words: “The law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit!” That’s the answer to this cry, “Wretched one that I am, who will rescue me from this body of death!”
Only the Church has the answer. The church can do a lot of things, we can offer social services, we can offer counselling, or a rehab program, we can engage in truth and reconciliation, we can pursue foster care and adoption. All these are important; they are crucial. However, they are only important in so far as they are working under the conviction that its only through “the Spirit of life that a person can be set free from the law of sin and death.” Do we believe this? I’m not sure that my actions say I do. When I look at the systemic powers of sin that run rampant through this world, I’ll admit I’d rather preach to the choir than preach to the damned. But those we think are damned are never beyond rescue from the Spirit of God.
What if we grew to have a deep, deep conviction that the Spirit truly can set people free from enslavement to those systems of sin and death? What if we had a deep conviction that the Spirit can truly offer freedom? What if we prayed with that conviction, spoke with that conviction, and loved with that conviction. People’s lives depend on Christians waking up to who we truly are. We are people emancipated by the Spirit of God. The Spirit is calling us to lead others into that freedom.
The prophet Joel promises that in our days God will continue pouring out His Spirt on our sons and daughters, on young and old. But he doesn’t stop there. God promises, even on the male and female slaves He will pour out His Spirit. Even they shall prophecy. There is no system of enslavement that is too powerful for the Spirit of God to emancipate. When we see a young girl enslaved to powers that are beyond her strength, we need to pray fiercely, because she is one of God’s prophets that needs freedom. When we see a young man mired in cycles of destruction, we need to pray relentlessly, he is one of God’s prophets that needs freedom.
In Romans 8:14, Pauls says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit of Adoption. Throughout Romans, Paul has been retelling the story of the Exodus. And here he is urging Christians not to go back to the land of Egypt by living in fear of the systems of sin and death. Paul is urging Christians not to go back being enslaved by fear. Instead, Paul says, “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.” The Israelites were led out of slavery into the promised land by a pillar of fire. That Pillar of Fire is the Spirit of God now residing within your soul. He is leading us forward. Systems of sin and death are too big for us, but not for the Spirit of God. That’s why we want to spend our lives follow the Spirit’s fire, because others are enslaved and need to be emancipated. Their lives depend on it.