In all the New Testament, there is likely no section more mournful, more despairing than the latter half of chapter 7 of St. Paul's letter to the Romans.
There, Paul acknowledges that he is a slave to sin, that he cannot do the good thing he wants to do, but rather does the bad thing he hates. He goes so far as to seemingly absolve himself of responsibility - "It is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me."
Like the psalmist, he delights in God's law. But in his "members," he cannot live out that law. He worships God with his mind, but with his body, he is enslaved to sin. "Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death?"
If he were writing and thinking like a 21st century North American, Paul would be one of the most guilt-ridden people to ever walk the planet.
But in fact, he is a first century Jew. So it needs to be stressed that when Paul writes in the first person, he is typically referring to the whole people of Israel.
This makes the situation even worse. Not only is Paul enslaved to sin, so is all of Israel. God's law, the Torah, is the glory of Israel. But Israel is impotent to live out that law. Israel prays the Psalms and keeps the Sabbath. It is all for naught. Israel remains enslaved to sin.
Is there any way out of slavery? Paul's answer is an unequivocal "Yes!" "Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! . . . For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death" (7.25; 8.2).
If Romans 7 is the depths of despair, Romans 8 sets out the path of hope. Man left to his own devices - even if he knows the Torah - can only drown in sin. But the person in whom the Holy Spirit dwells has the fullness of life.
The darkest hour is just before dawn. When all seems lost, we can only surrender ourselves to the power of the Spirit. The door opens onto an amazing reality: "All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God" (8.14).
We are not only freed from slavery, we get to share in the very life of the king. Thanks to the gift of the Holy Spirit, we get to live with God, sharing in all his joys in the glory of his palace.
This is more than we have any right to expect. Considering our dissolute way of life, escaping condemnation would be a pretty good result. But to share in intimate communion with God, to call God "Father," . . . well, what can we say?
This coming of the Holy Spirit that turns us from sin to living in grace is not a one-time emotional event. It is not a warm fuzzy. Nor is it reserved for a devout elite within the Church.
The eruption of the Holy Spirit into our lives may well be accompanied by warm emotions. But at heart, it is a turning around of our lives and then a constant abiding of that Spirit who is infinitely greater than us.
At the Last Supper, Jesus told the apostles he would send the Spirit to be with them forever. "You know (the Spirit) because he abides with you and he will be in you" (John 14.16, 17).
The Holy Spirit is love. We know that love is present, not by fine words or soft caresses, but by its fidelity. If love is real, it will always be there, through good times and bad. If the Spirit is present, he will always be there, even if we do not constantly detect that presence.
But if when Paul talks about his enslavement to sin, he really means the enslavement of all Israel, then when he talks about the Spirit making us children of God, he is referring to the new Israel. He is referring to the Church.
To this point in our discussions of the Holy Spirit, we have taken the Church as the background. Now, we need to bring the background up front and see more clearly how the Spirit is present in the Church. We need to look more closely at the Spirit's presence in us, not just as individuals, but also as a community.