From tonight’s epistle: “If you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body you will live.”
I used to think that mean that if you live according to the flesh – giving into what whims the flesh suggests (more food, more drink, more sex, more drugs, more porn, more entertainment, more whatever), then God would pay you back with death! There was a price tag attached to doing such things. Similarly, I used to think that if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, then God would one day reward you with life – the gift of heaven.
It was quite an aha, then, when I realized that that is NOT what the text was saying. It was not talking about verdicts rendered on judgment day. It was talking about NOW. To give into the whims of the body now is to die – not in the sense of ceasing to exist, but in the sense of missing out on life itself. Life is to be had when by the Spirit we put to death the deeds of the body. Not in the future, but now.
You want to live? To really live? The way to live is not to be animal – if it itches scratch it. To graze through the world gratifying whatever desire arises, pleasing no one but yourself, pleasuring yourself to the max. Such life isn’t life – it’s living death. It’s the boredom that ultimately suffocates those who devote themselves to it. But life, now, life is putting to death those animal desires, those itches and cravings that would have you obey the whims of your flesh, to execute them.
Which means, I’m afraid, to say “no.” No to the impulse to gorge yourself. Gluttony still is a sin, my friends. No to the impulse to gratify any sexual desire regardless of what God’s commandment declares. No to the impulse to gratify your itching ears by listening to the latest juicy gossip. No to the impulse to go into further debt because you just have to have whatever it is that is calling your name. No to the impulse to embroider the story to make yourself appear better than you know you have a right to. No to the impulse to abuse any of the good gifts of God’s creation.
But, but, but, you say. I don’t think I can do it. I don’t think I can just say “no.” It’s become such a habit, such a routine with me. Well, make no mistake about it, you don’t begin to live till that junk – the old Adam and all his works and ways – begins to die.
The glorious good news of Pentecost, though, is that you who cannot stick to the “no” in your own strength the Father sends you a Helper. A Helper that Jesus says will be with you forever. The Holy Spirit.
And it is by the Holy Spirit and His power alone that the death of the old Adam occurs, which is then replaced by real life, the life of the new self. The Spirit comes to give you the gift of death to that whole old way of living – that if it itches, scratch it way of existing. He gives you the gift instead of communion with the Holy Trinity. He comes to bear His witness inside of you that you are God’s own child. And not just a child, but an heir. A fellow-heir with Christ. “Provided we suffer with him in order that we may be glorified with him.”
Suffer with him? What is that all about? THAT’S the death to the old Adam that the Spirit gives you. You can’t have the Spirit and still go on doing the old sins and living your life as you please. The Spirit won’t have it. He’s a jealous Spirit who yearns for you intensely. The Spirit wants so much more for you than that old deathly way of existing. And so the Spirit comes to you as the very gift of putting to death that whole animal way of living, calling us into the freedom of being the children of God. One who by His power can rule over your animal instincts and put them to death with joy.
Our Lord goes to His cross that all those sins might be able to die within us. He goes to His cross that their hold upon us might be shattered, broken forever. He is bound to the wood that we might be bound to Him in love. That His death in the flesh might be given to us as our daily dying to sin. And the Spirit comes to us that our Lord’s resurrection might be given to us as our daily rising to a new life, lived in communion with Christ.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. We’ll never reach the point where we cease to need the Spirit’s help to put to death the impulses of the flesh. Much to our chagrin, they keep on popping up as long as we carry the flesh with us. But thanks be to God, they are no match for the power of God the Holy Spirit, who comes not merely to be with us, but to dwell within us.
It is only by the Holy Spirit’s power that we can hear the words of Jesus without dread: “Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father and I will love him and manifest myself to him.” The keeping of the commandments will not be perfect in us for the whole of our earthly pilgrimage, but when we are walking by the Spirit then what is not kept is forgiven, as we go on living in the Spirit and constantly putting to death the deeds of the body. We begin truly to live. It’s only a beginning, but having tasted it, who could want anything else? And the Supper is here to strengthen us in the task, to refresh us for the slaughter of that old man within us by the Holy Spirit’s power.
Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful people and kindle in us the fire of Your divine love. Amen.