I’m reading to you from chapter 8 of the apostle Paul’s New Testament letter to the Romans. Listen for the Word of the Lord with the help of God’s Holy Spirit:
There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.
For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed, indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit who dwells in you. (Romans 8:1-11)
My undergraduate degree is in journalism, which instilled in my heart and mind a love of language and a passion for carefully and thoughtfully stringing words together.
Plain and simple, words matter. Words hold power. Words motivate or deflate hopes and dreams, attitudes and behaviors. Words excite, inspire, and elate – even as they sadden, frighten, and intimidate. Words define our environment and our community. Words shape the spaces where we work, where we learn, and where we relax.
And two simple words in this morning’s Scripture lesson pack a spiritual wallop that’s nothing short of breathtaking: “In Christ.” We now live “in Christ.” The Holy Spirit of God in Christ abides in us.
Here’s what makes that so mind-boggling: Being “in Christ” brings a change in earthly being so grand and game-changing that the difference ought to be as obvious as the nose on your face. But it’s not.
Think of it like this: You’re sitting at a high school track meet, as I was on Friday afternoon. The stands are loaded with the full array of typical humanity: people who are white, a few people of color. You scan the bleachers and spy the tall and slender, the short and fat, and every nuance of body mass in between. Watching the competition are the young, the middle-aged, and the fully mature. And you’re likely able to surmise accurately a few things about these varied spectators based simply on what you see.
But the one thing you’ll never nail just by looking at someone is also the single-most important criteria of them all: Which ones are living “in Christ” and which are not. And, to the apostle Paul’s way of thinking, being “in Christ” is what really matters.
“In Christ” is a curious concept. You almost never hear such talk in other areas of life. For example, no matter who sits in the Oval Office, the president of the United States would love to be compared to George Washington or Abraham Lincoln as one of the best presidents ever.
But the most you’d ever expect any politician to say toward that end is that he or she tries to emulate Washington or Lincoln by embodying the same principles, character and integrity they did. Now, it’s one thing to say that you want to be like Washington or Lincoln, but it would be particularly astounding if you claimed to be “in Washington” or “in Lincoln.”
Or, in terms of faith, what would you make of a Muslim who claimed to be “in Mohammed” or a Jew who went around saying she was “in Abraham”? Just as you or I would ask someone to explain just how in the world he or she can be “in Mohammed” or “in Abraham,” so also should you and I be able to come up with something tangible in answer to the question of what it means to be “in Christ.” We’d have several ways of explaining ourselves.
First, “in Christ” could be a way of identifying with the ideals of Jesus.
We all have our role models in life. Most of us find notable figures past and present with whom we like to identify ourselves and whose core principles we aim to follow. A president of this country may hope to find inspiration and direction in the examples of past leaders like Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, or Roosevelt. A CEO might want to identify with and learn from someone like Microsoft’s Bill Gates or General Electric’s Jack Welsh to become a better executive.
Sometimes, people make unlikely choices of role models. The great Hindu leader Mahatma Gandhi, for example, took inspiration from the Gospel teaching of Jesus and found the symbol of the cross to be utterly moving. In some ways, Gandhi’s life inspires me, too. But I’d no sooner claim to be “in Gandhi” than Gandhi would have claimed to be “in Christ.” So, there must be something more radical about being “in Christ” than merely drawing inspiration from Jesus’s example.
Maybe being “in Christ” signals where you have placed your hopes.
If you say that you’ve got a fat wad of money “in stocks,” then you’re letting someone know the location of your hopes for a secure financial future. Before a battle, if a military commander tells the troops, “All my confidence is in you,” it’s clear where lie the commander’s hopes for victory. So too, perhaps, when we claim to be “in Christ,” maybe we’re indicating where we have invested our hope and confidence.
But this answer doesn’t seem completely right, either. After all, Paul doesn’t say that we’ve placed something like our fondest desires “in Christ.” Instead, Paul says we are completely “in Christ.”
