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After Pentecost (last Sunday) we traditionally pause to articulate and affirm the three-in-oneness of God: what we call Trinity. It’s less a moment consecrated to piercing theological dogmas, and more a time to breath in the mystery of God, reflect on the divine identity in order to grasp (even just a bit!) what God might want for us.
What we call the book of Romans is actually a letter of pastoral advice, including sermons, theological exposition and personal notes written by the apostle Paul to the church that first was in the ancient city of Rome in the 1st century or our era. Considered Paul’s theological masterpiece, it addresses the deep question of why are we how we are when we long to be more like God; and how then shall we live. Today’s selection comes from the climatic chapter in his writing and the development of his thought – let us live in the spirit even if we have bodies of flesh.
We can mistakenly rush an interpretation of the text when we assume that flesh means everything that’s about sex, epicurean overindulgence and evil; while spirit is everything that’s pure and good. Paul is reasoning, not how we do in our dualistic culture, but in that of the First Testament. Flesh evokes the fragility of our humanity. :
“All people are grass,
their constancy is like the flower of the field.
The grass withers, the flower fades,
when the breath of the Lord blows upon it;
surely the people are grass.
The grass withers, the flower fades;
but the word of our God will stand forever.”
– Isaiah 40:6-8
Flesh refers to everything that is fleeting, and ephemeral. It’s the human condition. It evokes the power which pushes humanity to seek to become like God in the hopes of overshadowing and hiding our fragility and fear. In Christian-ese we call this “sin.” This paradox of our condition is at the heart of the theological thought of Reinhold Niebuhr when he talks about “Christian realism.” Other philosophers called it moral realism. The idea at the heart of David Brooks in his recent book The Road to Character called it the “crooked timber tradition.” Paul describes it as doing what I don’t want to do, and not doing what I want to do.
Paul writes that the Spirit of God entices and induces us to accepting that we grow old, that we can’t possess and/or master everything, to be who we truly are with all of the limits of our human condition. The Spirit entreats us to live by the Spirit – to see the world differently, to recognize our limits and in that humility, repentance and honesty to be redeemed, liberated and resurrected.
One way to not live by the spirit is to let ourselves sink under the tyrannical power of the constraints, urgencies and urges of life. In doing so we choose the short term over the long term: lust, fear, vanity, gluttony; selling what is precious for trinkets, settling for fleeting , ephemeral things and ways of being, as opposed to those that are real, honest, authentic, godly, spirit-filled.
Paul says that our Hope in life is to be released from that imprisoning mindset and decision-making paralysis; to live in and by hope through the Spirit – yearning for what God wants for us.
Questions for going deeper:
Monty, your comments always bring a fresh perspective to scriptures that I’ve read over and over, all these years.
I realize now that the flesh is not in opposition to the spirit. The flesh is what all of us embody, even Jesus himself. The grass in the fields is what brings forth life for all of us, and yet, at some point, it withers and dies, but it performs its task- to bring life and color and seasons to the world that God created.
For me, as the flesh, it is to know that God breathed on me, through my genetic inheritance, through the faith that was given to me, and to the opportunities that I have to serve and worship and praise God in my life. The invisible but powerful breath of God on me, is what I seek to exhale as I live each day, until my days are done.