July 16, 2017

Those Who are in Christ Jesus

Passage: Genesis 25:19-34, Psalm 119:105-112, Romans 8:1-11, Matthew 13:1-9, 18-23
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There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.

In 1889, American journalist and humorist Edgar Nye introduced the phrase "A mile wide and an inch deep." He was referring to the Platte River in the Midwestern United States. The Platte is a muddy, wide, shallow, meandering stream with a swampy bottom, these characteristics made it too difficult to ever be used as a major navigation route. Though the Platte is an important tributary system in the Missouri River Watershed, it was disqualified from use because of its lack of depth. Nye wrote that the river "had a very large circulation, but very little influence. It covers a good deal of ground, but it is not deep. In some places it is a mile wide and three-quarters of an inch deep." And so the phrase was born and became a euphemism to describe something/someone superficial or shallow.

1. We live in an age that is shallow in many respects. Our age has no grasp of the holiness of God and the sinfulness of the human heart; no grasp of God’s righteous wrath and his uncompromisable condemnation; no grasp that God’s wrath is his steady unrelenting opposition to sin and wrong; and therefore our age has little wonder at the provision God has made for us who deserve anything but mercy.

If you or I were convicted of a capital offence and sentenced to death; and if by the mercy of the judge we were pardoned, our first response would not be a diligent study of the penal system; our first response would not be a psychological analysis of the judge who has just pardoned us. Our uncontrived, spontaneous response would be gratitude. And if we stumbled up to the judge’s desk and just sobbed because we couldn’t find words for what our hearts wanted to cry out, we wouldn’t care if spectators sitting at the back of the courtroom smirked at our loss of emotional control.

Isn’t this our situation before God? The event that fills the horizon of all biblical thought is the event of the cross. The apostle Paul declares that he has but one sermon in his filing cabinet: Jesus Christ crucified. The cross embodies two unalterable truths: God’s judgement and God’s mercy. In the light of the cross we are brought up short to know we have to do with the just judge who has secured a conviction against us — even as we are brought up short to find ourselves pardoned.

The Apostle Paul on the road to Damascus came face to face with the crucified Saviour even as he has murder in his heart in pursuit of our Lord’s followers. He was the one who stood by watching approvingly—yes, even cheering on—the stoning of the first Christian martyr Stephen. Luke tells us in the book of Acts that as Stephen is killed by this mob they “laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul (Paul).” (Acts 7:58) In other words Paul kept watch of their valuables so they could hurl their stones with abandon; held on to their expensive designer coats so they wouldn’t get them all sweaty as they hurled rocks.

So when Paul writes, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” he writes from a heart filled with deep gratitude knowing that there is nothing shallow about our Lord’s love. In his first letter to Timothy Paul explained, “I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. … The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the foremost.” (1 Timothy 1:12-15) Paul writes from a place of knowing the sinfulness of his human heart.

When Paul declares that there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus he is not saying that his former violent ways were of no consequence. He does not mean to imply that anything goes; nor that in the end God really didn’t have anything against us after all; nor that the treat of condemnation were merely God raising his voice to get our attention. No. Paul knows there is no distinction “since all have sinned.” (Romans 3:22-23) The announcement that there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus implies the reality of condemnation.

We read today of the birth of Isaac and Rebekah’s sons Esau and Jacob and of how Esau sold his birthright to his brother for a bowl of stew—and to be fair, Jacob was a good cook. Esau was a skilful hunter, a man of the field. There is a raw physicality about him that his father Isaac loved—when he joined the Easter Mesopotamian hockey league the boy could play (as we might say today). And his father Isaac was proud.

No doubt his father Isaac told him about their grandfather Abraham and of the call of God to come to this land and of the promise of God to make them into a great nation; a promise that carried on in Isaac and now in his sons. He likely led them in worship and prayer—after all his marriage to their mother Rebekah had been an answer to prayer and so had their birth because at first Rebekah was barren. But Esau treats this God thing his father speaks about rather casually; his spiritual life is shallow—he sells the birth right for a bowl of stew. And even if it was “stew to die for” it still reveals the shallowness of Esau with respect to his attitude about God.

2. Why is there “no condemnation” for those who are in Christ Jesus? The gospel answer is twofold—because of what God has done for is in the Son and what God does in us by the Holy Spirit. “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.”

This two fold answer is really two aspects of the one answer—“for God has done.” In short, the condemnation that was justly ours has been borne by another, Christ Jesus. The one Word of God is grace and when grace meets out sin it both judges us and saves us. The gospel is not about human potential or human possibility but about the power of God. About the power of God at the cross where sin and death were defeated and that same power that raised Jesus to life made operable in our lives giving us new life in him by the presence of the Holy Spirit.

