Beating Back the Sins of the Flesh
One of the great things about this blog will be getting to put up Sunday bulletin cover art that feels slightly less safe than the pictures that actually make it into your hands at worship. :)
This past Sunday the lectionary Gospel text was Jesus' teachings on divorce. I had just preached Megan Snell's ordination the Sunday previous and put a lot of energy into that sermon and I had a really bad cold and I just couldn't summon the energy to go there this past Sunday. I actually think that Jesus's teachings on divorce are important and that it's important to preach on them and give people the historical context that these teachings existed within. I think that the more the context is understood, the more folks can begin to understand what it really was that Jesus was saying NO to. I really think you'd need at least two sermons to make it safe to effectively talk about this difficult passage. There's also a bit in there on the gender binary - Jesus talking about how people were created male and female and that opens up a whole another can of worms that need to be dealt with for trans, gender queer, and intersex folks. And I just didn't think I had the time or the energy this past week.
I had been thinking about preaching a sermon on Character or Christian Virtue recently. And while speaking with a friend, Henry, on the lectionary reading he suggested that part of what Jesus is asking us to do is to sacrifice our understanding of what marriage is and turn it into a sacrament. It was an interesting conversation and it got me thinking about Christian virtue and sacrifice.
The Holy Spirit helped me to spit out a sermon on the Fruits of the Spirit, Crucifying the flesh, and what the sacrifices are that we might need to make to live into virtue. And it turned into a wonderful opportunity to also talk about the goodness of the human body and trying to heal the division between spirit and flesh.
Sermon manuscript text is below...
Our scripture reading this morning comes from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia. Let us now hear the word of God:
For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD
Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O God, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
Christianity is many things. And one the things that Christianity is is the religion of the Flesh and the Spirit. This is mostly thanks to our friend the Apostle Paul who wrote the letter we just read - and many others like it - in which he talks about “the Flesh.” In the original Greek the word is SARKS. SARKS. It’s like a Klingon curseword! And the way Paul talks about SARKS, it is exclusively negative. And it is absolutely opposed to the good, which comes from God, and Jesus, and the Spirit.
Let me highlight again what Paul said in the reading we just heard, “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.” Paul’s intense. He makes it very clear what his thinking is.
And if what Paul means to say is that the human body and the human soul are always opposed or that physical existence and the Holy Spirit are always opposed, or that what your body desires is always bad, I can’t agree. And I think that this dualistic view of our bodies and our existences is detrimental to our physical, emotional, and sexual health and often leads to unjust social hierarchies.
BUT sometimes Paul is right on the money. When Paul hears that the church in Corinth, for instance, is having disagreements over the Lord’s Supper, he goes off. The rich Corinthians are starting to eat and drink before the poorer Corinthians arrive to the Lord’s supper. The rich Corinthians are drunk and there is nothing left for the poorer Corinthians when they arrive and nothing is shared with them. So God’s table is half drunk and half hungry. Now in a situation like this, there’s nobody better than Paul to write an angry letter to the church in Corinth. He sees the situation for exactly what it is - a disgrace of appetite and injustice at a holy table.
Paul is an angry idealist. And he writes very personal letters. In fact, I think that when he writes a letter to a faraway church he’s really writing a letter to himself. I don’t doubt that Paul feels that HIS flesh is opposed to HIS Spirit. But I think that’s a Paul thing more than an absolutely universal thing. I get the sense that something happened to Paul or that he did something in the past that he was never quite able to get over. It seems like somehow it helps Paul to live out this struggle against the Flesh. We know, for instance, that before Paul’s conversion he persecuted Christians. He had them beaten, thrown into prison, and participated in executions and stonings. Paul was absolutely zealous in his persecution of Christians and on the other side of his conversion perhaps he has become absolutely suspicious of his own motivations and judgments - his own self.
And its stories like these - Paul’s indignation over the INJUSTICE of the communion table in Corinth and his own violent personal history - that make me think maybe when Paul says “the Flesh” he doesn’t JUST mean the BODY and its appetites. Maybe there’s a bigger picture that Paul is trying to get at and maybe there’s some value in stepping back to look at that bigger picture.
After all, another way to look at this whole mess is to declare with an incarnate joy that we Christians are the people of the Body and the Spirit. One of the most sacred and ancient tenants of our faith is that Jesus was resurrected NOT JUST AS A SPIRIT who pops in and out of locked rooms and sometimes isn’t recognized right away, but resurrected as a BODY that can be touched, a body that eats and drinks, a body that breathes.
There were some early Christians who believed that this physical world was so inherently corrupt that Jesus couldn’t have had a physical body - it would be like matter and antimatter coming together - Ba-BOOM. But the view that won out was that Jesus was fully flesh and fully spirit, fully human and fully God, that when we look to Jesus we look to the reconciliation of the division between the sacred and the profane, between humanity and God. It all comes together inside the womb of Mary - physical, sexual, flesh and blood, Holy Spirit real. We Christians call the church the BODY of Christ. When we take communion, we EAT the Body and the Blood. Perhaps those of us who look to follow Jesus - to be the kind of person Jesus was - should work on being comfortable experiencing the Spirit here in the Flesh and allowing our Flesh to express what it is that the Spirit is doing.
