The title of my sermon is “Sarx and Soma.” I’ll bet I know what you’re thinking: the poor old fella has finally slipped off the rails. He means to talk about sex but he’s forgotten how to spell it. And what’s with Soma? Is he going to lecture us about psychosomatic medicine? I surely hope not. Actually, the subject of my sermon is confinement, something we’ve all learned about thanks to COVID-19, and in my case, thanks also to two surgeries and rehab.
Psalm 139 suggests an intimacy with God—God is in me, or I am in God—a kind of divine confinement that seems too close. “Let me out, God!” is my cry. No, I think human freedom, and the freedom built into all creation, set boundaries around confinement within God.
Another kind of divine confinement shows up in Romans, chapter 8. This is the chapter where Paul sums up the implications of his lengthy discourse on the meaning of God’s gift of grace through faith in Christ Jesus. Jane explained in her sermons Paul’s core message on the law and the gospel with such persuasive clarity that I am reluctant to dive in. In fact, I try to avoid preaching on Paul when I can. No doubt he was a pivotal figure in the founding of the Western church. And no doubt Paul got some things right: grace through faith, not works; and “The greatest of these is love.” Paul’s writings, however, are filled with problematic statements on various topics, particularly on sex and gender, that would take too long to unpack. While our Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors were accustomed to two-hour sermons, we are not.
In Romans chapter 8, however, Paul is at his creative best. He asks his readers to imagine a new life in the Spirit, in Christ Jesus. Once a person answers the call of Jesus to follow him, once a person says yes to God’s offer of grace in Jesus Christ, that person, those persons, you and I, we all become new selves, including our bodies.
I know, this sounds a bit weird. But stay with me. Precisely here sarx and ssoma explain what Paul means. (Ah hah! I bet you thought I’d never get back to sarx and soma.) These are not signs of my mental slippage. These are two Greek words Paul uses to explain the new life in Jesus Christ. Sarx means flesh. Soma means body. The person who follows Jesus, who says yes to the offer of grace through faith receives a new selfhood. This new self is animated by the Spirit of God, the Spirit of Jesus Christ making a new soma, a new body. This new person is loving, compassionate, justice-seeking, and filled with joy and hope.
In contrast the person of sarx, the person of the flesh, can never get quite enough—power, money, ecstatic enjoyments from food, drink, sex, drugs—and so is condemned to a life of frustration and futility. In her sermon last Sunday Sandy clearly explained Paul’s thinking about flesh and body, sarx and soma. Paul does get carried away, here, I think. Pleasures of the flesh can be life-enhancing if they do not become the consuming purpose of one’s life.
Here’s what I make of all this: If we can follow Paul’s example and creatively imagine that we are becoming a new person in Jesus Christ, then we can become, more and more, living examples of his spirit. We can break free from the snare of white privilege. We can relate to our diverse neighbors with loving compassion rather than suspicious fear. We can risk expressing unpopular views. We can act for justice without seeing immediate results, or even unintended consequences. We can find and create moments of joy and hope in the midst of bleak times.
Speaking of bleak times, I said earlier that the real subject of my sermon is confinement. Thanks to COVID-19 and how little we know about it, we have all been confined more than we can stand. My confinement has been longer because of surgeries beginning in January. My confinement continues in assisted living, where I can leave only for medical appointments.
Most of my caregivers at the two hospitals and two care facilities where I have lived are Africans, though with a few Asians as well. I decided to try to mitigate my resentment at my fate by treating my helpers with kindness and respect, by not initiating conversations on race, but not avoiding that subject if it came up. To do that I had to encounter the racism deep within my psyche. So my confinement became an opportunity as well as a grind.
Each of those ideal types sketched by Paul, sarx and soma, represents both a choice and a confinement. We choose to live by the flesh or by the body of Christ. Then our choices become habits, and then we feel confined because we are confined. But the good news of the gospel is that destructive confinements are not permanent, that we can turn and be turned by the grace of God. We can let the old sarxian self die and be reborn into the image of Jesus Christ, into hid resurrected body.
Like all ideal types, Paul’s sarx and soma are not as clearly edged as he makes them seem. We are probably all a mix of the two. But in a messy, ambiguous world it is important that we choose a confinement that is liberating, not one that is destructive. I’m not very far along on that path, and my time is short, but that path gives me hope and joy. I hope you may have found it so.
I conclude with a poem I found lately:
Sarx and Soma went to Moma
To see the big Picasso.
Said Sarx to Soma, let’s find a bar.
I need a deink, or two, or more!
Why so? Asked Soma, tell me please.
It’s death and ruin from the sky
Said Sarx. I have to ask the question, why?
Human nature, Soma said,
But aren’t we made for love? Asked Sarx.
Love it is, said Soma, that I know,
But first that old self must let go,
A final breath, a kind of death,
Then new life begins its flow.
About all that I’ll have to think,
Said Sarx. For now, how about that drink?
And, said Clyde, Amen.