Understanding the Flesh

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Two weeks ago, I walked in the Pride Parade as part of the United Church of Canada’s contingent. I was one of many holding a gigantic Pride flag .

The parade was very well attended this year – by some estimates, over 1 million people[1] lined the streets.  

And in those crowds, I saw something I had not appreciated before. Standing along both sides of Yonge Street there was a variety of body sizes, shapes and types that was astounding. There were naked men, fully shaved, wearing only boots and their tattoos. There were topless women with their nipple rings and pride coloured make up. There were young people and older people, heavy and slight, tall, and short. There were one month old babies with their mothers. There were trans people of all kinds, where signs of masculinity and femininity were distributed in all sorts of ways. There were muscular bodies and soft bodies of all kinds, of all genders.  

And what struck me was how rarely we see these kinds of bodies on television or in the movies. It was like I was seeing the 150 different kinds of human bodies after being raised on media that tells us there are only 20 kinds of bodies. I had this feeling that we have all been conned. That the vast array of bodies seen at the Pride parade, proudly present in all manners of dress and undress, that this was a more honest depiction of who we are than what we see in the mirror of media.  

Our culture struggles over how we should feel about our bodies. We tend to see our bodies as the container for our minds, containers that don’t always behave or look the way we would like. We may be disappointed in how the aging process is playing out as muscles lose their tone, hair changes colour or falls out, how we compare to what we looked like when we were younger. As we age, we can feel like our bodies are betraying us as we ache in the places we used to play, as Leonard Cohen put it.  

That idea that there is a division between our true self and our bodies goes back a long way. Rene Descartes in the 1600s famously declared that “I think therefore I am.”  He said that the body was simply a natural machine, like a car that carries around our soul. Descartes in turn was influenced by ideas from Christianity, where body shaming and anxiety had a long history already. Some of the blame for that tradition in Christianity can be traced back to the Apostle Paul, who we heard from today. In this reading from his letter to the Romans, he appears to be drawing a pretty clear contrast between the flesh and the spirit. He complains that his flesh seems to have a mind of its own, and what it wants is in clear conflict with what the Spirit demands. He struggles with this tug of war inside him – his flesh with its desires, and his Spiritual yearnings that should be able to rise above these temptations.  

I think all of us can think of times when we have felt that kind of conflict. Have you ever tried to go on a diet? I see a lot of heads bobbing up and down. You know that struggle when you’ve decided to give up on a kind of food you really like, and then that craving comes back, and you find yourself with a mouthful of ice cream or some other forbidden treat. How did I give up so easily? you may ask yourself, while another voice tells you, you deserve this. You may have decided to exercise more, but your body’s resistance gets the better of you. “We should be jogging, not sitting here…” Many people experience this tension between what our minds want and what our bodies desire.  

But that isn’t what Paul is talking about, although it sounds like it. We’re so used to thinking in terms of a tension between bodily desires and our minds that we find it hard to hear Paul clearly. Paul was raised as a Jew. In Jewish thought, there is no way to separate a body and soul in this life, they are fused together. Paul doesn’t know about mind-body dualism, that’s our thing. When he talks about a tension between flesh and Spirit, he is talking about something else, something which can help us, but first we have to get on his wavelength.  

When Paul speaks of the flesh, he isn’t speaking of physical desires like hunger, thirst, or sex. Instead, he uses the word metaphorically. In his letter to the Galatians, he defines the flesh this way: And manifest also are the works of the flesh, which are: Adultery, whoredom, uncleanness, lasciviousness, 20 idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, strife’s, emulations, wraths, rivalries, dissensions, sects,21 envying’s, murders, drunkenness’s, revelling’s, and such like… (Galatians 5 19-21)

