The Physical Side of Faith 2

7 12 2010

“Flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” (1Corinthians 15:50) 

 

In the face of Paul’s words here, are we to conclude that the flesh is, in fact, evil and must be obliterated?  Or perhaps we should simply indulge it since it has no relationship to heaven anyway?  If we choose to either give into the passions of the flesh OR if we strive to utterly stamp them out, we will, at least, be members of a very large group of people.  People who have, over the centuries constituted the vast majority of the human race, including many Christians.

 

There are two fairly significant problems with taking the well-trodden paths of either indulgence or mortification.  First, those paths don’t work– that is, they do not lead to a transformed, Christ-like life.  Second, these paths cannot be squared with the clear New Testament proclamation that eternal life in Christ will be an embodied life, made possible through Christ’s resurrection.  (Even more startlingly is the realization that in the Kingdom of Heaven Jesus will “be known by His scars” because the second member of the Trinity will also live out eternity with a body!)

 

So, what do we make of Paul’s (and the New Testament’s) drumbeat against the flesh?  Dallas Willard (The Spirit of the Disciplines, Chp. 6, “Spiritual Life: The Body’s Fulfillment”) makes the case that Paul and the New Testament do NOT regard the body as inherently evil– it cannot be, for God made it and called it “good.”  The problem has to do with the flesh’s usurpation of the Spirit’s hierarchical priority.  The body is good and has a crucial role to play in God’s Kingdom, but since the Garden of Eden the body has tried to wear shoes that are entirely too big for it.  Human beings, by denying their inherent need for God and His rule have turned to their bodies as the end all and be all of existence (this has been especially true in the last 300 to 400 years in Western-European thinking and culture.)  There is much inherent power in the human body but disconnected from the Spirit who directs and enlivens that power our bodies inevitably cause personal and inter-personal (national and global!) havoc, grief and destruction.  This applies to the man who over-eats and becomes a burden to his wife and children, as well as to the inventor of nuclear weapons.  Power corrupts, we like to say.  This is because our human power, our bodies, are trying to fill a role they were never designed for.

 

Living in an egalitarian society, we may have a very hard time believing the fact that God has established the universe with a certain hierarchy.  When that hierarchy is undone, as it was in the Garden of Eden, it affects negatively all other spheres of existence.  The non-egalitarian analogy is a realm where the King’s throne has recently come to be occupied by the 15 year old stable-boy.  Now, there is nothing inherently evil about the stable boy, in fact, he is a good teenager who minds his manners and has a strong sense of justice.  Additionally, he has a crucial role in the care and upkeep of the king’s horses.  But despite his best intentions his “reign” as king will have calamitous effects on the kingdom because he is ill-equipped for matters of state governance.

 

Perhaps a more contemporary analogy would be the modern corporation or institution.  Imagine a Fortune 500 company, which, just yesterday, appointed a 22 year old IT guy to take over as CEO.  Is there any doubt about the damage this young man will do to the company?  Again, this says nothing good or bad about his character or intelligence.  He is not a bad man.  He is a good man in the wrong place.  In truth, the company cannot do without him, and for the company to continue to be successful he must continue in his role as an IT specialist on the 25th floor.  Put him behind the CEO’s desk in the penthouse suite however, and he will quickly become an albatross around the company’s neck.

 

I can’t resist one last analogy from the world of sports.  I’m going to go with American Football, but any sport will do.  What would happen if the 5-time-all-pro Nose-tackle runs out onto the field and begins taking snaps as the Quarter-back?!  Nothing good, and in a hurry!  Once again, this guy is invaluable to the team– but only if he remains at his designated position.

 

(Please note:  The fact that you may personally not like “hierarchy” does not change the facts of life nor does it change the inevitable outcome which results from a proper hierarchy being upended.)

 

In the same way as these varied analogies, the human body, our “flesh” is not inherently evil.  It is gloriously beautiful, powerful, graceful AND a crucial player in God’s Kingdom– but only if it plays the role it was designed for in the first place.  When it doesn’t, you get the kind of world we now live in:  broken families, devastated nations.  The reason “flesh and blood cannot inherit the Kingdom of God” is because it was never designed to do so (apart from the leadership of the Spirit).  It is NOT because our bodies are evil, it is because we have tried to bump our flesh up God’s designated hierarchy into the seat occupied by the Holy Spirit.

 

Therefore, the truly Christian answer to the problem of the body involves neither indulgence or eradication, but redemption.  For there is One who lived among us with a body just like ours who yet walked in perfect harmony with the Spirit in complete submission to the Father.  And through the perfect sacrifice of His body, He has reclaimed our bodies by His resurrection, AND has given us the authority and power to conform our flesh to His likeness through His ascension and the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It is not an accident that the prophecy states, “He will pour out His spirit on all flesh.”  (Joel 2:28-29)

 

Now the task to hand for those whom Christ has redeemed is to daily “walk with the Spirit” and not with our bodies which have taken up the deep-rutted habit of rebellion against God.   We do this not through a negation of the body (always denying it what it wants), but rather we cooperate with the Spirit who will transform and truly fulfill our bodies’ desires with the sweet pleasures it was designed for by the One who created them.

 

This transformation, however, will never take place if we do not do the hard work of training our bodies in the ways of righteousness.  This is why the spiritual disciplines are not optional for any serious disciple of Jesus.  And while God gives redeeming grace to begin a new life in His Spirit, He will not force us further up and farther into His Kingdom which can only be accomplished through hard work on our part.  This cannot be done without the employment of the flesh.  For while we can talk in academic terms about the “body” as separable from our mind and soul, in truth no such separation is possible.  We are our bodies.  And we will be for eternity, either in one realm or the other!

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