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Visions from The Catacombs: Week Before April 6, 2014

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Romans 8:1-11

8There 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. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5For 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. 6To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For 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, 8and those who are in the flesh cannot please God. 9But 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.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.

What I am Learning:

We have some really powerful texts to choose from this week, but I thought we could dip our toes into Romans for a week.

One of the reasons why I want to focus on the Romans text is to counter a very destructive assumption of North American Christianity: that bodies and the material creation is bad; only spirit is good.

  • This assumption, often not consciously acknowledged, teaches us to despise our bodies, our lives.
  • This assumption teaches that the earth is just a low-life training ground for “life eternal in heaven” – If you happen to be smart enough to be a Christian.
  • This assumption teaches that we do not need to care for the earth, as it is going to be destroyed again anyway.

First of all this assumption is quite problematic, as Jesus was a faithful member of the People of Israel. The Jewish people recognized that human beings can reject life as it is – that is a life in a universe in which entropy is key: that things tend to go from order to disorder. So their inspired and faithful storytellers wrote that God declares the creation “good, very good.” This announcement of the creation’s goodness includes the fact of death, it includes entropy.

In the Jewish theological imagination, the universe as it is, is good, and human life and human bodies are good. It doesn’t say that human life and human bodies are always easy or pain free. But it does say that human bodies are good. As I have said to little children in children’s sermons, “God says that your knees are good.”

But then we read Paul in Romans and we interpret him to say that bodies are bad.

Is that what he means?

There are two words for body used in this text in Greek:  Soma and Sarx.

Soma –translated “body” is used in this text for our physical bodies.

Sarx  - translated “flesh” - is used in a totally different way – It is a poetic word for the worldview of domination and submission in the Roman Empire.

Why does Paul use such poetic language:

  • First of all he is a poet and that’s what poets do!
  • Second he is talking about a challenging subject that requires subtle language.
  • Third, he is writing to the church in Rome and if a soldier sees him denouncing the basis of Roman culture the letter, the letter carrier, and the community to which it is addressed will be convicted of treason – and rightly so!

Cultures of domination/submission propose that we are human when we have power over others, or when we submit to those who are powerful so that we together have power over others.

So now read the text, with my somewhat less than poetic translation:

8There 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. 3For God has done what the law, weakened by the Roman culture of domination and submission, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful domination culture, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin while being in domination culture, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the domination culture but according to the Spirit. 5For those who live according to the domination culture set their minds on the things of that culture, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6To set the mind on the domination culture is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7For this reason the mind that is set on the domination culture is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8and those who are in the domination culture cannot please God. 9But you are not in the domination culture; 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.

10But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.

To be a baptized Christian is to take part in an ongoing process in which we die to having “our minds set” on the domination and submission culture and rise to life with Christ.

Another way to say this: In Christ, we are daily reoriented from a culture of domination and submission to God’s way of mutuality. In this way of mutuality, we seek to hold each other as equals and to respect the dignity of every person in every part of life.

The common interpretation of this text (that our bodies are bad) subverts what I believe is Paul’s meaning. It actually serves to sever us from the goodness of our bodies and the creation so that we will give up on ourselves and the creation.

This is the way that domination/submission culture’s work: they take very powerful poetic texts and twist them to be tools that work in domination culture’s favor.

One way we resist domination is to tend our holy imagination as we read the Bible.

If there is one thing I have learned as a pastor it’s this:  when the culture tells you what a text means it is time to go study that text for yourself!

This is one more way we can claim our God given power, our identity as God's beloved children and coworkers with Christ in God's way of mutuality.