Few of us would say that we have a deep bodily desire to envy someone else, or to commit witchcraft. This list doesn’t line up with what we expect bodies to want. Yet, Paul speaks of these acts as the works of the flesh. So, he is clearly talking about the flesh metaphorically. So, what does he mean? First, let’s look at what he sees as the sins of the flesh. Adultery – getting what you want sexually at the expense of your relationship with another. Witchcraft – in Paul’s day, people hired witches and sorcerers to cast spells on business competitors so they would get sick or suffer misfortune. It was a form of supernatural violence, outlawed by the Roman empire. Murder and rivalries are here, too, acts of violence against another to further a personal interest. Paul’s list of the sins of the flesh are all acts that today we would call negative expressions of a selfish ego. These are all acts that a person does for their own gain, and at the expense of others. We live in an age when we think that body and soul are separate. But Paul doesn’t see life or sin that way. If you sin selfishly, it will be done both with your mind and your body. Anyone who has been addicted to gambling, alcohol or drugs knows that you don’t just desire these things mentally, but physically. Your whole being in consumed by those desires. Anger and murder are the same – it is as much a physical experience as a mental one. In the past twenty years, psychologists have been coming around to a more physical understanding of human behaviour. They have discovered that intense psychological experiences like traumas do not just stay in the mind but take up residence in our bodies.  “The Body Keeps the Score” as Bessel van der Kolk’s book puts it. When we are triggered, it’s not just our minds that react, but our entire bodies. If we have been mugged in a dark parking garage years ago, then we may be triggered by similar safe dark spaces now. But that triggering won’t just be a memory, it will also spontaneously cause our pulse to race, blood pressure to rise, even for sweat and an urge to run to safety. The mind and body are intertwined in a way Paul understood, but which we are only now fully understanding. So, when Paul calls out harmful egotistical behaviours, he doesn’t separate them from the body, he calls them sins of the flesh. The desire to kill someone is not just a mental notion, it is also a physical experience; so is adultery and drunkenness.

So, he calls these sins of the flesh. And he is aware that these impulses live in him, too. He struggles with impulses that would have him do things he wishes he could resist. But he isn’t looking to escape his body, instead, he wants salvation for his body, for his entire self. So, what can he do? What can any of us do? We can ask for help. For Paul, our problem is not our bodies, but our fear that we are not good enough. Our fear that we are incomplete and unloved. That fear is what makes us see the world as fundamentally hostile, so we act selfishly at the expense of others to defend ourselves.

We have affairs to reaffirm our sense of worth. We lash out physically when we feel threatened. We judge others and express envy. Finding no answers in ourselves, we drown our sorrows in a bottle, which starts out as a servant, but becomes our master. Paul sees Jesus as the way out, and the way in. If we can dare to accept the idea that we are loved by God, and really believe that, then we can stop feeling so worthless. And that can be hard, really hard. Because in this world where other people have perfect bodies and perfect jobs and perfect lifestyles and a million followers, we are encouraged to feel inadequate. There’s a lot of money to be made that way. But Paul tells us Christ offers a way out. Christ isn’t into perfect bodies, he is into real, lived-in bodies.

That’s why he came back in a body still pierced by nails on the cross. Christ could have come back as a perfect ghost. But He didn’t.

He came back broken, wounded, imperfect. Christ came as a real body that time had changed. Christ did this to help us, to remind us that Christ accepts you:  trans you, hard you, soft you, sagging you, wrinkled you, you-you. Just the way you are. The offer in our faith is not to earn Christ’s love, but to accept it, just as you are. It’s a BYOB invitation – Bring Your Own Body. 

Christ’s offer isstuff becauset my all-embracing love, and then let go of all that selfish stuff, because you won’t need it anymore. There’s nothing to prove to anyone else because you know, and Christ knows that you are loved. Loved with your nipple rings, with your shavings, with your tattoos, with your mohawk hair, with your soft body, with your grey hair, with your dyed hair, with your plastic surgery, with your muscles, with your body in a wheelchair, with your callouses from pushing the walker.

Come as you are and accept this body-filling love. Be filled. And come back for more when you begin to doubt it. This well never runs dry. And when you feel that love, celebrate who you are. Know that you are loved in every cell of your being, and you have nothing to prove to anyone. You have been saved from a world of doubt and shame and selfishness. You have been invited to be home to the Spirit which created you and loves you. You can always show up at God’s parade, Just the way you are.

Thanks be to God.  

[1] https://curiocity.com/toronto-pride-parade-2023/