Spirit and Flesh

Ezekiel 37:1-14

Romans 8:6-11

John 11:1-45

The three texts of our scripture today have given rise to three different, and perhaps problematic, theologies of the relation of spirit to flesh. We are fleshly people, evolving in nature with needs and appetites that fuel human society. Yet we are spiritual people in our relation to God. If we are not well-related to God, our spiritual lives are poor. Ideally, our spirit is supposed to be infused with God’s spirit. In fact, the most fundamental theme of Christian redemption is that the Word of God takes on human flesh and walks among us. We do not have to go to God. God is incarnate in and among us. The Christian approach to spirit is not to find it above life or in the bye and bye, but in the very flesh of life. Yet Christian incarnationalism is very difficult to grasp, and when grasped, it is still difficult to swallow.

The dry bones text from Ezekiel is one of the most vivid images in the whole Bible. One of my earliest memories is of a men’s quartet in my church in St. Louis singing, “Them bones, them bones, them dry bones.” The connection of the thigh bone to the hip bone was my first conscious awareness that human anatomy is more than skin deep. Imagine Ezekiel surveying that ancient battlefield of dry bones and calling upon them to come together with a great rattle, then grow sinews, muscles, and skin. But they were only bodies, like the doll God made out of mud according to Genesis 2. God had to breath his breath, or spirit, into Adam to make him a living creature. God tells Ezekiel to call in the divine breath to give living spirit to the army of newly enfleshed dead men. When the divine wind comes at his call, the people come to life.

The point of Ezekiel’s text, however, was not a parable about God breathing life into otherwise inanimate bodies, as in the Genesis account. Rather, his point was that Israel had been defeated and scattered in exile like a beaten army, and that God would recall Israel home. Ezekiel was rather harsh in his reasons for Israel’s defeat: they had to do with Israel abandoning God and pursuing sin and idolatry. God was behind their defeat. But God would also redeem them as a people and bring them back to the Promised Land. In Ezekiel’s text, God does not directly reassemble the bones and breathe life into them; rather, he has Ezekiel cause all this by “prophesying.” I suspect that Ezekiel saw a significant role for prophets such as himself in the redemption and re-establishment of Israel.

We Americans today might not identify much with ancient Israel’s sorry state, for we are still the nation that dictates to others. Many of us believe, however, that Ezekiel’s indictment of Israel might have some application to us. Where is our godly commitment to peacemaking, to putting the poor and oppressed first, to policies that heal those afflicted with diseases such as AIDS, to feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and freeing the prisoners? Why do we make war out of anger, set our foreign and domestic policies to feed the greed of the rich, and back away from multilateral treaties that would require some restraint from us to protect the environment and establish international law? Where did we get the idolatrous idea that we should impose our political polities on people who do not choose them? Ezekiel sounds a warning to which we should listen. He also promises hope that, no matter how far we fall, and how much we suffer the consequences of greedy belligerence, God can redeem the nation. Those who despair should remember that the bones did come together, grow flesh, and receive the divine breath of life.

Paul’s text tells a darker story. For him the term “flesh” did not symbolize God’s creation, which was pronounced good. For Paul “flesh” symbolized a commitment to sensuality, especially sexuality, that fails to put sensual impulses in their places. He probably recognized that sex in its place is good, although he does not say that. Acquisition of wealth is good if distributed with charity. Eating and drinking are good if not done to excess. The flesh is good if infused with the spirit. In Paul’s rather dour world-view, however, sex, productive work, eating and drinking, and other ordinary functions of life typically become addictions. He frequently characterized sin as bondage, as addictions are matters of bondage. He pictured human beings as so addicted to the things that otherwise are healthy needs and purposes that they lose their health and become ends in themselves, binding us in slavery to sin. Recent theologians often fault Paul for denying the goodness of creation by harping on how human beings have distorted it. Because of Paul, the Christian tradition has little good to say about sex except for its utilitarian function of reproduction, little good to say about marriage except that it can keep you out of adultery, and little good to say about enjoying life except as a foretaste of a better life to come. Paul looked for a quick ending of the present age and a flight from it to be with Jesus without much attention to the redemption of the flesh in this life. We can fault his theology of creation, perhaps.

But was he not right in so much of what he said about our bondage to the flesh? And did he not say also in our passage that, “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”? Paul did proclaim the incarnation even if he was reluctant to say much about how the indwelling Spirit of God might improve our mortal bodies of flesh.

John’s Gospel is the opposite of Paul’s in this respect. For John, Jesus was all about the loveliness of the flesh, of this life. To be sure, there is a high symbolic structure to John’s Gospel. The raising of Lazarus is the last and most spectacular of the miracles that Jesus performed, beginning with the simple, almost frivolous one of making wine out of water at the wedding in Cana. The miracles all were to show the power of God to be manifest in the world in ways most people missed. Jesus’ own resurrection was the crowning demonstration of the Lordship of God within the world. The raising of Lazarus was also the incident that set the government and temple authorities out to get Jesus. But pay attention to the loving details of the story.

The story begins by establishing that Jesus loved Lazarus as a friend, along with his sisters Mary and Martha; the other gospels never indicate that Jesus had friends, only disciples. The other miracle healing stories all have to do with first encounters, not with a pre-existing love. Then the story says that the sisters sent to Jesus who was in hiding because his enemies had tried to stone him. Jesus’ felt their need of him but with great reluctance stayed back so that sick Lazarus would die before he can go perform a miraculous healing. Jesus apparently wanted him to die so that he could raise someone from the dead, not just cure an illness. Notice Jesus’ intense dialogue with his disciples about all this, especially with Thomas. When Jesus finally came to Bethany, Lazarus had been in the tomb four days; folk religion of the time believed that souls of the dead stayed near the body for about four days and then left, meaning that after four days Lazarus was as dead as dead can be. Friends of the family from Jerusalem were consoling the sisters.

As he approached, Martha ran to meet Jesus with a somewhat incoherent speech about how he could have helped if he had been there earlier. Jesus told her that Lazarus would live again, which she interpreted to mean that he would rise at the last general resurrection. Jesus replied that he himself, there in the flesh, was the resurrecti
on. Martha, better at managing things than at theology, ran back for Mary, the contemplative one. Mary fell down at Jesus’ feet in worship and said Lazarus would not have died if Jesus had been there. At this point, Jesus’ high resolution to let Lazarus die so he could demonstrate divine power wavered. He broke down when he saw the sisters’ grief, and that of the mourners. “See how he loved him,” said the people.

When the group arrived at the tomb, Jesus broke down again. And then he called Lazarus, whose body was in a state of decay, to come out of the tomb, to come back to them, to live again. This was not a fancy resurrection to a celestial body, as Paul imagined it in 1st Corinthians. This was a call back to the flesh. It demonstrated God’s power, but not for a general resurrection of the dead. It demonstrated God’s power to bring Lazarus back to this life. Lazarus was deeply loved, by Jesus, his sisters, and the crowd. And they wanted him amongst them again.

John’s gospel is startling with its complicated theological representations of the drama of divine power, of Jesus’ sometimes outrageous claims about himself, and its apparent approval of using people’s suffering to demonstrate divine power. Yet the genius of the gospel is that it illustrates those things with the intimacy of personal love. John’s Jesus had a social life; his conversations are recorded as well as his speeches. Jesus weeping over Jerusalem in the other gospels was a symbolic act. Weeping over Lazarus was the squeezing of his heart. John says that the power of resurrection came to a man who broke down at the pain caused by what he had to do. The mighty power of God’s spirit dwelt in a man whose flesh loved, laughed, grieved, and wept.

The lesson for us is not that we should go out and attempt miracles. Rather we should love, laugh, grieve, and weep. We should not buffer ourselves against human contact. We should not pass up opportunities to enjoy friends and celebrate life’s moments. We should not fail to cultivate family and friendships, entering emotionally into all their affairs. We should not fail to bear one another’s burdens. We should not protect ourselves from grief. We should not hold back tears or protect our hearts from being broken. For it is in the intensity of open, loving, intimate personal life that we can receive God’s spirit and be truly spiritual people.

God’s spirit is not something blown into us from the outside, as Ezekiel might have thought. Our flesh with its loving, weepy sensuality should not be suppressed until covered by the Spirit, as Paul might have thought. By making our flesh supple, full, porous, and open to life’s intimacies we welcome the Spirit of God and can live intensely as we were created to be in fleshly form before God our creator, judge, and lover.

In John’s gospel, Jesus insists that his great work has been to make his disciples friends with one another and with him, and through him with God. He instructs them with his new commandment, to love one another as he has loved them. We Christians are still obligated by that commandment, to love with the fullness of incarnation. When we do that, we bear God’s Spirit and have our own true spiritual nature.

Moreover, I am pleased to tell you, friends, that when we engage life with divinely passionate love, miracles do happen. We might not make wine from water without benefit of grapes, but we can make bounties happen for the humble of the earth. We might not cure the blind by putting mud on their eyes, but we can cure them many other ways. We might not raise the long-dead but we can prevent many deaths and with sufficient love keep the memory of the dead alive for those to whom they are bound in heart. With love we can open the eyes of the spiritually blind. With love we can comfort the oppressed and dismantle their oppression. With love we can make peace where others would make war. With love we can feed the hungry and cloth the naked. With love we can break the bonds of sin and open the doors of the prisons so that all might be free. With love we can gather the people exiled in alienation and unite them as loving friends. The flesh of loving intimacy among friends is the perfect vehicle for God’s Spirit.

My friends, let our prayer be that we inhabit our own flesh with such vigor and gratitude that it becomes the natural dwelling place of God’s spirit in all we are and do. Amen.

-The Rev. Dr. Robert Cummings Neville

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