“For what the Law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit. For they that are after the flesh do mind the things of the flesh; but they that are after the Spirit the things of the Spirit. For to be carnally minded is death; but to be spiritually minded is life and peace.” Romans 8:3-6
I wish take a little time to explain complexity because complexity is a sign of life, growth, development, creativity and achievement. Our example is Jesus the Messiah and his mission. He was born to the Virgin Mary and she raised him with the help of his stepfather Joseph and when he reached the appropriate age he did what young men did in that day and began learning the family trade of carpentry. It is a reasonable assumption that he practiced his craft in and around his hometown till his early 30s when he left his carpenter’s tools behind or gave them away and he went off to be baptized by John and immediately after that he was the object of an epic attack from the evil one himself. He did not waver in his faith in God the Father and he began preaching and working miracles and he continued to ratchet up his violent, pitiless assault upon that old Serpent.
He gathered a small crowd that he organized over a very short period – between 1 and 3 years – till he was arrested and crucified. In the days of itinerary preaching he appointed men who were known by his followers to be his inner circle, his 12 Apostles. After his resurrection there was a period of instruction and then he ascended back to his Father. He told them to wait for the gift of the Holy Spirit and then go into the whole world, proclaim the good news that he, Jesus, is the Messiah of Israel come to save everyone in the world. He also instructed the Church to administer the life giving Sacraments of Baptism and the Holy Communion. On the day of his ascension there were probably around 600 believers in Jesus most of them living in and around Jerusalem. There were conversions, deaths, persecutions and apostasies. Judas was and is the most notorious apostate. Paul was and is the best-known convert with his conversion occurring just outsides of Damascus (population 40,000) around 33 – 36 A.D. The Apostles had to take account of the needs of their parishioners and make decisions in Christ’s name as the life of the little Church unfolded; they acted as a sort of stand in for Jesus – after they replaced Judas they had to figure out how to feed the poor in Jerusalem and that led to the institution of deacons and shortly after that they instituted presbyters or in English, the priests. Because of controversy emerging with the conversion of gentiles what remained of the original Apostles in Jerusalem called Church councils in order to make unified, binding decisions for the whole Church. Paul was given pretty much free reign to Christianize the gentiles and by the time he wrote the epistle to the Romans around 56 A.D. he was a seasoned missionary and Apostle with over 20 years experience of planting gentile Churches. When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans there were worldwide maybe 4-5,000 Christians. And in city of Rome even then known as the Eternal City, the Caput Mundi, the Head of the World, with a total population of 800,000 there were 6 to 10 house churches with a total Christian population of around 300 Christians. By the year 100 AD the worldwide population of Christians was certainly no higher than 20,000 and probably considerably less. In the same year, the Christian population in the City of Rome had grown to 1,600 people.
By the year 300 AD the Christian population in the city of Rome was 250,000 and the world wide Christian population was over 16,000,000 Christians who were universally considered to be deviants and bad citizens and fair game for persecution anywhere in the world. They were organized into parishes and parishes were organized into dioceses and dioceses organized into Archdioceses and there were bishops, priests, and deacons, but also nuns and deaconesses, and hospitals, convents, schools and something like an urban ministry welfare system run by the Church for anyone in need even in the days of their own persecution.
At this point in the story (300 A.D.) we are 25 years away from Constantine’s conversion, and the first Ecumenical Council of Nicaea and by then the growth of Christianity and the growth of the complexity of the Church is instructive. 1,800 bishops were invited Nicaea and their way would be paid by Constantine although we do not know the exact number of bishops who did attend, we do know that there were bishops from every region of Empire, except Britain. Each bishop was allowed to bring 2 priests and 3 deacons and so there were probably around 1,500 clergy in attendance. But looming large in the council was the recent persecution and martyrdom of Christians in 311; and at Nicaea the constant reminder of the high morality and loyalty of the Christian were the living martyrs known as the Confessors whose limp, facial deformation, and blindness declared to the World just how lame its pomp and vanity is in the estimation of Christians. When Paphnutius of Thebes arrived at the council he was greeted with kisses from his fellow Christians because of his heroism in the face of event – his legs and feet were mutilated and his right eye had been plucked out, which had become a sort of standard scaring of the Confessors. When Bishop Paul of Neocaesarea arrived he was smothered with kisses from priests and bishop and laymen. He could hardly walk without help and his arms and hands were scared and fused rigid. Paul had just been released from prison because Constantine had defeated his rival Emperor Licinius. Paul of Neocaesarea was arrested and beaten, starved in prison and both of his hands were seared with red-hot irons and paralyzed. According to accounts from Nicaea, the Emperor Constantine knelt before Bishop Paul and kissed his hands as though they were relics and said, “I will never tire of kissing these hands which have lost their life for the sake of Christ.”
Why did Constantine agree to call the council and why did he pay the expenses for all those traveling to Nicaea? Why did the martyrs happily suffer and die and why did Christians gather up their charred bones as though there were diamonds? Why did the Church love, comfort, and feed the very people who persecuted them? Why were all these Christians from all over the world at Nicaea? I can tell you why. It all had to do with the identity of the boy who was born to Mary and raised by his step-father Joseph; who around 30 years of age left his home and ended up dying on a cross to save the world and according to those who knew him best he was raised from the dead and ascended to his Father. The question that drove the 1st Council of Nicaea was “Who is Jesus, the Son of Mary? Is he truly God or not?” It was no longer sufficient to say, “Christ is Lord” without knowing what it means to call him Lord and why one should call him Lord and furthermore it was his identity that gave ultimate meaning to his mission to the broken, the breaking, the outcaste, the unclean and the thrown away child so that his mission became the Church’s mission as well.
What point am I making? First of all, the mission of Christ grew in complexity as Christians sought to obey him, love him and fulfill his mission in the world. Christ’s original commandment, not only to love one another and also to love one’s enemy, was probably at first taken to be entirely a personal ethic, was transformed by the Church in the mid-2nd century into a highly organized ministry relief and succor to anyone in need for the purpose of fulfilling Christ’s mission. Please keep in mind that, in the city of Rome, which had a population of at least 800,000, the total Christian population was no more than 1600. In the year 96 Clement of Rome wrote this:
“We know that many among us have had themselves imprisoned, so that they might ransom others. Many have sold themselves into slavery, and with the price received from themselves have fed others.”
Clement was referring to the fact that some young Christians had literally sold themselves into servitude and gave the money to the Church to feed the poor of Rome. And why on earth would anyone do that? The Roman Christians, far less than 1% of the population of the city, totally nonthreatening, essentially invisible, except to be the easy butt ends of jokes or scapegoats – young Christian men and women cared so little about their own lives and cared so deeply for Jesus that nothing in their world mattered more that him. It is true that the complexity and the size of the ministry of relief and succor offer by a Roman Church of 1600 communicants compared to the Roman Church of 250,000 communicants in Constantine’s day are vastly different. But what is the same is that none of them counted their lives as their own and they were all utterly dedicated to fulfilling Jesus’ personal mission in the world.
“For what the Law could not do, in that it was weak through the flesh, God sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and for sin, condemned sin in the flesh: That the righteousness of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”
Thus walking according to the Spirit of God is not merely refraining from sin, which ought to be second nature to Christians; it is rather living the life of the Son of God in your own flesh. Paul fixes upon two ways of life that he communicated to his original audience of 300 Roman Christians: one life lived according to the flesh and the other lived according to the Spirit. He could not make simple for them what was in fact not simple and the Romans understood that Paul was not setting up a dualism in which we should consider our bodies of flesh to be evil and our soul or spirit to be good. This is way more complex than a mere dualism would ever satisfy and one of the points I am making is that you cannot eliminate the complexity without eliminating the truth. There is no way to “keep it simple” and keep it truthful at the same time. Sometime Paul uses flesh to mean our material creation which is good and sometimes he uses the word flesh to mean living one’s life as though there is no God, as though there is nothing higher than the material or physical or to live one’s life as though power structures in this culture that claim to offer you meaning and worth are really real and God is not. The 300 in Rome understood what Paul was saying and they understood that God did not condemn flesh as though it was bad in sinful. John Chrysostom understood Paul and he makes the point that chapter 7 shows a man or a woman who has no power to resist the flesh, while those baptized are into Christ who died for us also have Christ living in us:
“Christ stood by us in our troubled flesh and condemned sin… He smote it with the blow of his death, but in this very act it was not the smitten flesh which was condemned and perished, but the sin which had been smiting (us.).”
It is now by walking in the Spirit, that is by not giving up ground that Christ has conquered and not only avoiding sin, but also, to use Chrysostom’s language, adorning our bodies, adorning our families, and adorning our Church with good works and especially with the good work of prayer, feeding the poor, taking care of the sick and homeless and worshipping of the Holy Trinity in the Holy Communion.
Paul’s message to that little band in the year 56 A.D. is that we who are in Jesus are empowered by the Holy Spirit to live a life pleasing to Christ, a way that Paul refers to as “living according to the Spirit.” But as Paul points out, as absurd as it may be, living according to the flesh, with its lethal consequences, is still a possibility for believers. Baptism effects regeneration, baptism saves us, baptism incorporates our individual souls into the mystical body of Christ, through baptism we receive the Holy Spirit, but if we are to “continue in that holy fellowship” of Christ we will “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.” If one is so presumptuous as to think he may “walk after the flesh, ” not only to sin, but to forsake the positive commandments of Christ to feed and cloth the poor, the care for the sick and homeless and because he is baptized to think there is no condemnation for him – he is a foolish man indeed. The truth is that unlike the unbaptized your will is free and you absolutely have the Holy Spirit within you and you can conquer sin so that in your life individually and in our life corporately we can fulfill Christ’s mission in the world. This is exactly what Paul says in verse 1 as he declares our liberty in Christ: