SPIRIT FROM FLESH

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

I once attended a wedding reception where I got into a conversation with a woman who was a staunch member of the Church of England. The woman’s biggest complaint about her church was that she felt preachers there went too far out of their way to give positive sermons!

There’s too much ‘up’” she said. “There’s not enough ‘down’”.

I must say that while I admired the Englishwoman’s forthrightness, I sympathized with the preachers! In New York City, at least, people don’t roll out of bed on Sunday mornings and journey to church to hear a pessimistic sermon!

Nevertheless, the woman from our sister Church of England had a point. There is evil in the world. There is a lot of evil in the world. If clergy don’t say anything about that evil, who will?

After all, sermons are supposed to be inspired by the Bible – and Scripture isn’t exactly silent on the subject of evil. St. Paul’s comment gets to the heart of the matter: “I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand”.

That’s the problem, isn’t it? Evil seems to be built in! It seems part of who we are as human beings.

The innate nature of evil is so serious that Paul uses words which are remarkable for a religious leader – and which would have perked up peoples’ ears on a drowsy Sunday morning: “With my flesh,” Paul wrote “I am a slave to the law of sin.” The evil that I do is so powerful that I am a slave to it. And I am a slave to it because it permeates my “flesh”; it is through and through part of who I am.

We are slaves to the law of sin. And so it happens with clocklike regularity, when we want to do something good, evil arises and lies close at hand.

But, we may ask, can’t we just concentrate on good so we can make evil go away? Well there is an old game that shows how little “mind control” we actually have. You say to a friend, “I bet that, for the next minute, you can’t keep from thinking about ice cream!” Of course, your friend won’t be able to do it. The subject she is “not” thinking about – ice cream – will keep popping back into her head.

A similar problem occurs when we try to avoid evil. I may want, for example, to stop thinking about someone whose annoying demands and complaints are driving me crazy!

But my resolution “not to think” about that person fails. I can try to have more pleasant thoughts – but the prickly subject I am “not thinking about” keeps slipping back into my head.

If we want an explanation of the source of sin, then we need look no further than our own incarnate selves. With our flesh we are slaves to the law of sin. As long as we are in these mortal bodies, evil will lie close at hand.

And by itself, this insight of St. Paul’s would make for a pretty gloomy sermon! But while the down side of existence is an undeniable part of the human story, it is not the whole human story.

For out of the flesh comes spirit. Indeed, we can only understand spirit when we see how it emerges from the flesh.

Contemporary theologians have made this point by talking about the dangers of extreme “dualism” – the dangers of thinking of human beings as angelic spirits who want to escape their physical bodies.

Yet few people, it seems to me, are susceptible to this delusion. Most people know that we are spirits embodied in flesh. Take, for example, that old saying, “The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach.”

Admittedly, today that sounds quaint! The idea of “catching” the affections of a man by good cooking wouldn’t appeal to most contemporary women! (Nor to men, either!)

But the idea that human beings are kindly disposed toward those who provide them with fine cuisine is nevertheless true. It’s true because we are creatures of flesh who appreciate a feast!

So the same flesh that leads us to sin is also the source of the Spirit who leads us to salvation. Our most wonderful experiences in this life, after all, take place “in the flesh”. We aren’t angels; we are incarnate human beings who draw closer to God in this flesh-and-blood world.

Surely in summer, of all times, we can appreciate how life in the body can also be good. When we bask in the summer sun. When we see a full moon on a cloudless night. When we go on vacation, or think back to vacations of years past. Life in the flesh – like all life – is a gift from God.

What is evil is the temptation to do the wrong thing. And those temptations also come with the territory of embodied existence.

Christianity admits that life in the flesh is treacherous. We can bask in the sun too long. We can eat too much.

And as Paul perceptively observes, it is when we most want to do good that evil may assault us.

Try to pray, for instance, and the devil starts his engine and puts his temptation machine into high gear. You begin to pray and you get an itch on the back of your head. Your brain churns out irrelevant thoughts.

These distractions are universal. And they can’t be explained unless we admit the Christian teaching that evil always lies close at hand.

Yet having admitted this, we discover that the temptation that seemed so powerful over us isn’t ultimately victorious. For at the same time we know our enemy – we know that darkness is always looking for an opportunity to intrude into our lives. So then we also know that we are spiritual beings bound up in the eternal spirit.

As Paul claims, we can remain in the body and live “according to the Spirit.” And, as Paul says, to “get the mind of the Spirit” is “life and peace”.

Out of the flesh comes the spirit: out of the flesh, our minds and spirits meet the mind and Spirit of God.

Spiritual peace won’t come easily since evil always lies close at hand. Distractions minor and major are endemic in the flesh-and-blood world.

But preachers are still able to preach “up” sermons – even about sin! For the Holy Spirit of God is stronger than human flesh, Christ can say those astounding words: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.

Amen


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