Friday, September 26, 2008

“The Journey”

Rom. 8:12-25[1]

Some of you know that I have been a “bachelor” this week. One of the ways my son Michael, his friend Nathan, and I passed the time was to have a “Star Wars” marathon. Yep—we made it through all 6 movies! It was great fun, even though some of the movies really aren’t very good. Despite the relative merits of the acting, you are probably aware as I am that students of theology, religion, and film tend to agree that part of what makes “Star Wars” such a popular series is that it represents fundamental issues in human life—issues like good and evil, justice and order, confronting darkness and overcoming it, life and death.[2]

You may not know that George Lucas actually wrote the movies to reflect the themes from Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces, the classic study of the mythic ideas that have been handed on from generation to generation in a wide variety of cultures throughout human history. So Lucas wrote “Star Wars” to create a view of the world and to define the way life works in that world using typical mythic ideas that have inspired humankind for centuries. No wonder it has been so successful at drawing us into that world and making us want to be a part of it!

One of the ways in which the Star Wars series accomplishes this is to present a world in which good and evil are clearly demarcated. There is the “good” side of the force and then there is the “dark” side of the force. Those who use the “good” side are known as Jedi Knights, and they are viewed as the defenders of peace and justice in the galaxy. Those who use the “dark” side are known as Sith Lords—and it would seem that all they are after is power. In the story, the battle between good and evil becomes focused on one person, Anakin Skywalker, and his son, Luke. As a young boy, Anakin trained to become a Jedi, but as he grew older he became more and more haunted by his own personal fears and desires. Eventually, the Emperor (who is a Sith Lord) uses those fears and desires to deceive Anakin into “crossing over” to the “dark side,” and he becomes the evil lord Darth Vader.

Though it would seem at that point that all hope is lost—Darth Vader and the Emperor kill all the other Jedi except for Master Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi—the one ray of hope is that Anakin had fathered twins, Luke and Leia. As Luke reaches manhood, it becomes clear that his role is to undo the harm Anakin has done and to restore peace and freedom to the galaxy—and perhaps even to free Anakin from evil. Though there are times when it seems that the obstacles in Luke’s way will prevent him from completing his “hero’s journey,” Luke does in the end prevail: the Emperor is destroyed, justice and peace are restored, Anakin is redeemed, and Luke becomes a full-fledged Jedi.[3]

Joseph Campbell would say that this is the typical mythic view of a “hero’s journey.”[4] The purpose of this kind of story is to reinforce fundamental ideas that humankind have long cherished with religious fervor—that the world is locked in a battle between good and evil, that there are heroes who will achieve break-through victories for us all in that battle, and that we are called to the struggle of our own “hero’s journey,” and that good will ultimately triumph over evil. However, when you get down to the nitty-gritty of life, it’s impossible to sort out good and evil that strictly. We do many of our best “good deeds” out of questionable motives; and we often do the greatest “evil” or “harm” when we think we are serving God!

It would seem at first glance that Paul portrays the world in much the same way as George Lucas does in “Star Wars”—there is evil and there is good, and they are mutually exclusive. St. Paul spends a great deal of ink to convey the idea that we have all been given new life in Jesus the Christ. It is a gift from God, a sheer act of grace and unconditional love that no one could ever do enough to attain. Ironically, Paul then turns around and talks about how hard we have to work to actually experience this new life! In our lesson for today, he basically says that our experience of new life in Christ Jesus takes place in a context of constant tension between the “flesh” and the “Spirit.”

It doesn’t take a Ph. D. to recognize that Paul uses the word “flesh” with confusing variety. Here, “flesh” relates to the idea that we humans in our finite and flawed existence tend to rebel against God because we are influenced by an evil of cosmic proportions.[5] From this perspective to “live according to the flesh” means setting ourselves against God in willfulness and disobedience; it means living contrary to the grace that enters our lives through Jesus the Christ by the presence of the Spirit.[6] That is the backdrop to Paul’s insistence that we have to choose each day to “die to the flesh” and “live for the Spirit;” we have to choose whether we will live by our own selfish interests or live by the grace and mercy and love of God poured out on us by God’s Spirit.

If that sounds daunting to you, don’t feel bad. It sounds daunting to me too! It is sobering to be reminded that we all live out our own personal “journey” in the continual push-and-shove between giving and taking, between serving others or serving ourselves only, between a life that promotes joy and hope and love and a life that promotes death and destruction. In real life the choices aren’t as clear-cut as they are in “Star Wars.” But the good news of “the Gospel according to St. Paul,” is that we are not left to our own devices as we live our lives each day. Paul reminds us that we have the constant and never-failing presence of God’s Spirit to reassure us when we doubt, to guide us and strengthen us, and to get us back on track when we stray from our path.[7] Even when we find ourselves in those places where we might think God would abandon us, it still remains true that, as the Psalmist says, “even there your hand shall lead me and your right hand shall hold me fast” (Ps. 139:10).

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/20/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2]See Joseph Campbell, The Power of Myth, 179: “Star Wars is not a simple morality play, it has to do with the powers of life as they are either fulfilled or broken and suppressed through the action of man [sic].”

[3] See Steve Persall, “Move Over Odysseus, here comes Luke Skywalker,” St. Petersburg Times, May 1999; .

[4] See Joseph Campbell, The Hero With a Thousand Faces, 30-36.

[5] See Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 289-90, 293-94.

[6] James D. G. Dunn, Romans 1-8, 443; cf. also C. K. Barrett, St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, 161.

[7] Paul Tillich, “The Witness of the Spirit to the Spirit,” in The Shaking of the Foundations, 139, says it this way: even when we feel discouraged and think perhaps that God is displeased with us, the Spirit is “working quietly in the depth of our souls.”

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