This is not to say that being human is the problem; as many in the more strident elements of the environmental movement claim. The gospel is not pessimistic about being human, after all God came among us as one of us—Jesus of Nazareth. If being human is a fitting form for the Holy God to embrace then being human is blessed by God—as the Creation story asserts. The problem is that humans turned away from God to sin and death and have become corrupt. Part of what God has to overcome in the Son is our opposition to Him.

Jesus told the parable of sower to speak about how the gospel—indeed good news for all—is responded to in various ways. I think of the seed falling on the stony pathway and I sometimes wonder if the “stony path” might be a good metaphor for those who disregard the gospel because we have so much in terms of this worlds goods. Our age is shallow in this respect: we have forgotten what it is to be grateful. We expect so much; we think we have a right to so much; we claim so much; we presume so much; we have such an enormous sense of entitlement. Nothing surprises us as gift; and therefore nothing impels us to gratitude.

The gift of God in the Son is treated with a “ho-hum” attitude. Think about how people so readily want to hold God accountable for the ills of this world. Is this not a form of a sense of human entitlement—“God it’s your job it to make sure things work out for me!” And then when things go awry some say this means God is no god. We have an inflated sense of entitlement. This creeps into Christian theology sometimes when we expect God to guarantee our prosperity or be the promoter of our agenda. We want God to support the purposes for life we devise for ourselves; we don’t want to hear about condemnation.

You and I have no claim on God’s mercy. Yet so crucial is this mercy that the Apostles’ Creed gathers up the totality of our blessing at God’s hand in one brief expression, “I believe in the forgiveness of sins.” Gratitude will always remain a vital aspect of our knowledge of God.

We probed a moment ago the spiritual shallowness of Isaac and Rebekah’s son Esau. Let’s consider his twin brother Jacob for a moment. Jacob is an opportunist. He thinks that he needs to gain all he can by cunning. He sees his opportunity—his famished brother whom he knows to be rather caviller about things like spiritual heritage. So he lifts the lid off the pot of stew knowing that the delicious fragrance will soon excite his brother’s hunger pangs. “Could I have some of that stew,” Esau asks. “Of course,” responds Jacob, “for a price.” Jacob thinks if he is to gain he has to take—maybe thinking that he needs to assist God in fulfilling promise. Or maybe, that he can manage this on his own.

From time to time I hear advertisements for the Harvey Brooker men’s weight loss centre. Their tag line sticks in my mind, “If You Could Do It Alone, You Would Have Done It Already!” We sometimes think of the gospel this way—God helping us to do good. But the gospel says our spiritual condition is much worse that we imagine. Only God can do this for us and in us. Not only that you can’t do it alone—or even with a little help—but only God alone can do this for us; only God can secure our acquittal and write “no condemnation” and cleanse our hearts.

3. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. What is Paul describing with the words “in Christ Jesus?” In John’s gospel Jesus is reported to say that “the Father is in me and I am in the Father.” (John 10:38) He is describing a relationship. Jesus also told his disciples “abide in me as I abide in you.” He again speaks of relationship.

On the road to Damascus the Apostle Paul was utterly convinced he met the risen Jesus and on that day a relationship began. This is what he means by being “in Christ Jesus.” For Paul “in Christ Jesus” (and its cognates) epitomizes the essence of personal relations between the exalted Christ and those who believe in and are committed to him. It is the nature of what the scriptures mean by faith—it is encounter with God.

How does the believer know that she is “in Christ”? One of the most common metaphors for faith in scripture is marriage. Marriage is a relationship and there are times of intimacy when we are very aware of the relationship. But most of the time in married life we are not particularly aware of being married. We are at work or occupied with children or grandchildren. Whether aware or not the relationship continues. Faith is similar. We have moments of awareness of God’s presence say at worship or in prayer. But most of our day we aren’t thinking about it in particular, yet the relationship is occurring.

Jesus said “anyone who comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37) The experience of faith begins by trusting as much of ourselves as we know of ourselves to as much of God as we know of him. Our confidence of being “in Christ” is not from an independent third party; nor possession of a ticket that says ‘Admit One Past the Pearly Gates.’ Our confidence rests in him who poured himself out without remainder for our sakes. Or as Paul will assert later in this same chapter in Romans, “He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?”

Take this word of “no condemnation” as a word of comfort. The believer’s surety rests in Christ Jesus. Our life is a life lived in response to our Saviour’s initiative towards us. Let go of the need to be in charge. Trust him. Paul went on to say that “the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death.” In contrasting these two laws his is not referring to a “Jesus code of regulations” in the first instance or a “Moses code of regulations” in the second instance, but in both situations a broader reference to “principles” or “matters that pertain to” these two contrasting laws. The point I invite you to take with you for reflection is that life in Christ Jesus is a life of having been freed. The matters that pertain to Christ Jesus are life and love and healed hearts. No condemnation frees us to live for him. No condemnation means all is done. Freed from the need for calculation. We are freed to live for him.

“No condemnation” is the assurance that only a wonderful welcome awaits us sinners in Christ Jesus. There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.