Note: Today we had two youth who were being confirmed (affirming their faith) at one congregation; but there was no one being confirmed at the other. The main body of the sermon got preached at both congregations, but what you will see here is the sermon I preached at the congregation where the youth were confirmed.
If today’s passage from Romans sounds familiar to you, there’s a reason for that, as this passage is often used in funerals. But it’s even more important for us to read and hear in the daily life of the church. In some of his most beautiful language yet in Romans, Paul describes the actions of the Holy Spirit in the life of the baptized Christian. And today is Pentecost, the one day of the church year when we Lutherans actually talk about the Holy Spirit and the Spirit’s action in our lives. And this is the day when we are confirming two of our young people in the Christian faith, but what that really means is that they are taking on the promises for themselves that were made by their parents and their sponsors when they were baptized as children. And so, since Paul talked about baptism in the passage that we heard from him last week, we are going to trace that line of thinking from baptism to the Holy Spirit today.
Last week, Paul said that, because we were baptized into the death of Christ Jesus, we now walk in newness of life, and in hope of the resurrection. And this newness of life means that sin is no longer master over us; rather, Jesus Christ is our master and it is he whom we follow. So that means there is no such thing as “cheap grace,” where we go out and sin on Saturday night so we can be forgiven on Sunday morning only to go out and sin again. Rather, because Christ is our master, we live according to his teachings. Paul then gives two analogies to help the Christians in Rome understand what he is saying. The first analogy uses the metaphor of slavery, which was common in the 1st century Roman Empire, and which his audience would have understood. The second analogy Paul uses is a little bit easier for us: he uses the concept of marriage. When a woman is married, he says, she is bound to her husband until her husband dies; then she is free. So also, when we were baptized, we died to sin and therefore we are no longer bound to it, and we are now bound to Christ in our baptism. Paul then goes on to talk about how we still struggle with sin in this life even though sin is no longer our master, and he gives thanks to God through Jesus Christ that God has saved him from his sins.
Then we arrive at chapter 8, where Paul continues talking about how we are no longer bound to the demands of our sinful flesh, but rather, we are bound to the Holy Spirit through our baptism. Because we have the Holy Spirit in us, the law no longer condemns us. We are free: free to walk in that newness of life given to us through Christ Jesus in our baptism. And, Paul says, we have not received a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but we have received a spirit of adoption. We are children of God, and the Holy Spirit bears witness to that. We are free to address God without fear; free to call God our Father. Such marvelous news!
Then Paul talks about some of the ways the Holy Spirit is active in our lives. He begins by talking about how the whole creation is groaning and waiting with eager longing to be set free from its bondage to decay. So, in other words, we human beings tend to focus exclusively on our suffering: the pain from illness, the pain from watching those whom we love suffer from illness, the pain of being separated from those we love, and so on and so forth. But we neglect the rest of creation. Every time a species of animal or plant goes extinct, the whole creation suffers. Every time water is polluted, and it is no longer safe to drink or to wash with, the whole creation groans in pain. We’ll talk more about this idea when we get to our sermon series on creation, starting next week. Paul’s point here is that, just as the creation groans as it suffers, we, who have the Holy Spirit within us, groan inwardly as we await the resurrection and the new creation, where there will be no more pain and suffering.
But, the Holy Spirit does more than make us long for the resurrection with hope of that which we cannot see. The Holy Spirit intercedes for us when we pray, because, Paul says, we do not know how to pray as we ought to. I want to tell a story to illustrate this. In 2004, my paternal grandfather was diagnosed with leukemia. He was 80 years old, and at the time the doctors said that the chemo was just as likely to kill him as it was to cure him. So, he opted for comfort care and to let nature take its course. When I got the news, I was very distressed. And I didn’t know how to pray for him; it didn’t seem right to pray for his death, but I also knew that the diagnosis would not result in my grandfather continuing to live, so it didn’t seem right to pray for him to live if he was going to continue living in pain. After talking with a counselor about this, I concluded that the best way to pray was for God to not allow him to suffer for too long. I don’t know if this was the right prayer—but I do know that the Holy Spirit was interceding for me with sighs too deep for words. And I know that God heard those prayers and knew what was in my heart, even though I couldn’t express it the right way. And I know this because of that promise of the Holy Spirit who was there with me, advocating for me before the throne of God.
Even more wonderful than these already wonderful words about the Holy Spirit is the last section of chapter 8. Paul summarizes all of his arguments up to this point by asking, “If God is for us, who is against us? He who did not withhold his own Son, but gave him up for all of us, will he not with him also give us everything else?” No one condemns us, Paul says, because God loves us. And nothing can separate us from God’s love. Nothing, no one. It doesn’t matter what sin you have committed when you’ve lost your struggle to resist it. God still loves you. You are baptized in Christ Jesus and into his death; nothing will separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. How amazing is that?
Emilee and Heather, in just a little while you will be affirming the promises that your parents and sponsors made for you when you were baptized. That means that you are taking the responsibility for fulfilling those promises on yourselves. Here are those promises: to live among God’s faithful people; to hear the word of God and share in the Lord’s Supper; to proclaim the good news of God in Christ through word and deed; to serve all people, following the example of Jesus, and to strive for justice and peace in all the earth. There are times when we will be great at fulfilling those promises, and there will be times when we will fail. Paul’s words about the struggle against sin still ring true over 2000 years later. But the good, wonderful, amazing news is this. When we fail, we are not alone: the whole creation groans with us, including the community of Christians that we find ourselves in. We have not received a spirit of slavery that makes us fall back into fear; rather, we have received the Holy Spirit, who frees us from all condemnation and gives us the promise of the resurrection, so that we are no longer afraid of anything the powers that be can do to us. When we don’t know how to pray, we can simply cry out to God and trust that the Holy Spirit intercedes for us and that God hears our prayers and our heartfelt cries. And finally, and most importantly, we know that nothing, absolutely nothing, can separate us from God’s love in Jesus Christ. God made us, God saved us through Jesus Christ, and God has sent the Holy Spirit to live in our hearts to be with us always. God is always with us, no matter what.
Emilee and Heather, you are taking on these promises of the Christian faith for yourselves in a time when the world is changing rapidly in many ways, some of them for the better and some of them for the worse. You are here to show us who are older how to live out our Christian faith in this new world. We are here to support you with the wisdom we have gleaned in our years of living. It’s going to be challenging for you, and it’s going to be frustrating when we older folks get stubborn and don’t want to follow where the Holy Spirit is urging you to lead us. In fact, one of my colleagues, John Stevens, who is a pastor in Oregon City, Oregon, wrote this series of three haikus that I think you will identify with in the coming years:
My life was fine before You.
Or at least I thought.
No longer can I sit still.
Feeling Your call deep.
You give me new ears to hear
My neighbors in need.
My prayer for you is that you would not give up on us. We love you and we want to support you as you continue living your lives as the Holy Spirit has called you to live: free from fear and resting secure in the knowledge that nothing can separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Nothing. No one. God loves you. Period. Amen.