“Curved in on Ourselves”

“Curved in on Ourselves”

Dear People of God,

It is certain we live in a divided world. It seems around every corner there comes something that seeks to pull us apart. Sadly, we are quick to succumb. Especially on social media, but in our day even at the grocery store we become aggravated with each other. We have indeed become incurvatus in se. The ol’ Lutheran term for “curved in on ourselves.” When we are in this condition, we are rigid. Easily angered. Easily offended. Easily self-righteous—looking to our own interests above all other things.

We’ve curved so far into ourselves we don’t care a bit about the well-being of our neighbors. Clearly being curved in on ourselves is evident with stuff like wearing masks and social distancing. The powers that be have drawn up the dividing lines—dividing us from one another—when in fact such things we should unite around. At least, this is true for those who follow Christ and wish to love their neighbor. A useful way to think about this is as Martin Luther put it, “We conclude that Christian individuals do not live in themselves but in Christ and their neighbor, or else they are not Christian. They live in Christ through faith and the neighbor through love.” With this statement you can see how we as Christians are always being curved away from ourselves and directed to Christ and to our neighbor. Because Christ took human form and became a slave for us, how great is our motivation to be slaves to our neighbors! Especially in this time of pandemic when there is so little else we can do, the least we can do is wear a mask and social distance for the benefit of our neighbor. As Christ laid down his life for us, we are called to lay down our lives for others. It means we must put aside our pride, and lift high the vulnerable in our midst—whether that vulnerable person has diabetes, cancer, weak lungs, or an old heart. God wants us to do our part to sustain the life of others.

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As the Fifth Commandment states, “You shall not murder.” The wider meaning of this commandment means that if we have the ability and means to protect our neighbor and we choose not to, then we have murdered that person. Many Americans have been murdered in this way the last few months.

Let us consider how St. Paul informs our faith. He wrote, “For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a Spirit of adoption” (Rom.
8:15). Here Paul mentions a slavery of a different nature than what I mentioned earlier. This is a slavery of fear. He is talking about life apart from Christ. Before Christ lives in our hearts we live “according to the flesh” (Rom. 8:13). It is a life ruled by sin. It’s a life where we think we are the Sovereign One and forget that God is the Sovereign One—“there is no other rock” (Isa. 44:8).

When you are in the spirit of slavery you think you are the only person you can trust. And, therefore, once again, you become curved in on yourself. We call this the old creature. As long as we live the old creature hangs around our neck, and so we must battle with sin and fear all our lives. The spirit of slavery that possesses us refuses to do good to their neighbor unless forced to do so.

Because all people, whether Christian or not, have an old creature, God must act to restrain the old creature. If God did not do so, we’d all end up killing each other. That’s why God is active in the temporal realm through governing authorities. For example, that’s why there are speed limits on our roads—so that we are less likely to cause an accident.

St. Paul also speaks of the Spirit of adoption that we have. Now this differs from the spirit of slavery in that the Spirit of adoption is the inheritance of Christians alone. In the sacrament of holy baptism God gives us his Holy Spirit. It is this Holy Spirit who drowns the old creature and lifts up the new creature from scratch, through faith. When we have the Spirit of adoption, we no longer do things because of fear. When it comes to loving our neighbor we do so spontaneously. Freely. To do this God is active in the spiritual realm through the church. That is, through the gospel of God’s grace made known in Jesus the Christ. A Christian turns in faith to Christ and in love to their neighbor. It is not done by compulsion, but is simply what the new creature born in us by baptism does. So, a Christian has true freedom. A Christian person is truly free, and when such a person is truly free, they willingly submit themselves to their neighbors—and cheerfully serve them in all their needs. That is the freedom of a Christian.

To apply it to our current context of the pandemic, perhaps the average person needs to be compelled to wear a mask for the benefit of their neighbor. And also for us, insofar as the old creature, the spirit of slavery, dominates and controls us, we may need to be compelled. But for the Christian person, who has the Spirit of adoption, it is no longer fear or compulsion that drives us to love our neighbor in this way, but simply freedom. Meaning we wear a mask and social distance freely, willingly, and cheerfully, because we are so filled with all good things in Christ, we can’t help ourselves but to serve and love others.

The Christian life is one lived by hope. Not by things that are seen. We await the redemption of our bodies—that one day we will be rescued from this body of death. At the end of the age (Matt. 13:39) you will have a new body, a new heart, and a new mind. This has already begun in your baptism. Luther says that death is the completion of baptism. In your death finally the old creature in you dies completely—and your new risen self will be free of all shackles and all suffering. In the time of our weakness all we can do is cry out, “Abba! Father!” (Rom. 8:15). For we have nothing good in ourselves to brag or boast about. We are without exception entirely dependent on God for all things. Be happy, then, when you cry out for God’s mercy. For it the very Spirit witnessing you that you are a child of God. And, if a child, then an heir of God, and joint heirs with Christ—if, in fact, you suffer with him so that you may also be glorified in him (Rom. 8:17). You can be assured that you have all good things in Christ, for it is he himself who died and rose for you, to free you from fear, and feed you with his Word—his promise that nothing in all creation can separate you from God’s love in Jesus Christ.

In this time of uncertainty, division, and fear, remember that God is faithful, his Spirit will lead you—through the Word. As it is, our present suffering is nothing compared to the glory about to be revealed (Rom. 8:18). Take heart, dear people. For Christ is with you. He will make you “shine like the sun in the kingdom of your Father” (Matt. 13:43).

Pastor Levi Powers
Mount of Olives Lutheran Church
Rock Springs, WY