14th Sunday in Ordinary Time – Sinners Struggling to be Saints

Yoke of Oxen

Yoke of Oxen, Jean, 2010 (Flickr) Some rights reserved

14th Sunday of Ordinary Time
Romans 8:9, 11–13
July 5, 2020

My first course at the seminary in the Bible was impressively titled “Theological Anthropology in Scripture.” Unlike most portentously named academic course descriptions, this one actually reflected the material. It examined Genesis 1–11 and Romans 1–8. It was called theological anthropology because it explored how the Bible saw human beings. We explored how modern uses and assumptions did not always reflect what the Scriptures meant and were not necessarily superior. This is seen very clearly in today’s selection from Romans 8.

Look at the first lines of today’s reading:

You are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him
(Rom. 8:8–9)

Or the lines immediately before these:

For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God;
it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it;
and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

It is easy to believe that that Paul has divided the human being into two parts, the material, bad, and the Spiritual, good. This would have reflected the prevailing Greek ideas of the time. They were not what Paul nor the Romans believed. As Jews they would have understood and appreciated the modern philosophical statement that “we do not have a body we are our bodies.” We are not naturally immortal. Immortality means that the true and important part of us—spirit, soul—leaves the body at death. The body deteriorates into ashes, it was just a necessary shell. Jews and Christians believe that human beings are composed of “body and soul” and that we need both to be human. Thus we experience the resurrection of the body. This is the new life promised in the scriptures and can only be given by God. Paul recognized with unusual clarity that Jesus gives us this life now through the church, his body now and that even greater but still “physical” awaits us in the future.

There is no disembodied human. To speak of flesh (sarx) or spirit (pneuma) is not to speak of two separate entities which have been joined together, but two aspects of the same person. The flesh reflects our day to day concerns, the spirit our connection to God.

Romans 8 is so important that we will read from it for the next 5 weeks. It is an extended answer to a question from Romans 7:

Wretched man that I am!
Who will rescue me from this body of death?
(Rom. 7:24–25)

Paul’s answer is found in the first lines of Romans 8:

There is therefore now no condemnation
for those who are in Christ Jesus.
For the law of the Spirit of life
in Christ Jesus has set you free
from the law of sin and of death.
(Rom. 8:1–2)

The word the Romans would have most clearly heard was “in.”

He makes this clearer a few lines on:

For those who live according to the flesh
are concerned with the things of the flesh,
but those who live according to the spirit
with the things of the spirit.
The concern of the flesh is death,
but the concern of the spirit is life and peace.
(Rom. 8:5–6)

Living according to the flesh means living as if Jesus didn’t die, rise, and give us new life. We may say we believe, but we do not act on it.

Living according to the Spirit means that our actions flow from our relationship with Jesus. Putting our faith in Jesus is not getting the right words down but truly trusting in him.

Both assume an earthbound person but one who must decide who to trust most: themselves or Jesus?

This is admittedly a difficult concept. Paul will use Spirit of God, Spirit of Christ, and Christ as different ways of speaking about Jesus’ presence in our lives here and now. In the previous chapters of Romans, Spirit is used five times, in Romans 8, it is used 29 times.

This in itself would not be unfamiliar. He is self-consciously using biblical language. One example from Ezekiel:

I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live,
and I will place you on your own soil;
then you shall know that I, the LORD,
have spoken and will act, says the LORD.
(Eze. 37:14)

The prophet speaks of divine in-dwelling, not only can we not save ourselves but we must literally be in Christ and he in us. Paul previously wrote to the Galatians:

Yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me;
insofar as I now live in the flesh,
I live by faith in the Son of God
who has loved me and given himself up for me.
(Gal. 2:20)

The consequences of living in the flesh however are grave and dire:

The concern of the flesh is death,
but the concern of the spirit is life and peace.
For the concern of the flesh is hostility toward God;
it does not submit to the law of God, nor can it;
and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
(Rom. 8:6–8)

Now pleasing God does not mean that we always avoid sin. Ancient writers loved to create binary, either/or situations but understood nuance.

Paul accepted that he could be “in” Christ but still sin. His concerns might be godly, but his actions not match his intentions. Paul earlier said in Romans:

For I do not do the good I want,
but I do the evil I do not want.
(Rom. 7:19)

Jesus allows us to be imperfectly untied to him. He is always the good shepherd.

W.H. Auden, our onetime neighbor in Brooklyn Heights, expressed this memorably in his Christmas oratorio “For the Time Being”:

Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long

We should always try to live up to our baptismal responsibilities, but recognize that we will not live them perfectly. We are all “disobedient servants” needing God’s grace. We increasingly live in a “one strike you’re out” society for which mercy is weakness and forgiveness treason.

The great statue wars of the past few weeks have been a fascinating example of this. Equating Confederate Generals whose actions were by definition treason and commitments immoral with Christian missionaries who did not use means that we would approve today is dubious and requires far more deliberation than was shown. It reveals an attitude which does not allow for historical circumstances or personal growth. A dangerous road indeed. (Suggested parlor game: ask why are there no statues of General James Longstreet in the south? Easy answer: Should there be? Hard question. Look for further details here.

Cardinal Dolan in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal (June 28, 2020) noted that if we “couldn’t name churches after sinners, the only titles left would be Jesus and Mary.” We need to know the faults of the saints. They had tempers, could be as prone to pettiness as we are and did not demonstrate all the virtues all the time. St. Charles Borromeo, for instance, was a bit of a prig. Yet they were ultimately “in the spirit” and shared the new life of Jesus. This is hope made visible in stone or glass. They may have hobbled into heaven, but they got there.

Paul would well have understood a great comment on Catholic spirituality whose author I do not remember: a good Catholic is a sinner struggling to be a saint.