Fourth Sunday after Trinity Preached by Hugh Bryant 17 July 2011
Romans 8:12-25 - We are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh - for if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.
Romans chapter 8, from which this morning's lesson comes, is the most famous chapter in St Paul's greatest letter. It ends up in the triumphant words which I'm sure you will all remember, '. In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, not life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, not things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.' (Rom. 8:38-39) But what does St Paul mean earlier in the chapter when he talks about 'the flesh,' or 'the body'? 'If you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.' Or, as the New English Bible puts it: - '. Our lower nature has no claim upon us. We are not obliged to live on that level. If you do so, you must die. But if by the Spirit you put to death all the base pursuits of the body, then you will live.' So 'base pursuits', our 'lower nature', 'the flesh', deeds of the body': these are all translations of two Greek words, σαρξ (sarx) and σώµα, (soma) which occur over 60 times in St Paul's letters. They are key concepts in St Paul's thought. We might think that St Paul is standing up for a division between bodily, base, crude animal instincts and a higher, spiritual world - maybe something along the lines of Descartes' division between the mind and the body. But it's pretty clear that St Paul didn't have that kind of dualism in mind when he talked about bodily and spiritual matters. Look at what he says in Galatians, (5:19-21) 'The works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like .' The interesting thing about that list is that it's not all purely physical stuff. There is a list of what have been called 'social sins' (Ziesler, J, 1990 Pauline Christianity, Oxford, OUP, pp 77-80), sins of wrong relationship to others: enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, envy. None of those are physical things, so 'living in the flesh', living 'according to the flesh' and so on is not quite as simple as obeying animal instincts, following your physical needs and desires. The flesh, the body, in St Paul's thinking, also has a strong connotation of outward appearance, how someone figures on the scene. St Paul's idea of the body means, really, the embodiment of a person. The distinction which St Paul draws is between people for whom what they are, their embodiment, is a 'debtor to the flesh', owes an obligation simply to themselves, nothing more, between them and those who are enlightened by the Spirit. Bodies by themselves are not necessarily bad. In 1 Corinthians chapter 6, St Paul says, 'Your bodies are members of Christ.' Clearly 'bodies' means more than just physical bodies. It means who you are, you as people are members of Christ. In chapter 12 of Romans he says, 'You should present your bodies as a sacrifice.' It doesn't mean some kind of human sacrifice, but rather that we should dedicate our whole being, what we are, as a sacrifice to God. So this distinction between the body and the spirit is very subtle. Because the body in St Paul includes the person, what it is to be somebody, it's not just the flesh and bones. So why is it that living 'according to the flesh' is the way to death? Obviously it's trivially true that everybody's physical body eventually dies, but I think that St Paul has in mind something of greater significance. He's talking about eternal death, missing out on salvation and the kingdom of heaven.
The point about living according to the flesh is what it's missing. Living according to the flesh is missing the spirit. The Holy Spirit is not in someone who is living according to the flesh. Their personality depends on themselves. They're not inspired by divine warmth, or divine wisdom, or the love of Christ. Some people have gone as far as saying that St Paul thought of the flesh almost in the same way as he thought of sin. The key thing about sin, again, is what is absent; it is separation from, turning against, the love of God. You can see today what it is to be living in the flesh in St Paul's terms, and what the consequences can be. Just imagine what it might have been like to work at the News of the World. You are a smart journalist. You don't go to church. You expect people to get up late on Sunday, have a nice breakfast and read your newspaper instead of going to church. In your newspaper they will not read about great affairs of state, or literature, or music, or ideas. They will not read much about the famine and drought in Africa. But instead they will read about so-called celebrities and their sexual indiscretions. But you are in a market in which there are other newspapers trying to sell the same sort of story. Your bosses say that in the market they will only buy the News of the World 'if we have better scoops, if we can tell people even more than our competitors can.' So along come people prepared to sell private information, private information which has been gained by illicit means. All that you think about, the only thing that you owe allegiance to, is yourself, your flesh. You have to look after yourself. If you don't use this information, then somebody else will, and you will lose your job. What a lonely person you are. If only you had the Holy Spirit in you, the Holy Spirit of Christ. 'What would Jesus do?' the Spirit would say through your conscience. You would know that there is more to life than just your own self, your debt to the flesh. We might say, 'I owe it to myself to do xyz'. That's not really a Christian way of thinking. If you are listening to the Spirit, if you are led by the Spirit, you will not be alone. Listen for the 'still small voice of calm': you will be so much better off, and you will do so much better, for as St Paul has said, '. all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God.' (Rom. 8:14)
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