On August 28, 1963, on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, DC, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stepped up to the podium and delivered his famous, “I Have a Dream” speech. It is a speech that has embedded itself into the DNA of American culture. At the very end of his speech, King quotes an old African American spiritual and states that he hopes the time will come when everyone, regardless of their race, creed or nationality, will be able to say, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty I’m free at last.”
The apostle Paul was nowhere near as eloquent as Dr. King, but Paul is expressing the same thought in Romans chapter 8 when he states, “There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.” Paul could have just as easily said, “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty we’re free at last.”
Martin Luther King Jr. spoke of freedom from the chains of bigotry, injustice and inequality. The apostle Paul spoke of a different freedom when he wrote about being free in Christ.
We are in the midst of our summer sermon series on Paul’s letter to the Romans. Two weeks ago, when we looked at chapter 6, Paul told his readers that they had been freed from sin, and freed for a new life and a new relationship with God.
Then last week, in chapter 7, Paul told his readers that we were free from works, and set free for a lifetime of experiencing God’s steadfast love, unconditional forgiveness and service to our neighbor.
Today, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 8, he tells his readers that no longer do we need to concern ourselves with our eternal destiny and with our relationship with God. All of that is a done deal, which has been taken care of by Jesus’ life, death and resurrection. We have been set free from a life in the flesh, and set free for a life in the Spirit.
Freedom is an interesting, and a difficult concept for people of faith. It is one of the greatest gifts that God gives us…but is one of the most difficult gifts for us to understand, and to accept. It’s like we don’t believe we’re worthy of the gift, and so we are unable to unable to forgive…unable to let go of anger…unable to find peace. It’s almost like we prefer being imprisoned by these things.
Louis Zamparini was a runner in the 1936 Olympics and thought to possibly be the first man who might break the four-minute mile. His amazing story is told in a great book by Laura Hillenbrand, called Unbroken. When World War II broke out Louis enlisted in the US Army Air Corps and served as a bombardier. One day, during a routine flight moving from one air base to another, his plane crashed in the Pacific. He suffered terribly, floating for 47 days before being captured by the Japanese. He was then held as a POW for over 2 ½ years. Louie and his fellow prisoners endured horrible conditions and abuse as a POW. He was routinely tortured. But he survived. And when the Japanese finally surrendered on September 2, 1945, Louie and his fellow prisoners were set free.
He returned home to a hero’s welcome. But the glory was short-lived. Suffering with what we now know is post-traumatic stress disorder, over the next few months, Louis became emotionally unstable, quick to explode with anger, unable to hold a job, and he wasn’t sleeping at night. His experience as a POW was all he thought about. He kept reliving the torture, and he even fantasized about returning to Japan and killing one of his particularly cruel prison guards. Even though he was home, he was still emotionally and spiritually imprisoned in Japan. The pain and bitterness he kept inside almost tore apart his marriage, and his family. It ate at him like a poison.
But then he had an experience…in 1949, he was invited to a Billy Graham crusade in Los Angeles, and reluctantly attended, going just for the sake of his wife, who was nagging him to go. There, he heard these words from Romans, the ones in our scripture for today, and for the first time he understood God’s intent for his life wasn’t punishment or pain, but freedom and joy. And almost 5 years after he was physically released from his prison camp, praying in the tent of a Billy Graham crusade, Louis Zamporini’s spirit was finally set free from the prison of anger and bitterness in which it had been trapped. He spent the next 65 years of his life telling the story of his freedom from the POW camp, and from anger, even going so far as to return to Japan to meet, and to forgive his former captors.
We Christians talk about being free, but how free do we really feel? We say that Jesus lived, died and rose again so that we could have life and have it abundantly. This is the promise Jesus makes in John 10:10, that “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” What does that mean anyway?
Some assume that abundance refers to riches or prosperity. And there are churches where they teach a prosperity Gospel. They teach that: “If you are faithful, God will reward you.” The problem is, that’s not Biblical, and it’s not true.
The abundance Jesus talks about; the abundance given to you by Jesus on the cross is not about riches or stuff…rather it’s about mission, purpose and fullness of life…it’s about grace and love…it’s about freedom and forgiveness…it’s about the freedom to follow Jesus…all the way to the cross.
Sometimes, our lives feel a lot like Louie Zamperini’s life. Though we are free, we are stuck in our past life; stuck in the life of the flesh and the life of sin and death.
In verse 6 Paul writes, “To set the mind on the flesh is death…” Paul is reminding us that where we place our focus, where we put our energy…matters. And it is so easy to have our attention pulled in so many different directions:
- Many of us look at our financial predicament, or our job situation and we feel the life just sucked away from us.
- Some of us are struggling with health issues or physical limitations. If we focus on that very long we start to be pulled into a pity party of hopelessness and despair.
- A lot of us watch the news, or read the papers, and can almost feel overwhelmed by what’s going on in the world. There is the fear of terrorism, the frustration of war, and a government that feels so gridlocked, that we wonder if we can ever begin moving forward on issues that matter, like caring for the poor, the sick, the elderly, and those that cannot care for themselves.
Our finances, our health, and the condition of the world are real issues, and they need to be addressed. But they can also trap us. They can overwhelm us. They can imprison us.
In our text today, Paul shows a different way; a way to engage and experience life in the Spirit.
Paul’s suggestion is to shift our thinking from our problems, to our identity. It is to place our focus not on the things that can entrap us…not on the things that are evidence of sin in the world, but rather to focus on the work of God in the world, and in our lives. In a sense, he’s telling us to get our minds out of the gutter and to “set our mind on the Spirit.”
I know. This sounds like a simplistic answer. And those problems that we have are not simplistic. They are complicated. Our financial problems, relationship struggles and worries about the world will not just go away.
But Paul reminds us today that that this isn’t just a matter of where we put our attention; rather it’s a matter of knowing our identity. Paul writes that “…you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” You are in the Spirit. This is not something to work towards, it is who you already are! It is your identity. In the waters of baptism, God claimed you and made you His. You are a child of God, loved beyond measure. If we are confident in our identity, our focus cannot help but shift from the things that imprison us, to the goodness and love of God.
- Martin Luther King Jr. was confident that someday his vision of justice and equality would become a reality because he knew who he was, and whose he was.
- Louis Zamporini was freed from his emotional and spiritual chains once he understood who he was, and whose he was.
And likewise, when we remember who, and whose we are, our Spirits are freed: Freed to serve; freed to tend to injustice; and freed to bring about God’s mission to the world.
- We are reminded of this every time we worship.
- We are reminded of this every time we pray.
- We are reminded of this every time we encounter Jesus in the scriptures.
- We are reminded of this every time we receive the bread and wine of forgiveness.
Is there really a new life in Christ? Are we able to experience an abundant life? Does our faith really make a difference? Paul answers with a resounding, “Yes!” But living this new, abundant life is not a passive endeavor. It is a relationship. And God gives…and we receive…and we share…and God gives…and we receive…and we share…keep repeating….
When we remember who we are…when we recognize what Jesus has already done for us…when we open our eyes to God’s work in the world and engage God’s mission…then we can boldly proclaim, with the confidence of a Martin Luther King Jr…with the conviction of the Apostle Paul, I am: “Free at last, free at last, thank God almighty, I’m free at last.”