Romans 8:5-9a, 11
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Langworthy, preaching
June 25, 2023
N.T. Wright tells of the reaction a friend of his got when he announced to his thoroughly secular mother that he’d become a Christian. Alarmed as if he had joined some kind of strange cult, she exclaimed. “They’ve brainwashed you!” He replied, “If you’d seen what was in my brain, you’d realize it needed washing!”
Of course, he hadn’t really been brainwashed. But his orientation on life, his fundamental convictions and purposes, his entire worldview had been radically altered – not by his being manipulated, but by his carefully considering all sides and freely choosing to believe that the Bible told the truth and that Jesus is the real deal.
If anything, Wright notes, it’s our popular culture that brainwashes. It embeds in many a mind, by a thousand obvious and subtle means, the outlook that the present world is the only one there is and that our prime concern surrounds our self-perceived self-interest. By movies, television, social media and print media, certain dogmas, value judgments and expectations are instilled. They are rarely argued for, but mostly just assumed – in one show after another, one ad after another, one gratuitous off-hand remark after another. The messaging is sometimes explicit and sometimes implicit, sometimes blatant and sometimes subconscious, but it is always pervasive and insistent.
Our worldview determines what we pay attention to and focus upon, and what we pay attention to and focus upon determines what kind of people we become in character and conduct. If we want to be renewed into the likeness of Christ, our mind must be renewed in the truth of Christ.
That’s why today’s short scripture speaks five times about “setting the mind” right (or focusing in on “the Spirit” rather than on the “flesh”). This is crucial, for one mindset leads to death; the other, to “life and peace”.
By “the Spirit” Paul means God, as close to us as our own breath. By “the flesh”, Paul means, not our physical body, but our fallen, self-centered nature. Everything hinges on which one’s concerns we focus on, on where we turn to find consolation and hope, inspiration and courage, assurance and guidance.
What most absorbs our mind most affects our living. Paul says here both that “those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit” and that those who “set the mind on the Spirit” live according to the Spirit. The impact runs two ways. What sets the mind is the living (either according to the flesh or according to the Spirit), and what sets the living is the focusing of the mind (either on the flesh or on the Spirit).
To live “according to the Spirit” is to live a life of deference. We defer to the Spirit’s wishes. We let Him choose the direction of our life and what we do to pursue it; and we submit to His control that He might, by His higher power, enable us to keep pursuing it steadfastly.
So the life of deference is the life of obedience. We follow God’s dictates even when our “heart” isn’t in it and we’re not “feeling” it. We, for example, get our butts into a pew each week and into our private “prayer closet” each day, even if we feel no zeal, in the faith that our showing up in such places, just as we are, gives the Spirit opportunity to touch our heart and change our soul. We draw near to God that His qualities might rub off on us and we might drink in something of His spirit. Just as children pick up the traits of their parents simply by being around them, so we pick up some of God’s traits simply by being around God.
To live “according to the Spirit” is to live a life of deference. To live with our mind “set on the Spirit” is to live a life of dependence. We hang our hope on the Spirit, and wait on Him to come through for us, even if at first our obedience only shows how weak and helpless we are.
Andy Crouch in his book, Playing God, writes, “The spiritual disciplines…are so easy that any adult can do them. There are no particular skills required to be alone, to be silent, or to abstain from food. Yet…they are so difficult, and so perfectly calibrated to reveal our true condition, that no one can ‘succeed’ at them. Indeed, the secret of the disciplines…is how reliably they lay waste to whatever sense we have of ourselves as competent agents in the world.
“Take fasting,” Crouch writes, “where I can offer a personal testimony to the humbling effect of the disciplines. My annual fasts during the seasons of Advent and Lent are darkly comical reminders of how completely undisciplined I am in my relationship with food. No matter how minimal the fast I set out to practice – one Lent it was simply leaving milk out of my tea – I find that I am almost never able to keep it to the end. Among the most pitiful moments of my life was that day, about two weeks into Lent, when I desperately and furtively opened the refrigerator, fully aware that I was breaking the most minimal fast conceivable but feeling completely unable to go without milk in my tea. It was the sweetest, and the bitterest, cup of tea I ever had.”
How often I too have discovered how doing (or trying to do) my small part in the Spirit’s sanctification of me just shows my weakness and inability to better myself. But by such painful self-awareness, I gain that poverty of spirit that, Jesus said, makes the kingdom of heaven one’s own. For I can’t then miss my need of help from beyond me, and I become willing to let the Spirit accomplish what I never could. By the way, as He accomplishes that, He humbles me further. For the Spirit makes it obvious my progress is not due to any willpower from me, but to His taking over and taking me where I could never take myself. My progress is due to His superiority and His overcoming what is more than what I could ever handle.
Preacher Ken Shigematsu recalls the Greek myth of the Sirens, gorgeous but murderous mermaids who live around rocky islands and sing beautiful songs so enchanting that sailors can’t help but jump overboard to swim toward the alluring music – only to be fatally impaled on the islands’ knife-sharp reefs.
When the Argonaut Jason had to sail past those islands, he brought along with him aboard the ship Orpheus, the supremely gifted musician whose magnificent harp playing captured every soul who heard it. As they approached the islands, and the Sirens began to sing, Orpheus played his heavenly music. It was so much more beautiful than the Sirens’ that Jason and his crew, captivated by its higher art, were un-beguiled by the mermaids and passed by them unharmed.
As we “set our mind” on the Spirit and focus on His superior music, we are neither beguiled nor brainwashed by our culture. We are instead captivated by God’s higher art; and, as we “live according to the Spirit”, we pass through dangerous waters unharmed and progress onward to our ultimate destination undeterred.