+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
I spoke last week about some important distinctions one must make in order to understand Paul’s argument in the central chapters of Romans- namely the distinction between flesh and body and (σαρξ and σομα) and between mind and reason. As a reminder, Paul does not condemn the body, he does not encourage a denial of matter, space, time, the created order in favor of some airy fairy ghostly spiritualism. Rather he condemns the sin-nature, which he calls flesh, which has perverted the created order. Further, his reliance on the capability of mind is not a simple, blanket affirmation of cleverness, but something more specific, which I did not quite manage to define in last weeks sermon. Keep these distinctions in mind as we look at this week’s Epistle.
Paul writes that our flesh, our sinful nature, has so corrupted us that we are unable to be justified by works of the Law. Note that this is not an acknowledgment that the Law itself was somehow insufficient, which would suggest that God was involved in some sort of trial-and-error experiment with human salvation, but rather that Original Sin has made us unreliable partners in a Covenant which was good in itself. This may seem like splitting hairs, but it really has important implications with regard to both the perfection of God and what I call “theological anthropology”- the attempt to understand what it means to be human in light of our realization that we are creatures of a God who wants to be in a relationship of unity and love with his Creation.
A discomfort with our experience of evil in the world and our inability to square it with an orthodox account of God’s perfection has led to the rising popularity in some liberal protestant circles of something called “process theology”, which claims that God, rather than being the great “I AM” is, like humanity, in the process of becoming perfect in coöperation with us. This may seem appealing, and indeed I think we may be excused for holding such a view implicitly or subconsciously when going through difficulty. I often say at funerals that it’s okay to question God’s plan in the midst of tragedy. The effects of moral evil (like Auschwitz) or natural evil (like those who may have lost a great deal in this week’s flooding) are such that we may be forgiven for questioning God’s perfection in power and love. But, you see, that’s not the end point. The end point is a reaffirmation of God’s perfection in spite of it all. The project of process theology suggests that the beginning of that work is its end, that a sort of theology of protest and an assumption that the best we can do is help God in the process of getting better at doing his job. Questioning God is a perfectly natural response to trouble, but basing an entire worldview on it is the height of arrogance. Worse, it’s a craven rejection of human responsibility, cloaked in the disguise of so-called “high anthropology,” because it is fundamentally based on an assumption that Original Sin and free will, those two tricky but necessary elements of the Christian worldview, do not apply.
Whether we’re talking about the failure of the Law to produce righteousness as Paul does in Romans or about more modern debates regarding the problem of evil, the suggestion that the trouble lies with Almighty God can, I think, be countered pretty simply to my mind. Let’s make it as simple as possible, though. How many of you saw the Marvel Avenger’s film from about five years ago? If you haven’t, there’s a bit in the final battle between the world’s greatest heroes and the Norse god Loki and his forces. The Incredible Hulk – you know, the one whom you don’t want to make angry because he turns into a giant, green monster – beats the super-villain up and proclaims “puny god.”
If God is a God whom we are helping achieve perfection, it seems one would be better off reading a self-help book on a Sunday morning rather than gathering to worship him. No, the God whom we worship, Paul reminds us, is not a God of our own making. Instead, we are a people of God’s making whose pleasure, we are reminded, is effected by our regeneration in the Spirit, a Spirit which is alive in us by virtue of our Baptism, which has washed away the stain of Original Sin, replacing our fleshly natures with a spiritual one. Again, remember, it is not our bodies being counted or the rest of the material world being mere veils obscuring some ghostly realm, but our whole selves, body and soul, being spiritually animated, one might say, changing something essential about us and how we find our place in Creation by virtue of a new life given us now, just as we are, in preparation for the resurrection of those same mortal bodies on the Last Day.
And finally, Paul reminds us that having put away the flesh and become alive in the Spirit, we set our minds on things of the Spirit. I read this week a discussion of this new reality by N.T. Wright, the former Bishop of Durham, whom some of you know is among my favorite contemporary Christian writers. As a side note, Wright has quite a diverse corpus of writings (dozens of books actually) and if you’re interested in reading an active theologian and biblical scholar and don’t know where to start, you’re in luck. If you’re a theological neophyte, I’m not kidding, start with the books on whose jackets he is credited as “Tom Wright” and then work your way up to the books where he is named “N.T. Wright.” The former are intentionally very accessible and the latter get in to more complex matters.
Anyway, the good bishop Wright writes that what Paul is describing here is more than just turning your attention to different matters; it is, rather, a complete transformation of the mind such that one experiences reality in a new way. Let me say again, it is not about ignoring the reality of matter and space and time, the stuff of Creation, in order to focus on abstractions or esoterica. Instead, it is a new way of perceiving ourselves, our fellows, and the world in which we live such that the light of Christ illumines all. A friend of mine used to refer to this as seeing the world through cruciform spectacles. I like to think of it, you may recall from other things you’ve heard me say in this pulpit and elsewhere, as an alternative epistemic mode. I’ve called this mode “self-possession” and Thomas Aquinas describes it as “an openness to other beings at the ontological level.” Put simply, it is more than simply focusing on higher things but is an wholly different way of coming to know anything. It is the sensate Spirit which we have, our minds having been renewed and freed from the flesh.
This new way of being in the world and knowing it, though, is more than just a means of understanding. It is the way to the kind of knowledge which produces life and peace. This is an interesting phrase Paul uses. He is here quoting directly from the Book of the Prophet Malachi, in which faithfulness to the Old Covenant, to the Law, is that which produces “life and peace.” Now Malachi was concerned with how that Covenant was not being observed, and specifically with moral and ritual laxity among the priests of the Jerusalem temple. Paul is concerned, instead, with the will to accept this new way of being, the New Covenant in its fullness.
So, I sometimes sound like a broken record, but it bears repeating: this New Covenant is in one sense easier and in another sense harder than the Old. Whereas obedience to precept upon precept may be onerous if one is not of a mind to be obedient, acceptance of the Grace of the New Covenant requires not merely a single choice to receive a boon from God, as some peculiar versions of Christianity might suggest, but an ongoing choice to accept it by one’s own free will and the difficult task of living up to the responsibilities implied by living the Risen Life. The demands of charity as determined by a good conscience require hard work, but the inspired mind of a child of God, freed from the flesh makes it possible, and, with some significant practice, even natural as the virtues are nurtured by prayer and the sacraments and the unflagging support and encouragement given us by a God who wants us to succeed in a life of holiness and devotion.
Life and peace are there for the taking. We’re given the tools thanks to a renewed and spiritual mind, a regenerate soul, a heart full of God’s love. Choose life and peace, cherish it for the gift it is, and pray for endurance that even in the midst of trials our hearts may surely there be fixed where true joy is to be found.
+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.