Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

Romans 8 is the pinnacle chapter in Paul’s most formidable epistle.

April 10, 2011

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 8:6-11

Romans 8 is the pinnacle chapter in Paul’s most formidable epistle.

However, the verses of this morning’s proper are probably less well-known than the soaring climax of this chapter in verses 8:31ff. Instead, Romans 8:6-11 form a small part of a larger discourse Paul is having on the dichotomy between flesh and spirit. In order to preach this passage carefully, one must wrestle with Paul’s argument about flesh and spirit, as well as the treachery in taking the analogy Paul uses too far.

Paul discusses flesh in two ways. In the first, it is a relatively neutral descriptor for physical descent between ancestor and descendant. Thus, “according to the flesh,” Paul identifies Jesus as a descendant of David (1:3); himself and his Jewish compatriots as descendants of Abraham (4:1); and the messiah as a descendant of Israel (9:8). A preacher must note, then, that the flesh has its place in Pauline theology.

It is a marker of privilege, at least initially, for it stands as a means of determining those with whom God has made covenant and from whom God will bring forth the Messiah. At the same time, the honor due a particular blood line or family heritage is undercut by this passage. For, it is not by the flesh but by the spirit of Christ that the community of faith receives its life and peace. One task a preacher might take, then, in preaching this epistle is one that challenges a community’s assumptions about status or lack of status based on biology and family heritage.

For Paul’s argument here and in Romans overall is not that one’s family of descent matters, but rather that through Christ Jesus, God has created heirs of the Abrahamic covenant through the spirit and the promise of God rather than through the flesh. As a result, Paul regularly assigns to the flesh characteristics such as death, “enmity to God,” an incapacity to live under the law of God, and imperfection. Paul is clearly influenced, here, by the dualism of his age that considers the flesh to be imperfect because it is capable of deterioration.

The caution for today’s preachers is that such dualism can lead to an unconcern for bodily matters that can be harmful in communities that have significant physical needs for pastoral care and intervention (obesity, cancer, diabetes, AIDS, eating disorders, etc.). Preachers must weigh carefully the extent to which, in upholding Paul’s theology, they strengthen already unhealthy or detrimental attitudes toward the embodied people in their churches.

Nevertheless, while it is possible for the preaching of this text to become dangerously disembodied, the same text can be used to underscore the impact of the presence of Christ’s spirit upon a disparate group of previously unrelated human bodies. For, Paul argues, that, if the Spirit of Christ dwells in you, it has the power to change your mindset to one of life and peace, and even to enliven the fleshly part of your existence: your bodies. In fact, Paul steers clear from the purely Docetic (anti-flesh) argument, suggesting instead that, through the Spirit of God, even mortal bodies become life-filled. Later, he even argues that this inspiration by the Spirit of Christ turns unrelated bodies into kinfolk, family members of the household of God.

In Romans, Paul is using the metaphor of “flesh” to make a contrast between the way the world is and the way it should be for those in Christ Jesus. Throughout the letter, Paul is tackling a thorny issue: how one is brought into the covenant community of God as those who are heirs of the divine promises. In the world, this would happen through physical descent or, perhaps, through physical adoption. For Paul, it only happens through the spirit of God that, once it infuses a believer, changes mindsets and moves the believer from death to life. However, this is not done through a series of mortal bodies but rather through the divine work of God as God breathes life into those who believe in Christ Jesus.

One sees the evidence that God has done this work because a person, whether born Jewish or Gentile, has a spirit-inspired mindset, full of life and peace. For Paul, this marker is critical because it is not a marker having to do with ethnicity — that is, with descent “according to the flesh.” Paul does not argue that only those descended from a particular parent exhibit a spirit-inspired mindset. Quite the opposite: he argues that, despite human descent and fleshly failing, God is able to blow such a spirit-inspired mindset into anyone God may choose, Jew or Gentile.

Preachers of this text must, therefore, be careful to read it not as an ethically prescriptive text but rather as an anthropologically descriptive text, a metaphor for the act of salvation that only God is able to do. As such a metaphor, it is a powerful statement of the nature of the community of faith: that we are all spirit-infused mortal bodies, brought to life by the work of God through Christ Jesus. This same work makes us family to one another and members of God’s household.

Romans 8:6-11 must thus be understood as a text of affirmation, affirmation of what God has already done in the life of the believer and of the church as a whole through the incarnation and death of Christ Jesus (Romans 8:1-5). It stands as an affirmation of the changed status and mindset of the believer because of God’s action. While last week’s epistle created an ethical choice for the community of faith, in Romans we hear a word of assurance, a promise that the very thing we are unable to do, breathe life into ourselves — for, we are mortal — is that which the Spirit of Christ has already done in us. And echoing through this assertion of faith is the credo that ends Romans 8 and which undergirds all those who, through God’s intervention, are spirit-infused: nothing created can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.