Saturday, 9 April 2011

5th Sunday of Lent: Desire and all that holy stuff

Romans 8:6-11

To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.

Verses from John 11
1Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. 3So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ 4But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ 5Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, 6after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
7 Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ 14Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. 15For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’

17 When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. 20When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. 21Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. 22But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ 23Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ 24Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ 25Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, 26and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ 27She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’

32When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ 33When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. 34He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ 35Jesus began to weep.
38 Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. 39Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ 40Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ 41So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. 42I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ 43When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ 44The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
45 Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”
I consider myself to have been truly blessed by God with the gift of my wife. We’ll have been married for twenty two years this year and it amazes me how she continues to look more beautiful to me with each passing year. But beauty has an effect on men doesn’t it, and so it is with me.

When I look at her, and when I am with her, and maybe even more when I am away from her, I desire her, and therein begins the paradox, because at face value St. Paul seems to be indicating that the physical desire I have for my wife is a little bit suspect.

“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.” This has been a major problem for the church pretty much throughout our history. We are terribly prudish and seem somehow to have become disapproving of so much of the physicality of humanity.

And in fact writings like this have been used as grounds for strict ascetic practices throughout Christian history. Even now there are still plenty of body-denying practices throughout Christendom and at least two denominations that do not permit men both to marry and serve as priests. What’s more there continues to be strong teaching in some parts that sex with contraception is sinful because sex is meant to be about having children more than having pleasure.

I suspect that for many of us we still harbour guilt from the ways our minds wander, regardless of our age. I have certainly known much older men who have told me that very little changes in their capabilities for desire from when they were young men. And I have spent plenty of time talking to younger people about the guilt they struggle with because of the desire they feel.

But the truth is that I think we are misinterpreting St. Paul here. I think that the distinction we so often make between flesh and spirit is nothing like what he intended, and I’ll come to what I think he did intend in a moment. The truth is, and I genuinely believe this, that the desire I have my wife is at its best a reflection of the desire Christ has for the church, and the same is true of any Christian marriage. The fleshly side of our relationship is actually deeply spiritual.

So when St. Paul says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace”, how are we to interpret it? I think that the answer to that depends on understanding the concepts of gift and commitment. A moment ago I said that I consider Alison to be a gift from God, but that doesn’t then mean that I have no need to do anything further about that.

Our relationship only grows if we nurture it, and that’s why we’re married rather than simply living together. By being married we have given desire a spiritual home because we are expressing the wish that our relationship should reflect the commitment shown by Christ to his church, which is one of self-giving and self-sacrifice.

Living together just sort of drifts in to commitment, or not, but marriage makes a firm decision that, whatever happens we will be there for each other. Sure we don’t always get that one right! But we are trying to follow that model, and we are accepting day after day that each other is a gift from God to be cared for and loved. We did nothing to earn each other but must do everything to nurture each other. That is what I mean by understanding gift and commitment.

I believe that where those two concepts are held together, then whatever we have will belong in the realm of the spiritual. What then does it mean for something to be of the flesh? Well quite simply it is the reverse of that. Instead of gift and commitment there is grasping and self-interest.

Ask yourself what you want out of life now, and then ask to what lengths you will go to get it. Be honest with yourself because that is the only way to determine whether your desires are spiritual or of the flesh. An extreme example of the way of the flesh being called the way of the spirit might be Mary Tudor who, when Queen of England, was determined to turn England back from reformation. To do so she was willing to execute 283 public religious figures, mostly by burning.

To desire a spiritual outcome might have been thought laudable, but to achieve it by execution shows her desire to have been of the flesh. It was what she wanted, but it was dressed up in spiritual clothes. I wonder how often we do the same thing. If I am honest with you, I constantly have to ask myself of my reasons for any changes that I try and bring to ministry. Is it of the spirit or of the flesh?

I said a moment back that I would talk about how we are to deal with our fleshly side, the desires that make us feel guilty, and I honestly think that we also find the answer to that in the Romans reading. Listen again to the last verse of the reading:
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.

This isn’t talking about life after death. St. Paul specifically says that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us then that same Spirit will give life to our mortal bodies. This is about the here and now not ‘pie in the sky when we die’. Our physicality is holy. Those bodies that you haul around aren’t chattels for a soul waiting to escape when you die: You are a living soul, made holy by God.

The Holy Spirit sanctifies your mortal bodies and everything that we feel, and all those desires that cause us difficulties can be made holy when we give them over to God, and they can deeply and positively affect our spiritual journeys. If we can bring discernment about what needs to be changed to God, then God can bring the Holy Spirit to the party who can transform us.

And if you still have doubts about what I’m saying, that God hallows and values our mortal fleshly bodies, then remember this, not only did Jesus come as a human being, but when he raised Lazarus from the dead, he raised him as a mortal. He restored him to this life. Lazarus didn’t receive a get-out-of-jail-free card that meant he immediately passed into immortality. Like us he still had to grow old and die.

You, just as you are, with all your desires and infirmities, have been made holy to God. You are sanctified and indeed you are a temple because the Holy Spirit of God dwells in you. So when this Lenten season of fasting is over, have a party! Enjoy yourself. Dance, drink, laugh, run, walk and enjoy being human. You are created in the image of God, and if that isn’t worth celebrating, I don’t know what is! Amen

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