The hand of the Lord came upon me, and he brought me out by the spirit of the Lord and set me down in the middle of a valley; it was full of bones. He led me all round them; there were very many lying in the valley, and they were very dry. He said to me, ‘Mortal, can these bones live?’ I answered, ‘O Lord God, you know.’ Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to these bones, and say to them: O dry bones, hear the word of the Lord. Thus says the Lord God to these bones: I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. I will lay sinews on you, and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put breath in you, and you shall live; and you shall know that I am the Lord.’
So I prophesied as I had been commanded; and as I prophesied, suddenly there was a noise, a rattling, and the bones came together, bone to its bone. I looked, and there were sinews on them, and flesh had come upon them, and skin had covered them; but there was no breath in them. Then he said to me, ‘Prophesy to the breath, prophesy, mortal, and say to the breath: Thus says the Lord God: Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.’ I prophesied as he commanded me, and the breath came into them, and they lived, and stood on their feet, a vast multitude.
Then he said to me, ‘Mortal, these bones are the whole house of Israel. They say, “Our bones are dried up, and our hope is lost; we are cut off completely.” Therefore prophesy, and say to them, Thus says the Lord God: I am going to open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people; and I will bring you back to the land of Israel. And you shall know that I am the Lord, when I open your graves, and bring you up from your graves, O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
1 Out of the depths have I cried to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice; •
let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.
2 If you, Lord, were to mark what is done amiss, •
O Lord, who could stand?
3 But there is forgiveness with you, •
so that you shall be feared.
4 I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him; •
in his word is my hope.
5 My soul waits for the Lord,
more than the night watch for the morning, •
more than the night watch for the morning.
6 O Israel, wait for the Lord, •
for with the Lord there is mercy;
7 With him is plenteous redemption •
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.
To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law – indeed it cannot, and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
But you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, though the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. 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.
Now a certain man was ill, Lazarus of Bethany, the village of Mary and her sister Martha. Mary was the one who anointed the Lord with perfume and wiped his feet with her hair; her brother Lazarus was ill. So the sisters sent a message to Jesus, ‘Lord, he whom you love is ill.’ But when Jesus heard it, he said, ‘This illness does not lead to death; rather it is for God’s glory, so that the Son of God may be glorified through it.’ Accordingly, though Jesus loved Martha and her sister and Lazarus, after having heard that Lazarus was ill, he stayed two days longer in the place where he was.
Then after this he said to the disciples, ‘Let us go to Judea again.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Rabbi, the Jews were just now trying to stone you, and are you going there again?’ Jesus answered, ‘Are there not twelve hours of daylight? Those who walk during the day do not stumble, because they see the light of this world. But those who walk at night stumble, because the light is not in them.’ After saying this, he told them, ‘Our friend Lazarus has fallen asleep, but I am going there to awaken him.’ The disciples said to him, ‘Lord, if he has fallen asleep, he will be all right.’ Jesus, however, had been speaking about his death, but they thought that he was referring merely to sleep. Then Jesus told them plainly, ‘Lazarus is dead. For your sake I am glad I was not there, so that you may believe. But let us go to him.’ Thomas, who was called the Twin, said to his fellow-disciples, ‘Let us also go, that we may die with him.’
When Jesus arrived, he found that Lazarus had already been in the tomb for four days. Now Bethany was near Jerusalem, some two miles away, and many of the Jews had come to Martha and Mary to console them about their brother. When Martha heard that Jesus was coming, she went and met him, while Mary stayed at home. Martha said to Jesus, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died. But even now I know that God will give you whatever you ask of him.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Your brother will rise again.’ Martha said to him, ‘I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.’ Jesus said to her, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?’ She said to him, ‘Yes, Lord, I believe that you are the Messiah, the Son of God, the one coming into the world.’
When she had said this, she went back and called her sister Mary, and told her privately, ‘The Teacher is here and is calling for you.’ And when she heard it, she got up quickly and went to him. Now Jesus had not yet come to the village, but was still at the place where Martha had met him. The Jews who were with her in the house, consoling her, saw Mary get up quickly and go out. They followed her because they thought that she was going to the tomb to weep there. When Mary came where Jesus was and saw him, she knelt at his feet and said to him, ‘Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.’ When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who came with her also weeping, he was greatly disturbed in spirit and deeply moved. He said, ‘Where have you laid him?’ They said to him, ‘Lord, come and see.’ Jesus began to weep. So the Jews said, ‘See how he loved him!’ But some of them said, ‘Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?’
Then Jesus, again greatly disturbed, came to the tomb. It was a cave, and a stone was lying against it. Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, already there is a stench because he has been dead for four days.’ Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed, you would see the glory of God?’ So they took away the stone. And Jesus looked upwards and said, ‘Father, I thank you for having heard me. I knew that you always hear me, but I have said this for the sake of the crowd standing here, so that they may believe that you sent me.’ When he had said this, he cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’ The dead man came out, his hands and feet bound with strips of cloth, and his face wrapped in a cloth. Jesus said to them, ‘Unbind him, and let him go.’
Many of the Jews therefore, who had come with Mary and had seen what Jesus did, believed in him.
Sermon on Passion Sunday
I have been thinking a lot about Paul’s theology this Lent and how the tradition may have got it all wrong – that is because I have been interested in the notion of human being as ‘incarnate’. Yes, that is right, I am using that same word which we use to describe God coming down at Christmass.
