Today is traditionally known as Passion Sunday. In the modern lectionary, this term is reserved now for Palm Sunday, but the lectionary helpfully notes that today is the beginning of Passiontide, which is rather like wanting to have your lectionary cake and eat it!
Regardless of what we call it, today our thinking turns towards the Cross and Jesus’ passion, that is, his suffering. Before, we do, however, our readings finish our Lenten preparations for it by finishing on a high note. The Gospel gives us the Raising of Lazarus, which looks forward to our Lord’s own conquering of death. Our Epistle, continuing the theme, speaks of the life that will be given to our mortal bodies by the Spirit.
Our resurrection, however, is still in the future. We can look forward to it with confidence, but in the meantime, we have to live out our lives here in our existing bodies in this world. In our reading from Romans, St Paul gives us teaching on how this can be done.
He writes that to set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. At least that is how it is translated in the version we use. And certainly, St Paul would agree with the sentiment. The point he is making however, is rather more basic. What St Paul is talking about is not in the first place where we set our minds, but on the mindset of the flesh and the Spirit.
The ‘mindset’ of the flesh is death and the ‘mindset’ of the Spirit is life and peace. What St Paul is contrasting here are two completely different and opposed outlooks. What St Paul wants us to understand is that the outlook of the flesh, that is, its values, attitudes, and priorities are death. We are talking about world views and how we look at and approach life. And the way that the ‘flesh’ does that results in death: not simply physical death when we die, but spiritual death that we experience even now and which continues beyond death.
There is amongst Christians at present a real anti-intellectualism. This expresses itself in a variety of ways. At its most basic, it expresses itself in a lack of interest in Christian teaching and Bible study. Sermons have to be short and entertaining. We don’t want to have to think for too long. We are not very interested in doctrine and all that sort of thing. We prefer messages that are simple and don’t require us to think too much.
The problem is our minds do matter and if we don’t make an effort to control and use them, we will just find ourselves following the fashion and outlook of our day. St Paul in Romans sees the corruption of our minds as the first consequence of our rejection of God. He writes in Romans 1: 20-22:
‘Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made. So they are without excuse; for though they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their senseless minds were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools …’
Sin and all that comes with it is the result of our rejection of God and the corruption of our minds and thinking. There are those, described in the media as the new atheists, who like to portray anyone believing in God as a fool, someone who is deluded. The Psalmist said that on the contrary, it is the fool who has said in his heart, there is no God. It is those who reject God who are the fools not those of us who have faith.
Once our thinking became futile so our behavior followed. What we describe as sin stems from our corrupt minds. But not just what we can all see and agree on as sin, but a way of living and behaving that centres on ourselves and what we can get out of life regardless of the consequences.
St Paul describes this way of living as living according to the flesh. The ‘flesh’ in the New Testament can be a neutral term meaning simply to be human, but it can also take on a far more negative sense to mean human beings in rebellion against God and cut off from him. It refers to way humans live when they no longer have God in their lives.
St Paul writes in Galatians that the works of the flesh are obvious; the works of the flesh, however, are a consequence of us being in the flesh and living according to the flesh. In other words, following its outlook and way of looking at the world.
In our reading this morning, St Paul tells us bluntly that those who are in the flesh cannot please God. However, he continues: ‘but you are in the Spirit, you are not in the flesh.’ The Holy Spirit is given to us to enable us to see things from God’s point of view, to enable us to follow a different path with different values, attitude, and priorities.
St Paul again writes in Galatians that those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. But, and here, St Paul would agree with the way our passage is translated, this is something we need to go on doing. We need to consciously follow the outlook and mindset of the Spirit and reject that of the flesh.
And that is easier said than done. For the outlook of the Spirit is the outlook of the Cross. It is by the Cross that we crucify the flesh, the Cross is also to be the basis for how we live. Jesus tells us in the Gospels that we are to take up our crosses daily. Our lives are to be characterized by the Cross. We don’t simply wear the Cross as a symbol, we live it as our way of life.
Adopting the Cross as our way of life would you might think be uncontroversial amongst Christians. Surely both as a Church and as individuals this is something we can agree on?
In AD312 the future Emperor, Constantine, was about to fight his enemy for control of the Empire at the Battle of Milvian Bridge. Before it, he had a vision of a Cross and heard the words ‘in this sign conquer’. He did and as a consequence made Christianity the official religion of the Empire. Christianity went from being the faith of the weak and persecuted to that of the strong and powerful.
Christians today divide on whether this was a good or bad thing, but there can be little doubt that, as a result, the Church often found itself hopelessly compromised. The fortunes of the Church became bound up in what happened on a social and political level. The Church tried to influence the values of society, but society in turn and inevitably influenced the values of the Chruch.
It still does. (This will be a subject for future sermons!)
However we view the relationship between the Church and the society in which we live, the call for Christians to develop a distinctive lifestyle based on the values of the Cross is one that we can and should all unite around. We need to set our minds on the Spirit. And this needs to begin with each one of us.
We need to ask ourselves in each and every area of our life what it means to take up our Cross. It won’t necessarily mean the same actions for each of us, but it will mean the same attitudes. For too long we have wanted to have all that comes from living in the flesh with all the promises that come from living in the Spirit. The two, however, are incompatible. The flesh and the Spirt are, as St Paul puts it, opposed to each other.
The challenge then as we enter Passiontide is to assess our lives in the light of the Cross and commit ourselves to life in the Spirit. It will mean death for the flesh and even the loss of many things we hold dear in this life, but it will bring true life and peace.
The way of the Cross is the way we are going to follow our Lord walking as we enter Passiontide. May we ourselves walk it each day in our lives.