Reflection for Western Heights Uniting Church
12th of July, 2020
I hope you remember last week’s Reflection, in which we heard the Apostle Paul telling us sadly: ‘I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do’. Drawing on Brene Brown’s work, last week I said that I believed Paul was experiencing guilt, not shame; that he was talking about the bad things he did and not the bad person that he was. Today we discover how Paul was able to distinguish between what he did and who he was. We hear from a hopeful Apostle, as Paul rejoices that he has been set free from the law of sin and of death. Last week we heard Paul say: ‘with my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin’. But this week he says: ‘there is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus’. Left to ourselves we might have remained trapped in our wrongdoing – but we have not been left to ourselves. God has not left us alone. In Jesus Christ God entered into creation and joined us in our humanity, and in the Spirit God is still with us, around us and between us and within us.
As we listen to today’s reading we need to be careful about how we hear two words: ‘flesh’ and ‘law’. The Greek words are sarx and nomos and Paul is using them in specific ways. All the way through today’s reading Paul contrasts flesh and Spirit: ‘For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit’. It’s easy and tempting to translate ‘flesh’ into ‘body’ and ‘Spirit’ into ‘soul’, and so argue that our bodies are bad and our souls good. There have been varieties of Christianity that have done that, and Christians who have mistreated their bodies in order to get closer to God. That misreading of ‘flesh’ is dangerous. We live in a society that frequently tells us that our bodies are wrong and need to be controlled and disciplined; a society of obesity and eating disorders; a society in which even children talk about being ‘bad’ because they indulge in particular food. Behind all those problems is the idea that our bodies aren’t really ‘us’. There is an ‘I,’ mind or soul or spirit, which is housed in a body; but that body is somehow separate from ‘me’. This isn’t the way Christianity understands humanity. Our bodies are such an important part of us that in Jesus God became incarnate in a human body. When God came to be one of us God became truly human, and that means God had a real, flesh and blood, body.
So when Paul talks about the ‘law of the flesh’ he is not talking about living life in bodies. When he says that ‘to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace’ he is not suggesting that we turn away from eating and drinking and sleeping and playing and making love and washing – although sadly some Christians have turned away from all of those as though they were wrong. By ‘the flesh’ Paul is simply talking about everything that separates us from God. After all, today’s reading ends with Paul telling us that the God who raised Christ from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in us.
The other word that we need to be careful about is ‘law,’ nomos in Greek. Paul has spent a lot of time in this letter explaining to the Roman Christians the futility of anyone trying to live a righteous life by obeying an external law, but here he contrasts ‘the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus’ with ‘the law of sin and of death’. Paul is not replacing one law with another. Instead he is using the word ‘law’ in the way that Australia’s First Peoples use it. For them the law doesn’t just refer to rules; it also includes culture and religion and land, and is life-giving and a gift from God. Paul is a good Jew, and so he uses the word ‘law’ with its Jewish meaning, as God’s will for humanity.
Paul ends today’s passage by writing: ‘you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you’. We are able to live the lives that God wants us to live, not because we are so strong and good that we are able to obey the law and never do anything wrong, but because God’s Spirit is within us and we live within God’s Spirit. Because we live in Christ and according to the Spirit, we can know God’s love and peace.
Paul, despite talking in last week’s reading about all the wrong he did, is able to live with joy and hope. In Brene Brown’s terms, Paul experiences guilt, but not shame, because he knows that he is living within God. God sent Jesus to live as we live, to experience everything that we experience, and through Jesus we have been set free from ‘the law of sin and death’. In next week’s reading we will hear that we have been adopted by God and so we are children of God (Romans 8:15-16); and then in two weeks we will hear one of my favourite passages from this letter: ‘For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord’ (Romans 8:38-9). When we hear Paul talk about the evil he does that he does not want to do, and human enslavement to the ‘law of sin,’ we need to remember where Paul is leading us – to the reassurance that we are the children of God and that nothing will ever be able to separate us from God’s love.
We live in Christ Jesus, and God’s Spirit is with us. Because of this we can do more than we ever thought possible and live lives of astonishing love. And when we make mistakes, when the evil we do not want is what we do, we are still, always, no matter what, God’s children. Thanks be to God. Amen.