Isaiah 44:6-8 Psalm 86:11-17
Romans 8:12-25 Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43
Our reading today from Romans is what is used by some to support a theology that differs widely from my own. Paul writes of life and death, saying “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if you live by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.”
The idea that what is of the flesh is evil and that what is of the Spirit is good, is in stark contrast to the creation story in Genesis. God creates the world in six days. At the end of each day, we are told, that God looked upon what he created, “And it was good.” This includes humankind, here in the story it says, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.”
We refer to the birth of Jesus as the incarnation, God becoming flesh – just as we are flesh. God comes to be with us in the flesh because the flesh is good and though we may stray, God will never give up on us living into our potential. What then can we learn from this reading from Romans in which Paul talks about living according to the Spirit rather than the flesh?
In the fourth century, a monk wrote about eight evil thoughts, which Pope Gregory revised in the sixth century into what has become known as the seven deadly sins: Lust, Gluttony, Greed, Sloth, Wrath, Envy, and Pride. In essence, these sins are the antithesis of the virtues of one who is faithful to God. To refer to these as deadly sins seems a bit dramatic as does Paul’s comment that suggests the flesh is evil. Part of the list of these deadly sins comes from some of Paul’s letters – and have to do with the evils of the flesh. The entire list, however, focuses on what motivates us to do the things we do – and I believe this what we can learn from Paul’s message.
It is not the flesh that is evil, it is when our life centers around our flesh – or any of the other deadly sins, rather than God that we find ourselves separated from the Spirit which brings meaning to life. What is of the flesh will die, but what is of the Spirit will live. Our flesh, our body, may be a gift from God, but it is temporary.
I heard a physician from St. Louis speak after he had been diagnosed with Esophageal Cancer. He spoke to BOD of NLTO about an article he had written in which he suggested we are obligated to die. The basic premise of his argument was that health care dollars are limited, and the money that would be spent to extend his life, and the lives of other people of at his age, should be spent to treat children and young adults who have their lives in front them. So, he choose symptom management rather than curative or life extending treatment.
I share this, not to suggest that after a certain age we have an obligation to stop receiving medical care, I share this because he was a man who lived not for himself, but for others. He was mindful that what he did or didn’t do affected others – including people he did not personally know. He was not living according to the flesh, instead he was lead by the Spirit to life. A great deal of our nation’s economy is driven by our desire to reverse the aging process and live longer. In and of itself, this is not a problem. But, when it becomes an obsession for us and we neglect our spiritual life as a result – it is a problem. We need balance in our lives in order to experience the joy.
As Paul goes on, he speaks to another concern of mine. He says, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” Too often, I find that Christians are living for the next life rather than living in the present. There are certainly times when it is necessary for us to put our heads down and plow through the work we need to do, in hopes of making things better. We suffer in the present in order to accomplish our goals – which in some cases is simply to survive. But when all we do is endure this life in anticipation of a better life in heaven, we are blind to the beauty of God’s creation and we neglect to do our part to make this God’s kingdom – here and now.
The physician I spoke of was suffering, he was dying, but he was also living. He is one of several people I have known who have chosen to live until the end of this life. These are people who facing their own mortality were, or became, more concerned about others, than themselves. For some, facing death, is a gift that helps them understand what is truly important in life. They find a peace in dying that they never before experienced.
These are the people I have visited who have asked about me and what was happening in my life. They not only shared in my joy when I had good news, they offered encouragement when my life wasn’t going so well. They taught me how to live, and for that I am eternally grateful. They continued to live in the present as long as they could, and I believe this is what Jesus calls us to do.
I do not think Paul was suggesting we live only for the future. Instead, I think we could summarize what he is saying as: when our focus is on ourselves, a part of us dies. The part of us that we need to feed is our Spirit, if we are to experience true life. With our focus on the Spirit, we can endure whatever we have to endure in the present and we can live in peace. The hope of what is to come comes from our faith in God and the knowledge that God, our creator is with us. We can look to the future and find comfort in it, rather than use it as our escape from the present. We are, after all, Paul points out, children of God. Right now. Today. And God our Father is with us in good times and in bad times.
So, while some theologians suggest that all desires of the flesh are evil and that we need to live a faithful life in the hope that we will be rewarded with eternal life in heaven where everything is wonderful – I read Paul and the scriptures differently. We are to celebrate God’s creation, our creation, here and now. We are to live as God’s children, knowing that God our Father created us and at our core we are good. Paul’s warning then, is to keep our focus on that which brings us life, God, and to be patient as God’s kingdom unfolds around us.
Let us pray.
God our Creator, help us to see the beauty of your creation and to celebrate it by honoring you, not only with our lips, but in our lives. We offer our prayers in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.