Alternative Reality

Romans 8:1-11

Periodically I call one of my sisters to have what we call a “reality check.”  It can be about our perception of something going on in the family, in the community, as well as sometimes, in the world.  The most frequent topic is something someone has said or done that seems completely disconnected from reality.  The “check-in” phone call is to make sure it isn’t that I’ve disconnected from facts and actual circumstances and need to adjust my take on the situation.  Sometimes I do have to make that adjustment, but more frequently, I am reminded that perceptions, definitions, priorities can cause us to understand reality differently.

Books, radio programs, television programs, and movies offer up their own kind of reality.

Books come to us in the form of: Fiction and Non-Fiction – Fantasy or Fact.   All presenting alternative realities based on goals, audience, and understandings.

A “Vegan” cookbook is as accurate as a “How to Cook Meat to Perfection” cookbook.  But the second is an unlikely choice for someone who has made a decision to eliminate all animal food items from their diet.

A Documentary on President Jimmy Carter produced by Habitat for Humanity may present something entirely different from a documentary on President Carter produced by a military hostage negotiator who specializes in foreign countries.  Both documentaries may be filled with fact-checked information, and yet give a very different reality of who President Carter is.

Star Trek brought us the Nook and Kindle before we had the technology to create them.   Like many science fiction books and movies – Sometimes fantasy becomes reality.

There are fact-checked researched news programing and “talk radio” with opinions flowing that may or may not be based on facts or facts taken in context.   Many television programs: those lifting the disclaimer that they do not depict any particular person or event – those promoting themselves as reality – as well as some labeled “news” – often blur the lines between entertainment and presenting accurate portrayals of people and events.

The Handmaid’s Tale, a book written in 1986 and revised in a new Hulu series, gives us a look at a possible reality if a certain set of circumstances are in place.  In some ways a cautionary tale, similar to 1984 by George Orwell.  Fiction lifting the possibilities of future realities if particular paths are taken.

There are alternative realities.  Realities authors and playwrights create.  Realities I live – realities you live.

So many realities I think we all need “reality checks” on a regular basis.  Apostle Paul offers us reality checks throughout the Book of Romans, and in particular in this passage.

The Message by Eugene Patterson shares this passage this way:

Romans 8:1-11The Message (MSG)

“The Solution Is Life on God’s Terms

8 1-2 With the arrival of Jesus, the Messiah, that fateful dilemma is resolved. Those who enter into Christ’s being-here-for-us no longer have to live under a continuous, low-lying black cloud. A new power is in operation. The Spirit of life in Christ, like a strong wind, has magnificently cleared the air, freeing you from a fated lifetime of brutal tyranny at the hands of sin and death.

3-4 God went for the jugular when he sent his own Son. He didn’t deal with the problem as something remote and unimportant. In his Son, Jesus, he personally took on the human condition, entered the disordered mess of struggling humanity in order to set it right once and for all. The law code, weakened as it always was by fractured human nature, could never have done that.

The law always ended up being used as a Band-Aid on sin instead of a deep healing of it. And now what the law code asked for but we couldn’t deliver is accomplished as we, instead of redoubling our own efforts, simply embrace what the Spirit is doing in us.

5-8 Those who think they can do it on their own end up obsessed with measuring their own moral muscle but never get around to exercising it in real life. Those who trust God’s action in them find that God’s Spirit is in them—living and breathing God! Obsession with self in these matters is a dead end; attention to God leads us out into the open, into a spacious, free life. Focusing on the self is the opposite of focusing on God. Anyone completely absorbed in self ignores God, ends up thinking more about self than God. That person ignores who God is and what he is doing. And God isn’t pleased at being ignored.

9-11 But if God himself has taken up residence in your life, you can hardly be thinking more of yourself than of him. Anyone, of course, who has not welcomed this invisible but clearly present God, the Spirit of Christ, won’t know what we’re talking about. But for you who welcome him, in whom he dwells—even though you still experience all the limitations of sin—you yourself experience life on God’s terms. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if the alive-and-present God who raised Jesus from the dead moves into your life, he’ll do the same thing in you that he did in Jesus, bringing you alive to himself? When God lives and breathes in you (and he does, as surely as he did in Jesus), you are delivered from that dead life. With his Spirit living in you, your body will be as alive as Christ’s!”

