Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14
So what have we got in the readings today and what might they say to us? Did you notice where they echo each other?
We started with what I might call the ascension of Elijah. That story starts with “when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven”. Now look at the gospel reading. It began with “When the days drew nigh for Jesus to be taken up”… Did Luke have the story of Elijah in mind when he was writing his gospel – was this a conscious echo? If you look back a few verses in Luke’s gospel you find the story of the transfiguration – that definitely involved Elijah. The gospel writers were keen to point out parallels between the story of Jesus and well know stories from the Old Testament. I think this is one of them. And thinking about the Ascension of Elijah – You may be aware that Luke is the only gospel writer who includes the story of the Ascension of Jesus. He includes it twice, once in his gospel and once in Acts. So yes I think the way he tells the story is influenced by knowing this story of Elijah. And while we are thinking of parallels – in the gospel James and John want to call down fire to destroy the Samaritans: you may remember that Elijah did indeed call down fire to destroy the prophets of Baal. I’m sure they knew the story. But it gave Jesus a chance to tell them not to think that way and it gave Luke a chance to point out how Jesus was not like Elijah. That unlike Elijah when Jesus was rejected he did not respond with violence, that was not his way.
So that’s a bit about what may have been going on in Luke’s mind as he was writing.
Now I want to move onto the epistle. And I want to try to say something about the way that Paul thinks about the body. This passage is one of the places which have led some to think that he is almost saying Spirit good, body bad. It’s a passage that has reinforced the thinking of some writers who have seen our bodies as bad and not to be valued. Even saints like St Francis who clearly valued creation called his body Brother Ass and took very little care of himself. But of course we are nothing if we are not bodies. We don’t have a body we are bodies. So is Paul really saying our bodies are bad because they are the source of all those sins he lists?
The Greek word that Paul uses here – sarx is the same word that John uses when he writes “and the word was made flesh”. Somehow the implications of that very positive statement didn’t get through to many early Christian writers like Augustine who emphasized the sinfulness of being human – and especially of being sexually human. He reflected a general pattern of thinking that valued the spirit but not the physical body. And inevitably when early Christians were thinking about the implications of being Christian they were influenced by this general pattern of thinking.
So how does this fit with what Paul was saying? When you are thinking about how Paul thought you have to do three things.
The first is to remember how he came to write the letters that we have in the New Testament. They are responses to the problems which the newly founded churches were encountering. And some of these problems had arisen because of what Paul was teaching about the Jewish law. He was not setting out a carefully thought out exposition of the whole of Christian doctrine. And he is not necessarily consistent.
And the second thing to remember: you need to look at all the letters that were definitely written by Paul to get an overall view of his thinking. The epistles to Timothy and Titus were almost certainly written later by followers of Paul and then issued in his name. The epistle to the Ephesians is also generally thought to come from later followers of Paul. So it’s Galatians, the epistles to the Corinthians, Romans, Philippians, 1 Thessalonians and Philemon that we need to look at.
And the third thing. Paul likes to make his point by using contrasts.
So the background to this passage is something like this. Paul had been saying Christ frees you from the yoke of the law. You don’t have to keep all the regulations of the Jewish law in order to be acceptable to God.
But some people seem to have taken him too literally. Some seem to have thought this gave them permission to do exactly what they liked. So Paul needed to backtrack a bit. To say – you’ve misunderstood what I was saying. Like Jesus he follows what many Rabbis taught The essence of the law is to Love your neighbour as yourself.
If that is what he was concerned with why didn’t he just say so instead of wrapping it up in all that rhetoric? I think we are back to how he liked to use contrasts. I think he wanted to emphasize the gifts of the spirit Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control. Quite a list. And it’s highlighted by the contrast with all the loose behaviour he attributes to “the flesh”. You will probably remember how he reflected on how he ends up doing what he doesn’t want to do. I think he is writing about the inner conversation that goes on in all of us which can feel like two opposing voices.
Now just now I said you need to take an overall view of Paul’s thinking. And this is where it gets difficult. Because he is not consistent. But there are enough examples to make it clear that he does not regard flesh as being inherently evil. He doesn’t always use this word sarx in a moral or ethical sense. In Romans
he says of Jesus that according to the flesh he was born of David’s stock. A better translation of that would be “on a human level”.
And in his letter to Philemon he writes how dear Philemon is to him both as a man and as a Christian. In Greek the words translated as “as a man” mean literally “in the flesh” that’s sarx again.
At other times like in the present passage he is using sarx in an ethical sense – it’s often translated here as “lower nature”. If you are familiar with Freud’s language – it’s very like what he called the id. The basic drives that come from being human.
So what he thought is not straightforward. In the background is the contrast he makes between our inheritance as descendants of Adam and the beginning of the new way of being that comes from “being in Christ”.
So yes I think he is suspicious of his own human nature but he is not totally down on us as humans because of the possibility of change and growth through the continuing work of Christ and of the Holy Spirit.
I would want to recognize that we all fall short. We are all limited in what we can do both as individuals and as a community. But I would also want to be more positive about life before death and the good that we can do. Each of us is a work in progress and the whole of humanity is also a work in progress. And works in progress seldom follow a straight line of improvement.