Sermon - Ordinary 15  Year A - | DB Home | RCL Resources Index |

Flesh and Spirit

What do you think? Is human nature inclined towards God? Or, is it opposed? Do you think humanity seeks union with its Creator, or separation?

These are basic issues, affecting our attitudes on many other questions. For example, what do you make of the popular psychology emphasizing human autonomy, self actualization, or the human potential movement? Freedom to chart our own future and live the kind of life we choose to live is one of highest values many of us can imagine. Is such striving for personal fulfilment and satisfaction realistic? Is it well founded on the nature of human beings, or does the search for self knowledge and personal fulfilment by looking within ourselves, rest on false assumptions? Is it inspired by false hopes, or has traditional Christian religious teaching had a view of humankind that is too pessimistic? Do you think people are deluded when they seek that which is divine within themselves? Should we all explore our own spirituality? And, if we do, does it, necessarily, have anything to do with God anyway? And then, what do you think of the idea, commonly put forward in the media as if it were a self evident truth, that spirituality is a positive good in human life, while religion is a bad thing, negative and restricting? Or is the preference for spirituality just another way of promoting alternatives to Christian beliefs, nothing more than another religion? Or are we missing something if we fail to take notice of this popular movement? We might well agree that we are spiritual beings, and consider that for Christians that means that whatever our shortcomings we do have power to relate to other spiritual beings. Whether that is always for the good, is another matter.

What do you make of the resurgence of paganism in Western society, perhaps more popular in the nineties than since, in which what were once called primitive religions have been explored and attempts made to revive pagan religious practices? For example, you might have noticed news reports about crowds gathering at Stonehenge in Britain so that they could celebrate the summer solstice with a ritual modeled on their idea of what the Druids did long ago among the ancient stones, even if it is really a modern fantasy. Does it have anything to do with the idea that human beings have a natural spirituality, giving them an affinity with all natural things, the rising of the sun, the phases of the moon, and the growth of plants and animals? Do you see anything religious about the activities of people devoted to the environmental movement? Why do you think people in Australia and North America are seeking to gain a deeper understanding of Aboriginal spirituality? No doubt there are good reasons of social justice and plain neighbourliness for us to know the culture of the original inhabitants of our lands better, and we are doing better at that, but are people seeking something for themselves, some secret knowledge, long hidden, buried under a load of traditional Christian beliefs in what was once the dominant culture and which continues to have a major influence on our society?  In Australia it needs to be remembered that the majority of Aboriginal people are Christians, in about the same proportion as the rest of the population, so that when you meet in worship with an aboriginal community, especially in the North as I have, you may find a different kind of spirituality that is another expression of Christian faith, but the same faith differently experienced. Half of our ministers in the North of Australia are aboriginal. Those who seek lost pagan insights are saying more about themselves than the about the aboriginal people.

Well, if you think there is value in lost secret spiritual knowledge, in human spirituality and its affinity with natural things; and if you think that the ancient nature religions are a source of hope for humanity, then you share a great deal in common with the people amongst whom the early Christians lived; and you will be entertaining ideas like those which forced New Testament writers to think very hard about the meaning of the Christian message for the very kinds of questions we face today. The letters of Paul and John's gospel, in particular, represent at many points, quite sophisticated attempts to answer much the same questions then being raised as we now hear, concerning the natural spirituality of the life that is within us all and the value of seeking knowledge from it. 

If we come back to the original question and ask, is human nature inclined towards God, Paul's answer in what we read today from in his letter to the Romans appears to be No, we are not naturally inclined towards God, but rather to rebel and seek separation. When he contrasts being 'in the flesh' and being 'in the Spirit' he points to something in human nature that is opposed to God: the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; ... and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. (Romans 8:7a,8). Nevertheless if we look to the wider context of his writing he does recognize a desire to please God, but it is seen as a rather hopeless desire, for he says in the preceding chapter: 

So it is a little more complex than human nature either seeking God or being opposed.

Nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. So he wants to do what is right but something in his nature is against it: For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. These are some of the words to which Christians through the ages have referred, when they have spoken of original sin, that is the idea that we are predisposed towards evil, just as Adam and Eve rebelled originally in the Garden of Eden. The shadow of the old man Adam in rebellion against God darkens our lives, and the desire of Eve to have intimate knowledge of right and wrong through personal experience distracts us from the prospect of being fulfilled as children of God. Yet people do still know that they have that potential; they still aspire to communion with their Creator in whatever way they might understand God or not name God at all. They still have a sense of spirituality. So what do you think? Should we again bring back an emphasis on the sinfulness of humanity, and original sin, or should we prefer what one rather popular writer has called in contrast 'Original Blessing'? 

