Fifth Sunday in Lent (A)

The second lesson for Lent 5 may be attractive from a simple numerical standpoint:

March 9, 2008

Second Reading
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Commentary on Romans 8:6-11

The second lesson for Lent 5 may be attractive from a simple numerical standpoint:

the first lesson has fourteen verses, the gospel has forty-five, and the epistle has only six! But there are other good reasons to focus on the Romans passage, especially in Lent. The Romans passage helps us to move away from thinking only about individual sins and individual spiritual activities to explore our basic orientation to life as Christ-believers.

Paul often thinks in terms of opposites, which he does throughout our passage. In v. 6 the first opposites are the team of flesh and death set over against the team of Spirit, life, and peace. Flesh can be a misleading term in Paul. To understand it we need to turn to its apparent twin, the word body (sw/ma sôma). Body, in Paul, is ethically neutral; that is, it is neither good nor bad in and of itself. The issue is how the body is used. There certainly is nothing wrong, for Paul, with having a body. But when the body is used inappropriately–when it is used differently from how God intended the body to be used–then it is a sinful body. And Paul’s shorthand expression for the body when it is used in inappropriate, sinful ways is flesh (sa,rx sarks). To have the wrong attitude, the wrong approach, or the wrong mindset in life is to have exactly what we have in v. 6, “the mindset of the flesh.”

When the person’s basic life commitment is to the flesh, as defined by Paul, then that person’s mindset is the flesh. And that kind of orientation, in turn, is focused on death. It is focused on death, because the flesh does not last. It will die not only physically but also spiritually, because when a person’s focus is on the flesh his or her focus is not on God, on what lasts and is eternal. And so the death of v. 6 is not only physical death; it is also spiritual death, separation from God.

Over against that orientation is the mindset of the Spirit. When a person’s orientation in life is Spirit-directed and Spirit-controlled, the focus is on life (both in this world and in the next; see 5:21, 6:4, 6:22-23) and on peace (both with God and with other people; see also 5:1 and 1:7).

In v. 7, Paul can even draw the conclusion that the mindset of the flesh is hostile to God. In v. 8, Paul finally concludes what is one long Greek sentence that began in v. 6 with the strange thought that those who are in the flesh are not able to please God. At first blush we might think that lets us off the hook. But that is not, of course, what it means, when we remind ourselves of how Paul uses the term flesh. People who have lived in such a way that they have made their bodies into flesh (and have not been freed from it by Jesus) are, by definition, unable to please God.

And with that understanding, v. 9 begins to make sense. The believers–those in Rome who hear this letter read–are not in the flesh, but rather they are in the Spirit. How do they know that? “Since the Spirit of God dwells in you.” The presence of the Spirit marks those who belong to Christ. And Paul is so sure of this Spirit-indwelling business that he goes on to write, “Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” It is hard to find a distinction in Paul between Spirit of God and Spirit of Christ.

In v. 10 he continues simply, “But if Christ is in you.” And the result of that indwelling of Christ is another set of opposites. On the one hand, “the body is dead because of sin.” That statement has two references:

*the body is dead because of the killing power of sin that separates believers from God and from each other; and

*the body is dead because, positively, it has been killed to the power of sin through the action of being baptized (6:1-11, 7:1-6).

On the other hand, over against the dead body “the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” That is, “the Spirit is life” in the sense of life-giving. The Spirit dwells in the body that was killed in baptism, and it gives life.

Paul in v. 11 defines believers.

*First, believers are defined in terms of the Spirit, namely, the Spirit that dwells in them. And what Spirit is it? It is the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead. So once again Spirit and Christ (Jesus) are closely related, as are Spirit and God (Father).

*Second, believers are defined as the ones whom the one who raised Jesus from the dead will make alive. Just as Jesus was raised from the dead, so believers will be raised, too. This is the same thing Paul says much more expansively in 1 Corinthians 15.

And so the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus will give life to the mortal bodies of the believers. Thus the Spirit is the agent of resurrection, which once more is close to 1 Corinthians 15 in which Paul looks forward to the spirit-ual body, a body controlled, infused by the Spirit (not a body composed of spirit).

And when will God do all of this making alive? In the future, at the resurrection of the dead, when full deliverance occurs.

In our focus during Lent on our individual sins we can center so much on our actions and mis-actions that we can miss the larger issue. What is our mindset? What is our orientation toward life? For Paul the proper mindset is the Spirit, the same Spirit that makes Christ present today and the same Spirit of the One who raised Jesus from the dead.

Walter F. Taylor, Jr., is the Ernest W. and Edith S. Ogram Professor of New Testament Studies and Director of Graduate Studies at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, OH.  The apostle Paul is his major area of research and teaching.