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Gadgets for the Journey
by Tony Grant
The idea that the Christian life is something like a road trip is intriguing, especially if you have ever actually taken a road trip with a carload of kids. "I need to go to the Bathroom." "He hit me." "Are we there yet?" If the Christian life is like that kind of road trip, it sounds more like hell than heaven.
Yet, the analogy is not far off. Paul starts this great chapter in his letter to the Romans with a "Freedom Now" declaration that those who are in Christ Jesus are not condemned. It is almost like Paul is saying, "OK Christians, for the first time, you are ready to hit the road. You are free from the condemnation of the law, you're free to live in the Spirit, to embark on the adventure of your life, to know what it means to "walk in the Spirit."
While you are thinking about that, think also about the last road trip you took with your family. Today, when you pile into the minivan for your family vacation, it is not like the road trip you took when you were growing up, when there was "nothing to do." You complained, and your weary parents said, "Look out the window and enjoy the scenery." Remember being told that, and you looked out the window and you thought, What scenery? You are on an interstate. Interstates do not have scenery. It does not matter whether you are on I-40 in New Mexico or I-77 in SC, it all looks pretty much the same. Interstates are great for getting from one place to another. They are not scenic routes.
But when it comes to travel, that does not matter to the kids anymore. What is outside the car does not matter--whether it is a scenic highway or Traffic clogged interstate. These days, cars are self-contained entertainment and distraction systems. There are MP3 players on the dashboard, which is like having a 72-CD changer in the trunk. There are gadgets that "read" you the newspaper, or quote current stock prices, or give a sports update on the Panthers. Built-in TVs with VCRs or DVDs, PlayStations, GPS navigational systems, and satellite radios are all on board, and with Americans taking more road trips, the sales of this kind of high-tech car gear are up 70 percent.
In the twenty-first century, kid in the back seat wear their wireless headphones, listening to their MP3s containing thousands of their downloaded rock or reggae favorites, while mom and dad can do something in cars they have not done since before the babies came, they can hold a lengthy, intelligent, and uninterrupted conversation. New Millennium children, fortunate enough to have the latest gadgetry, actually ask their parents to go on long rides. "Please, please, please can't we please drive to, like, Washington State?"
For example, Carlos Mora commutes three hours a day, then spends even more time on road trips with his teenagers. So when he wants to relax, where does he go? Right back to his SUV, which has a navigation system, Sony PlayStation and a built-in PC, plus a DVD player with surround sound.
"We go out to the truck to watch movies now," says the computer specialist from Holden, Massachusetts On the road with his kids, he says, a movie "makes the trip go by very quick." [Gregory L. White, "Do gizmos make car rides easier?" MSNBC & WSJ.COM, January 4, 2002. ]
in an article entitled "Buckle up and tune out," Jim Louderback writes, "Much like dialing rotary telephones, writing in journals is not an experience today's children are likely to have. Electronic baby sitters have replaced coloring books with cartoons. Above the back seats, a flat TV screen folds down from the roof. Under the seats a VCR turns minivan into movie theater. Dual headphone jacks let the kids watch Rugrats while Mom and Dad chat or listen to the radio. Like Alex in A Clockwork Orange, the kids sit like drones, belted into their car seats, eyes locked on the screen. [They] have traded squabbles for Sesame Street, scenery for serenity." [Jim Louderback, "Buckle up and tune out," USA Weekend, March 22-24, 2002, 6.]
What a difference from when we were kids. We only had the Alphabet game, Twenty Questions, or some game we made-up--Pretty tame stuff.
Now there is a point here. The point is the journey for us as kids was bearable only if we were distracted and could forget we were taking it. Now, kids are distracted, they are so thoroughly entertained, the journey has become the important thing, and the destination is an anticlimactic event that distracts from the real fun, which is traveling!
Way of Flesh and Way of Spirit
Back to the apostle Paul. In these eleven short verses from chapter 8, Paul covers a number of significant topics in 11 short verses: the status of the law, the essence of the incarnation, the baseness of humanity (but our aspiration for greater things), the presence of the Spirit, the miracle of the resurrection, and the gift of everlasting life.
Last week I preached on Romans 7, where Paul struggles with knowing what he ought to do and how he ought to live, but not doing it, or living it. I saw a little story this week that illustrates Paul's dilemma. It seems that in Sarasota, Florida, the head of an anti-violence group was arrested for punching a referee during his seven-year-old son's flag football game. Certainly not the kind of behavior you would expect from the "head of an anti-violence group." Someone has said that character is who we are when we think no one is looking. Back in 1977, there was a blackout in New York City. During the hours that the city was without power, mobs of rampaging human depravity burned buildings, looted stores and injured people. Many so-called "normal, law-abiding citizens" joined in the effort, thinking perhaps that under the cover of darkness no one would know. This is the negative of human life--that even though we want to obey God in fact, we often do not.
But in chapter 8, Paul speaks of positive, miraculous things. Verse 1 states a phenomenal truth straight-out: There is "no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus." For Paul, those who are "in Christ" are transformed people. Part of that transformation involves a new ability to embody the law in our life. The "law of the Spirit of life," introduced in verse 2, is a law written on the heart (cf Jeremiah 31:31-34) and undefiled by the "law of sin and death" that had previously frustrated all who tried to fulfill it. The law, "weakened by the flesh" (v. 3), had depended on the sin-saturated (dis)abilities of humans. As such, its presence in this world was necessarily corrupted by the frailties of those trying to keep it.
To remedy this situation, Paul boldly states in verse 3 that God sent his own Son "in the likeness of sinful flesh ... to deal with sin." Traditional biblical scholars get nervous with Paul's language here, and take great care to emphasize that the Son was sent only "in the likeness of sinful flesh." Concerned with maintaining Christ's essential sinlessness, many scholars minimize the point Paul makes. There is a Greek word at the center of the problem: 'omoiwmati--which means literally "like a man." It does not imply artificial resemblance to a man. It is a statement that Christ was literally a human being. University of Dayton scholar Vincent P. Branick forces us to take Paul seriously when he states:
"The sense of the word in Romans 8:3 ... by no means marks a distinction or a difference between Christ and sinful flesh. If Christ comes en omoiwmati of sinful flesh, he comes as the full expression of sinful flesh. He manifests it for what it is. Sinful flesh is fully visible in the flesh of Christ" (Vincent P. Branick, "The sinful flesh of the Son of God [Romans 8:3]: A key image of Pauline theology," The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 47 , 250).
Part of Paul's insistence on Jesus' full participation in sinful flesh is wrapped up in his understanding of "flesh." Paul used this term extensively, and its meaning encompasses far more than mere muscle and bone. To be "in flesh" was to be in union with all other fleshly created things, to exist in the domain of flesh. Thus, for Christ to be in flesh meant that he joined in full solidarity with the fleshly, sinful world.
Through this identity with sin and flesh, Jesus the Son was able to break their powers and offer the gift of a new way of living. In order to experience this gift, however, believers must walk "according to the Spirit" (v. 4). The Spirit is that which makes the resurrection of Christ real in the lives of believers.
In verses 5-8 Paul continues to unpack the message he presented in verse 4. Those living "according to the flesh" are incapable of seeing beyond the limitations of the flesh. But since Christ's death and resurrection, humans still living in the flesh can nonetheless "set their minds on the things of the Spirit," just as Christ did. What this spiritual mindset offers believers is nothing less than "life and peace" (v. 6). This is the solution to the spiritual conflict of which Paul had spoken so poignantly in Romans 7:15-25--where he says that we want to serve God, but do not. Now he says that the good news is that we can set our minds on the things of the spirit through Christ.
In the next few verses, Paul spells out the necessary conditions for experiencing this age of the Spirit, and it is as radical a theological statement as Paul ever makes. The whole thrust of his discussion is based on the miraculous resurrected presence of the Spirit of Christ in our midst. Paul again emphasizes the internalized nature of this Spirit. The spirit is "in you." This is not just God's love or God's law dwelling in you; it is the actual Spirit of God.
The gift this Spirit brings is life itself. As Paul says, "he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you." Without this life, we are dead, we are without hope or prospect. It is only the Spirit in us that makes possible our resurrection to new life.
But notice how the word "journey" can be used to describe what's going on in our relationship with God. The walk, the journey, the road trip can be of two varieties: a walk in the Spirit or a walk in the flesh.
Paul discusses the glory of the former and the destruction of the latter. The first is a journey of life; the second is a march of death. The first is an experience of peace (v. 6); the second is hostility to God. The first is friendship with God; the second is enmity with God. The first is an experience of the indwelling God (v. 9); the second is the futility of a self-filled life.
In our spiritual life, Paul warns us against distractions, against "carnal" gizmos and gadgets that separate us from God. It's a chance missed. An opportunity lost. Paul calls us to leave distracting gizmos and gadgets behind and to look up and out through the window of the Holy Spirit to the spiritual landscape that is flashing by, a land which is ours to experience and enjoy.
Today we often hear it said: "It's not the destination that's important--it's the journey." But if that is so, why do we insist on the distractions of the flesh just to make it through the road trip of life? Why do we buy into the mentality of Madison Avenue? Why do we spend our lives competing with our neighbors? Why do we watch so many hours of trivial stuff on television and then berate our children for playing with a Gameboy? Why do we worship a culture of youth and beauty when youth and beauty do not come close to what it means to "walk in the Spirit." Why do we have so many time-saving gadgets that seem to take more and more of our time?
Paul says this is a walk. Perhaps not a walk in the park, but a walk. The Christian life is a saunter, a promenade, a paseo. It is an experience. And as such it demands our full attention and appreciation.
Thomas Merton was right when he wrote, "We are not so much entangled in our souls, as we are entangled in our minds." If we set our minds, again and again on gizmos of the flesh, if we allow our heads to be filled with distractions on the roadways of life, then our hearts, following the world and not God, will never find peace.
Where we put our minds, how we use our minds, what we think about, how much we allow ourselves distractions and entertainments--all determine who we are and who we become. Paul makes it clear. The mind that is set on flesh, on earthly distractions, is hostile to the Spirit and separates itself from God. The mind that revels in the Spirit, whose focus is God, finds peace and life.
There is no gadget for this journey. A mind set on the Spirit, practiced in the ways of prayer, one that seeks God and seeks to learn about God, begins to see the depth of love, the depth of beauty, the depth of joy, the power of hope, the power of courage and the power of commitment -- no matter where it happens to be on its road trip through life.
Ultimately, as the old spiritual says, "You've got to walk that lonesome valley. You've got to walk it by yourself. Ain't nobody gonna walk it for you. You've got to walk it by yourself."
Anne [Lamott] was born and grew up in the San Francisco area in the 1960s and '70s. Her parents were alcoholics and atheists. Relatively early in Anne's life, it became evident to her that their marriage was breaking down, and they did eventually go their separate ways. The influence of some of her teachers and the parents of some of her friends, however, gave her the important experience of grownups she could trust, admire and believe in.
When she reached college, one of her teachers assigned Kierkegaard's Fear and Trembling. In it, Kierkegaard retold the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac, whom God instructed Abraham to offer as a sacrifice in place of a sacrificial lamb. This was a story that had always caused Anne serious doubts concerning God and the nature of God. Yet what she perceived in Kierkegaard's writing of it she stated in this way: "[Abraham] understood that without God's love and company, this life would be so empty and barbaric that it almost wouldn't matter whether his son was alive or not. And since this side of the grave you could never know for sure if there was a God, you had to make a leap of faith, if you could, leaping across the abyss of doubt with fear and trembling." [Margaret Gunness, "Stepping Stones for Spiritual Growth," December 2001, explorefaith.org.]
Anne perceived that It's up to each of us to choose which way we are going to go, the high way or the low way, the way of the Spirit or the way of the world -- and "ain't nobody gonna choose it for us." It is a leap of faith we must make for ourselves. Amen.
White, Joseph, and Jonathan Welsh. "Gizmos by the carload," The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2002, 1.
If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant
Copyright 2000 York Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church
Last modified 10/25/02