Harrowing Of Hell
July 12, 2020


The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

Let’s start this morning by taking a deep breath. Doesn’t that feel good to stop in the midst of this loud and complicated world to just breathe, in and out? Let’s together take one of those breaths that starts by filling the diaphragm and then lungs and moves up into our head. Now let it out and as you do so let it wash through your body. Now do it again, and again, just breathing in and out.

“The air we breathe,” Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote: “is the same air that the dinosaurs breathed.” How cool is that? With each breath we take we are connecting with all other species that have ever lived throughout all time. I love that idea. It sort of puts things in perspective. It reminds me how big and grand and old and robust this divine experiment we call life really is. And we are a part of it. We are in the midst of it.

It is by our breath that we live and move and have our being. It is our breath that allows us to walk in the world, and yet, as the Apostle Paul writes in his letter to the Romans: “We walk not according to the flesh, but according to the spirit.” It is not our feet that animate us, it is our breath. It is not our feet that decide where we go, it is our spirit.

The Greek word for breath is pneuma. It means the gentle movement that you feel when you breath in and you breath out, but pneuma also is the word for spirit, that animating force at the core of our being. It is our spirit that possesses the power of knowing and deciding and acting. It is our spirit that manages our thoughts and feelings, and tells our body what to do, and makes decisions about how we interact with our neighbors. Our spirit is our command and control center and it is through our spirit that we are connected.

So, breathe in and breathe out…our breath is a metaphor for this connection: spirit to spirit to spirit, swimming together in the vast ocean of the Holy Spirit. And yet, I wonder at the health of our spirit to spirit to spirit connection. As I look out at our world, I see what you see, COVID-19 ravaging humanity; and it is not lost on me that this is a breathing disease.

I recently heard the theory that if every person in this United States stayed home for three weeks, we would crush the Corona Virus, and the pandemic would simply be over. But we don’t because we are too caught up in the law of the flesh, but I’ll get to that in a minute. Because first I want to touch on a theme I talk about often: how we are living in the age of the Holy Spirit, as prophesied by Joachim of Fiore, and William Seymour, and Dennis Bennet, and Phyllis Tickle.

And if we are going to own the reality of this age; if we are going to navigate this moment in history that God purposefully put each one of us into; if we are going to thrive as spiritual beings having a human experience; then it stands to reason that we should seek to be in sync with the power and movement the Holy Spirit. So, breathe in and breathe out.

Today we are going to talk about how being in tune with our own spiritual nature is what allows us to be in sync with what God is doing in the world. The words of Paul we hear today in his letter to the Romans sets up our framework for thinking about our spiritual nature. He talks about a law, and how this law, when lived out, sets us free from sin and death.

The requirement for abiding in this law is to walk according to the Spirit, and to do that requires setting our minds not on things of the flesh, but things of the spirit. So that seems clear enough…maybe not.

It is tempting, as many have done throughout the ages, to condemn the body as bad and the spirit as good. We are not going to do that, because we know we are both things, flesh and spirit, and we know they are, at least at this moment in time, inextricably linked. That said, Paul is clear: prioritize the spirit…“For to set your mind on the spirit is life and peace” And who doesn’t need a little peace in their life right now?

There is a lot going on in the world, isn’t there? There is separation by pandemic; there is economic anxiety; there is the clear recognition of racial inequality; and there is a ton of political division and divisiveness. But, from all of this we are set free, according to Paul by the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus…so, breathe it in and breathe it out.

Paul sets the law of the Spirit in contrast to the law of the flesh. The difference between the two can be understood this way: the spiritual law is about connection and unity, and fleshy law is about separation and boundary. Let’s take a look at both, beginning with this fleshy body.

It’s our bodies that separate us. We know who we are by the boundaries of our flesh. We have names, and family trees, and stuff that accrues to us; and all this is wrapped together to give us an identity, and a sense of our self. And then Paul pushes the point further saying, it is this stuff that causes us to sin. It is our over attentiveness to our body that exacerbates our separateness. And ultimately and uniformly this prioritization of the flesh ends with failure…because all of the investment is lost, as the flesh inevitably fades away. Which is why Paul warns: “That to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the spirit is life and peace.” Breathe that in for a moment.

The law of the Spirit is about the connection of all things, tied as if at the sub-atomic level. And this unity reflects the nature of God, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, in perfect unity with each other because of their perfect love for one another. The law of the Spirit can be summed up in one word: Unity…so, breathe that in and breathe that out.

To live in the spirit requires understanding how our spirit works. It is more than air that moves through us, it is our command and control center. It is the place where we make decisions about the decisions we make. Paul reminds us that there is a distinction between the mind and the spirit. The mind, housed in the skull, is a funny and fickle organ, like Velcro or a sponge, whatever it encounters it soaks up. It is like a kid in a toy store, who plays with whatever they stumble across. It is the spirit, the command and control center, that should decide what the mind stumbles across; it is the spirit that acts as the adult who says, put that toy down, it is time to go. And sometimes to do that, to make  that request of the mind, requires that we breathe in and we breathe out.

To embody the law of the spirit requires that the spirit takes control over the patterns and wimps and compulsions of our fleshiness. It requires that we take control over what we put in front of our mind; what we watch, what we read, what we listen to. 

We are to ask our self: “What are the toys of separation and maybe even division that we give our minds to play with?” If you are not sure if what you put before your mind is good and noble, or discordant and divisive, then take the temperature of your anger. Maybe if you are quick to anger, you have to much invested in the life of the flesh. Maybe if you are argumentative, you have to much invested in the life of the flesh. Maybe if you are easily and often rankled, you have to much invested in the life of the flesh. 

And within the swirl of your mind, if there is anything that pokes and prods toward disunity, if there is anything that seeks to sow seeds of division, if there is anything that tries to divide and conquer, then it is not of the spirit. It has no place in the Kingdom of God, in the age of the Holy Spirit. (So, breathe in and breathe out.)

And if you hear in my words affirmation for your perspective; if my words cause you to clearly see the enemy, that person or group or  an idea that you accuse of sowing seeds of disunity, then tap your flesh, and ask yourself: “Is my priority really the unity, or is it something  else?” This is a hard call; because each of us, I imagine, believes that what we are doing, and how we are living, and what we are supporting is the right and good and noble thing to do. And maybe it is.

But if the battle you are waging is yours or ours or theirs, you may be missing the movement of the Holy Spirit; because what God is doing is always all of our…found in the unity. There is only one God, and we are all God’s children. And if for a moment you feel like you are forgetting this, then stop and take a deep breath.

Now I am not asking you to “go along to get along.” I am not asking you to acquiesce to the loudest voice, or the biggest bully. I am asking you to ask yourself: “Am I on the same page with the Holy Spirit? Is my spirit seeking the good soil of God? Do I even know what good soil looks like?” And if you wonder, then as you take a deep breath think of the least in the Kingdom of God, the disenfranchised, the outcasts, the marginalized, and what might they say to you about what they hope God is doing in the world. And if you can’t imagine, then go meet someone on the margins and ask them.

Right now, as Christians, and members of Epiphany, we are being called to sync our spirit with what the Holy Spirit is doing. And so, we must connect, even as we need to socially distance. We must be generous, though we face economic uncertainty. We must seek understanding, as we hear the cries of the disenfranchised. We must transcend the incendiary language of polarizing politics. We must be strong and clear and take a long, long term perspective that transcends our fleshiness.

Unity! This is our destiny, and it is why, you and I, were made for this very moment in history; to speak about the age of the Holy Spirit, and to lead by following our God…and as we do we breathe in and breathe out.