If the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will give life to your mortal bodies also through his Spirit that dwells in you. Romans 8:11
In Romans 8, Paul talks a lot about the "flesh" and the "spirit." It's not hard to assume that what he is implying is that the flesh is bad and the spirit is good. He associates "flesh" in his letter with the law of sin and of death, while he says the spirit is the means by which we follow the law of the Spirit of life in Christ. He says that "to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace." He even says that "the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God."
So we find ourselves wondering why Paul seems to think so poorly of our flesh. Are not our bodies creations of God, and therefore good? And why does he set up this apparent duality of flesh vs. spirit?
Gnosticism was very popular among the Greeks and Romans of Paul's day. Gnostics believed that our bodies are just temporary, earth bound vessels for our spirits. In Gnostic thinking, the body and its needs are signs of our 'lower natures,' but the spirit is of a 'higher' nature, not connected to the rather dirty body at all. Gnostics talked a lot about seeking the 'secret knowledge' of the spiritual life - a life not able to be discerned from the humble, day-to-day of human living. Some people could discern these spiritual secrets and other, less enlightened people couldn't. Gnosticism came out of the Greek schools of philosophy and was embraced by the better educated Romans, and it was a world view that fit well into the strongly class segregated society that the Greeks and Romans lived in.
This was very different from the Jewish faith and its community, which was very earthy and embodied. The Jews felt that the goodness of God was seen in their families, in their actions, and in following the law. The way you lived day-to-day -- in your body -- was tantamount to being a faithful person. In fact, in many strains of Judaism, there was no embrace of an afterlife of any kind -- one did not go on to heaven -- one's life lived on in one's children. The Jews did not have as stratified a culture among themselves as the Romans did. They saw themselves as subservient to God alone, and they worked very hard to define and refine the law of Moses so as to follow it as closely as they could and please God with their lives.
Paul was both a well educated Roman citizen and a Jew. He had a unique ability to bridge the differences between his two traditions. You can see him drawing on both of them in the way he wrote to the Romans. Because of this ability to see both sides, he had a significant ministry to the Gentiles - bringing the Jewish concept of the Messiah to Greek and Roman thinkers. Paul often used words that echoed the Gnostic dualism in his writing. Such words and images would have been familiar to them - and resonated with them. He did this to grab their interest and attention.
But even though he sounds pretty Gnostic and body-hating at first glance, Paul is actually bringing the two major ways of thinking together in this chapter. You can see this in verse 9 when he writes: "But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you."
Here Paul is not saying that we are of the spirit and therefore separate from our flesh, nor is he saying that we are of the flesh and therefore lacking in Spirit. Rather, he is proclaiming that we are in the Spirit because the Spirit dwells in our flesh. His radical proposal to the Gentiles was that the Spirit and the flesh have come together in Christ. And in verse 11, (above) he says that through Christ, our earthy, mortal bodies are raised to the level of spirit through Christ's indwelling presence.
This was a new both/and idea at the time - quite revolutionary. It bridged the divide between polytheistic and monotheistic thinking. And, of course, it triggered the spread of a whole new religious tradition - Christianity. It was a way of both/and thinking that people enthusiastically and joyfully embraced in the midst of living in a very stratified either/or society. It was good news, indeed, that God wanted to be with us in our lives just where they are and as they are. It was good news that God could come and be with anyone - not just the intellectual or economically elite who knew all the secrets. It was good news that we could access God directly through our own bodily experience. It was such good news that the way of Jesus spread far and wide very quickly!
To use more theological language, Christianity is a tradition that combines the imminence of God - God with us (imagine a horizontal line) with the transcendence of God - God over us (imagine a vertical line) and the two come together in the person of Christ at the center of the cross.
There is a whole lot of deep wisdom and imagery in the symbols and words of our tradition, with many layers of meaning. While it's easy to dismiss Paul as offensive to our 21st century sensibilities (because, let's face it, he sometimes is hard to relate to!), if you really get into teasing out his context and his more subtle rhetoric, you begin to really admire his wisdom - and the rather amazing way God used his particular gifts to spread the good news of Jesus. Or at least I do. And I hope you'll give his letters some room to work on your perceptions, too.
Note: during this season after Pentecost, we are using the readings from track 2