I always preach from Scripture, but in my experience, some Scriptures are a bit more puzzling than others. That’s not surprising, since we’re two thousand years and many cultural permutations away from the first-century church. Our scripture this morning bothered me for years, and it may have bothered some of you. It’s found in Paul’s letter to the Romans:
Romans 8:6-11 (Scriptural Focus)
8:6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,
8:8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
8:9 But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
8:10 But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness.
8:11 If 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.
Paul’s diatribe against “the flesh” sounds in our English translations as though he saw the human body as a problem, a source of temptation and evil. That word “flesh” today can even have a salacious, X-rated feel to it.
Fortunately, that’s not what Paul is talking about at all. Paul was not a 17th-century Puritan. Paul was a first-century Jew, and Jews knew from scripture – specifically the book of Genesis – that God was Creator of the physical world, including the human body, and He called all of his creation good. There would be others in Christianity after Paul who, due to various cultural influences, saw the human body as inherently sinful or evil, but not a good Jew like Paul.
Our English translations have two words here: flesh and body. We often think of these words as meaning pretty much the same thing. It helps to know that Paul also uses two different words. One is sarx, which gets translated here as “flesh” in verses 6-9, and the other is soma, which is translated correctly as “body” in verses 10 and 11.
However, Paul means two different things in using ‘flesh’ and ‘body’, sarx and soma. That can be confusing for us. Think about Exodus 16:3, for example, where we read about that famous King James phrase, the “fleshpots of Egypt.” I grew up thinking that ‘fleshpots’ meant brothels, dens of iniquity and sin. Indeed, I once googled the phrase, and the first site that popped up informed its readers that “The “fleshpots of Egypt” were so called because of their loose sexuality and equally loose morals.” Sounds like a tourism brochure for Las Vegas! What happens in Egypt, stays in Egypt. This is a great example of why we shouldn’t trust everything we see on the internet.
But that understanding of the King James word “fleshpots” is completely wrong. As usual, we can get to the real meaning by reading the whole verse instead of mentioning one phrase in it. The whole verse in the KJV goes like this:
And the children of Israel said unto them, Would to God we had died by the hand of the Lord in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the flesh pots, and when we did eat bread to the full; for ye have brought us forth into this wilderness, to kill this whole assembly with hunger.
The Israelites weren’t talking about loose morals; they were complaining that they didn’t have anything to eat! Stuck without food in the desert, they falsely remembered that in Egypt they had plenty to eat! The New International Version actually translates “fleshpots” accurately as “pots of meat.” When the Israelites mentioned “flesh pots,” they were hankering after beef stew!
Like a good rabbi, Paul is using a metaphor when he talks about flesh. He’s using something tangible to refer to something intangible. If he had meant “body,” he could have used the word soma all the way through this passage, rather than sarx.
But he didn’t. What Paul meant by sarx or “flesh” is very close to what we mean today by our word ego, a word that has now passed from Greek into common English usage. Sigmund Freud gave Greek words like “ego” a different twist. Today we use it to mean our self-image; we say someone has a big ego if he thinks too much of himself.
So when we read Paul now, and he talks repeatedly about “the flesh,” we need to understand that Paul is not talking very judgmentally about what we do with our bodies.
Paul is trying to convey a very deep spiritual truth – that following Jesus means living “in Christ.” He uses that phrase quite a lot in his letters. Living any other way is living in “the flesh.” When we focus on ourselves – our egos – we inevitably crash and burn. When we live “in Christ,” as Paul liked to say, when we focus our lives on the Spirit of God that is above us, below us, that surrounds us and fills the cosmos, we have a much healthier perspective – and actually a much more realistic one.
If we substitute the word “ego” as we understand it today for the word “flesh”, I think we come much closer to Paul’s meaning:
8:6 To set the mind on the ego is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.
8:7 For this reason the mind that is set on the ego is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law– indeed it cannot,
8:8 and those who are trapped in their egos cannot please God.
