First Sunday after Pentecost
Two of our scripture passages for today – the story of Nicodemus from John 3 and Paul’s admonition to the church in Rome from Romans 8 – wrestle with the nature of spirit and flesh. Throughout the history of the Christian tradition, interpretation (or mis-interpretation) of passages like these has led many Christians into the sort of gnostic dualism that condemns the flesh and elevates the spirit. In recent years, a subtle sort of Christian Gnosticism – that literary critic Harold Bloom has called “the American Religion” – has tempted us to be careless in our stewardship of our bodies and the creation at large (the “God is going to destroy it anyway” mentality). In the late 1990s, for instance, one research study found that evangelical Christians tended to be more obese than other sectors of the US population, and more interestingly, that this tendency was even stronger among those Christians who claimed to read the Bible literally.
So, if we believe that God created all things and is at work reconciling the whole of creation, things on earth as well as things in heaven (Col 1:13-20), then how do we reconcile this conviction with Paul’s words in today’s passage that “if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live” (Rom. 8:13)? For me, the answer has been to think of the dividing line, not between flesh and spirit in our own persons, but between the old and new creation. Paul’s words to the Corinthian church “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2 Cor 5:17), seem to echo Jesus’s words to Nicodemus: “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3: 5). “Old creation,” “new creation,” “flesh,” “spirit,” these are all rather abstract terms, what do they mean? The key to answering this question, for me, has been the New Testament Greek word stoicheia, which has been translated as the elemental spirits (NRSV) or elementary principles (NASB) of the world. What are these stoicheia, these elementary principles? They comprise the basic human wisdom about the way that the world works. For instance, how often have we heard phrases like:
- He’ll never change (or They’ll never change)
- Violence should be returned for violence
- There’s a scarcity of resources
- “The rich stay healthy, the sick stay poor” (Thanks, Bono!)
and so on…
These principles form the basic wisdom about how the world works; they are the basis of mainstream politics, economics, and yes, even religion (consider, for instance, that Paul uses stoicheia in Galatians 4 to describe living under Jewish Law). The Kingdom of God, however, is not a world confined by these principles. It is a new creation, the old has passed away, everything has become new! In today’s passage from Romans 8, Paul names the mechanism by which these stoicheia work: fear; “you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear” (v. 15). We are bound by the fears of not being able to change, of having suffering inflicted upon us, of not having enough resources to sustain our lives, etc. The way of Jesus, the way into which we have been called as communities of Christ’s followers, is one in which we have been set free from our bondage to these fears. Of course, this shift from the old creation to the new creation is not magic. Just prior to launching into our lectionary passage from Romans 8, Paul laments that “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (7:15). We are in the process of being transformed, and we must still be engaged and bear witness to a world in which the stoicheia reign supreme. One of our primary roles as local congregations is to be a communities shaped by Christ and not by the stoicheia, to demonstrate among our neighbors that there is indeed a new creation breaking into the world through the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus. It is the Holy Spirit in our midst that shapes us into the contours of this new creation, bearing witness with us that we are children of God, and of God’s Kingdom (Rom. 8:16).
By submitting ourselves to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our churches communities, may we be set free from the way of the flesh, the way of the stoicheia, and may we know the joy and freedom of the new creation!
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