A reflection on Paul’s letter to the Romans for Proper 10A, by the Rev. Margaret Rose
Paul--that is the apostle Paul has got it wrong. Two weeks in a row I have avoided thinking about the Epistle text from the letter to the Romans. Two weeks in a row I have been annoyed as I listened to the lay reader speak Paul’s words to the Christian community in first century Rome and of course to the Christian community of 21st Century New York. No, it is not his thoughts about women, telling us to keep silent and not speak out in public. I can forgive him on that one. Clearly the woman were doing a lot of speaking and in his mind, things were getting out of hand. Besides look how far we have come. He certainly got it right in those very liberating words he writes to another community, the Galatians. “In Christ there is neither Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free.” From the beginning Paul proclaims the new Christian community an inclusive one, not bound by class or race or sex or even if you are slave or free. And I am comforted by his words of reassurance at the end of Romans 8 when his poetic language reassures us of God’s unconditional love, that “neither hardship nor distress or persecution or famine or nakedness or peril or sword. Not death or life nor angels nor rulers nor things present to come or anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God. With all this I have no quarrel.
It is rather what comes before in the letter to the Romans. I don’t know if Paul is trying to let them know what a good Greek he is or what but he says a few things I am sure even Jesus would disagree with and which I believe we have misunderstood and suffered under for too many years. What do I mean exactly? Well, it is about the flesh. The body I mean. Our bodies. And Paul’s denial of the body. If we could just get rid of our bodies then the spirit would be in good shape. The body is bad. The mind is good. Those aren’t exactly Paul’s words. They go like this: “Wretched man that I am. Who will rescue me from this body of death?” The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak, In Christ we are not in the flesh but in the spirit, the body is death, the spirit is life. With my flesh I am a slave to the law of sin, If by the spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.” I suspect that some of this comes from Paul’s life. He may be writing to the Romans. But he is also writing to Paul--(It is like most sermons--the underlying message is really to the preacher) And as we know Paul has an interesting and not always pretty biography. We don’t know it all of course, but we do know that he was a Pharisaic Jew, accustomed to persecuting Christians, responsible certainly for the murder of more than a few. Stephen is the main one we know about. We know the astonishing story of his conversion on the road. Blinded by the light of the Gospel, he follows Jesus, repents of his misdeeds. We read that he never married and that there is some hidden secret about his life that we shall never know. He is later put in prison himself for his faith but never waivers or denies Jesus. His missionary zeal is responsible for founding and nurturing many new Christian communities. He is vilified for much that was culture bound. Paul, like most of us, was what one might call a mixed bag. He was not consistent. Who is? I suspect his own personal history and his Greek education are responsible for what I call his anti-incarnational theology of Romans. So I guess it really isn’t Paul’s fault. He was as I said culture bound, a Hellenistic Jew, and maybe he needed that theology for his own survival. It often happens that way.
Slave theology was like that. A spirit theology for slaves which denied the importance of the flesh and here and now was survival theology. If you could hang on to the spirit as most important then the suffering of the master’s whip was of little importance. Spirit theology allowed people to endure suffering now for the promise of a better life later. But when Absalom Jones and Richard Allen and Frederick Douglas began to proclaim that what they were suffering was human injustice, not God’s way, then spirit theology no longer worked for them. Thoughts of God’s liberation began to be the hope of a present reality. The body should not be in chains, literally or figuratively. And so began the theology which revolted against the idea that being “a good slave” was god’s will. So....
If Paul got this bit wrong, then what is right? The Body of course is what Jesus is all about. The incarnation which we celebrate so joyously at Christmas is about God becoming flesh, God becoming a human being. God created human beings and saw that it was good. When we forgot that, and grew away from that goodness, God’s own self became a human being. The life that Jesus led was not one which suggested that if everyone denied their bodies and pretended they did not exist then everything would be fine. Quite the contrary. He healed people’s bodies. He called people to repentance and to a new life here and now in the world, not in some heavenly time by and by. We gather on Sundays as the BODY of Christ, not the spirit of Christ, though that spirit is with us. “ I am come that you might have life”, Jesus is quoted in Luke’s Gospel, and have it abundantly. Now I don’t think he is necessarily speaking of the abundance or should I say excess of either the evangelist Creflo Dollar or of the ill gotten abundance any number of companies or Bernie Madoff may have recently claimed. Nevertheless Jesus speaks of the life of the body and not just the spirit. Abundant life is offered, now, not because we are good enough to merit it later on, but because that is what God promises for us. We, of course, have some power and responsibility for helping that to happen, not necessarily of our own will but because as Paul said, (Here he has it right.) You were not given a spirit of slavery to fall back into sin, but power to become children of God. Power as children of God means that our prayers and our work and our daily lives mean something now. The bodies we work hard to keep healthy, by eating right and drinking right and exercising are worth it, for they are what we have to love each other with, what we have to build community with, what we have to wage peace with.
When we ask for prayers for those who are ill and suffering, our first hope is that their bodies might be healed. Along with that prayer is of course the healing of mind and spirit. But we really mean the body. And Jesus did too.
It is not just Jesus. The whole creation story and much of the Old Testament declare the beauty of the world and of its goodness for us as God’s creatures. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” says the psalmist. Use your senses, use your body to see the beauty of the gifts that God has given, your eyes to see, your hands to touch your mouth to taste your ears to hear.
What then you might ask, when suffering does come? How do we survive? Paul’s troubles with the body in life have led us too often to a denial of the body in death. When life ends, and the body is ready, then let it go. As we get older and our bodies no longer work the way they use to, or the way we wish they would, denial of the body does not help. Rather, an acceptance of what comes may give us peace and spiritual wholeness. A readiness for the next step, whatever that may be.
If I could rewrite Paul a bit I would say: Embrace the flesh, love your body. Do not deny it. But try to live in a way that loves your body and your mind and your spirit. Do God’s work from that place.
During the last weeks I have been visiting a colleague, Cindy, who is dying, in the last stages of cancer. I did not know her well, but with colleagues we are there to keep vigil and support the family. Each time I have seen her, she has been a little less “in her body”. She is leaving. But even as her world changes, we who gather around her bed, claim her body and in the end will tell her with it good bye. We do not know what is next.n None of us does. But I’d be willing to bet that though it may not be the flesh as we know it, the body of the stars, the body of god’s people will not only live in spirit but in mind and body as well.