“But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his. And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness. But if the Spirit of him that raised up Jesus from the dead dwell in you, he that raised up Christ from the dead shall also quicken your mortal bodies by his Spirit that dwelleth in you.” Romans 8: 9-11
Let me tell you why St. Paul wrote what he wrote and did what he did. This is important because when you really pay attention to his wonderfully elaborate theology and you see how he got there, how he picked up the threads of several narratives in the Old Testament and he pulled them all forward, you will see that he has formed a canon. In fact this canon of narratives structures his epistle to the Romans, but it was not pulled willy-nilly from the Old Testament, because these are the same narratives that hover over the Gospels and the Life of Christ. These narratives were the ones that the Jerusalem Church remembered to be always coming up in our Lord’s earthly ministry. That is partly the case because Israel’s identity as God’s chosen people, God’s elect nation was defined through these stories: “We are the children of Abraham,” the Pharisees on more than one occasion declared to Jesus. He responded, “…I say unto you, that God is able of these stones to raise up children unto Abraham.”
Paul wrote 13, maybe 14 epistles in which he explains in Israel’s own language how all along these narratives were really about Jesus and the Church and we certainly see this functional canon in Galatians, Romans and Hebrews. The interweaving of these Old Testament stories with the accounts our Lord’s birth, his preaching, his healing, his casting out demons, in Paul’s hands come alive theologically with such faith and love that one might be tempted to forget that that before Paul was the Apostle to the Gentiles he was the enemy of Christ and his Church. He enters the Christian story first as Saul holding the coats of some other Pharisees in Jerusalem as they stoned the deacon Stephen to death. Saul the Pharisee lived up to the Jewish narrative. It is nearly impossible to change the narrative of the world in which we have been made to feel so at home. For Paul his life was very much a whole story of high purpose and meaning without Christ. Paul was not in search for the meaning of life, he was not eaten up with guilt as a law breaker, nor was he given to gloomy introspective doubt over the killing of Stephen or Jesus for that matter. He was busy living out a terrible and false religious narrative. Let me ask this question: once we have been placed and made to feel at home in the world, in a specific narrative, why on earth would we look for something else? We would not look for something else. And neither was Paul looking for anything. But you all know well the story of his trip to Damascus and his encounter with the resurrected Christ when everything he ever believed about Israel and God’s purpose came to an end. But not entirely an end.
Paul believed that Jesus of Nazareth, a man of his own generation, was raised from the dead by the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and Paul made it clear that there were those in Jerusalem and other places as well who had been with Jesus when he was crucified and they were with him after his resurrection; for St. Paul that proved beyond any shadow of doubt that Jesus was and is the Messiah of Israel. Nothing could ever be the same again and he had to start working backward with Israel’s great narratives in order to understand the embarrassing horror of the crucifixion of the Messiah by uncircumcised pagans at the insistence of Israel’s most respected leaders and we see him doing just that in Romans 8:3. Above all Paul had to understand what the scandal and humiliation of the cross meant to God because from the point-of-view of a Pharisee it only meant that Jesus of Nazareth was an outcast, a non-person. But please understand that the only reason he was driven to understand the crucifixion was because of the bodily resurrection of Jesus. If Jesus had not been raised from the dead then Israel’s national horizon would need no re-interpretation, which would mean that his personal horizon would have remained intact. But that is not what happened. The resurrection was the existential hammer that shattered both horizons. Paul wrote what he wrote and did what he did because of the resurrection of Jesus.
In Romans chapter 8 Paul brings his new understanding of purposes of God for Israel, for all human being, indeed for all creation within our vision by declaring that what the Law could never accomplish God has accomplished through the Cross of Christ. What Paul said is that a death sentence has been passed and carried out upon sin and death in the flesh of Jesus upon the Cross. If the Messiah died it could not be unforeseen or an accident or for some small matter especially given the lengths made to preserve Israel’s existence. The Messiah’s death must mean something and it must be of ultimate purpose and value. So we see that the cross is about the death of death, of sin itself reaping its own death in the flesh of Christ on the Cross. Additionally, Paul says that we who are in Christ are set free from any condemnation. It is as though the verdict rendered on the Day of Judgment has been brought forward and the judgment rendered concerning us is “No Condemnation, Elect Child of God.” But there is even more.
“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. Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be. So then they that are in the flesh cannot please God.” Romans 8: 5-8
Paul fixes upon two ways of life: one life lived according to the flesh and the other lived according to the Spirit. Remember that Paul is 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. Flesh is a focus on life as though there is no God, as though there is nothing higher than the material or physical. It is a way of living in which man is turned back upon himself, regarding only himself and essentially atheistic. The way of the Spirit is a life of faith in the Creator who loves us and a heart opened to God and to life. Flesh-thinking is only concerned with that that will one day pass, while Spirit-thinking is opened to Christ and his love and his future that is our destiny.
We who are in Jesus are empowered by the Spirit to live a life pleasing to Christ, a way that he refers to as “living according to the Spirit.” John Chrysostom makes the point that chapter 7 shows a man or a woman who has no power to resist the flesh, while those baptized are in Christ who died for us also lives 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, our families, and 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.
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 fool. 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. This is exactly what Paul says in verse 9 as he declares our liberty in Christ:
“But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”Romans 8:9
But something else I want you to see here is another affirmation of the divinity of Christ by Paul. We who are baptized in Christ “are not in the flesh but in the Spirit,” and Paul identifies that Spirit first as “the Spirit of God,” who abides in us corporately and individually and in whom we abide as well. He then identified that Spirit as the “Spirit of the Messiah,” thus indicating once again Paul’s understanding of the Messiah’s divinity.
“And if Christ be in you, the body is dead because of sin; but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” Romans 8:10
Here is an older and more pastorally experienced Paul. He had awaited and fully expected the immediate return of Christ after his own conversion many years before writing Romans. Paul now after years of experiencing the death of Christian loved ones and knowing that he too is likely to die before the return of Christ, he puts before the Romans an explanation: “The body is dead because of sin,” simply means to explain that sin having entered creation has brought death and unless our Lord returns quickly none of us will escape bodily death. But not exactly that; yes it is true that from all appearances the incursion of sin nearly brought down the whole work of God through death, but the other truth is that though we will die, the Spirit of God who dwells in us will not allow sin and death to have the final word concerning our bodies of flesh and so he says, “but the Spirit is life because of righteousness.” The Spirit dwelling in you will raise your dead body just as he raised the dead body of Jesus. This also ought to remind us of one of those canonical narratives that I mentioned earlier, in this case Paul’s reference to Abraham back in chapter 4, who was so old that “his body of flesh was good as dead.” But Abraham ignored what others (flesh-thinking) would call hopeless and he believed God’s promise that an heir would come out of his own body and as you know that ratified the Abrahamic covenant. One way or the other, whether we live or die, when Christ returns the Spirit who indwells us will quicken our bodies of flesh and then immortality will swallow up mortality, life will swallow up death which is exactly what Paul writes to the Corinthians: