Two weeks ago, we talked about rules. We said, ‘rules may hurt as much as they help’. We spoke about a rule-bound shop where everything got messed up because the manager was trying to exert control by a system of rules to which the shop assistant stuck too rigidly.
We said that rules are good, rules are fine, but following them too rigidly can harm relationships in the workplace, in church or at home.
The Apostle Paul had been bound by rules. We call his set of rules the Jewish Law and we find it in the first five books of the Old Testament. Paul was in a real predicament. The Law was good, it came from God. It showed him right from wrong. But by obeying the Law, he ended up doing harm in quite a spectacular way when he persecuted the followers of Jesus of Nazareth. He discovered that we can set off to do the right thing, but if all we do is follow the rules we can’t be sure we’ll achieve the good we set out to do.
The truth is, if we want to live well, the answer isn’t in rules and laws. The power of sin is too great. It taints our best efforts.
So, if following rules isn’t the way, what is?
Let’s look at Romans chapter 8 for an answer. Here, Paul says:
So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh—for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. For all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear…
Paul has been on a journey of the spirit.
- He has stopped living ‘according to the flesh’.
- He has ‘put to death the deeds of the body’.
- He will not ‘fall back into ‘fear’.
It may surprise you to hear that when Paul talks about the ‘flesh’, he isn’t necessarily talking about sexual sin. When he persecuted the Church, he lived in the fear of God; and Paul says he was living ‘according to the flesh’ at that time.
He was following the law of God, but sin mucked it up. Paul was motivated to obey the law—the rules—by fear and pride. But Paul has started being ‘led by the Spirit of God’.
So the ‘flesh’ Paul lived according to wasn’t a life of debauchery; ‘the flesh’ was a life of rule-keeping which kept him in fear, even though he was very good indeed at keeping the rules.
So Paul is being ‘led by the Spirit’. What does that mean? Being ‘led by the Spirit’ is what we have declared in baptising Leonard, Lauren, Monique and Indiana: it is discovering that we are God’s children.
all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God…
We are led by the Spirit as we are assured in our deep spirit that we are children of God. God is a good parent; and we have some idea of how good parents treat their children. Jesus once said,
Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish? Or if the child asks for an egg, will give a scorpion? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will the heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!
We who are not perfect know how to care for our children. God cares all the more for us, his children. God gives us his Spirit to live within us.
That doesn’t mean God is a giant Santa or a sugar daddy. Caring for your children means correcting them when they go wrong. You don’t let a toddler run onto the road, or touch a hotplate. Just so, God corrects his children when we go wrong. To be led by the Spirit is to be prepared to be led back to God when we sin, or when we forget our God.
Christ is the eternal Son of God; we are adopted sons and daughters of God. What a privilege! Even now, we share in the life of God the Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Look at the icon of the Trinity: there is a whole spare side of the table, and it’s reserved for you and me. God invites us to join him around the table for ever.
That’s what baptism tells us: you are a child of God, and your place is at God’s table. You will always be a child of God. We have a glorious destiny—so why on earth would you turn an invitation like that down?
I can think of one reason. As God’s children, we are heirs with Christ. We are heirs of everything he has and all that he is. As heirs with Christ, we are also heirs of something we may rather not have—we are heirs of his suffering. Paul says this:
we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him.
Suffering is not optional. It comes to everyone; it seems that in our consumer society some people have forgotten that life can be hard. Never imagine that being a Christian should keep us from suffering. In fact, we people of faith sometimes suffer more, because we care more about the wrongs in the world, and about the wrongs in our own hearts. After all, if you care, you are likely to be hurt at some time.
Paul says ‘we suffer with Christ’. How do we suffer ‘with’ Christ? We suffer with Christ when we suffer in faith that he is with us. We suffer with Christ when we suffer in the hope that he gives.
Suffering with Christ can be a privilege. Why would we say such a strange thing? Suffering may turn out to be a privilege when it opens our eyes to what the Lord is doing in our hearts. Christians suffer, but we suffer in hope. We believe that God has a purpose for the creation and will one day end its groaning. Christ is risen, and he is Lord. The Spirit is with us to show us the way.
Living as a Christian isn’t about obeying rules, do this, don’t do that. It’s about growing as a child of God, learning that we are forever loved by God, and relaxing into that love.
Leonard, Lauren, Monique…and Indiana: this is the faith we have baptised you into. You have joined us on this way: we encourage you to live from today as God’s forever children. Amen.