Life in the Spirit, Life in the Flesh

A constant theme in salvation history


Faith Virtue

“You are not in the flesh; on the contrary, you are in the spirit, if only the Spirit of God dwells in you.” — Romans 8:9

Before we forget Sunday’s readings, some reflections on the Second.

A reform and, arguably, achievement of Vatican II was an expanded Lectionary, including the three-year Gospel cycle. In truth, we should probably talk about Sunday cycles (plural) because there are at least two at work: the three-year Gospel cycle, with which the Old Testament First Reading is usually correlated and a separate cycle that tries systematically in the Second Reading to read much of the Pauline corpus.

While it is politically incorrect to question any Vatican II reform, I do have to ask how effective these unconnected cycles are.  Most priests preach on the Gospel. That’s right: the Gospel should enjoy pride of place.

But the whole purpose of the Lectionary reform was to expand familiarity with a broader swath of Sacred Scripture. Some priests (though not enough) will try to include something from the First Reading in their preaching on the Gospel, given that there are usually parallels between the two texts. But Paul’s writings—which arguably hold second place significance in the New Testament—are often ignored because they are moving on their own track. Because they are read semi-continuously, there is sometimes some continuity from week-to-week, but since few homilists talk about the Second Reading at all, much less connect it over multiple weeks, it seems a good deal of rich Pauline teaching is lost.

Like this Sunday’s.

The theme of Romans 8 is “life in the Spirit.” That’s a nice way of saying “Christian life,” because that is what living “life in the Spirit” is. In Sunday’s reading, Paul contrasts “life in the Spirit” to “li[ving] according to the flesh.” The former is life-giving, the latter, death-dealing.

St. Paul is not anti-body. He is no gnostic. He recognizes the significance of human embodiment as essential to humanity. That’s why he’s emphatic: if Jesus is not raised, go home and pack it in—Christianity is a fraud. But recognizing the value of human embodiment is something different from living according to the “demands of the flesh,” i.e., according to carnal desire and lust.

Our bodies have a very real and immediate impact on us because we are sensory creatures. Except for mystics, for most people the aroma of a hot pizza is going to be more immediately appealing than the idea of praying (even if accompanied by the aroma of incense). But there is a time for every matter under heaven…

And because sensory stimuli have a far more direct impact on us, we should not be surprised that sexual sin has always been commonplace, even before our hypersexualized culture. Even the Devil engages in economy of effort: no need to tempt one at the ethereal regions of pride when sexual combustibility will do. That’s why St. Paul contrasts “life in the Spirit” to “life according to the flesh” and warns against the latter.

Our current problem is: do our current Peters—in Rome and in our parishes—echo that?

It’s not just a question of the Sunday Lectionary squeezing the Second Reading. It’s also a question of priorities. We’re told we need to appropriate the gains of Vatican II. One of those gains was reading “the signs of the times.” Honestly speaking, Catholics aren’t very good at that. In some quarters, there seems to be a mentality that confuses Rousseauean optimism with our signa temporis hermeneutic. Rousseau launched the modern heresy that history inevitably involves progress and moves toward a better future. You hear echoes of that when politicians babble about being “on the right side of history” and “the arc of history pointing towards justice.”

In one sense, history does lead to the better, because it is leading to the end of the world, the Final Judgment and the triumph of Christ. God and good will prevail. But that victory depends on God, not on human doing or the automatic pilot of history which, from a Christian perspective, can just as easily (and likely) take a detour through the deepest regions of hell as follow a straight-line trajectory heavenwards.

So, in reading the “signs of the times,” we should not facilely take them to mean that God is showing us the “Spirit’s Will” to where He is leading humanity in the latest degeneracy history offers up. Reading the signs of the times may also force us to see the degeneracy in which those times are mired.

Sunday’s Second Reading focuses on one of the classic places where history and Christians get mired: enslavement to the flesh. A constant aim for most practicing Christians is to not be “debtors to the flesh.”

I recall someone (I think it was George Weigel) floated the idea that an actually useful theme for a synod would be chastity. As memory serves, I think he admitted the idea might seem to some narrow, even though it is eminently practical. I’m not even sure it’s so “narrow.” As we see from the Second Reading, St. Paul recognized that the rivalry between “Spirit” and “flesh” is key in salvation history. “Living the Life of the Spirit, Not of the Flesh, Today” would not just be a practical, spiritual effort amidst a world whose deficit to the flesh is up there with America’s national debt. It would be an eminently Scriptural topic, focused on a theme that runs through much of St. Paul’s writings.

No one can deny that, apart from individuals’ personal struggles with the “flesh,” even those who honestly strive to fight that fight and lead their children in it find themselves opposed by multiple sectors of the world and culture in which we live. The current effort to groom children into the mores of gender ideology and the effort of institutions whose roles vis-à-vis parents in raising their children are auxiliary—schools and the state come to mind—to indoctrinate them in the “life of the flesh” makes this task particularly urgent.

Dear pastors, sometimes, please preach about the Second Reading.


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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