8:9 But you are not trapped in your ego; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…
When people began to realize last year that we were facing a highly contagious pandemic, we saw some very different reactions. I read about two brothers who, upon learning about the impending pandemic, immediately split up and visited every discount store they could find, buying up all the available hand sanitizer, toilet paper, and other such supplies. They cut deals with store managers to buy up all their stock of these items in bulk. They then turned around and began selling their stuff online for several times more than they paid.
Unfortunately for them, their online platforms quickly shut them down for price gouging. They were stuck with thousands of items they could no longer sell. After they were publicly shamed by an article in the New York Times, they tried to redeem themselves by giving away all the stock they couldn’t sell.
Other people had very different reactions to the pandemic. A friend of mine was the first person to call our United Way office and volunteer to deliver food and supplies to people who couldn’t afford them. She bought a lot of those things out of her own pocket, without waiting for a grant to come through.
To me, these two examples typify what Paul was talking about. The two brothers were thinking only of themselves and how they could make more money. From a strict capitalist point of view, what they did was entirely logical: they sensed a shift in the market and moved quickly to capitalize on it. It was just business; it wasn’t evil. But neither was it “in the Spirit.” From a Christian perspective, we’d have to say they were focused only on themselves. It apparently never occurred to them to be concerned for others.
My friend is a great example of what it means to live in the Spirit. She not only saw how the pandemic would affect other people – her first thought was compassion for those people who’d lost their jobs and had no financial cushion, or for elderly folks who couldn’t go to the store and risk getting infected, or for people too poor or too disabled to have their own transportation. She not only felt compassion; she acted on that compassion.
This truth lies at the heart of the Christian gospel: it’s only by dying to our egos – or in Paul’s terms, our flesh – that we are given the power to be truly alive, the ability to see the world without our ego’s distorted filters. It’s only when we let go of our ego’s need to acquire more – more money, more respect, more power – that we can begin to realize that we already have enough.
Through the centuries, the gospel of Christ has become distorted in many ways. Our culture inevitably colors our understandings of Jesus’ teachings. One common misunderstanding is the assumption that bigger is better, that people who have more are superior to those who have less. Some churches even teach that God wants us all to be rich, conveniently forgetting that Jesus pointed out specifically that it’s the poor who are blessed, “for theirs is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). He didn’t teach that wealth was evil, only that wealth is a huge temptation for our egos, an enormous distraction from what matters in the kingdom of God.
The point of church is for us to help each other live out the kingdom of God. It’s to help us become aware of the presence of the God who is already among us, and to be transformed by that loving presence. A faithful Church also requires us to become more aware of ourselves and our deepest motivations for what we do. John Calvin expressed as much in the opening of his classic work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. He wrote that:
Our wisdom, in so far as it ought to be deemed true and solid Wisdom, consists almost entirely of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.
For me, this is the core of the spiritual life: to know God and to know ourselves. As Calvin said, the two go hand in hand. We have to let go of our egos in order to know God, and the same process helps us come to know our true selves, rather than the false selves we create to protect and build our egos. We don’t come to know God by building ourselves up; we come to know God when we let go of the pretensions and illusions that we’ve built up for ourselves and to impress others.
Prayer helps us to do that, to become more aware of our masks and to let God’s spirit transform us into letting them go. That’s why we need to pray. Such prayer doesn’t require words; it just requires a conscious decision to be quiet and listen to the Presence that already surrounds us.
Jesus called people to take up their own crosses and follow. This is the scandal of the gospel – that we are called to put our egos to death in order to be raised to new life as the people of the kingdom that God created us to be. That’s what Paul’s talking about – living in the Spirit. Living in the flesh – focused on ourselves and our egos – won’t get us there.
Let’s pray together. Father, we shrink from our crosses. We want to be first, when you call us to follow Jesus and be last. We want to be important, but you call us to serve. Forgive our unbelief, Lord. Help us follow your Son and in following, become transformed into new lives of love and compassion. We pray in the name of your Son, Jesus, Amen.