“In the Flesh”

Romans 13:8-14

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

“Make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.”

This text seems to be one of those Bible sayings that isn’t followed! Think of celebrities and all the provisions they make for their flesh—think of all the ways they satisfy the desires of their bodies. Think of all their indulgences that so often lead not to pleasure but to failed relationships and tragic addictions.

Yet, despite the apparent validity of this warning, I have never preached on it! I have also tended to avoid other places in St. Paul’s letters where he talks about behavior that is focused on “the flesh.” Places—as in today’s second lesson–where he condemns behavior like “reveling and drunkenness,” and “debauchery and licentiousness.”

For we preachers regard texts like these with suspicion. We don’t want to sound like killjoys. We don’t want to appear puritanical. We are afraid that if we go on about sin and debauchery, we will turn people away from Christian faith.

We might disagree with Paul philosophically. We might think that when Paul contrasted “the flesh” with “the spirit,” he was splitting human beings up in an artificial way. After all, each of us possesses both mental and physical aspects. God created us with minds and bodies. This is who we are.

And if this is who we are, surely God wants us to rejoice in our bodies as well in as our souls. As C.S. Lewis once remarked, “God likes matter; he made it.”

There is a practical consideration, too: we all must make some “provision for the flesh” just to keep going! Everyone needs to eat and drink something.

Pleasures of the flesh are perfectly acceptable in the right context and the right amount. Even the Puritans enjoyed a good dinner.

In fact, these pleasures can be more enjoyable when they are restrained. Open a box of chocolates. The pleasure you get from the first piece of candy you eat is far greater than the pleasure you receive from the tenth chocolate.

But this example indicates the truth for us today in Paul’s advice to the Romans. Whether we want to admit it or not, indulgences of our existence in the flesh taken too far can be harmful. It can be very useful to see sensual temptations as representing a war with our rational, intelligent selves.

Paul was right to contrast the attractions of the spirit with the attractions of the flesh. As Jesus said in the Garden of Gethsemane: “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.”

But are we preachers being “puritanical” if we point this out? Are Christian warnings about the seductive powers of the body unduly “moralistic?” Well, not necessarily. Here’s an example of the real-life truth of St. Paul’s warnings.

You have likely heard it said of someone, that she has “let herself go.” Perhaps the person was disappointed in her career, or in love. Perhaps she tried many diets and became discouraged when they didn’t work. Perhaps she is too sedentary in her ways and she can’t find the energy to exercise.

Whatever the particular cause, the person seems not to care about her appearance. She no longer tries to control her weight; she pays little attention to what she wears.

Granted, she isn’t indulging in debauchery or revelry; but she has given in to the physical. She has let the material take charge over her life.

The key to understanding Paul’s claim comes in the six words that he wrote before he mentioned “the flesh.” He first said: “put on the Lord Jesus Christ…”

When we “put on” Christ, our physical being is no longer an adversary. Instead, God helps us to find spiritual value in our incarnate selves. We may even be surprised to find that the pleasures of the flesh lead us in spiritual directions.

To return to the example of the person who let herself go: suppose that instead of giving in to indulgences that aren’t good for her and making so much “provision for the flesh” that it rules her life—suppose that the person were instead to see the physical as the starting point for her to reach out to the spiritual. In Christ, she finds a new confidence. She actually enjoys worldly pleasures more because her senses put her in touch with a higher reality.

The aroma of coffee, the scent of a rose, the cheery words of a favorite song, the comfort of a pair of old jeans, the taste of chocolate: these pleasures of smell, and sight and sound and touch and taste are only possible in the physical world. And they remind us how fortunate we are to be alive in God’s created world.

When we recognize the blessings of incarnation, then we are ready to strive for the spiritual goals that God calls us to.

C. S. Lewis was right. God likes matter—that’s why he made it in the first place. That’s why, in the first book of the Bible, the Creator deems his creation to be “good.”

And that’s why God appeared to us in the flesh. We give thanks for this physical world in which, as the hymn says, “all nature sings,” because as incarnate beings we encounter God incarnate. As beings of flesh and blood, we put on Jesus Christ “the Word made flesh” who dwells among us.

And it is in God’s world that we receive the gifts that mark incarnate existence—the gifts of God for the people of God.

And now unto that same God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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