Sometimes we need to use two opposites to help us understand a truth. For example, I am both a mother and daughter. Either one of those is not the whole picture. We say God is one and yet God is three. We need both to help us understand a puzzling truth, although they are opposites.
We can illustrate this ‘holding opposites in tension’, by … well … holding opposites in tension!
You will need:
- A rope, such as washing line or sash cord
- Two carboard tubes
- Two chairs with backs that a rope won’t slide off
- A hymn book
- Four volunteers
Place the hymn book on the floor in the middle of a large space. If you are doing this in church, you can use a (very) low table. Stand the hymn book on its opening side so that it forms a ^ shape, with the ‘tunnel’ running side to side.
Have two volunteers hold the tubes at about waist height, one at each side of the space and pass the rope through the tubes. The tubes are to make sure that the rope can only be pulled not lifted.
Give the ends of the rope to the remaining volunteers and challenge them to lift the hymn book by pulling on their ends of rope. They are not allowed to touch the hymn book and must only pull their rope, not lift it up. They may use any nearby objects or rearrange the ropes provided they end up threaded through the tubes..
One solution is to pass the rope under the hymn book, so that it sits like a saddle on the rope, then drape the rope over the back of two chairs placed either side of the table. This will angle the rope up and back down to the tubes, like a suspension bridge. Then the volunteers can pull on their ropes and the book will rise.
For this to work, we must use both the opposites, held together.
All of our readings through Lent so far have be encouraging us to take a long, hard look at ourselves, and to gain a realistic perspective of who we are, what we are, even where and when we are. And in all those matters we have contrasting answers that we must hold in tension (that’s theology-speak for both are true even though they are opposites).
Who are we? We are sinners and we are saints.
What are we? We are dead and we are alive.
Where and when are we? We are here, and we are there. We are now, and we are not yet.
We are sinners and we are saints. Both are true and it is important that we recognise and accept both. ‘If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.’ We are, I am, certainly sinful, but praise God, that is not what defines me. I have done wrong stuff. I have made bad decisions that I look back on with regret and embarrassment, but that is not what defines who I am. ‘In righteous robes I don’t deserve, I live to serve your majesty.’ I am both a sinner and saint because I live in both the now and the not yet.
If we emphasise the sinner and ignore the saint, we risk denying the power of Christ’s saving work for even ‘a wretch like me’. If we emphasise the saint and ignore the sinner, we risk becoming like the Pharisee who was righteous in his own eyes.
We are dead and we are alive. The passage today says ‘For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace’ and ‘he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies’. Of course, through the work of Christ we are redeemed. Of course, in God’s wonderful mercy we are justified. Of course, in the power of the Holy Spirit we can live new life, freed from the dominion of sin. Yet still…
Yet still we fall and fail. I will admit it: my mind is not always set on the Spirit and life and peace. Sometimes it is set very firmly on family squabbles and work worries and changing the toilet roll, because I live, as we all do, in both the now and the not yet. We are alive and renewed, yet still we live in bodies and in a world that are subject to death. The ‘changed from glory into glory’ isn’t quite there yet.
We are here and we are there, now and not yet. Like the expectant traveller: we have tickets in hand, but are not yet on board. So we live with the strangeness of two homes, two time zones. We are assured of what will be, but yet we live in the mundanity of what currently is. Our minds and visions flick between the then-and-there that is not seen, and the all-too visible toils and troubles of the here-and-near by. We must live in both. We cannot live on earth with no vision of heaven, else we become Dives, the rich man of Jesus’ story. And we certainly must not live in heaven divorced from the realities of earth, lest we become the priest and the Levite who ‘passed by on the other side’ for fear of becoming ritually unclean. While their hands were not soiled, their hearts certainly were.
And so we stand both humbly and confidently in the presence of our Lord, confessing that we are both sinners and saints, that ‘in the midst of life we are in death’ and committing ourselves to live patiently here in the ‘now’ while we prepare for there, just ‘not yet’.
Do you think of yourself as more a sinner or a saint? Whichever it is, ask God to help strengthen your understanding of the other. It is important that we see ourselves in the light of both truths.
Romans 8:6-11 English Standard Version Anglicised
For to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit who dwells in you.
English Standard Version Anglicised (ESVUK)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a division of Good News Publishers.