Our sermon series, “Roman Road,” continues with Part 9, in which we turn our attention to Paul’s words in Romans 8:12-25. Up to this point in Romans, we’ve learned that we have forgiveness through Christ. We’ve learned that we have no condemnation in Christ. All of this is good news. But in today’s text, Paul gives us the best news of all: We are children of God, heirs of God, co-heirs with Christ. We are part of God’s family.
For all these reasons, Paul says, we are debtors. But the debt we owe is gratitude. Gratitude ought to shape the way we live. Everything we do in life should spring from it.
Sermon Text: Romans 8:12-25
The following is my original manuscript.
As if Romans were ripped from today’s headlines, Paul writes in Romans 8:12: “So then, brothers and sisters, we are debtors.” And we Americans, who just spent a few weeks watching the President and Congress wrangle over the “debt ceiling,” are like, “No kidding!” I feel like comedian Jim Gaffigan, who tweeted last week: “Now that the debt ceiling issue is over, I wonder what the next national crisis I don’t understand will be.”
Well, I do understand enough to know that being deeply in debt means trouble. Paul compares being in debt to slavery, and it’s easy to imagine how that’s true. If we are deeply in debt, it’s as if the person or bank or institution to whom we’re in debt owns us, or at least owns a large piece of us. We get our paycheck and think, “O.K., before I can spend money on anything else, I know that I need to send this big chunk of my paycheck to Bank of America.” And Bank of America won’t be very forgiving if I try to explain to them that I just lost my job or that my child’s tuition came due or that I incurred some unexpected medical expenses last month.
No, the regular kind of debt we get into will be paid—one way or another. And Paul wants us to know that there is also a kind of “spiritual debt” for which many people are on the hook. It’s the debt that one incurs from living “according to the flesh.” This means living a self-centered life, resisting God’s grace and mercy, failing to follow in the way of God’s kingdom. Living according to the flesh is the way we naturally live apart from Jesus Christ. If we are “in debt” to that way of life, we can be sure that this debt will be paid in full—when we die.
Paul says, by contrast, that we Christians are debtors not to flesh, but to God. How is being in debt to God any different? If this debt is like other kinds of debt, we may be tempted to think, “God has forgiven me my sins and given me new birth and eternal life, so now I better start paying God back!” But that can’t be right: one of the most important themes of Paul’s letter to the Romans is that we are saved completely by grace through faith. If we had to pay God back, then what God did for us through Christ and his death and resurrection wasn’t really a gift at all! It might have looked like a gift, but it was really a loan. And we would still be on the hook.
Sometimes people give “gifts” like that, don’t they? They act like it’s a gift, but it ends up costing us dearly! My Aunt Mary is like that. She’s 85, and she doesn’t have internet access, so she won’t be able to watch the sermon online, and if you ever meet her, you can’t tell her I was talking about her, O.K.? But really… She once gave my sister Susan a precious family heirloom, an antique writing desk called a secretary. Do you know what I’m talking about? It’s a piece of furniture. I’m sure the secretary is worth a small fortune. When Aunt Mary gave this gift to my sister, Susan affectionately nicknamed it the “Mary-tary” in her honor.
So Susan was very happy and grateful to have it… at first. But see, then the phone calls started. Aunt Mary was calling to check up on the Mary-tary. Was Susan displaying the Mary-tary in a prominent place in her home? Was she keeping the cat and the dog and the children away from the Mary-tary so that it wouldn’t get damaged? Was she properly cleaning, polishing, dusting, and maintaining the Mary-tary? Did she know how valuable it was? Did she know how precious it was? Did she know it really belonged in a museum? It soon became clear that this Mary-tary was no gift at all. It came with strings attached. It was a loan—at interest. And Aunt Mary wanted credit for it. But Susan couldn’t have thanked her enough for it, praised her enough for it, honored her enough for it in front of others. She was always going to be on the hook for this supposedly “free gift.”
And the same would be true if we tried to pay God back for what God has done for us! Where would we even start? You see, there is no debt limit on what we owe to God!
Have any of you parents of young children out there done your annual back-to-school shopping? When I was a kid, I generally hated shopping with Mom and my sisters. It was about the most boring thing imaginable. I would have to find ways to entertain myself that drive my mother crazy—which I appreciate in a new way as a parent myself. In the winter, when static electricity was really bad, I would rub my shoes on the carpet of the department store and go over and shock my sisters. Or I would hide in the middle of those circular clothing racks, where no one could see me. Oh, my mom loved that!
But back-to-school shopping was always a little different. It was kind of fun. It meant new clothes. It meant new school supplies. It even meant getting a new 64-pack of Crayola crayons, which came in the box with the crayon sharpener in back. You know what I’m talking about! When I was a kid, we were lucky to get an 8-pack of Crayolas! Back-to-school shopping meant getting a new Trapper Keeper binder! It meant getting a new lunchbox. It meant getting the spiral-bound notebooks with R2D2 and C3PO or Spider-Man on them. One year it meant getting #2 pencils that had the names and colors of NFL teams on them!
In the days before Target existed, back-to-school shopping meant going to a similar store called Richway. And I loved Richway. I loved the smell of Richway. When you walked into the store, the scent was the perfect combination of Cherry Icee mixed with popcorn. Do you know what I’m talking about? And going to Richway always meant Cherry Icees! And while we there, Mom would buy me new comic books or records as a bribe for sitting still while my older sisters tried on clothes.
I hope back-to-school shopping is still like that for kids today, except I imagine it’s even more expensive now for their parents. One of my friends asked on Facebook about which graphing calculator she needed to buy. And I bet some of you parents have even bought a laptop or tablet computer for your kids, right? Do any of you students out there need your parents to buy you an iPad for back to school? Well, of course you do! Moms and Dads, come on… It’s for your kids’ education!
No, listen… My point is that back-to-school shopping, as expensive as it is, is just business as usual for us parents, one small expense among the hundreds of other expenses we have spend on our children each year. You kids are expensive! Did you know that? And you know what else? Totally worth it! Totally worth it! Most of the time, despite the fact that I’m an imperfect and sinful human being, I am madly in love with my three kids. Each of them in his or her own unique way is the apple of my eye. Lisa and I are giving nearly everything to provide for their health, safety, and welfare. We’re doing our best, most of the time, to provide for them a happy and loving home, and it’s totally worth it.
We give and give and give to our children, and guess what? When they turn 18 or 21, in spite of all this giving, we are not going to present a bill to them, saying, “You owe us this much for all the room and board and medical expenses and clothes and athletic fees and piano lessons and other living expenses you’ve incurred since we gave you life or adopted you—not to mention compensation for the occasional pain and suffering you’ve caused.” We wouldn’t think of doing that! They are our kids! It is our pleasure! We love them more than anything! Granted, we don’t have teenagers yet… But, parents, please tell me that love doesn’t change?
And if all this is true for us sinful, imperfect human parents, how is it not true for the God to whom we cry “Abba! Father!” We’ve already talked about how our sins are forgiven. And that’s good news. We’ve already talked about how there’s “no condemnation” for us in Jesus Christ. And that’s good news. But Paul goes even further in today’s scripture! Because the very best news of all is that we are God’s children now. We belong to God now—every bit as much as my three kids belong to me. But so much more more than that because we belong to a perfectly, infinitely, eternally loving Father! Amen? What a privilege it is! What a gift God gives us through his son! You’re a child of God! You’re a brother and a sister of Jesus! You’re an heir! You’re written in the will! You’re going to inherit something good beyond imagining! Amen!
But I need to say something else along these lines… I said earlier that we human parents give and give and give to our children, and we wouldn’t think about asking them to pay it back. But you know what else? We give and give and give, and the truth is that we’re not coming close to breaking even. In other words, the gift that God has given us through our own children is worth so much more than what we’ve given to them! How do we pay God, our heavenly Father, back for that? And you don’t have to be a parent to understand this. Children are just one gift among so many others that God gives us!
How do we pay God back for the pleasures of falling in love? How do we pay God back for the love and loyalty of true friends? How do we pay God back for good teachers and coaches who give so much of themselves to us? How do we pay God back for the joy of hard work and vocation and the reward of a job well done? How do we pay God back for sunsets and beaches and mountains and rivers? How do we pay God back for laughter and tears and dancing? How do we pay God back for music and great books and movies and poetry? How do we pay God back for the companionship of dogs and cats? How do we pay God back for this heartbeat that he’s currently giving us—for this breath that he’s currently enabling us to take? Politicians are always arguing about entitlements, but let’s be clear: We have no entitlements before God. We have no rights before God. God owes us nothing. Every good thing we have in life, every good thing we experience in life, comes to us as nothing but pure gift.
Many of you remember, I’m sure, the dying words that Captain Miller, Tom Hanks’s character in Saving Private Ryan, spoke to Private Ryan, played by Matt Damon. After nearly everyone in the unit dies in order to save Ryan’s life, Miller says to Ryan, “Earn this… Earn it.” And then we see Miller, decades later, near the end of his own life, at Normandy beach—asking his children and grandchildren, in so many words, if he did earn it—if he did live a life worthy of the sacrifice of all these men? If he did, in so many words, pay back the debt he owed? And his family, who doesn’t quite understand what he’s going through, reassures him. Of course he did, they want him to know.
And the movie is a powerful reminder to appreciate the sacrifices others make on our behalf, to live life to the fullest, to not take life for granted—and that’s a good message. But his family’s glib reassurances to the contrary, they got it all wrong. Because the truth is, no matter what Ryan did after the events of France in 1944, he would never begin to earn it. And that would be true even if Captain Miller and his men hadn’t sacrificed their lives for him!
Because the truth is that God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus the Messiah, had already given his life for Ryan. And that God the Son has given his life for you and me—that we would have new life, transformed life, eternal life. That we would be made children and heirs of God. That we would be liberated from the fear that this good gift of life would end at death—with so much of our life’s promise and potential unfulfilled.
We are debtors, it’s true. But the only debt we owe for all that God has given us is gratitude. And everything we do in life should follow from that. Are you grateful? How will you now live?