By Paul Koch –
Recently, I was talking with a group of my colleagues about the gift of confession and absolution in the Church. We discussed the misuses and abuses and the sacramental importance. We talked about how it was an incredible, and often underused, means by which we receive the blessings of God. Then, our attention turned to the words of the confession that we use in the church. You know how it goes, “I, a poor, miserable sinner, confess unto You all my sins and iniquities”. At this point, one of our brothers told about a conversation he had with his father. His father disliked the church, or at least the institutional church. He said that the church is always eager to tell him how bad he is. Whether he felt like a terrible sinner or not wasn’t the issue; the church as going to tell him he fell short.
While it is easy to argue theologically from clear Biblical texts that all our righteous deeds are but filthy rags and all have fallen short of the glory of God, it doesn’t change the sentiment of his father. Throughout this last week I thought of his trouble; I believe it is a common concern that, in some way, deals with the question of who we are. Are we what Scripture says we are? Are we what we feel we are? Are we what our friends and neighbors say we are? Just who are you?
There seems to be a great amount of confusion about who we are. It is clouded by doubts and second guesses, and even seems to shift over time.
Commercial advertisers know this better than most. They market products to us not to simply provide a solution to a need in our lives but to first create the need in us. You see, they have figured out that we may not really know who we are. They know we are searching around, weighing the options, and they are there to give guidance and answers – at an acceptable price point. If we have the right phone, right car, or whatever we can become the person we think we might want to be, at least this week.
But it’s not just those selling products that taunt us with questions of who we are. The great commercial enterprise of American Christianity moves in to leave its mark, as well. From book store shelves filled with spiritual advice for victorious living, to radios stations full of uplifting songs and inspiring words to lead you to the next level of enlightenment we are saturated by those wanting to help us figure out who we are. Churches follow suit, catering to different versions of who you are, and they are always ready to make their next great sales pitch.
And all this attention to our identity isn’t foolish; we do question who we are. The focus lingers here because, as it turns out, the answer isn’t all that easy or simple to express. St. Paul takes up this confusion in our text, today. He speaks about opposing forces that are at play upon the Christian: forces that can cause us to doubt who we really are. Paul talks about the freeing and powerful drive of the Spirit which works against the forces of the flesh. He describes a reality when we, as the children of God, have been set free from the demands of the Law. For this freedom brings about a new and troubling crisis. You see, the Law was a complete and practical measure of who we are. Compared to the measure of the Law we are either compliant or not, either saint or sinner. But since we are set free by the Spirit we have lost that gauge of who we are.
At times we seem to be faithful saints of the Almighty, doing the good and avoiding the evil. But at other times we seem to be consumed in the filth and wickedness of this world. At one moment we are like my colleague’s father, wondering who the pastor is talking about when he describes the consummate sinner who sins in thought, words, and deeds. At other moments we are like the broken-hearted confessor who sees no good in themselves and lives in terror of the flames of Hell. So just who are we? And it doesn’t help that our ancient foe is always at hand to plague our thoughts with doubt and fear and confusion.
So we are given in our text today a firm exhortation by Paul about who it is we really are. Paul begins by listing out the works of the flesh and we shouldn’t be shocked by any of them. They contain sexual sins, sins of unbelief and opposition to God, they are sins that tear apart community and cause all sorts of discord, sins of excess and idolatry. Paul firmly declares that those who walk in such sins will not inherit eternal life. To walk in that life, a life that has no regard for the things of God, is to walk towards eternal death.
But the way of the Spirit is different; the Spirit gives love and joy and peace. The way of the Spirit is the way of patience, kindness, goodness and faithfulness. It is a life promoting gentleness and self-control. It is the way of life and hope and salvation. This is the Spirit that has claimed us in water and Word, the Spirit that has declared you to be the children of God and heirs of eternal life.
These two forces work upon us. We long to walk in the way of the Sprit, we seek to do these things, but often we fail to do them. And while we desire to avoid the works of the flesh with all of our being, we can’t exactly steer clear of them. And so we wonder, who are we? St. Paul makes this bold claim, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passion and desires.” Paul’s says there are two ways, two forces upon you. One is life and one is death. Who you are, what your identity is, is found in Christ alone. You are the crucified ones. You are the ones who have already died and now live a new life in Christ. Who you are is not dependent upon your performance but on His Word.
Now the sins still sticks, it lingers and soils us, but it is not who we are. We are what the promises of God declare us to be. We may not look like it at times but we are His children, His holy ones, His saints. What Paul is calling us to believe, what he is declaring to you today, is that the promises hold true. You have been crucified with Christ. In fact it is no longer you who lives but Christ who lives in you. You are a new creature. You are not bound to walk the way of the flesh rather you are bound to receive the love and mercy of the Spirit which then flows through you. You, this day, are the washed and cleansed baptized children of God. You are the bought and paid for brothers and sisters of Christ. You are given the gift of eternal life – that is who you are!