Realty in two forms: Those who think they can do it on their own; those who trust God’s action in them.

Everything in The Handmaid’s Tale is about what humans do for God to earn God’s favor and forgiveness.  The reality described in its pages is one of black and white, pick a particular scripture out of context to support a political agenda to correct am issue as a particular group of people see the problem.  It is a world in which God is angry with humankind, just waiting for humans to mess up, in which God sends out human spies and leaders to keep people in line and punish them when they stray from the determined norm.

The reality of the world to which Paul writes the letter to the Romans is not the world of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the role of Law in relationships between God and humankind is reflected in both the fictional world of The Handmaid’s Tale and the unique problem in a unique time and place of The Apostles Tale in Romans.

Historically, a large number of Jewish people living in Rome were forced to leave in the late 40s CE.  Under a change in Roman leadership, that expulsion was reversed and people of Jewish descent returned to their home city.  The new community of faith following Jesus had seen an increase in the number of Gentiles coming to believe in Christ and there was a question within the community of faith as to whether it should continue to concentrate on winning Jewish people to Christ or concentrate on the Gentiles.  Early in Romans Paul makes his position clear as he writes, “God’s power for salvation to the Jew first and also to the Greek.”[1]  For Paul, all meant all, so the Christians in Rome were obligated to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ to Jews and Gentiles alike.[2]

It wasn’t as simple as this indicates because the Gentile Christians and Jewish Christians had, in some ways, two distinct realities created by their cultural traditions and practices, including what food they could or could not eat.  Later in Romans Paul acknowledges practical differences, noting that there are things about which people of faith can disagree, but that these differences should not hurt the community’s worship of God or life together in Christ.[3]

We are also living in a time when people who follow Jesus come from a variety of traditions which impacts their sense of what living out their faith and worship looks like.  It can be true even within one geographic community, as it was in Rome.

In the passage this morning, Paul does not describe God as the divine judge waiting in the wings to punish those who do not follow a list of specific regulations as is the case in the fictional world of The Handmaid Tale.  Paul doesn’t’ suggest that God is choosing one side or position of faith over another.  Saying instead: “For there is 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 death.”[4]

In one reality, followers can focus on the Law – the rules and regulations and push themselves and others to follow the letter of the law through guilt.  In this reality, sin and death are in control because sin is stronger than the Law’s commands.  It is focused on self, and what self can do to fulfill the law, what self can accomplish.  It easily opens up to choices which are controlled by passion or envy or pride or ambition.  In this reality, self, rather than God, becomes the focus.

In another reality, followers can focus on God – looking for God’s grace in their own lives and extending it to others.  In this reality, Christ’s death and resurrection allows followers to live “in Christ,” in a grace-filled, new world where life is in charge.  Walking according to the Spirit sets a person free from the power of sin.  Followers who are in Christ bear spiritual fruit, practice their faith in all areas of their daily lives.  Others are drawn to Christ as they see followers making choices and communicating the desires and dictates of God’s love.

God living in us enables the transformation not only of who we are, but the transformation of the world.

Those who choose the reality that focuses on God have the strength to get through every day not matter what it brings.  We don’t have to worry about either yesterday’s sins or tomorrow’s sins, because we are assured that we are forgiven.  Earlier in the Book of Romans, is the discussion followers have with Paul about God’s grace as it relates to messing up and why we need to try to live a holy and sinless life.  Paul answers that God’s unlimited grace should not a reason to sin more, but an inspiration to us to learn to walk in the Spirit of the one who has saved us, the Spirit of life and peace, because walking in the Spirit of Christ is a better way to live.

I choose the reality that is God-focused, that gives me strength to face whatever comes, in the knowledge that in Christ I am forgiven when I fall short and that I have all the power and resources I need to reflect more and more the Spirit that dwells within me.

As believers in Christ Jesus, as those who seek to live in Christ and be God focused, it is the reality you can claim.  It is the reality that is filled with abundant life.


1] Romans 1:16 NRSV

[2] Dawn Chesser, Preaching Notes The Apostle’s Tale

[3] Romans 14:1-12

[4] Romans 8:1-2 NRSV

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