Jun 27, 2011
Focus Reading Romans 8:1-11 [For podcast, summary & discussion questions go to http://stteves10.libsyn.com/you-have-a-great-body-podcast-proper-10-a-2011]
There is a sense in which the church and our Western culture is fixated on the human body. Either we have seen it as bad and sinful OR we have worshipped it as though it is through our bodies that we find our meaning.
The view of the body as a very negative thing probably was at its height in England during the reign of Queen Victoria. Everything had to be covered up and the body was thought to be so shameful that even the legs of tables and pianos and chairs were often covered up so that they did not arouse the unworthy passions of those who might catch a glimpse of them. Fast forward to today and the opposite is true, in most of the Western world the human body seems to be everywhere on display. And not just any body, but perfect bodies, the kind of bodies that every man or woman should have and if you don’t have that body there is something wrong with you, so you must go on this diet and wear these beauty products, and have this piece of exercise equipment and go to this gym, and have botox and plastic surgery and laser hair removal. If you are not fit and thin and if you don’t look beautiful, or handsome, you are no-one.
Sometimes Paul and some of what he wrote including today’s passage gets the blame for all of this. We have been "weakened by the flesh" Paul says, we are to walk not in the flesh but in the Spirit. "To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." It seems that Paul is setting up and opposition. The flesh or the body is bad but the spirit, the inner self is good. In fact this is the way that the Greek speaking culture around Paul thought. They thought that the soul or spirit was good but the body was evil. As one Greek writer put it the body was nothing more than "a prison house for the soul".
The truth is though that Paul did not share this view of the body at all. To explain this I have to give you a short lesson in Greek. There are two Greek words which Paul uses which we get confused by when we read their translation in English. One word is sarx and it is mostly translated as "flesh". The other word is soma and that word is usually translated as body. In Romans 8 in all but possibly one place, this word sarx or flesh does not simply mean our human bodies, it means instead the negative way we live. To live according to the flesh is to live in rebellion from God. It means to live not trusting in God but trusting only in ourselves. To live according to the flesh means to live believing that what makes me valuable, what makes me worthwhile, is how I look, or is what I wear, or is what I own, or what makes me valuable is how much I have achieved.
At Tannum Sands there was a Gym which was run by a competitive body builder. In the local free paper he had a column on fitness. In the column he argued that Body building was not just a hobby or past time, or a way to get fit. It was a way of life. Body building was what would give you meaning in life. Now that sounds ridiculous but, he believed it, and so I guess did some other people, otherwise there would not have been such a column in the paper. There are much more subtle versions of this too. One is that people find their meaning in their work. (For those of us who are ministers this is a terrible danger.) Another is that their whole meaning is tied up in how well they do as a mother or father, or a husband or a wife in their family.
On the negative side if we have a dysfunctional family, if we lose our job, or if we see ourselves as being ugly, or imperfect then our world can come tumbling down. Most of you will know that I have rotten teeth. I am very self conscious about the fact that I have two gaps which can be seen in my smile. In my late teens I also had badly discoloured fillings, so that all my front teeth looked black & I simply did not smile. The main reason I have bad teeth is that I did not consistently brush them when I was young. I do not look like good successful people should look. It is tempting for me to believe that I am less valuable than those who have beautiful smiles. This is what Paul means by living by the flesh. It means living a life trusting in looks or wealth or achievement. That way Paul says can lead only to death.
That’s the flesh or sarx. For Paul the body or soma is a neutral or even a good thing. It is our physical self which can not be separated from our spiritual self, it is simply part of who we are as a person. Indeed it is an object of God’s love, God loves the whole of us, our body is not a prison but a temple or house or a tent for the soul & for the Holy Spirit. So at the end of our reading we hear these words. Romans 8:11 (NRSV)
11If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you.
In the next life and in this life all of us is given life, love, newness and forgiveness. When Paul urges us to live according to the Spirit and not according to the flesh he is not asking us to hate our bodies, he is asking us to trust ourselves to God, to find our meaning in God’s love, and not in other things. For Paul and for me this means trusting in Jesus as Saviour. It means for me accepting that I can not make myself valuable, but that God has declared me to be valuable, by sending his Son amongst us as a real flesh and blood human being, someone with a body like mine, and bodily raising him from the dead. For me and for Paul there is no greater sign that the body is important and an object of God’s love than the raising of Jesus. As Paul puts it at the start of the chapter Romans 8:1–2 (NRSV)
"1There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.
2For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death."
For me walking in the Spirit also means that I should never believe that what makes me valuable is how my teeth look, that I am any less a person because I did not take care of my teeth as a youngster. It also means that, though I believe I am on balance a good husband and father, that is not what makes me valuable as a person, any more than my failings as a husband or father make me worthless.
To see our value or meaning as being something generated by ourselves, is to live the life of the flesh. To see our value or meaning as a gift from God, who loves us body and soul, and trusting in God, that is to live a life of the Spirit.
I believe that all of you have good, dare I say it, even great bodies. Not because of how they look or what they can do but because you, all of you, are the objects of God’s love.