Sunday, July 26, 2020

Sermon: “Make a Joyful Noise: In the Bulb There Is a Flower”, Romans 8:12-25 (July 26, 2020)


Throughout your life, every choice you make is influenced by an endless list of considerations: what the weather will be like, how much gas is left in your car, how much sleep you got last night, how close you are to payday, and so on and so on. But at this particular moment, one factor looms larger in our decision-making than any other: the novel Coronavirus. This microscopic nightmare has managed to infiltrate not only the bodies of more than 15 million people worldwide, but also the lives of every single human being on earth. It seems like every decision we make these days is dictated by the threat of this tiny adversary, from what we wear to where we shop to how we fulfill our obligations to our jobs—even how we worship has changed dramatically in our efforts to avoid catching or spreading this malicious virus. The entire world is on high alert, and we’re all working as hard and as fast as we can to figure out how to defend ourselves against this new enemy.

But even as we worry about our bodies being infected by this ruthless invader, we’re being attacked by another kind of virus that’s been threatening our lives for far longer (although we don’t seem half as concerned about it). Its goals are the same as any other virus: to infiltrate and take over a functioning system so that it can spread as far and wide as possible. In doing so, it transforms something healthy into something it was never meant to be, wreaking havoc in the process.

This other virus is even more insidious than the coronavirus, sometimes incubating for years before making itself known. It isn’t spread through respiratory droplets or contact with contaminated surfaces. No, this virus spreads in even more subtle ways: through thoughtless comments and unconfirmed theories, through rumors and fake news, and, most importantly, through bigotry and distrust.

This other terrible virus is sin. It has many destructive symptoms: fear, selfishness, ignorance, greed...But no matter how it manifests, the virus always accomplishes the same thing—it infiltrates humanity’s divine nature, as given to us by God and brought to fruition by Christ, and it relinquishes control to our baser instincts. In the NRSV, Paul describes the results of this infection as “living according to the flesh” rather than the spirit, but it’s not about my body being inferior to my soul. It’s about the parts of us that DON’T reflect God hijacking our will so that the parts that DO reflect God are no longer able to guide us.

Sin allows fear and selfishness to overwhelm us and turn us into something that we were never meant to be. It turns us into creatures unable to reflect God’s image at all. And if we’re not careful, we can lose ourselves entirely to this virus. When Paul says, “If you live on the basis of selfishness, you are going to die,” it may sound a bit melodramatic. After all, almost 150,000 people in the US alone have died from the coronavirus; far fewer have died as a direct result of their own selfishness. But the new life that Christ offers us, eternal life, life in full union with God, cannot exist alongside fear and selfishness. And so, if we choose to tolerate this virus in ourselves, we really will lose the abundant life that we’ve been promised. Death is the consequence of infection.

As always, however, there IS good news. While we’ve all been infected by sin, its victory is far from inevitable. Paul tells us that we have received a “Spirit that shows [we] are adopted as [God’s] children,” which sets us free from slavery to those parts of us that are least like God. It loosens the virus’ grip on us. Our adoption as God’s children through Christ and the Holy Spirit is the vaccine that we need to reclaim our lives. And, more good news: this vaccine doesn’t cost us ANYTHING—we’re covered by Christ. This doesn’t mean, of course, that our human nature no longer exists, nor does it mean that we’ll never experience fear or selfishness ever again; after all, even a physical vaccine can’t keep viruses from entering your body. What it DOES mean is that our human nature doesn’t get to dictate how we live and act, and that our fear and selfishness no longer have the power to define us. It means that we can overcome the virus.

Now, having a vaccine is great, but it’s not enough on its own. In order for a vaccine to work, the body needs to produce an immune response, right? A physical vaccine can only protect us if our immune system responds to it in the right way. Likewise, our vaccination from sin requires us to have a spiritual “immune response” to be able to protect us. Unlike its physical counterpart, however, a spiritual immune response isn’t an automatic process. It’s a matter of choice. We need to DECIDE to respond to the freedom that God offers us. And how do we do that, you ask? How do we make sure we’re reacting to our spiritual vaccine with an effective immune response? It’s actually quite simple: we trust God. By trusting God, we embrace the freedom that God has given us, which robs fear and selfishness of its ability to infect our souls.

