Friday, September 26, 2008

“New Life—True Life”

Rom. 8:1-11; Mt. 13:1-9[1]

Over the last few weeks we’ve been taking a look at what St. Paul has to say about new life in Christ in his letter to the church at Rome. In a nutshell, because of Jesus’ death and resurrection, we have all “crossed a line”—from sin, slavery, shame, and death to righteousness, freedom, and life! Anyone who has crossed this line can never go back—at that point “everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor. 5:17). The Gospel according to St. Paul is that we have new life in the risen Christ, a life that truly is life. That means we are set free from the power of everything that threatens to enslave or distort or destroy our humanity—free to serve one another in love.

In our lesson for today, Paul emphasizes that the Holy Spirit poured out on all creation makes possible this new life in us. Much of what the Bible promises in term of “new life” must sound like “dreaming the impossible dream.”[2] It just seems too good to be true. But that is precisely what Paul promises us in the name of our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ—that what seems to us a “vast impossibility,” the creation of a completely new life for all humankind, is exactly what God is up to in this world.[3]

The way Paul frames that new life is by returning to an old theme—one that pervades the whole Bible. Essentially, the Bible says that God’s intention in all the many and various interactions with humanity over the centuries was to make it possible for us to return to a way of life in which we all can thrive—together with all creation! That was the original intention of God’s gracious and loving Torah, or law. The Scriptures insist that the law was never a means of gaining God’s favor, but rather that God entered a covenant relationship with the Jewish people simply because God loved them (Deut. 7:7-8). And when they agreed to the relationship, God gave them the parameters within which they could live their lives—parameters that were intended to enable them to enjoy a life that is full of living hope, lasting joy, and genuine love, both for God and for others–in other words, a life that is truly life. Paul’s Gospel is that the Holy Spirit gives us this life in part by enabling us all to live again within those parameters that make life thrive—or a Paul puts it, to “do what the Law commands by obeying the Spirit instead of our own desires” (Rom. 8:4, CEV). The end result, Paul says, is that “the Spirit is life for you because you have been put right with God” (Rom. 8:10, TEV).

I can think of no better example of someone who crosses over from a life that is oppressive and inhuman to one that is authentic and free than Lt. John J. Dunbar. You may remember him as the main character in the 1990 film “Dances with Wolves.” After being wounded in the Civil War, he is rewarded for his bravery by being given his choice of posts. He goes out West to the farthest edge of the frontier because he wants to “see it before it’s gone.” When he gets there, he finds the outpost abandoned, but he sets up shop anyway and begins to rebuild the place. In the process he encounters a group of Native Americans from the Lakota tribe. At first they are clearly not sure what to make of each other—they relate with equal parts fear and curiosity. After Lt. Dunbar breaks through the communication barrier, he begins to learn all he can about their life and their culture on the prairie. Eventually, Lt. Dunbar leaves behind his post, along with his whole life, and embraces the way of life of the Lakota people, now under the name “Dances with Wolves.”

At one point, one of his best friends in the tribe remarks to him, “I was just thinking that of all the trails in this life, there is one that matters most. It is the trail of a true human being. I think you are on this trail and it is good to see.” That is precisely what has happened to Lt. Dunbar. He has discovered a way of life that is characterized by harmony and community, and he has embraced it to such an extent that Lt. John J. Dunbar effectively ceases to exist, and instead there is only a member of the Lakota tribe named “Dances with Wolves.” His new life with the Lakota has transformed him into a completely new person.

Again, this kind of utopian image may seem far-fetched. Who gets to live out that kind of dream? But the fact is that we find testimony throughout the Scriptures to the faith that God’s intention for us all is to win our hearts and minds to love God with all our heart and mind and strength and to love one another. It’s the same kind of change of life—change of being—that Jesus had in mind with the “good soil” that represents those who receive the word and bear fruit. Though it may be hard for us to believe, the Gospel Paul proclaims to us all is that in the Holy Spirit poured out on all creation, God is doing just that—working to enable us all to enjoy the new life in Christ, a life that truly is life.

[1] © 2008 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 7/13/08 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX.

[2] See Frederick Buechner, A Room Called Remember, 29-30: “The ancient myths and dreams of a power beyond power and a love beyond love that hold the cosmos itself, hold all things in existence reflect a reality which we can deny only to our great impoverishment; and the dream of a holiness and a mystery at the heart of things that humankind with all its ingenuity and wisdom can neither explain away nor live fully without goes on being dreamed.”

[3] Karl Barth, The Epistle to the Romans, 105, calls the hope of new life that Paul holds out in Romans as the “impossible possibility of our redemption”; cf. also 108-9, 113, 125-26, 134, 211, 269, 272-73.

No comments: