Thoughts on the Second Reading for the Fifth Sunday in Lent


Painting by Alexander Clemens

His Spirit Dwelling In You

Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh;
on the contrary, you are in the spirit,
if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.
Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.
But if Christ is in you,
although the body is dead because of sin,
the spirit is alive because of righteousness.
If the Spirit of the one who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you,
the one who raised Christ from the dead
will give life to your mortal bodies also,
through His Spirit dwelling in you.
Romans 8:8–11

This text on first reading is about the persistent warfare between the desires that seem to dwell in our flesh and the higher and better life in the Spirit that the Gospel promises.   And it is that, but this text also enshrines Paul’s Gospel of the resurrection. The body/soul disjunction, the split between spirit and soul and mind, variously conceived as eternal and undying, on one hand, and on the other the corruptible body, flesh and matter is among the oldest practical commonplaces in the history of mankind.   It lay at the center of Orphism and was assumed with varying interpretations and images by the majority of philosophers, excepting a few like Lucretius, who solved the problem by assuring his followers that death ended consciousness, thereby obviating the problem or promise or opportunity, or perhaps threat, posited by the seeming transcendence or eternity of the soul.    

In a general way, the theology of the early Church did not argue the natural eternality of the soul as separable from the body.  Judaism assumed the persistence of personal identity when, “taking into account the resurrection.” Judas Maccabeus ordered prayers for the idolaters who had fallen in battle and sent two thousand drachmas to the temple in Jerusalem “to provide for a sin offering” (II Maccabees 12:39-45).   Judas commended prayers for the dead in language that did not suggest that they were disembodied spirits. Jesus teaches that the redeemed will sit down with the saints at the messianic banquet and the prophet John looks forward to the day when Jesus will wipe every tear from the eyes of those who have suffered for the sake of Christ; He also teaches that because of sin the whole person, body and soul, might be cast into hell.  

When the assumptions of Judaism ran head on into the dualism of Hellenism, the question of the bodiliness of the Savior and of the resurrection of the bodies of the saints became pressing.  There was an entire anti-church dedicated to the proposition that although Christ had indeed come, He had not come in the flesh. Thus the Gospel writers were quick to include those memories that demonstrated the fact of the resurrection of Jesus in His fleshly body of glory, and it was these, the encounters of the apostles with the risen Lord, confirmed by the Pentecostal gift, that set the apostolic mission on the road.    It was Paul, who carried the Gospel into the intellectual terrain of Hellenism, into Athens, Ephesus and Rome, who encountered the anti-resurrection dualism of those to whom he had been sent. And it was that encounter that caused Paul to develop his theology of the resurrection of the body, a fact that Jesus had demonstrated but regarding which He had left only clues, principally the teaching that in the resurrection the righteous will share in the glory of the angels, which, it might be added, does not mean that Christians will become angels, but rather that we will share in the glory of life in the presence of the Father.  

Paul was given the task of explaining this to the Greek world.

This he did first of all  by rejecting decisively the doctrine of the bodyless, ‘spiritual’ resurrection  proposed by some at Corinth (I Corinthians 15:12–28, I Timothy 1:20, II Timothy 2:17). He was not the only apostle who spoke to the dualism that during their lifetimes was  developing into another religion. John was careful to remind the readers of his Gospel that the crucified Christ was human, one from whose side water and blood flowed (John 19:34) , one who appeared “in the flesh” to Thomas (John 20:28).  

  But the principal advantage Paul enjoyed in the argument with the “spirituals’ or gnostics was the fact that he had a reason for the undeniable tendency of the flesh toward corruption and death and at the same time  a rationale for the resurrection of the body of flesh. Our bodies must die because of sin; we will be resurrected because of righteousness, that righteousness not our own but the work of the Spirit of God in us. Thus was God’s warning made effective. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day you eat of it you will die.”  The body bore the punishment of the rebellious will, so that through the long ages from Eden to Paul, there was good reason to assume the death of the body.   

           As for the soul, it was assumed throughout the Mediterranean world in a variety of proposals and images, unsystematic but held almost universally, that the soul did not die.   There was an underworld, sheol to the Jews, the underworld over which Hades and Persephone presided for the Greeks. There were embellishments. For great civic saviors there was life among the living stars, described by Cicero in the last chapter of his Republic, an image shared by Daniel (12:3).  For brave soldiers there were Elysian fields or Isles of the Blessed envisioned by Homer and Hesiod.   Egyptians might enter a perpetual cycle of re-birth. Taken together these doctrines tended to offer hope that the best things in life, beginning with life itself, might continue, overlaid upon the insight that there must somehow be cosmic justice, that the good would be rewarded and the wicked punished.   And there were philosophic footnotes. The Stoics taught that individual souls might be taken up into a world-soul. Plato hinted that good men might survive death because goodness must survive; Aristotle that the soul did not die.  

              Paul saw clearly that the resurrection of Jesus did not mean merely the survival of the soul but the resurrection of those in Christ with Him to life in glory.  And it was Peter who saw that Jesus gathered up and redeemed the past by calling the righteous from the place of departed spirts into the light of the resurrection (I Peter 3:8–19).    Thus the affirmation of the Creed that in the Spirit, before His resurrection on the third day, Christ went to those who had been disobedient and preached to them the eternal Gospel that they might be saved.  To the typical philosophic Roman death was a part of life to be borne as best one could, a shadow cast across all of existence.   

In Paul’s account there is a reason for this shadow.   The reason for death is not the natural corruptibility of the body or the flesh, the cause  of death is sin and the ultimate work of God is the undoing of the curse of Eden. Saint Athanasius in his timeless treatise  On the Incarnation deals with the difficulties God seems (as we humans might say) to face in redeeming fallen mankind.    His punishment laid upon the family of man was just, God could not simply forgive, for this would violate His eternal character and nothing would be accomplished, man would still be in rebellion.  Therefore it was necessary that one who owed no debt should pay our debt. The Savior came to teach, but more , that having proved His godhead by His works, “He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and  free mankind from the primal transgression” And not only to free us but to recreate in us the image of man as God intended us to become by the gift of the Spirit, which, working in us and with us is the first fruits of a glorious redemption leading us toward eternal life.          

We die not because the flesh is evil, but because of sin.  We live and will live because the Spirit that raised Christ dwells in us, ever working the righteousness that means life.  That same Spirit will raise us to life with Him forever. “It does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears, we shall be like Him and we shall see Him as he is” (I John  3:2). And for the present, “We ourselves who have the firstfruits of the Spirit groan inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies” (Romans 8:23).  

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