Flesh and Spirit

In our rotation of Cerebral, Spiritual, Physical and Service, we attempt to engage the whole of ourselves in worship, honoring that we are integrated beings.  This week is a physical week, and it occurs to me that our bodies, our flesh, they get a bad rap.  Have you noticed this?

For example, if you work in a more cerebral environment you are “white collar,” but in a more hands on field you are “blue collar.”  Think about school schedules…how much of the time is mental ability and how much is engaging physically?  And don’t get me started on spiritual or service.

Or how about some popular phrases like, “The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.”  This one goes back to the book of Matthew in the Bible, but my husband reminds me is also quoted in Futurama.

In the book of Romans in the Bibile, it is even more explicit.  In chapter 8 it says: “those who are in the flesh cannot please God.”  Wait, what?  Aren’t we all “in the flesh?”

Over and over again Paul, the writer of the majority of the New Testament, seems to pit the flesh and the spirit against each other.  In Romans 8:6 he says, “To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”

To flesh this out a bit, forgive the pun, it helps to have a little context.  See the majority of Paul’s audience would have been heavily influenced by Greek culture and philosophy.  Greeks would have understood there to be the abstract realm of forms…the spirit of all things in their perfect form…and then the concrete realm where we all live with the imperfect, tangible version of things.  In Greek understanding, there was a firm divide between the realms.  One good, perfect, and spiritual, the other bad, imperfect and physical.  And never the twain shall meet.

At first glance, Paul seems to agree.  Spirit good, flesh bad.  But in deeper study, Paul is continually inviting readers to live into things of the spirit.  So he must not believe in the same divide that the Greeks did.  He must believe there is a way to live into the spirit even in our fleshy existence.  Which would make sense with Jesus’s own message that “the Kingdom is among us.”  The things of spirit are here…and not some far off other realm.

This really starts to make sense when you get the more complete definition of the Greek.  The word sarx that is usually interpreted as flesh.  It more completely means, flesh, materiality, human nature, I would add cultural and societal influence too.

Likewise, the more complete understanding of the word pneuma, usually interpreted spirit, is wind, spirit, breath, I would add creative force.  Like the breath of God that breathed the world into existence.  Like the breath that keeps us going and without we are no more.

In this light, the message Paul is giving becomes much more about living into the creative force of the world, and not into the destructive ones.  Becomes about living for the intangibles of love and forgiveness and hope, and not living for money or accumulations of things. And it becomes much less about a dichotomy between our physical and spiritual selves, and more of a call to live a more integrated life.  One where we honor our physical selves by living into what is good for the whole of our existence.

In ways not fully understood by science, our intention and spirit is intimately connected with our physical being.  For example, being overly stressed, anxious and worried yields increased blood pressure, weight gain, sleeplessness.  What if we take it a step further?

In a recent episode of NPR’s OnBeing with Krista Tippet, she interviewed a brains surgeon named James Doty.  James’s particular interest is in how our intentions, hopes, dreams, character literally shape and take effect on our neural anatomy.  We’ve gone way past stress and blood pressure friends.  In ways their still developing vocabulary for, our brains and our hearts and our spirit are intimately tied together and effect each other in profound, literal, tangible, measurable ways.  How you live deeply effects your physicality, who you are is inextricable from your anatomy.

One more example that really just makes sense of the necessity of our physicality for me.  What is the most important thing in the whole world? Think not just your personal world, but the whole world.  …  Let’s think about how we would describe these things?  Perhaps love is like a vast ocean.  Or hope is like a bridge that connects us with the future.  Or peace its like a warm blanket that makes us feel like everything is okay.  How would we describe the most important things in the world, spiritual concepts, without the physical world that gives us tangible handholds?  And further, without our cerebral selves to conceptualize and our actions to do something about it?

Here’s the deal friends.  We need, and it requires, all of who we are, flesh, spirit, and mind if we want to do good and be a force for good in this world.  All the good intentions and hope and love are shaping who you are in your fullness, but they hit a dead end unless we put them to work …in what we do with our physical self, with our treasure, with our words.  So today, and once every month, we honor our physical self and engage it with our worshipful explorations building relationship with each other and with God.  And I hope you’ll continue to journey with us each week in all our explorations of God through mind, body, spirit, and service.