“If you live after the flesh, ye shall die: but if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live” (Romans 8:13).
The prayer book epistles for Trinity season work their way through the letters of St. Paul from Romans to Collossians, in biblical order. Today is our third week of Romans. The focus has been on baptism and its implications. We are baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection. As we continually remember, or experience again, our baptism through the life of prayer, we live in a way that is consistent with our identity in Christ. Unfaithfulness results when we forget who we are.
There is another motivation for living faithfully. Namely, the results we experience when we live unfaithfully. There is an over used quote that says something like, “Insanity is doing the same thing over again and expecting different results.” The quote is often attributed to Einstein, but there seems to be no evidence that he actually wrote or said it. It was probably attributed to him to give the line greater weight in an argument. In any event, this quote seems particularly applicable to human sin. People do the same wrong thing again and again with the crazy notion that the results will be different this time.
Many people allege that Christian morality is oppressive, out of date and unrealistic. However, when we look at the actual evidence in the lives of those who love God with all their heart, soul and mind and love their neighbor as themselves, we discover something different. It turns out that those who worship God faithfully, respect authority, honor the marriage bond, tell the truth, are honest in their dealings and are concerned for the good of their neighbor have a greater sense of peace and fulfillment than those who do not do these things.
Conversely, when we examine the actual lives of people who habitually practice some form of sin, we discover that their lives have produced various kinds of undesirable fruit. Failure to worship God leads to idolatry. Failure to love one’s neighbor by obeying commandments five through ten leads to the weaving of many a tangled web and not a few consequences and psychological problems.
However, this evidence does not always lead to repentance and change. It often leads to more of the same. Take, for example, the sexual revolution of the 1960’s. It promised liberation and fulfillment by throwing off the yoke of Christian morality. In fact it produced chaos and much cultural and personal catastrophe. Yet, advertisers and media are still presenting sex, in various non-marital forms, as the fulfillment of all human longing. And, despite the evidence, people are still buying it.
Why, if the empirical evidence is in favor of faithfulness and obedience, do people routinely choose to disobey and act selfishly? Why do we sin if sin does not make sense? Because this is the nature of sin. Sin is an inclination to act in a disobedient way without regard to the long term implications.
“Long term’ is the key. The evidence in favor of obedience is gathered over time in the laboratory of human behavior. We learn the wisdom of obedience through experience. This is why God gave us the history of a nation in the Bible. We can read and observe the long term consequences of sin without having to conduct our own experiment. Of course, many of us end up learning the hard way nonetheless!
Sin does makes sense in its own short term time horizon. If all I want is a good feeling right now and I don’t really care about the consequence next week, month and year, then I will feel free to give full vent to my anger, to grab any desired pleasure, to lie or cheat or steal to get what I want now. Temptation obscures the long term implications and overstates the short term benefits. “You will not die,” the devil said, “but you will be like God.” It turns out that they did experience spiritual death, and being like God wasn’t all it was advertised to be. The world, the flesh and the devil provide an deceptive analysis of disobedience. It’s like the guy who jumped into a thorn bush, rolled around for a while and came out bloody and bruised. He was asked, “Why did you do that?” He responded, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
To be saved from sin by Jesus Christ means to be saved from this irrational and crazy pattern of continuing to expect different results from the same old patterns of sin. We are saved not only from the consequences of sin. We are also saved from the need to engage in the behavior that results in the consequences. We are no longer compelled to jump into the thorn bush.
This brings us to the epistle. “If ye live after the flesh, ye shall die.” If you continue to willfully follow the desires of your fallen nature, you will also inherit the long term consequences of that behavior, which include death. “But if ye through the Spirit do mortify the deeds of the body, ye shall live.” To mortify means to put to death. To mortify the deeds of the body is to say no to sin, whenever the opportunity surfaces. To “mortify” brings us back to baptism. In baptism, the sinful self died. The person living in a manner that is consistent with baptism will put the old self to death again whenever it rears its ugly head.
The grace of baptism, and the grace of continually remembering our baptism through the life of prayer, is that we are able to do this. When we encounter temptation, with all its irrational and deceptive promises, we are able to say no because we recognize the deception and have the spiritual strength through the Spirit to put the impulse to death rather than follow it. Forgiveness saves us from our past sins, but mortification saves us from sin in the present moment. We won’t feel guilty, ashamed and afraid in the future if we put to death the deeds of the body right now. This is how we share the cross of Jesus and reveal that we are children of God and heirs of the kingdom.
For ye have not received the spirit of bondage again to fear, but ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry, Abba, Father. The Spirit himself beareth witness with our spirit that we are children of God: and if children, then heir; heirs of God, and joint heirs with Christ; if so be that we suffer with him that we may also be gloried together (Romans 8:15-17).