A Sermon for the Eighth Sunday after Trinity, July 22, 2018
The Epistle, Romans 8:12-17 – The Gospel, St. Matthew 7:15-21
The Rt. Rev’d Stephen C. Scarlett
“As many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God” (Rom. 8:14).
I. The epistle and the ongoing experience of Baptism
We have had a series of epistles from Romans. Today’s epistle can be understood in the light of the epistle from Trinity 6 about baptism. Romans 6:3-4 says,
Do you not know that as many of us as were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into His death? Therefore, we were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father even so we also should walk in newness of life.
The epistles from Romans last week and this week emphasize that Baptism initiates us into an ongoing experience of dying and rising with Christ. The death of baptism becomes the ongoing activity of putting to death the deeds of the body, which is how we share in the sufferings of Christ.
We often think of spiritual experience as mystical and peaceful. However, one of the main things we experience because of our baptism is interior conflict. Today’s Epistle is the source of a term in the spiritual life called “mortification.” St. Paul writes, “If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death (or mortify) the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13).
In the New Testament the word “flesh” refers to the disordered desires of our fallen human nature—the human nature we were born with. The baptismal gift of the Holy Spirit puts the flesh to death. However, the Spirit also redeems and recreates our human nature in the image of Christ’s new humanity. The Spirit leads us to do new things that are oriented towards love for God and love for others rather than merely self-gratification.
II. How we mortify the deeds of the body
We put to death the past deeds of the body by making good confessions that take stock of both our actions and our motives; by receiving the grace of forgiveness that removes the guilt, shame and fear caused by sin; and by establishing new patterns of faithful and loving behavior in the place of the old selfish habits of sin.
We put to death the deed of the body each day by avoiding and turning away from the temptations that come upon us. For example,
Something provokes us to anger and we are tempted to strike out and strike back. Instead, we take a deep breath, pray, remember who we are in Christ and, by the grace the Spirit gives us, we do not react in anger—we mortify our selfish anger. Then, after we calm down, we respond to those who provoked with some action of love. As Jesus said,
“Love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you that you may be sons of your Father in heaven” (Matt. 5:44-45).
Or, something visual may tempt us. It may be something sexual, or it may be something that we tempted to covet. Rather than entertaining the thought and embracing the lust or the greed, we immediately turn our eyes away from the temptation, using the grace the Spirit gives us. We use this circumstance of our temptation to pray for the grace of contentment and self-control.
Because prevention is better than cure, we examine our habits and identify the places and circumstances that cause us to face repeated temptation. We reorganize our schedule and so that we avoid those places and circumstances in the future.
III. The results of mortification.
Sin tempts us because it promises us things we want right now, but when we give in to it we experience guilt, shame, fear and death instead. We replay the scene of Genesis 3, the pattern of the original sin. This is what it means to be slaves of sin. We are stuck following impulses that never produce anything good in our lives.
We live “in the Spirit” when we establish a foundation of prayer in our lives and practice following the impulses of the Spirit each day, saying no to “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life” (1 John 2:16). As we practice this pattern of life over time, we experience new results. The experience of grace and forgiveness replaces the experience of guilt. The experience of being accepted by God replaces the experience of shame. Fear is replaced by trust in God and his provision and providence.
The experience of life in the Spirit involves conflict, but the long-term result of the conflict is peace. It is a necessary battle. The battle of the Spirit against the flesh is the cross we are called to bear in the Christian life. Our suffering in Christ, our cross bearing, is not merely our share of the general pain of the world. We take up our cross when we persevere in God’s will against the influences that pull us away from God and our prayer and back into the patterns of sin and the false and temporal hopes of the world.
It is here that authentic Christian faith stands in the clearest contrast with the promises of our consumer and therapeutic culture. The implication of our culture is that pursuing what you want will make you happy. This leads people to try to gratify themselves apart from God and his will. This is the cause of the discontentment of our culture. People are committed to finding fulfillment in that which cannot provide it.
The Spirit fills us we a deeper desire; the desire for God, who alone can satisfy us. The Spirit teaches us that our disordered desires must be put to death if we are to get what we really want. Thus, as we mortify the flesh and persevere in our pursuit of God and our deep spiritual longings, we confirm our status as God’s children. As our Epistle says,
For as many as are led by the Spirit of God, these are sons of God. For you did not receive the spirit of bondage again to fear, but you received the Spirit of adoption by whom we cry out, “Abba, Father.” The Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ, if indeed we suffer with Him, that we may also be glorified together (Rom. 8:14-17).