Saturday of week 29 of Ordinary Time – First Reading


Commentary on Rom 8:1-11

Paul continues to discuss the conflicting forces that we find in ourselves – that of the “flesh” and that of the Spirit of Jesus Christ. “Condemnation will never come to those who are in Christ Jesus, because the law of the Spirit which gives life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and death.” Those who are truly in Christ Jesus, not just nominally by saying so but in a way that influences their behaviour, can never be under condemnation. The law of Christ’s Spirit is life-giving. When one lives under the “law of sin and death” one is living under a system that sees sin everywhere, that focuses on punishment for every violation, irrespective of motive. “What the Law could not do because of the weakness of human nature, God did, sending his own Son in the same human nature as any sinner to be a sacrifice for sin, and condemning sin in that human nature.” All the Law could do was to demand external observance of its stipulations. This was not life-giving; in fact, it could have the opposite effect. It could not be an inward source of salvation and wholeness. The Law was powerless because it depended solely on one’s own efforts to observe it. As we can see in the case of the Pharisee, it could lead to a superficial and external “holiness” which only concealed the corrupt influences of the flesh actively at work. Jesus spoke cuttingly of “whitened sepulchres” – bright and clean on the outside and full of corruption within. Christ the Son of God, however, was sent by the Father and took on exactly the same human nature as every sinner so that he might, as one of us, sacrifice himself in love for us and thus remove the sin and alienation from our human nature. God became Man that man might share in the divine life. That is what we mean by calling Jesus the Mediator, the ‘Pontifex’ (bridge-builder); he linked together what had become broken by the sin of Adam. Man, formerly carnal, is now, through union with Christ, spiritual, sharing in the Spirit of Christ. Now, in Christ, we can fulfil the Law’s requirements “as we direct our lives not by our natural inclinations but by the spirit”. God’s aim in sending his Son was that believers might be enabled to embody the true and full intentions of the law. And, in Christ, the Law can be summed up in one single sentence: “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34; cf. also Gal 5:14). In keeping that commandment, everything else is taken care of. (We might note that God is not mentioned in this commandment but that is the point; the only way I can effectively love God is by loving him in and through those around me.) People then can be divided into two kinds: those who live according to the “flesh” and those who live according to the Spirit. “Those who are living by their natural inclinations have their minds on the things human nature desires; those who live in the spirit have their minds on things of the spirit.” Those who live according to the instincts of sinful human nature look forward to nothing but death, a disordered human nature opposed to God, because it does not and cannot submit to God’s law and so can never please God, while those who are in the Spirit can look forward to life and peace. The Roman Christians, however, are not living by their natural inclinations but in the Spirit, who has made his home in them. “In fact, whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.” And “when Christ is in you, the body is dead because of sin but the spirit is alive because you have been justified.” Even the body of a Christian is subject to physical death, seen as the consequence of sin (death came with the sin in the Garden, just as life comes from him who rose to life in a garden, cf. John 19:41; 20:8-9,15). But, because of being ‘justified’ by the grace that comes from faith in Christ, the Christian’s spirit is alive with an unending life. The body is doomed to physical death and can be the instrument of spiritual death also; but the Spirit is life, a power of resurrection. However, if the Spirit who raised Jesus from the dead makes his home in each one of us, the God who raised Christ Jesus from the dead will give life to our mortal bodies through the same Spirit living in us. The final resurrection of the Christian, spirit and body, is intimately dependent on that of Christ. It is by the same power and the same gift of the Spirit, that the Father will raise them to life in their turn. This operation is already being prepared: a new life is making the Christians into sons in the likeness of the Son himself, and they are being incorporated into the risen Christ by faith and baptism. It is important to note that “flesh” in this passage means much more than the body. The body in itself is not bad, as some philosophers in Paul’s time maintained. For us, the body has been sanctified by the Incarnation, when God’s Son took on a human body and redeemed us through it. “Flesh” refers to what we might call today our “lower instincts”, the tendency, sometimes seemingly irresistible, which we have to follow urges which are selfish and self-centred, which want to satisfy our appetites, be they for food, for sex, for possessions, for anger, revenge, jealousy, violence… Left to ourselves we are likely to follow these instincts, often mistakenly thinking that our happiness lies there. But total indulgence in any or all of these leads only to personal degradation and self-destruction. All that Paul says we can verify by our own experience. When we let our lower instincts guide us we know that, although there may be temporary pleasure and satisfaction, they are dragging us down, spoiling both our inner peace and the quality of our relationship with others not to mention distancing us from God. It is difficult, if not impossible, to lead that kind of life and be people of prayer. On the other hand, when we – however patchily we do so – really try to live out the Gospel spirit in our relationships with ourselves, with others and with God, we know that we experience a deep-down satisfaction which increases our sense of freedom and peace. The chances are that most of us are not altogether in the flesh or altogether in the Spirit but somewhere in between. Some are more in the flesh and give the odd salute to the Spirit, e.g. by doing the absolute minimum that their “religious obligations” require. Others are trying to live fully in the Spirit but know that, from time to time, the flesh asserts itself. That is no great harm. It helps us to realise that we do not make much progress without God’s help. “Without me, you can do nothing” (John 15:5) But, if we keep at it, that is, if we keep ourselves open to the influence of the Spirit, we will experience that the power of the Spirit does become dominant and living in the Spirit becomes easier and the seductions of the flesh become easier to resist. To do this, though, we do need to keep in contact with the ways in which the Spirit comes to us: e.g. through our participation in the life of the Christian community, its prayer life, its evangelising life, its sharing of its resources with those in need, its sacramental life and its constant listening to the Word. These are the essential channels by which the Spirit flows into our hearts and help us to live in Christ.

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