Flesh or Spirit, Body or Soul?

I want to talk about bodies.

We could talk about sex, or food, or fashion, or exercise. We could talk about our favorite sounds or smells. We could talk about modern art, why I love it, why you hate it. Or how about we talk about our body backgrounds, like how our race, class, gender, sexuality, age, ability, etc., etc., affects the way we view our own bodies, and the way other people view our bodies, and the way we view the bodies of everyone else.

The fact is, whatever we talk about, we have no experience outside of our bodies. And we have no way of communicating our experience without our bodies. The act of talking requires a mouth. Writing requires a hand (or, thanks to the miracle of science, an eyeball to point at letters on a screen). Sign language requires both eyes and hands. Even Helen Keller sent and received communication through her body.

Everything we do, say, think, feel, see, smell, taste, hear is experienced from within our own body. How we interpret our experience affects how others receive that information through their own body, just as their interpretation of their own lived experience affects ours.

So, folks, if bodies are so, very important to us, why are Christians so apt to hate on bodies and bodily desires? Why on earth do we think our bodies are something to be ashamed of, or overcome, or sinful?

Why do we shame people for their God-given miraculous embodiment?

I have a bone to pick with whoever started this fad. And I blame Paul.

Oh, Paul, you wonderful, horrible, awe-inspiring, awful, confusing, maddening, loving, misunderstood man! So much of Christianity today is attributed to you. Even writings no one is sure you even wrote get blamed on you or uplifted in your name. Poor guy.

But you say some weird stuff.

 

Therefore, brothers and sisters, we have an obligation—but it is not to the flesh, to live according to it. For if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. -Romans 8:12-13

Y’all, I’m just not sure how to live any other way but according to the flesh. That’s literally all we have to live by. So here’s Paul telling us the only way to live is to live by the Spirit. We have to put to death the misdeeds of the body if we want to have any hope of living.

Paul, what is this Spirit you speak of, and how do I live by it if I can’t see it?

Here’s the problem. We read this passage and we immediately see a dualism. Flesh v. Spirit. And because of centuries of patriarchal and privileged interpretations, we’ve been made to believe that obviously the spirit is the better of the two. Which means flesh must be bad. So now we live in this crazy dualistic world where Christians truly believe we must be something other than our bodies, and that when our bodies die, we will be released from the cage of flesh and float up like a ball of beautiful light to another world where we will swirl around with other balls of light and everything is happy and nice.

Ew. I don’t wanna go there. BORING.

Let me posit something different. Let’s try, just for a minute, to shift our focus away from the clouds, away from the hope that we can one day get free of our bodies and our “sinful” desires and live pure, body-free lives in heaven. Let me say that I do not think that is in any way what God wants us to hope for, and I do not think that is what Paul means us to think.

Bodies can screw up. Absolutely! Addiction, torture, eating disorders, sexual assault, murder and capitol punishment… these things are all real and they are awful. But we have the good news of Christ, which is that these things can be overcome, that the death of sin, isolation, and despair have been defeated. This is not to say these things don’t happen or don’t matter, but, as Paul says, we have a responsibility to put these things to death. Not just in ourselves, but in our society. Maybe the misdeeds Paul talks about are not our Godly desires, but our social sins that ignore God’s will for our lives in community. We are called to put to death hunger, to put to death poverty, to put to death anything that separates us (not “me,” not “you,” but us) from the love of God. And we can do this because Christ showed us how. And we want to do it because Christ has reconciled us, and continues to reconcile us to God.

Perhaps the Spirit Paul talks about is not our own, individual non-body dependent spirits, but the Spirit of God, that prevenient grace that makes our relationship to God and to one another possible. And to live by that Spirit means we are required to care about what happens to our brothers and sisters, to our world, to all of the cosmos: to God’s beloved Creation.

We don’t live according to what we want because too often we want to ignore that fact that this world is hurting. We want to ignore the fact that we are supposed to do something about it.

It might help if I share something I recently posted on my facebook wall (tweeked a little):

I believe there are many truths to be found in the New Testament, one being that we have been made free to seek and to accept joyful relationship with the Triune God and with each other. This relationship requires the whole body: feeding bodies, clothing bodies, inviting bodies into community regardless of race, gender, class, age, ability, or sexuality. I do not believe bodies or their “fleshly” desires are negative or something to be overcome, but I do believe they can be abused, shamed, and humiliated when treated without respect. I think the spirit/body dualism throughout Christian history has caused much more harm than good and really just makes no sense to me or my theology. While there are certain elements of asceticism I find valuable, I do not think bodies or their desires are something to deny or work through. The miracle of the incarnation tells me that God values our bodies and seeks relationship with us through them. We are not balls of energy for a reason. We are flesh and bone and blood. We crave sex and food and touch and music. I find God in the experience of these things, not in the denial of them. There is a definite time for sacrifice and for an evaluation of how faithful I am living at any given moment. I am ever thankful for God’s grace and the Spirit’s guidance on this journey. As I prepare to wrap up my pentultimate semester of seminary, and look forward to a life of ordained ministry, I only hope I can participate with God in the healing that must happen of all those who have been told their God-given desires are wrong or bad or sinful.

Thanks be to God for our bodies. We are the hands and feet of Christ in the world. Sex is good. Food is good. Music and dance and movement and singing and hugging and feeding and clothing and nurturing are all GOOD.

So let’s stop telling each other our desires are sinful when what we desire connection with each other. But let us seek God in this connection, and listen to the Spirit when we make mistakes. And let us put to death those things that separate us from each other.

Amen.

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