So, being “in Christ” has got to mean more than just being inspired by Jesus or using him as some kind of historically interesting role model. And being “in Christ” means more than just indicating the place where you’ve made your emotional and spiritual investments.
Let me suggest that being “in Christ” means believing in and signing onto the new cosmic situation that Jesus brings about through his death and resurrection.
Thus, to understand what it means to be “in Christ” first requires that you believe Jesus makes a difference – to you, to me, and to the world – in some very real, extraordinary way. To be “in Christ” is to believe that what Jesus does in his death and resurrection turns the corner of world reality from darkness toward light. Because of Jesus, as another preacher proposes, the balance of power shifts in the universe such that the devil has ever since been losing ground and God has ever since been drawing all things back to the divine self.
To be “in Christ” is to believe that the person and work of Jesus results in a true change of world order – a change every bit as dramatic as the ousting of an evil dictator or the toppling of a corrupt regime, a change every bit as concrete as a new boss taking over a business and immediately instituting a whole series of new policies and procedures that benefit employees, customers and the community.
To be “in Christ” means consciously living within the new situation that Jesus brings. It means knowing that the powers of darkness are in retreat, that the devil is on the run, and that your life has changed as a result. You are operating under new management. There now is a heaven-sent power active within that makes you fully alive and always joyful.
The whole situation – the rules of the game and how it’s played – have changed, which opens possibilities you never before thought possible. Those new possibilities become real when you engage your ability of choosing to do right things instead of being stuck in a dismal pattern of ever and always opting for what you know is wrong.
For now, it takes a robust faith to be “in Christ” and to see the changes that Jesus has made – and continues to make. We still live “between the times,” in the already-but-not-yet phase of God’s Kingdom. That’s why the daily headlines still contain as much bad news as good news.
For the same reason, this is why we still grapple with sin.
But, if we really are “in Christ,” then those sins do not define us, do not cause us to give up on ourselves, for when you are “in Christ,” there is no condemnation.
That’s why it’s not so silly and strange to affirm that the Holy Spirit lives inside people who still sin. What you or I experience in our daily lives is really no more than a glimpse of what happens around the globe all the time: Assurance that this world belongs to the Lord no matter what. The Lord holds the world firmly in pierced hands and breathes out his Spirit upon it.
And because Easter is true, the balance of power has shifted decisively in the direction of God. Though some people still manage to spew dastardly words and perpetrate evil deeds, the world and all things in it still belong to God, even though it doesn’t always look and feel that way.
Of course, living in this new situation isn’t like an extended stay at a luxury resort. In no way does the Lord invite us to kick back, chill out, and bask in the gated, walled-off safety of the new cosmic order that he brings.
No, being “in Christ” energizes us and equips us for service, because displaying the lifestyle of grace and goodness “in Christ” is how we behave. And that’s when and how being “in Christ” becomes as obvious as the nose on your face. After all, the Spirit of God in Christ has given life to our mortal bodies in the here and now, and that new life needs to show up somewhere, somehow, someway. By grace, and “in Christ,” it most certainly does!
Hear Jesus calling with words that matter:
Let me control your mind. The mind is the most restless, unruly part of [humankind]. Long after you have learned the discipline of holding your tongue, your thought will defy your will and set themselves up against Me. Man [and woman are] the pinnacle[s] of My creation, and the human mind is wondrously complex. I risked all by granting your freedom to think for yourself. This is godlike privilege, forever setting you apart from animals and robots. I made you in My image, precariously close to deity.
Though My blood has fully redeemed you, your mind is the last bastion of rebellion. Open yourself to My radiant Presence, letting My Light permeate your thinking. When My Spirit is controlling your mind, you are filled with Life and Peace. (Sarah Young, Jesus Calling, p. 116)
May it be so – for you, for me, and for all of God’s people.
For where the mind is, so also will the body be.
Amen, and amen!
Pastor Grant M. VanderVelden shared this message during worship on Sunday, April 25, 2021. Scholarship, commentary and reflection by Scott Hoezee, Lewis Smedes, N.T. Wright, and Sarah Young inform the message.