Jesus was a toucher, a healer, a kisser, an eater, and he turned water into wine at a wedding where everyone had already had just about enough to drink. Jesus had a gift for finding the sacred in very unusual places – low, unacceptable, dirty, unclean, immoral, unexpected, common places – in the socially abandoned widow, in the fungus known as yeast or leaven, in the tiniest seeds of the unremarkable mustard plant, by the well where the outcast women lingered, amidst contagious lepers, in the company of a corrupt tax collector, in the Sumaritans, in the Syro-Phoenicians, even in the Romans, in the meek, the mourning, and the poor. And he named as profane certain things that it was not popular, not even safe to call so – the Temple, attitudes about the Sabbath, certain interpretations of the Law.
If Jesus were here with us, he would lay his healing hands upon our bodies and we would feel his holy power inside of our flesh and our blood and our souls. And Jesus would say to us, “Your faith has healed your body. Now go and sin no more!”
So, let’s also be clear. Many of us - maybe all of us, I don’t know, you’ll have to tell me if this is true for you, but certainly it is not generally untrue, certainly its true for me - many of us have had desires, habits, or addictions of the body and mind that have not served us, have not served others, and have not served God. I think the human body in all its delights and pleasures and spectacles and feats is beautiful and sacred. But it is also a deep, complicated, sometimes troubled machine. We seem to have perfectly natural emotions and desires that don’t always serve us or the world. One of the great tasks of being a human is growing up and learning to control ourselves - our impulses, emotions, our selfish desires, our outbursts, our tantrums, our negativity, our tendency to violence. If you’ve raised children or worked with them, you know it ain’t always easy. And if you’re honest with yourself you probably remember a few difficult times when - even as an adult - you did not act with the self control you were capable of, that you were raised to embody, and in the process you hurt yourself or someone else.
At the same time, there have been moments when my body was more willing, and more wise than my Spirit. For Bonnie’s birthday I bought her massage classes for me to attend. She gets sore and tight in the back and sometimes after a long day of churchin’ it up I just don’t wanna massage no one. I don’t wanna! I wanna sit on my fleshy butt on the couch. But during massage class I discovered that it wasn’t my body that was unwilling to massage, it was my Spirit. And when I let my body take over and turn off my tired, exhausted spirit, my body can massage for hours.
I felt the same way when I went for the first run of the Spring season. I felt too tired and kept putting it off. But it was my Spirit that was tired out by Winter and shoveling and snow. And when I finally let my body run, it ran and ran for miles. My body felt like a dog I had just let off the leash and with each step my soul and my spirit felt more and more revived.
Perhaps when Paul advised us to crucify our flesh with all of its passions and desires, he meant something more than denying and torturing our physical bodies as a path to moral perfection. Carl Jung says the crucifixion of Jesus can be salvific in our lives not if we nail ourselves to crosses, but if we let go of our egos, the way Jesus let go of his. This is not to say that we should all be pushovers or that we should all be sacrificing all the time, especially not within systems of injustice that oppress people and recommend that they “take up their cross.” Instead, I think it means realizing that there is something bigger than us - and it lives and speaks inside of us! Inside of our body-souls. And if we can learn to get out of its way, to let go of our sense of control, importance, and significance, then that which is most holy inside of us, that which is most capable of transforming the love of self into the love of neighbor, that which is most whole and undivided by dualism, that which is most powerful, and meaningful, and true, and beautiful can rise up inside of us.
I don’t think that God wants us to sacrifice our bodies. I think that God wants us to sacrifice our sense of too-smallness and too-greatness. Jung would say that our egos are standing in the way of our true selves. Our egos are standing in the way of God. Our egos are standing in the way of resurrection. Sometimes we over attach to our bodies - we expect them to be perfect or at least better than they are. We want them to stay young, to never fail, to never change, to never die. And part of letting go of our egos means sacrifcing this idea that our bodies are everything and that if they only stayed young and healthy and beautiful forever that we’d be saved. But sometimes letting go of our egos means letting the body simply be what the body was made to be - letting it lead us toward our spirits and letting it incarnate our spirits and our true selves - the people God is calling us to be.
The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Can you imagine what love would feel like without a body to do the lovin with? Can you imagine what joy would feel like without a body to shout it out? Can you imagine peace without a body to take deep breaths with? Can you imagine patience without a body to meditate in? Can you imagine kindness without a smile? Generosity without an embrace? Faithfulness without a pounding heart? Gentleness without tender fingertips? Self-Control without a body to care for?
Beloved, there are nine fruits of the spirit here. Please pick one and commit yourself to working on it this week. Commit yourself to a fruit of the spirit with your whole body and soul. Let your self step out of the way and let the Spirit move through your body and practice that fruit in all you do this week - as you wake, as you eat, as make love, as you work, as you exercise, as you play, as you sleep. Amen.
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Jesus the Imagination
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