July 12, 2020 – The 6th Sunday after Pentecost: Proper 10A
© 2020 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here. Video of the entire service can be seen here. (Sermon begins around 21:30.)
Take a moment and pay attention to your breathing. Just sit there and breathe for a moment or two. In and out. In and out. Now take a deep, slow breath and then relax and let it go. Take another one. If you’re able, go ahead and stand up. Take a deep, deep breath and feel how it fills up your whole body—not just your chest but your abdomen, your belly. Take those deep breaths and pay attention to where they go. See if you can take a long, slow, deep breath that fills you all the way to your hips. Feel it as if you breathe all the way into your legs, right down to your toes. Feel how your breath fills your whole body. And, when you’re ready, sit back down.
Isn’t the diaphragm a wonderful thing? That dome-shaped muscle and tendon that sits up under your ribs, pulling down, creating extra space in your chest and, in effect, pulling air into your lungs in order to fill that space—in order to equalize the decrease in pressure that is caused by the increase in volume in your upper body. But have you ever thought about where that space comes from? Unless you’re a medical professional, have you ever considered what happens to your insides when you take a deep breath?
It comes from all that other stuff inside of you being pushed down and out in order to make room. That’s why it feels like you’re breathing into your belly—why your belly sticks out when you take that deep breath. It’s because your belly gets filled with all the other stuff that is being moved out of the way by your diaphragm. There’s no empty space inside your body. When the diaphragm pulls down so that you can take a really deep breath, it pushes your liver and stomach and spleen and all your other guts down so that your lungs can fill up with air.
The diaphragm is a sort of flexible wall that separates your thorax from your abdomen—your chest from your belly. And, in the ancient world, the diaphragm wasn’t just the principle muscle involved in respiration. It was also the barrier that separated your guts from your heart, your visceral emotions from your cognitive control. Why do you think we still say things like, “Trust your gut,” and “Follow your heart?” Back in the apostle Paul’s day, we understood that raw feelings came from your belly and what you did with them came from your heart and the thing that separated the two was that dome-shaped muscle and tendon upon which the heart rests and under which the guts dwell.
Paul writes, “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.” That seems reasonable enough. If you are a Christian—if you belong to the Spirit—then you should act like it and think like it. But what our English translation fails to convey is that the verb for “set your mind upon” (φρονέω) is a word that has as its root the Greek word for diaphragm (φρήν), not mind (νοῦς). So, when Paul tells the Christians in Rome that they should set their minds on the things of the Spirit, he’s not just telling them to think about godly things. He’s telling them to put their diaphragms in the right place. He’s telling them that, as children of God who believe in Jesus and who are possessed by the Spirit, they must align that thing that separates their guts and their hearts—their emotion and their thinking—with their true identity. He’s telling us that the Christian life flows from that place where our feeling and thinking come together—that we succeed in following Jesus when the Holy Spirit lives in that place where our visceral and cognitive selves meet.
In other words, we cannot be head Christians or heart Christians. We must be both. We cannot follow Jesus with our minds or our intentions or our choices until our passions and our motivations and our hungers belong to him, too. But that isn’t easy. It isn’t easy to believe in our minds what we feel in our core when there is so much struggle in our lives and in the world around us. We might know in our guts that God is in control, but how are we supposed to know that in our minds when the world seems to be falling apart at the seams? And we might be able to rationalize a belief that one day the One who made all things and made them good will bring all things to their perfection, but how are we supposed to feel that same confidence in our bellies when we can’t even make it through one day without experiencing all of the anger, resentment, selfishness, greed, anxiety, and fear that make God feel infinitely distant from us?
The way of Jesus offers a radical answer. Instead of suggesting that we must think harder or feel stronger in order to make ourselves true Christians, the gospel tells us that because of Jesus Christ we already belong fully to God. We just need to orient our diaphragms—our true selves—to reflect that fact. We can’t think or feel or act our way into a closer relationship with our Creator. Instead, we must embrace the closeness that has already been given to us. No matter how hard we try, we can’t make ourselves into the fully integrated people we want to be—people who think and feel and say and do what is good and right and beautiful. There is no exercise routine, no spiritual regimen, no mindfulness app that we can use to make ourselves whole. Instead, Christianity embraces the opposite approach to human nature. Our daily struggle to align what we think and what we feel reflects our complete and total incapacity to make ourselves the people we want to be. And, into that desperate need for wholeness, Jesus enters.
In Jesus Christ, God took upon Godself our sinful, broken nature—our flesh—in order that we might be set free from that brokenness and made whole, unified, integrated people—people who belong fully to God. The forces that once worked within us to pull us apart have been defeated by the death and resurrection of Jesus. Though a part of us still reflects the limitations of our human nature, our true identity has already been changed. We are no longer subject to the powers of this world because we belong completely to God. In Christ, we are made whole, and, in this life, that wholeness is enabled by the Spirit that dwells within us. When that Spirit takes over—when we get out of the way and let God do God’s thing within us—we become wholly available to God and God’s work in our lives and in the world around us. We become the people whom we were created to be—the people whom God has restored to union with Godself in Christ Jesus.
You job isn’t to try to do what God has already done. You can’t make yourself whole any more than you can make the world a perfect place. And you can’t make yourself a child of God any more than you can make yourself a child of whomever your earthly parents may be. But you can recognize what God has already done in your life. In Jesus Christ, you can see that you already belong fully to God. Even in a broken world and even while inhabiting an imperfect body, you can recognize your true identity as one who belongs to God and one in whom God’s Spirit dwells. Set your mind on that. Set your mind and your heart, your thoughts and your passions, your dreams and your hungers on the Spirit that dwells within you. Breathe that truth in deeply. Feel it fill not only your chest but your belly as well. And let your whole self—that being within you where your guts and your heart meet—be taken over by the Holy Spirit.