This passage from Paul, however, is one of the many difficult readings we have been going through this Lent. The phrase that causes all the problems is a very simple one – ’εν σαρκε en sarke – or as we would say “in the flesh”. Such a simple phrase – but it is a phrase on which so much of our homiletic and theological thinking is based. We need only think about the fire and brimstone preachers of the Puritan age, or the Augustinian–Lutheran heritage in theology.
I found myself looking at the word translated as “flesh” in a concordance online the other night and found some interesting points about the phrase. We all know that the word, flesh, is used quite a bit by Paul. But are we clear about its meaning? For instance, I read,
Paul uses this expression with designed ambiguity in order to involve also the ethical sense, ‘to be in the power of the flesh,’ to be prompted and governed by the flesh, …[to be involved] in things pertaining to the flesh (body).
Secondly it is “used of natural or physical origin, generation, relationship.” The third way the phrase is used suggests “the sensuous nature of man, ‘the animal nature’: without any suggestion of depravity.”
Another use of the word is in the phrase pasa sarx meaning literally “all flesh,” but implying “a living creature (because possessed of a body of flesh), whether man or beast.” This, I would say, is an older use of the word and is not necessarily tainted by later christian theologians to mean the “corrupted nature” – the flesh – of humanity.
I think we need to get back to that more ancient view of human nature – “enfleshed” as the incarnation theories have it. In other words, humanity is bound up in space and time, this when and where, in which each one of us finds ourselves. Humanity is not sinful from the beginning. (After all, didn’t God say that everything created was good?) Something changed after Adam was driven out of the Garden of Eden, when Adam became conscious of good and evil, when Adam lost his naive innocence, when he knew about good and evil. — Adam is the first human as an archetype, the fellow we all look to in order to see what we are. Adam held innocence in his grasp until he reached for knowledge. He dropped it and so missed the mark – thus he sinned. Both innocence and knowledge could not be held together – that is what we normally conclude, but have we been wrong for such a long time? Did we only lose naivete when Eve and Adam symbolically ate of the fruit of the tree at the centre of the garden? We, I think, participate in that event when we consider our complicity in acts of any of the 256 shades of evil, when we have fallen away from the one Good. That, I think, is what we have inherited from the garden, the colour vision of good and bad.
This notion of vision should bring us back to our enfleshment with a bump, for seeing is a fact of life which exposes our very real incarnation. Although we do not physically touch what we see, the phantasm of sight – if I may use that Thomist expression – is what we understand. What we see is a re-presentation of the object, not the thing itself, but we do consider we have a grasp of the thing when we look at it, don’t we? We don’t consider that image as merely a mental construct. However, we actually do know that we don’t have the thing itself in our minds. And so that is when we consider the magnificence of our existence. There is that soul at the heart of our experience, that spiritual entity which we say is the essence of our very selves.
This long digression about the logic of symbols brings us back to our use of the word flesh. Normally we see ourselves as coextensive with our bodies. In our everyday lives, we do not see a disjunction between this soul and this body, though there are times when we wonder, with Paul, why the flesh is so weak, while the spirit is so willing.
I hope, in these few comments, I have united human being into a whole, that whole we lost sight of when the tradition lost it in the mire of original sin – that swamp of desire and immorality in which the Church universal lost the innocence of humanity, when humanity’s naivety was abandoned to dualism. Returning to the older understanding of flesh, let’s consider:
Flesh, sarx, when either expressly or tacitly opposed to the Spirit of God, το πνευμα (του Θεου), has an ethical sense and denotes “mere human nature, the earthly nature of man apart from divine influence, and therefore prone to sin and opposed to God”
I think we all agree with this expression of how the flesh stands juxtaposed to the spirit. But we have lost the “ethical sense” – that the flesh seems to stand against the influence of God. Or, rather, shouldn’t we say, the flesh is what is to be influenced by God? Isn’t this where we go wrong in thinking about ourselves? We forsake our real, incarnate selves in order to redeem it by saying only our spirit matters.
The tradition sees “whatever in the soul is weak, low, debased, tending to ungodliness and vice” as that fleshly part of human life. But as Martin Luther suggests, “Paul uses ‘flesh’ of the whole man, body and soul, reason and all his faculties included … ” The flesh is the whole person, Paul concludes, but what of sin? I think that sin is not the striving after the flesh, rather sin is the forgetfulness of God, that impulse of the spirit which is what pushes us to surpass the sum of our parts. We sin when we fail to reach beyond the limits our parts, when we miss that mark set so high in the sky of our own very real lives, a mark we have described for ourselves.
You must not understand ‘flesh’, therefore, as though that only were ‘flesh’ which is connected with unchastity.
This nature of the flesh is where the human being finds him- or her-self, thrown into the world with a particular configuration of body and soul. This is the human condition, incarnate and wanting to surpass all constriction.
I think the tradition has stated the juxtaposition of spirit and soul a little to harshly. I think we are guilty of not joining the whole of human experience in our enfleshed being. Rather, I think the Holy Spirit is always at work, though we may not recognise it, and in that ignorance we become sinful. The prophet speaks in our OT lesson –
‘O my people. I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live, and I will place you on your own soil; then you shall know that I, the Lord, have spoken and will act, says the Lord.’
This implies the incarnate nature of the people of God, that “you [are] on your own soil.” And what about this event of Jesus at the tomb of Lazarus? Doesn’t this speak of the very real flesh which Jesus does save? Doesn’t Jesus save us in our incarnate lives, just as he raised Lazarus? We are saved here and now and can show that we are. Jesus “cried with a loud voice, ‘Lazarus, come out!’” Do we hear that call as we dwell in the caves of ignorance? Each one is that Lazarus who should rise up from the tomb of our own making and follow Jesus.