Our weekly devotion from the sainted Rev. Earl Fedderson:
In my experience, many dualisms in the Scriptures are easily misunderstood — sin and grace, Law and Gospel, faith and works, light and darkness, death and life, letter and spirit, soul and body, even good and evil. Many of these are related; some refer to the same things. In the Epistle for Sunday, St. Paul uses one of his favorites — flesh and Spirit. Some contemporary translations attempt to avoid possible misunderstanding by translating “flesh” with “sinful nature” and capitalizing “Spirit.” This helps to avoid the mysticism that views everything physical as bad and everything spiritual as good, but it doesn’t clarify much else.
Part of the problem is that these words are used with different meanings in different contexts. The fact that they are not just simple words, but represent profound concepts continues the difficulty. Paul’s word “flesh” conjures up thoughts about animal passions, instincts and appetites. Actually, these physical needs and desires can be healthy, God-given attributes.
On the other hand, the human spirit is usually seen as that vivacious enthusiasm typified by Zorba the Greek and contrasted by Casper Milquetoast. Are these the contrasting elements St. Paul is talking about? What about mind and emotion — where do they fit in? Are flesh and spirit external forces, like heat and cold, causing mixed reactions in individuals? Or are they internal factors bound together inside the person, like a piece of bi-metal, responding predictably to external changes?
I believe that each person is a unique combination of psychological, emotional, mental and physical ingredients. These are not separate characteristics loosely tied together yet operating independently, but a compound resulting in a unified whole. I also believe that every one of us, in each of our parts and all of our person, is at odds with God and each other. A deep-rooted suspicion permeates every bit of us. You can call it sin, selfishness, fallen nature, old Adam or, like Paul, “flesh.” It is within us and it affects all the rest of us. It turns healthy passion into lust and normal appetite into gluttony. It transforms amoral emotions into immoral deeds — anger to hatred, admiration to covetousness, etc. It even turns some of the most admirable qualities of the human spirit into evil — ambition to greed, creativity to trickery, caring to using, love to manipulation, worship to ritual and faith to religion.
“Flesh” is inside us; “Spirit” comes from outside. The Greek and Hebrew words from Scripture, which we translate as Spirit, are also the words for breath. God breathes both life and new life into us. The Spirit also transforms every bit of us. It makes passion the fullest expression of genuine love. It makes bread and baloney shared better than steak and lobster alone. It lets emotions serve relationships and recreates the human spirit. It touches ambition with integrity and creativity with humility and thankfulness. It replaces suspicion with love and faith. It replaces our striving for a high standard of living with a high standard of life.
In the Gospel lesson for Sunday, we have a prime example of the necessity of God’s Spirit in our lives to replace the flesh. Jesus unfolded to His disciples, point by point and with gruesome clarity, the events that would take place on their last trip together to Jerusalem. No matter how clearly He told them, their flesh would not let them accept the facts. They wanted a king and an earthly kingdom. The mother of James and John ignored His passion completely and asked that her sons become right and left hand men in His kingdom. Without the Spirit, the Zebedee brothers could not comprehend the self-giving love of Christ — if it isn’t sensory (flesh) then it doesn’t make sense. But they shared their mother’s ambition and they wanted positions of authority.
The other disciples did not understand Jesus either, but they sure understood their “flesh-fellows,” James and John. The ten resented the play for power and were probably ready to throw Mrs. Zebedee and her boys out of the camp. The flesh succeeded in separating them all from Christ and was about to separate them from each other. But Christ would have neither. God’s Spirit is not satisfied to rejoin us only to Him. It brings us ever closer to each other. It sews up the seams in the human race and races.
The truly remarkable part of the story is Jesus’ reaction. I am beginning to believe that faith is the result of a confrontation with the unbelievable. Jesus’ response to James and John and then to the other ten is truly unbelievable. As the poet said, “Love so amazing, so Divine, demands my soul, my life, my all.”
The timing of Salome’s request is shocking. Jesus had just said: “We are going up to Jerusalem, and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!”
Talk about “in one ear and out the other!” Even if the mother had not heard that message, the sons had, and Matthew records nothing like, “The two of them died with embarrassment at her words.” The truth of the matter, I suppose, is that Jesus’ attempt to reveal His mission and destiny was inconceivable and incomprehensible to any of His disciples, let alone their parents.
The indignation of the ten disciples toward the sons of Salome was not due to the brothers’ attempt at grabbing the glory. It was because the ten either didn’t think of it first, or were too bashful to come right out and ask for it.
Kierkegaard told a story about a ragged, barefoot peasant who went to the city to sell his produce. He made enough money to buy new shoes and clothes. He had enough left to get thoroughly drunk, so he did. Staggering home later, he grew weary and fell down in the road fast asleep. A wagon came along, and the driver shouted at him to move or his legs would be run over. Under the influence, the peasant awoke, looked at his legs with new pants and shoes, and responded, “Drive on; they’re not my legs.” Under the influence of sin, the flesh is so concerned with self that no one else matters. The result is painful and deadly to the very self that seems to be so important.
St. Paul wrote that Christ came in the likeness of sinful flesh, and that in Him, God condemned sin — He put sin to death, rather than us. Even by the Spirit that kind of love and mercy is incomprehensible. I do not understand it. But, thanks to the Spirit, I believe it. Together, you and I are a community of disciples with a Master whose greatness is the service He renders to us. His Spirit is continually leading us away from the flesh, with its petty jealousies and not-so-righteous indignation, and toward a loving, faithful service to God and each other.
Jesus warned that serving in His mission was dangerous. He never promised a thorn-free rose garden. Even He did not expect a thorn-free rose garden — He did expect a crown of thorns. But He would bring the Father’s unlimited love to the world no matter what it cost Him.
People could not even imagine that such a love could exist, let alone that God had such love for them. They did everything conceivable to make God retaliate in anger and revenge, but right up to His final breath on the cross, Jesus continued to love, accept and forgive. The horrible insults, malevolent and painful torture, and murderous acts of those people are way beyond the selfishness and indignation of Jesus’ disciples, but Jesus’ amazing response was the same. His mission was to bring God’s love, acceptance and forgiveness to a world so influenced by the flesh that they couldn’t believe it. Our mission is to bring His Spirit to them in Word and Sacrament so they can.