“Angels and Devils on My Shoulders”

I grew up in the 1950s watching cartoons on TV. They were not educational, they were not edifying, they were not character building—but they were often funny. I particularly remember Sylvester the cat chasing Tweety bird (or maybe it was Tom the cat chasing Jerry the mouse). Every time he was tempted to do something naughty—which was pretty often—a devil would appear on one of his shoulders to urge him into mischief, and an angel would appear on the other shoulder to talk him out of it. It was a cartoon, after all, so the devil always won the argument.

Paul, who wrote the letter to the Romans that we are hearing this summer, seems to have a similar outlook. Most of today’s passage is a plea for the members of the church in Rome to pay attention to the competing pulls of “the Flesh” and “the Spirit.” Like those ancient Romans, we need to be careful how we understand what he meant by “the flesh.”

One of the reasons we heard two versions of this passage this morning is that Eugene Peterson, in his Bible paraphrase called The Message, makes it clear that Paul is not talking about “the flesh” as our individual bodies. (The other reason is that the passage is difficult to read and to hear in its more conventional version.) I bring this to your attention because it was brought to my attention after I preached on this passage early in my time as pastor in Northfield. After the service, Bill Poehlman, a religion professor at St Olaf, invited me to lunch to talk about other ways to interpret this passage, especially the part about “the flesh.” On Thursday, I emailed Bill to ask for a refresher course, and though we couldn’t have lunch again, he did remind me of that earlier lesson.

The words that Melissa read this morning from The Message paraphrase of the Bible capture Paul’s meaning much more fully than the conventional translation “the flesh.” Consider these phrases: “the disordered mess of struggling humanity,” “fractured human nature,” “obsession with self.” I can almost see in my mind’s eye a tangled matted greasy fog of human loyalty and disloyalty, generosity and greed, cooperation and coercion, violence and compassion, selflessness and selfishness, illness and injury and healing, integrity and moral failure, injustice and justice, racism, ageism, ableism, nationalism and equality, sturdy families and institutions and dysfunctional ones. All of that, the stuff of our daily lives, is our flesh.

And it does weigh heavily on our shoulder. Sitting there, like the devil on Sylvester’s shoulder, drawing us into thoughts and words, and actions and social systems that do not reflect love of God or love of neighbor or love of self. Drawing us into sin.

I know that “sin” is a highly charged word; it is connected with guilt and shame, with moral weakness and wickedness. It is so uncomfortable to talk about that when someone mentions “sinning” over the weekend, they are more likely to be describing a chocolate desert than larceny or infidelity. But “sin” is deep and real and present, and sometimes we must name it for what it is.

Please note the singular “sin.” Individual acts of misbehavior can be profoundly harmful, but those are “sins,” plural. “Sin,” singular, is our participation in this complicated, daunting matrix in which we are enmeshed—sometimes willingly and sometimes witlessly. As if to drive that point home, Paul uses a version of the word “you” that is plural in the original Greek. He is not talking about individuals who behave badly, he is talking about all of us and our shared condition.

Our shared condition right now is pandemic and injustice and economic crisis. We are tugged in all directions by our anger, our grief, our hope, our loneliness, our ambition, and our pessimism. We are disappointed again and again at the failures of compassion and responsibility, and we are pained by the suffering and despair around us. We are critical of ourselves for the past and unsure of ourselves for the future.

We can feel—deeply feel—that this is not how the world should be, not how creation is meant to be. If we are honest, we know that was true about our lives before the pandemic and all the rest, and that it will be true into the future. We are beset by sin.

So much for “the flesh.” What about the other shoulder?

In the cartoon, it was an angel whispering into Sylvester’s ear. We don’t actually know if the angel was offering a reward for declining the devil’s suggestion or a punishment for acting on it. Either way, the angel was hoping to get him to obey. Paul’s observation is “the Law” has failed to save people from sin and death. What Paul means by “the Law” is not just the Ten Commandments, nor even all of the limits and regulations in other parts of the Hebrew scriptures (that we know as the Older Testament). He refers to the whole of the Torah and the life it prescribes for the Jewish people. Paul is insistent that humans have not been able to free themselves from sin by their own efforts, even with the help of the Law. Through Christ, God is offering a new way.

What he describes—for the other shoulder—is not encouragement or punishment (like the cartoon angel), but a new relationship between humans and God. Paul’s description of this new relationship sounds convoluted and complicated to our ears; perhaps like all things about God, words do not come easily to describe it. My sense of it is that engaging seriously and consistently with God lets us act in the world without being entirely defined and impeded by the messiness and contradictions of “the flesh.” Peterson’s version in The Message takes this form: “God’s own self has taken up residence in your life. . . . When God lives and breathes in you . . . you who welcome Christ, in whom Christ dwells.”

This is a radical invitation. Paul is not suggesting that we should know more about God, or even that we should follow God’s commandments. He is suggesting that we bring the divine into ourselves and let the divine Spirit work through in us and through us. What makes this a radical invitation is that we are to invite God into lives without knowing what that is really going to mean. We don’t know how the divine presence will change us, or what the work will be, or what it will require of us. What we do know from our scriptures is that God asks unexpected people to take on unexpected tasks all the time. Sarah was too old to have a baby, Moses was a slave (albeit a high-ranking one), David was a shepherd, Jonah a reluctant prophet, Mary a backwater teenager, Peter a fisherman, even Paul himself, a persecutor of Christians. It is no casual thing, this invitation.

When I think of all the people who have taken on new and unexpected tasks in recent months, I find myself hoping that they, too, will have more than their own stamina and determination to lean on. And when their human and institutional supports are stretched and weary, I wish for them the power of the divine within to offer sustenance and clarity and hope.

Neither our lives nor Paul’s letter actually leave us in the same situation as poor Sylvester the cat. In our lives, most choices are not simply between something bad and something good. Some require us to choose among several good alternatives, without really knowing if we might be turning aside something valuable and meaningful. Others require us to choose among poor alternatives, weighing up the costs for ourselves and others. I never saw a cartoon with quarreling devils.

In Paul’s letter we learn that “the Flesh” and “the Spirit” are both present with us. God in Christ chooses to accompany us in the midst of all of the confusion, contradiction, and complications of human life. God does not save us or extract us from our life of humanity, God enters life with us. God makes both of our shoulders strong. Amen.