Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:14, from the assigned readings for Sept. 10, 2017, Revised Common Lectionary.)
This is a verse that can get us away from the Good News of Jesus in a hurry. It can be read as a Christian version of the ancient gnostic heresy, the denial of material reality in an effort to be “spiritual.”
It can of course be wielded as legalism, damning just about any pleasures we experience as “of the devil.”
But the New Testament does not discount our physical reality or disconnect it from our spiritual life. While Jesus told us not to spend our lives worrying about material needs, he was clear that they are human needs and that God cares about meeting them,
Therefore do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. (Matthew 6:31-33 ESV)
When the Apostle Paul wrote negatively about “the flesh” in Romans and other letters, he did not mean our physical body in and of itself. In the verse heard this Sunday he uses the Greek word sarkos, which does refer to our physical body but also carries the sense of our body driven solely by its own self-serving desires for pleasure and security. The Greek philosopher Plato wrote of “the appetites,” a natural part of who we are but destructive when not guided by spiritual virtue and logical judgement. We describe brutal or vulgar people as “acting like animals,” and “the flesh” might be called our “animal nature,” acting on impulse without direction from higher qualities such as a moral code or devotion to God.
Paul gives a more detailed description of this in Galatians 5:19-23,
Now the works of the flesh [sarkos] are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. (NRSV)
Notice how these works reveal our self working to crowd God and neighbor out of the picture; they are all about being pleasured, trying to control everything (idolatry – creating our own gods) and everybody (sorcery), fight-or-flight responses based on the perception of others as threats or rivals (envy is on that spectrum – “Hey, your antlers are bigger than mine. Let’s fight.” – and various efforts to distort reality, even temporarily, to dwell in deluded comfort (drunkenness, carousing, and things like these).
These works of sarkos can feel good in the short term but destroy their practitioners over time. Paul warns (and makes clear that it is a warning worth repeating) that those who live by the works of the flesh will not be part of the new heavens and new earth promised by God.
Forgive me a bit of word play here, but sarkos is from the same Greet root as our present medical term sarcoma,
Soft tissue sarcoma is a type of cancer that begins in the soft tissues of your body.
Soft tissues connect, support and surround other body structures. The soft tissues include muscle, fat, blood vessels, nerves, tendons and the lining of your joints.
Soft tissues are necessary parts of our body. They connect, support and surround other body structures for the good of the whole body. A sarcoma is these otherwise good cells turning malignant, warping and then vaunting themselves, destroying the body of which they are part and with it themselves.
The New Testament presents the church as a living body,
Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love (Ephesians 4:15-16 ESV);
…that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together. Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it. (I Corinthians 12:25-27 ESV)
Works of the flesh, like cancer, exalt an individual part and destroy the body, and ultimately the individual as well,
God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you [the Greek is plural, referring to all members of the church together] are that temple. (I Corinthians 3:17 NLT)
There are good reasons for churches to have and exercise discipline over members. It is for the good of the church overall, but it is also a form of compassion, protecting members from fatal temptations.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus tells the church,
Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. (Matthew 18:18)
It’s another Bible verse that people twist into all kinds of strange meanings, but it’s pretty clear from the surrounding verses that it is simply Jesus giving his church the authority to exercise internal discipline, always with a view to keeping the church together in love, regaining those who’ve given in to the flesh, and making its gatherings a true appearance of the presence of Christ.
I have friends involved in Benedictine communities. One of their disciplines is to have a community reading from the rule of Saint Benedict, and then confess to one another, in the gathering, how each has broken or fallen short of the rule.
It is a way for all to share in the exercise of discipline, which is what Jesus authorized and what his first followers encouraged in the church,
Paul wrote, My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. Take care that you yourselves are not tempted. (Galatians 6:1, NRSV)
And James taught, …remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of their way will save them from death and cover over a multitude of sins. (James 5:20 NIV)