During the winter of 57–58 CE, the apostle Paul was in the Greek city of Corinth. From Corinth, he wrote the longest single letter in the New Testament, which he addressed to “God’s beloved in Rome” (1:7). Like most New Testament letters, this epistle is known by the name of the recipients, the Romans. Paul’s letters tended to be written in response to specific crises and issues arising in these early churches. But for this letter to the Roman church, Paul mostly talks about the Gospel and what it means for them to live in the spirit of freedom and in the law of God.
For Paul, there were two laws – a law of the flesh and a law of the spirit. The law of the flesh includes sin and death. And this law of the flesh is translated from the Greek word “sarx.” And this kind of flesh is following after things that hurt ourselves or hurt our neighbors. There is another word for flesh in Greek and it is called “soma.” And Paul is not saying that the physical body (soma) is bad. He was trying to show that there were two laws for this early Roman church. One law that if followed, led to hurting God’s creation and, ultimately to death. And the other, the law of the Spirit, that brought forgiveness and life. And that’s the thing, Paul says that the law of Jesus Christ sets us free from sin and death, sets us free from the law of the flesh.
This upcoming sermon series for the next ten weeks is called “The law of God: A Letter to the Roman Church.” And I hope we will come to find that the law of God isn’t simply rules and regulations, that we love to give Paul such a hard time about, but that God’s law is really about freedom. We are able to receive that freedom as we learn to live into the law of the Spirit, the way of Jesus Christ. It is my hope that we might learn what it means to embody the life of Jesus and the work of God’s Spirit in a truly profound way.
Every sermon in these next couple of months will lead us deeper into what Paul considers the law of the Spirit. The sermon titles and topics will help us focus on what kind of spirit we should possess if we are truly following the law of the Spirit. We will explore: A spirit of generosity or grace, a spirit of adoption, a spirit of strength, a spirit of truth, a spirit of faith, a spirit of mercy, a spirit of unity, a spirit of hospitality, a spirit of love, and finally, a spirit of acceptance.
And today’s sermon is entitled the “Spirit of Generosity.” And I don’t think the law of the Spirit is talking about the generosity in giving money to the church or to a charity. I think Paul was saying for these early Roman Christians to be generous or grace-filled towards themselves as they sought to live out Christ’s spirit in the world. You see, the first line of Romans 8 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” There is no condemnation. I want us to really hear that this morning, “there is no condemnation.”
Now, let’s not get too excited about this. If we do something wrong there are definitely real-world consequences. What I think Paul is suggesting is that we need to be free from the condemnation that we heap upon our own spirits that doesn’t need to be there. So, we might change the word condemnation to a term we use more freely, “guilt.” I don’t know about you but I feel guilty a lot. Maybe I said something to someone that I shouldn’t have said. Maybe I promised I would pray for someone and the busyness and heaviness of life invaded my time and I forgot. Maybe I’d decided to read my Bible every day, but missed a day or two and couldn’t catch back up. Maybe I’d planned to read to my kids, cook dinner, clean the house, call a friend, write a note, organize a closet, study something new… yet life got in the way, fear got in the way, sadness got in the way and I didn’t do what I intended to do.
I know that I condemn myself way more than anyone else could ever condemn me. And I think Paul knew the Christians in Rome and their struggle with feelings of guilt. He wanted them and, I think us, to follow the law of the Spirit rather than the law of the flesh. It seems that Paul was pointing the Roman church, and us as readers, to the generous spirit of the Jesus who loves me, who loves you, no matter what. The law of the Spirit asks us to be generous towards ourselves and not to debilitatingly blame ourselves or condemn ourselves.
And the way we lean into the law of the Spirit, which says we should seek to be generous and grace-filled towards ourselves is in the last part of this opening phrase. We are encouraged to be “in Christ.” To be in Christ points us to the One who lived the law of the Spirit. To be “in Christ” points us to someone or something greater than ourselves and greater than the blame and guilt we lay upon ourselves. One commentator said to be in Christ is “to encounter a power astronomically greater than the sum of all the willpower you have every mustered, added to all the physical power you have ever exerted, added to all the clout you have ever had. Add all those up, and it is infinitesimal compared to the power of God in Christ.”
To be “in Christ” is to be free from the debilitating guilt, shame, and blame that we heap upon ourselves day in and day out. It is to be free of the hurtful voices that speak in our heads, telling us we aren’t good enough, we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t rich enough, we aren’t strong enough to ever accomplish anything in life. Because in the end it isn’t about who we are, what we do, or who we know. It is about who knows us. It is about the work of God in our lives as we live the law of the Spirit.
And that’s who we are called to be as a church, as those who are “in Christ.” We are beckoned by God to be those who are no longer confined by our guilt and those things we have done and those things we have left undone. Instead, we are to know that in the law of the Spirit we are free. We are free to go beyond our limitations, our guilt, our pain, our fear. We are free to be a part of God’s movement in the world that is way bigger than us. And, although many biblical scholars want to focus on soteriology in the book of Romans, or the freedom that comes with salvation and life-everlasting, this freedom in the law of the Spirit is not a freedom we get as a ticket into heaven. No, it is a freedom to live fully into our own bodies and to be generous towards the bodies of other people right here and right now, too. That is the meaning of grace.
And that’s the good news for us this morning. The good news is that we, too, might have a spirit of generosity towards ourselves and towards others. You are doing enough, you are enough. When we realize that then the law of the flesh doesn’t have as much control over our lives, then we might realize the powers of this world don’t get to define who we are. And, as Paul said, one of the main powers of this world is death. It’s the greatest power in the world because it is the one thing that we and our loved ones cannot avoid. Death seems to be so powerful because we often allow our fears and our greed to make us think that we can cheat death or that our lives are worth more than someone else’s life. And so, “death’s power is not simply at the moment of our dying; it is a power that creeps into our lives, our communities, and our bodies long before the moment we breathe our last breath.”
I wonder if Paul’s letter to the Roman church was to help these new Christians to be generous towards themselves and with others, even in the midst of a death-dealing world. I wonder if Paul wanted the Roman church to know that they were now caretakers of a new law, a law of the Spirit which asked of Christians to provide life to themselves and to their communities, rather than death and slavery and chaos that Roman Christians saw all around them in the Empire. For you see, the last sentence in our scripture reading for today says that the Spirit that rose Jesus from the dead is alive and dwelling in you. And that same spirit of life gives life to your mortal bodies. The law of the spirit is generous with life.
As I re-read Romans with fresh eyes, I’m realizing that the law of the Spirit isn’t about life after death, the conquering of death, or immortality. No, the law of the Spirit is to live out the spirit of Christ in a way to show the world that every person, everybody is important. We are called to not only be generous towards our own mortal bodies, but towards the bodies of every beloved being: every person fighting to dismantle systems of white supremacy, every immigrant person in need of water and shelter, every LGBTQ person needing medical rights, every person with a dying spouse, every person in the ICU, every body, every person, including yourself, who needs to know this morning about the power and life that comes from the law of the Spirit. The law of the Spirit is, indeed, generous.
So, be generous, church. Be generous in love and in hope and in relationship and in support towards yourself and towards all people. Because that’s the first piece of the law of the Spirit: to have a spirit of generosity.