It as has been out of fashion to talk very much about sin, certainly of original sin, in liberal Protestant circles for several generations now. I remember the occasion, I think it was in 1959, when I went early to the Memorial Church at Harvard University to hear the great theologian Paul Tillich preach. You had to be early or you would not get a seat. Indeed the church was packed and many had been standing for nearly an hour by the time by time the white haired old man mounted the pulpit and said in his thick German accent, For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. {19} For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. {20} Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. Then he went on, "For thirty years I have avoided using the word 'sin', but I have come to the conclusion that I must use it." In 2008 that was almost fifty years ago, and none of us then had any idea of the tremendous changes that would come over Western Society and the church, not least in popular thinking about sin and human potential. Whether Tillich's call to use the word again because of this deep rooted character of humanity which no other word than sin adequately described was taken up at all by his listeners, I do not know, but since then the trend, at least in religion, has been in the opposite direction. The Protestant emphasis on individual choice and freedom has increased, nowhere more so than in the Roman Catholic Church, everywhere except perhaps recently in evangelical groups and in the Roman Catholic hierarchy. People in the West have generally welcomed talk of undisciplined spirituality which builds on the essential goodness of human nature and its potential, while they dismiss talk of sin as old fashioned, negative and limiting. 

History never repeats itself, but they say "Human nature doesn't change", so while our situation is different from that of the Romans to whom Paul wrote, we do still share with them many of the same basic questions about our common humanity. When Paul made his apparently dismal contrast between being 'in the flesh' and being 'in the Spirit' he was picking up a long term and inescapable struggle in which men and women have shared similar aspirations and disappointments across the centuries. Though I suppose most of us have not felt it as keenly as he did, some of us certainly have cried out with him, 

And there are still amongst us those who have rejoiced with Paul as they became aware of their escape (salvation) through faith:

That is the context for Paul's teaching about flesh and Spirit in Romans Chapter 8, which he introduces, not with despair born of failure, but the opposite: 

Only with that message of hope and freedom ringing in our ears, and after rehearsing the victory Christ has won over sin and death in the flesh, does he then say,

The emphasis is clearly not on the hopelessness of life 'in the flesh' but on the contrasting hope and comfort of life 'in the Spirit'. But what kind of a contrast is it that he is making? First, it is not principally about sex, which is what we tend to think of when we when think of 'flesh'. How we behave sexually is a secondary matter, relevant, but derived from something much more fundamental. Nor does 'flesh' mean only that which is material, as opposed to the spiritual. Neither Paul nor any of the New Testament writers, nor the Old Testament witnesses either, ever said that the material world was evil. There is no call to escape from things material to live a spiritual life. The contrast between the flesh of human nature and that kind of spiritual life in which people are related harmoniously and joyfully to God is more concerned with a conflict between two kinds of life in the material world.

We are not called upon to limit our thinking to the psychology of human personality as it was understood in a particular culture 2000 years ago, any more than it is part of the Christian faith to believe that the earth is flat, though we might reasonably expect that the ancients were better equipped from their experience to understand human motivation and behaviour than they were for the study of physics. Our task is to be able to discern from within the limits of their world view what they can pass on to us about God and his relationship to us, within the limits our understanding of the way the world works. Without using the same kind of language we can see that what we do and what becomes of us is affected by the kind of influences which can act upon us, and in particular whether we give allegiance to one source of power or another. For Paul the question was whether we were within the sphere of influence that he called 'the flesh', which is humanity in its natural but fallen state, animated by a life force which seeks extension of its own power in opposition to God; or we might say it seeks self-fulfilment and self-satisfaction as an independent, autonomous person. Sex can of course, though it need not, be one of the most powerful means of such self-seeking assertion of adult autonomy and it is often aligned with the influence of 'the flesh', but it need not be and it is only one of the means by which people can assert their control of their lives against any restrictions which might be put forward as the law of God or any other power beyond themselves. Against this Paul advocated the influence of the Spirit. To be 'in the Spirit' meant to be within the sphere of the Spirit's action, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, with its fruit of love, joy and peace instead of enmity and strife, in which, instead if being in a state of alienation, we are in a relationship of glad communion with our Creator; so, he goes on further in Chapter 8 to say: 

