Proper 8, Year A,
Fourth Sunday after Pentecost Lectionary 13
By Carmen Retzlaff
Many readers and hearers over the centuries have struggled with, or at least wondered about, Paul’s apparent condescension toward the physical body. It comes into question again in this passage from the letter to the Christian community in Rome.
Therefore, do not let sin exercise dominion in your mortal bodies, to make you obey their passions. No longer present your members to sin as instruments of wickedness… – Romans 6:12-13
It seems, many times in his letters, that Paul associates the physical body with sinful desires, and calls his listeners to forsake the yearnings of the base physical for the purity of the chaste spirit, the mind focused on God and doing good. Paul’s analogies about the body are just that, analogies, rhetorical devices; yet this image is so repeatedly used in the negative, it makes one wonder if Paul thought of our physical bodies as wonders of God’s handiwork, and part of the spectacular spectrum of the stuff of the universe, or just as something to be left behind to rot as soon as possible, as we move into the spiritual heaven.
One thing that helps me make sense of Paul’s use of the body in negative imagery is to remember that in the ancient world, one’s identity was more corporate, more communal, than the individualistic construction of identity in predominate Western culture. When Paul speaks of the members of the body, it is us—we are the members. In these contexts the body, the Greek soma, is not an instrument of sin, but the soma is us – we are individual members of the body of Christ.
For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. – 1Corinthians 12:12-31
We are, as Paul says repeatedly, “in Christ.” Literally. Paul’s image of the church as the body of Christ has been central to Christian theology – and that image is physical. So when we “present our members to sin as instruments of wickedness,” OR “present ourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life,” we are presenting our selves—whole beings—us individually, and the other members of our faith community – the members of the body of Christ.
We are to present ourselves to God, our whole physical and spiritual selves because this is a new thing—we are new in Christ. “So you also must consider yourselves dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus.” – Romans 6:11 It is a restart, a new life, a new chance at life. The old self, including the physical body, including our community as a whole – all of us members—Paul says, was enslaved to sin. Caught up in the ways of the world, which tend toward selfishness and self-centeredness, away from thinking of ourselves as a whole, as connected.
This connectedness can be expanded to all of creation, of course, not just our human brothers and sisters in faith. All of creation is connected. When we die to our old selfish, self-centered selves, we die to serving (being slaves to) our individual desires. We are able to put Christ in the center, Christ who is the whole- the whole body of the family of humanity, and the whole body of the cosmos itself.
Paul himself seems somewhat apologetic about the slavery reference – verse 19: “I am speaking in human terms because of your natural limitations.” The analogy is imperfect, of course, but the meaning is there: if you serve your own desires, you are enslaved to them, and to the ways of the world. If you serve God, you are enslaved to the desires of the whole body of Christ – all of humanity, and all of creation. Verse 22: “But now that you have been freed from sin and enslaved to God, the advantage you get is sanctification.” Sanctification is not freedom from servitude, but changing who and what we serve. Not serving no one but ourselves, but the opposite, serving God for the good of all.
Paul asks us to “present your members to God as instruments of righteousness.“
Dear God, we present ourselves, bodies and souls, to serve righteousness rather than selfishness. We present our fellow humans, our faith communities, to serve God. We present our fellow creatures, the birds and dogs and snakes and bugs, to you, God, for the sanctification of all of us. We present the stars and the sun to you, though they are already yours, we present them knowing that we are part of them, and they are part of us, because we are all part of your body, and it is that ultimate divine wholeness which we serve. Accept this offering, we pray, in the name of your son, Jesus, who is the whole of us, the unity of all. Amen.
- Borg, Marcus J. The Heart of Christianity: Rediscovering a Life of Faith, Harper Collins Publishing, New York, 2003. pp. 110-111 on death as new beginning, embodied in baptism.
- Fever, Kyle. “Commentary on Romans 6:12-23,” 2017, on “Preaching this Week” website. On sanctification as set-apartness that is “fundamentally positional and relational.” http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=3336
- Gorman, Michael J. Apostle of the Crucified Lord: A Theological Introduction to Paul and His Letters, 2004 Erdmans Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan/ Cambridge U.K., pp. 368-371, especially on Paul’s seeming discomfort with the slavery analogy.
- Hunt, Cherryl, David G. Horrell and Christopher Southgate 2008 ‘An Environmental Mantra? Ecological Interest in Romans 8.19-23 and a Modest Proposal for its Narrative Interpretation’, JTS 59: 546-79, on the differences in historical interpretation of Paul’s idea of “creation.” https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/bitstream/handle/10036/47438/Rom%208%20paper.pdf?sequence=4
- Institute of Texan Cultures, maps http://www.texancultures.com/assets/1/15/txoneall_nativeamericans_2014.pdf
- Pickett, Ray. “Conflicts at Corinth,” in Christian Origins, A People’s History of Christianity, Vol. 1, ed. Horsely, Richard, 2005, Augsburg Fortress, Minneapolis, on how Paul’s focus on the crucifixion and resurrection in in tension with the Corinthian’s personal transcendence into the “spiritual” and spiritual gifts.
- Price, Chris. “Paul’s Belief in a Bodily Resurrection, An Argument Against the Contention that Jesus Rose Spiritually in Paul’s Thought,” in http://www.christianorigins.com/resbody.html. (July 21, 2003). On the physicality of Paul’s body language, even as an analogy.
- Purfield, Brian. “The Letter to the Colossians: Jesus and the Universe,” 2009, “Thinking Faith” website of the Jesuits in Britain, on Jesus as “the system,” the whole, the purpose of creation and its firstborn. http://www.thinkingfaith.org/articles/20090623_1.htm
- Body,” 2006, Preacher’s Magazine, http://www.nph.com/nphweb/html/pmol/magjul16.htm
Carmen Retzlaff, pastor, ELCA, New Life Lutheran Church of Dripping Springs, settled in Central Texas, territory of people of plains cultures, including Tonkawa, Apache, Kiowa, and Comanche, atop the Trinity aquifer which is part of the Colorado River basin system flowing toward the Gulf of Mexico.
Wild Lectionary, a weekly blog on ecological justice themes in scripture, is curated by Laurel Dykstra, gathering priest of Salal + Cedar, Coast Salish Territory.