Notice I said that trusting God is simple, not easy. It can be difficult to place our trust in intangible promises, especially when the virus makes some promises of its own. It promises control through fear and selfishness, which sounds a lot more appealing than promises that require giving up control to God. Giving up control puts us in a situation where we can’t necessarily anticipate what comes next. But we know that even when we can’t be sure what the next day holds, we can rely on God to keep God’s promises. God always has before. Every time we plant a bulb, we know that God will coax from it a delicate flower. We trust that every time a cocoon is formed, a butterfly will emerge, transformed through God’s will. We believe that every cruel winter will give way to the rebirth of spring, because God has ordained it so. From these and countless other examples, we’ve learned that God is trustworthy and sure. So we shouldn’t need to know what will happen in order to have a spiritual immune response, to trust God. We just need to make the choice, and we will be delivered from our sin, from death into life.

But this spiritual cycle of virus-vaccine-immune response has implications that reach much farther than any individual person; farther, even, than all of humanity. Remember how the virus infects us by giving control to the parts of us that least reflect God, instead of the parts of us that most reflect God? Well, it turns out that creation itself is depending on the same imago dei that the virus attacks for its salvation, because it’s through humanity’s reflection of God that all of creation is redeemed.

Paul reminds us that by design, creation has no self-agency; God gave humanity mastery over all living things way back in Genesis. Because of humanity’s sin, creation has become subject to death alongside us…and it looks to us, its stewards, for deliverance. It was through our profane-nature that creation was first enslaved to decay, and it’s through our God-nature that it will be liberated. But if our God-nature has been hijacked by selfishness and fear, then creation has no choice but to continue living in death’s shadow. It’s only through the “revelation of God’s sons and daughters,” “the glorious freedom of God’s children,” as Paul puts it, that creation can hope to be redeemed.

We’ve been given this freedom, this vaccine, directly from God, but it comes with the understanding that it’s not only for our benefit. Paul reminds us, “We have an obligation, but it isn’t an obligation to ourselves to live our lives on the basis of selfishness.” Receiving the vaccine in our own interest defeats its entire purpose and renders it powerless. This is a faulty immune response. Our obligation is to embrace the vaccine on behalf of ALL creation.

Since creation can’t receive this gift for itself, it relies on us for protection. It’s the same reason virologists and doctors implore us to wear a mask or to get physical vaccines: because we have an obligation to protect others, especially those who can’t protect themselves, and so we take these measures to keep them safe. We have a responsibility to provide a sort of “herd immunity” for creation. We shield creation from decay by virtue of making sure WE’RE not ruled by fear, selfishness, and greed.

Nobody, least of all Paul, is saying that achieving herd immunity on behalf of creation is an easy process. Certainly not. Ideally, a vaccine has no side effects, but sometimes the body struggles to integrate it. Sometimes, you experience a fever or chills, headaches, or exhaustion as your immune system figures out how to respond to this new thing. Change takes time, and the bigger the change, the more painful the transition. This virus has had thousands of years to gain a foothold within humanity, so it makes sense that developing an effective immune response is a long, difficult process.

But we mustn’t let ourselves believe that because it’s hard, there will never be wholeness. Just because there’s no healing in sight doesn’t mean that God has let us down. After all, says Paul, “If we see what we hope for, that isn’t hope. Who hopes for what they already see? But if we hope for what we don’t see, we wait for it with patience.” Remember the bulb that holds a future flower. Remember the cocoon that enfolds a butterfly-to-be. God has promised that these things will come to pass, and so they will. God has promised our healing and redemption, and so we must keep working to strengthen our spiritual immune system, to fight against the virus, and to help creation find wholeness.

We don’t know when God’s kingdom will finally arrive “on earth as it is in heaven”—it, too, is unrevealed until its season; something God alone can see—but we know that it will. In the meantime, let’s do what we can to uphold the health and sanctity of Christ’s body and God’s creation. Let’s keep fighting against the diseases of selfishness and fear. Because it’s the least we can do in light of the healing that God promises us. Amen.

No comments:

Post a Comment