When the worship team chose the theme for this summer—our spirits and the Spirit of God—I was delighted to hear that we would be using the 8th chapter of the book of Romans. This chapter includes passages of comfort, encouragement, and faith that I dearly love: There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (8:1). For you did not receive spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption (8:15). We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose (8:28). For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (8:38-39).
Little did I imagine that I would end up preaching on a Sunday that included today’s passage, which is full of language that pits “flesh” and “spirit” against one another. You see, I have had some history with these words in the book of Romans.
Not long after I was called to Northfield UCC, I preached a sermon on a passage like this (it might even have been this one, I suppose). And I treated the words “flesh” and “spirit” as I would have in any I context I saw them. You know, like regular English words. After church, two of the congregation’s religion professors gently alerted me that I had missed the point. So I ended up having lunch in St. Olaf’s King’s Room with Bill Pohlman, and coffee at Blue Monday with Richard Crouter, while they each patiently, kindly, respectfully, taught me more about this Greek word “sarx.”
I appreciated their gracious and collegial manner in these conversations, but when I got home, I discovered that I was really rather angry. Not at these two teachers, but at the translators whose work was so easily misunderstood and misused. Countless generations of the faithful have heard these words and come to believe that “flesh”—that is, the human body and all of its biological processes—is somehow inferior and ungodly, compared to “spirit.”
The scripture introductions that Jane has used this summer have taken note of this, and she suggests other phrases to convey the complicated meaning of this Greek word: “ego-driven existence,” or “false or incomplete self.” Eugene Peterson’s Bible version, The Message, uses “obsession with self.” And Christine Woolgar, who blogs about religion and sexuality uses “what is perishable.” St. Paul’s harsh words are not directed at our physiology, they are directed towards all of those aspects of human life and relationships that are apart from God, that ignore the Divine, that avoid what is Holy. And, contrariwise, his words about life and relationships that are grounded in God, honor the Divine, and seek what is Holy—in those words, “The Spirit is Life.”
Most of us think about Jesus as being a Spirit-filled, Spirit-driven human being. But today’s story from Mark’s gospel shows us that people in his hometown (probably Nazareth at this time) did not see him this way. They saw him as “the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?” (Mark 6:3) (We’ll notice in passing the absence of Joseph and the presence of siblings in the household.) In other words, the people who heard him in the synagogue saw him only through their own worldly experience with him, through their expectations of what a carpenter should know or do, through their assumptions about his family. They did not see his true self, his Spirit.
I get that; probably you do, too. We have all had the experience of not really being seen, or of being seen in only one aspect of our complicated lives—only as the mother of a child, the partner of a spouse, the crabby person at the grocery store check-out. What is extraordinary about this particular limited vision is its result: Jesus “could do no deed of power there ” (Mark 6:5). Mark further writes that Jesus was “amazed at their unbelief” (Mark 6:6).
That phrase doesn’t quite ring true to me. My sense is that it was more a case of “mistaken identify” than lack of belief. They saw what they expected to see rather than the person who was actually present with them. And this should be familiar to us, too—think of all the parents who say, “he will always be my baby . . .” So my interpretation of Jesus lack of power in his hometown is that he could not be himself, his true self, among people who could not (or would not) see him that way, too.
Jesus may not have performed deeds of power, but the twelve that he sent out were more successful: They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them (Mark 6:13). So why was there more success on the road than at home?
Jesus called on the disciples’ best selves. He explicitly gave them “authority over unclean spirits,” and he did not weigh them down with possessions or expectations, and he gave them permission to move on when their message was not received. They made their journeys and did their work in the Spirit.
And so it is, I believe, with us. We are our best when we are moving in the Spirit—when we have set aside (even temporarily) our obsession with ourselves, our focus on what is perishable, our false selves. We are our best when we are unencumbered by possessions, when we are free to choose to stay or leave a situation, when we acknowledge that sometimes we just need to shake the dust from our feet and move along.
Those of you who know that I am a sports fan have probably been waiting for me to make a metaphorical link to the way teams play at home or on the road. That’s what I thought I might do when I chose the title for this sermon a couple of weeks ago. But it turns out that the experience of Jesus at home and of the disciples on the road is not a very good match to modern sports. The members of the Minnesota Lynx (the women’s professional basketball team) generally do better at home than on the road. Sleeping in their own bedrooms, being with family and friends, working in their familiar training facility—all of those things make them feel more like themselves. On the other hand, on the road they stay in hotels, are separated from loved ones, and work out in unfamiliar gyms. Those factors just make it harder to play well and win on the road. (Which is not to say that they don’t win on the road!) So . . . my metaphor didn’t work, my previous scholarly error about Paul and “flesh” came back to haunt me, and I didn’t get to preach on one of the beautiful passages from Romans 8.
And I’m listening to a voice from 1620, spoken by Pastor John Robinson, to the Pilgrim founders when they left Holland in 1620: God has yet more light and truth to break forth from the Word. Or to put it more positively: basketball teams find honor at home but prophets do not; the Spirit is alive when it dwells in us; and even though Paul’s words are sometimes confusing, carelessly translated, and convoluted, they are also sometimes beautiful and a blessing.