5th Sunday of Lent – Walking in Charity

Resurrection of Lazarus, James Jacques Tissot,
1886-1894, Brooklyn Museum

Jesus told her,
“I am the resurrection and the life;
whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live,
and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die.
Do you believe this?”
She said to him, “Yes, Lord.”
(John 11:25–27)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Fifth Sunday of Lent
Romans 8: 8–11
March 26, 2023

We return to Paul’s letter to the Romans. We have read this letter twice before this Lent and examined it in some detail during the summer of 2020. Indeed, most of this reading we saw before on July 8, 2020. We will use some of the same material today but focus on our Lenten themes and practices.

Today’s reading answered a question from the previous chapter:

Miserable one that I am!
Who will deliver me from this mortal body?

(Ro 7:24)

To our modern ears this may seem as if Paul is dividing the human being into body and soul: body, physical and bad, soul, spiritual and good, this reflected the prevailing Greek ideas of Paul’s time. Paul did not believe this, nor did his readers in Rome who were born Jews and maintained a “Jewish anthropology”. As such 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 ultimately 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 realized that this is now accomplished through Jesus. A body is in our future, but it is one totally dedicated to the work of God.

For those who live according to the flesh (sarx)
are concerned with the things of the flesh,
but those who live according to the spirit (pneuma)
with the things of the spirit.

(Ro 8:5)

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. Unaided by Spirit the flesh will be dedicated exclusively to the things of this world. For the believer in Jesus, living in 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 learning the right words down but 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 5 times, in Romans 8 and 29 times.

This 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.

(Ga 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.

(Ro 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 do 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
(Ro 7:19)

Paul is asking the Romans, “Where are you going?”

But 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.

(Ro 8:9)

It has been suggested that this line is the closest Paul comes to provide a definition of being a Christian. He says: “if only the spirit of God dwells in you.” He does not say if you have the spirit and obey the law” you are with Jesus. He certainly does not believe that one can be punctilious in legal observance and by that alone be saved. To make the point even clearer he first says, “Spirit of God” then. “Spirit of Christ”. The Christian lives in relation to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But if Christ is in you,
although the body is dead because of sin,
the spirit is alive because of righteousness.

(Rom 8:10)

We thus find ourselves suspended between this world and the next. We must however again remember that this does not mean that in the next world we will be purely “spiritual”, we will have a risen body like that of Jesus after the resurrection.

If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus
from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead will give life
to your mortal bodies also,
through his Spirit that dwells in you

(Ro 8:11)

Eternal life is a gift from God through the Son by the Spirit. As we say at every Mass:

Through him, and with him, and in him,
O God, almighty Father,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
all glory and honor is yours,
for ever and ever.

And as we will say in the first prayer of today’s Mass:

By your help, we beseech you, Lord our God,
may we walk eagerly in that same charity
with which, out of love for the world,
your Son handed himself over to death.

We walk in that charity when, with body and soul, we love the world in the Spirit of Jesus.