Do you see how strange that appears from the point of view of being 'in the flesh', for he is saying the very freedom sought by 'natural' striving for autonomy and self-fulfilment is a kind of slavery, indeed 'the spirit of slavery', whereas liberation comes from 'a spirit of adoption' in which those who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God

Much the same understanding of the liberating power of the Spirit of God, and the same contrast of being 'in the Spirit' compared with being 'in the flesh' is found John's gospel. John and Paul use a somewhat different psychology and world view, though John too uses the spirit-flesh contrast in his understanding of the teaching of Jesus. Instead on being 'in the Spirit', he speaks of being 'born of the Spirit' and being 'born from above': it is the same idea of being inspired by an influence that comes from God rather than from within natural selves. 

Then in Chapter 6 after the introductory lesson on the Eucharist, in which the flesh of the one who came down from heaven is offered as a source of new life, he says,

So the question becomes, do you listen to his words? In what sphere of influence do you choose to be? What inspiration do you welcome? What kind of life will you lead? With what power will your life and being be animated? For Paul as for John, coming under the influence of the Spirit was a matter of faith, or trust in Christ, of being 'in Christ', of belonging to him and being within his sphere of influence. Then we can rejoice with him: 

All glory be to him. Amen.
 

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APPENDIX

Note on 1 Corinthians 15:43-45 concerning spiritual and earthly beings

Paul speaks of the body that is buried in the ground as being like a seed with a life that is given a new body, as a plant is grown from the seed so a spiritual body is raised in glory:

1 "PHYSICAL": 5591. psuchikos, psoo-khee-kos'; from G5590; sensitive, i.e. animate (in distinction on the one hand from G4152, which is the higher or renovated nature; and on the other from G5446, which is the lower or bestial nature):--natural, sensual.

NIV etc. natural [body] cf physical; see also Psyche living body in next verse.

2 "BEING": living being: zao psuche

5590. psuche, psoo-khay'; from G5594; breath, i.e. (by impl.) spirit, abstr. or concr. (the animal sentient principle only; thus distinguished on the one hand from G4151, which is the rational and immortal soul; and on the other from G2222, which is mere vitality, even of plants: these terms thus exactly correspond respectively to the Heb. H5315, H7307 and H2416):--heart (+ -ily), life, mind, soul, + us, + you.

One way to see that it is not about material versus non-material aspects of life is to see how Paul speaks of life in the body when he talks of the Christian hope of resurrection. It is really quite odd because in 1 Corinthians 15, when he contrasts what is translated in the NRSV English as 'physical' with what is 'spiritual', he draws a parallel between a physical body and the the first man Adam on the one hand, and a spiritual body and the Last Adam (Christ) on the other. When he refers to Adam as like the physical body, Paul says Adam 'became a living being' and the word used there is from psyche, the same Greek root as we translate 'soul', or 'life' or 'true self'. It is not the material body that is contrasted with the spiritual, but the animated earthly body of human life which is in possession of breath or life from a spirit which is breathed in, and given up when a person or animal dies. So Paul contrasts the 'Old Adam', that is natural man who became a 'living being' [zoe-psyche] when God breathed into him the breath of life, and the different kind of inspired life that comes from Christ, the new Adam, who 'became a life giving spirit' [from zoe and pneuma]. Life in the Spirit is a gift of God in Christ, different from another kind of life, life in the flesh: it is not the flesh as material substance but rather the life that animates it which is different from the life in the Spirit which is life 'in Christ'. It still comes down to natural human life as a force which is in question. Paul sees it as opposed to God and the fulfilment of human potential which in contrast is fulfilled when we share a different kind of life, 'in Christ', or 'in the Spirit'.

One of the keys to understanding what Paul was saying about flesh and Spirit is that he did not share the Greek idea of an immortal immaterial soul in a physical body. In the way he explained the Christian hope, we believers in Christ do not rely upon, hope for or expect natural immortality of a soul which survives death, but rather body and soul were understood as a single entity, a living being, which was destroyed by death. For Paul, as for New Testament writers generally, our hope is not in the survival of part of ourselves, a soul, but in being raised to life with a new kind of body, which he called a spiritual body.

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