Flesh and Spirit
N.T. Wright says, “Paul is using letters to teach his churches not just what to think, but how to think,” (Paul, A Biography, p. 274). And so we are being taught too!
Now the deeds of the flesh are evident, which are: immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, factions, envying, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, of which I forewarn you, just as I have forewarned you, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also walk by the Spirit. Let us not become boastful, challenging one another, envying one another. Galatians 5: 19-26
For the mind set on the flesh is death, but the mind set on the Spirit is life and peace, because the mind set on the flesh is hostile toward God; for it does not subject itself to the law of God, for it is not even able to do so, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God dwells in you. Romans 8: 6-9
Flesh: Paul is referring to the Greek word sarx, not soma. Soma simply means body, but sarx is the whole person. Even more so, it is the whole person that is the little (or partial) self: trapped, insecure, wounded, broken and attention-seeking.
Spirit: The Greek word is pneuma, or God’s power in itself, and as he shares it with those who believe. At the same time, spirit is our true self, knowing and trusting in God’s love. As we empty and open ourselves to spirit, we become more whole, more connected to God and more of who God intends for us to be.
In baptism, we die to the little self (flesh, like circumcision) so we may rise to spirit and live in Christ (Christ-ening).
This makes it sound like flesh is bad and spirit is good, but there is more here. Realistically, we can’t get out of our flesh. Richard Rohr connects sarx with ego. He says, “Sarx or ego is the self that tries to define itself autonomously, apart from spirit, apart from the Big Self in God. It’s the tiny self that you think you are, who takes yourself far too seriously, and who is always needy and wanting something else. It’s the self that is characterized by scarcity and fragility—and well it should be, because it’s finally an illusion and passing away. It changes month by month. This small self doesn’t really exist in God’s eyes as anything substantial or real. It’s nothing but a construct of your own mind. It is exactly what will die when you die. Flesh is not bad, it is just inadequate to the final and full task, while posing as the real thing. Don’t hate your training wheels once you take them off your bicycle. You should thank them for getting you started on your cycling journey!” (www.cac.org for 4/6/18). He ends his reflection saying, “The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!” Our faith journey is a fluid movement from flesh to spirit. But it is messy!
“The relationship of Jesus to the Spirit is central to Paul’s thought. The Spirit is, for Paul, simply the power of the risen Jesus, as he establishes his lordship in and through Christians. This lordship is itself a gift – in fact, it is THE gift. The power of Jesus takes over and assumes control in such a way that the individual becomes the one through whom the lordship of Jesus Christ is extended throughout the world, “ (J. Dwyer, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, p. 78).
So what does this mean for us? We become robots and just succumb to whatever God’s will is? No, it is a partnership. We must say yes to it. We participate in the relationship.
Margaret Silf talks about a way of participating in Inner Compass. See the image. The center is Spirit. “When I move inward toward the center of myself, I move closer to the person I most truly am before God,”. It is there we grow our Godseed. “Discovering the Godseed in our hearts, noticing the golden threads of meaning in our own life’s journey, and becoming increasingly aware of God’s continuing presence in our lives and in everything and everyone we encounter are just a few of the possibilities for opening ourselves up more and more to this unconditional love, even as we stand face-to-face with the nature and extent of our own fallenness and the fallenness of all creation,”.
“What you seek is what you are. The search for God and the search for our True Self are finally the same search.” R. Rohr
2nd Reading: Philippians 3: 8-14
The word ‘rubbish’ is skubala, which has 2 meanings. It can mean that which is thrown to the dogs, but medically it can mean excrement or dung. So then Paul is saying, “All my life I have been trying to get into right relationship with God. I tried to find it by strict adherence to the Jewish Law; but I found the Law and all its ways of no more use than the refuse thrown on the garbage heap to help me to get into a right relationship with God. So I gave up trying to create a goodness of my own; I came to God in humble faith, as Jesus told me to do, and I found that fellowship I had sought so long,” (Barclay’s Daily Study Bible Series, p. 62).
In knowing what we now know about flesh and spirit, perhaps this could be interpreted as moving from a life in the flesh to a life in the spirit, a life in Christ Jesus.
Notice that we are not called to perfection…we will never get there in this life. We are called to continue our pursuit in Christ with great hope! As in Thomas Merton’s prayer, “…the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You does in fact please You.”