October 11, 2020 Sermon
“The Forest For the Trees: The Flesh”
1st Scripture Reading – Romans 8:1-8
8 There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. 2 For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death. 3 For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4 so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit. 5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit. 6 To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace. 7 For this reason the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law—indeed it cannot, 8 and those who are in the flesh cannot please God.
2nd Scripture Reading – 1 Corinthians 3:1-3
3 And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, 3 for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarreling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations?
“The Forest for the Trees: The Flesh”
Today is the second Sunday of a 7-week long sermon series entitled “forest for the trees.” It’s based on the saying, “can’t see the forest for the trees.” Throughout my ministry, it has been very easy to feel like we in Christ’s Universal Church struggle with seeing the forest for the trees. So, God has directed me to offer a sermon series to help you – help us – wrestle with this issue, to help you – help us – prayerfully seek discernment about what constitutes the forest and what constitutes the trees…at this moment in human history.
Last week, we talked about the forest, we talked about what Jesus was primarily about and so what God calls Jesus’ Church – us – to primarily be about. And we discovered Jesus was primarily about communicating the gospel of God’s grace, communicating the message that God offers us life when we by our sins deserve death. And Jesus’ purpose is bound up in the topic Jesus talked about most, the topic of the ushering in of the kingdom of God that provides the “why” and “how” of the gospel message. The HOW of receiving life is completely giving ourselves over to God, to Christ. And the WHY is that the kingdom of God we will enter into when we give ourselves over to God is more worthwhile than any and even ALL earthly things.
With the forest identified, today we begin what the bulk of the sermon series will be about, a consideration of the kinds of things that tend to get in the way of our focus on Jesus’ purpose that should be our purpose. Another way to say it is we’ll consider the trees that work to distract our focus from the forest, the minutiae that for some reason we focus on instead of the “big picture”.
Before I begin, let me say that I’ve chosen these trees from the scriptures rather than from current experience. While it might be easy for me to write a series of sermons about all the little distractions that are preventing our one little corner of Christianity know as First Christian Church, Grand Junction, from keeping our focus on the the forest, on our purpose, doing so would, in its own way, be succumbing to the same problem of focusing too much on the trees: it would be a little too US-focused. Instead, I intend to focus on the trees that distract Christians that were identified by God a long ago through the scriptures. And to ensure our time together is relevant to our time and place, I will figure out how we, today, participate in getting distracted by the same trees God identified in the scriptures. In proceeding this way, one of the things we discover is that we’re not the first Christians to get distracted. Christians, from the very beginning, got distracted. Even if we can’t find comfort in the knowledge that we’re not alone, we can at least find community in our distractedness. Even more, we can find solace in the knowledge that we’re not the first to lose our way a bit, AND from God’s word in the scriptures we just MIGHT be able to find some guidance about how to get our focus off the trees and back on the forest.
Today’s tree – today’s issue that distracts us – is what the Apostle Paul referred to as “the flesh”.
I wonder, when you hear these words, “the flesh”, what kinds of things do you think about? Do you think of sexual things? Beyond sexuality, do you think of bodily things? I know many people do. Interestingly, that’s not what the Apostle Paul was referring to. It’s not what Jesus was referring to when he used the same word as Paul in the same ways as Paul.
When Jesus used this word that gets translated as “flesh”, and when Paul used this word that gets translated as “flesh”, they were talking not exclusively about sexual things or bodily things but rather about HUMAN things, about worldly things. It’s clear in the Greek, but Paul makes this clear at the end of our passage from 1 Corinthians. In the first few verses of chapter 3, Paul tells the Corinthians they’re doing some things that are “of the flesh”…and then, in verse 3, Paul asks them – in Pastor Brad’s paraphrase – don’t you know when you do these things that you are “merely human”? “Merely human” – THAT’s what this “of the flesh” stuff is about.
In order to understand how this “of the flesh” or “merely human” stuff is a tree, is a distraction, we need to get in touch with what Paul – and Jesus – offer as the alternative to flesh. It’s something called, alternately “in Christ Jesus”, “walking…according to the Spirit”, “living according to the Spirit”, “setting their minds on things of the Spirit”, or, more simply “of the Spirit” or “in the Spirit”. This Spirit-stuff involves things that are in accordance with God’s desires (as opposed to people’s desires.)
I hope this helps you see what is going on, what is meant by “the flesh”. Through this lens of flesh versus Spirit, everything can be divided into one of two categories. There’s “the flesh”, which is physical stuff, materials stuff, bodily stuff – for sure – but ALSO anything that is not of God. This is the ways of people instead of the ways of God.
So…I suppose you could call this a catch-all for the trees. It’s not, exactly, but it does include an awful lot of things that constitute the trees that take our focus off the forest of our primary purpose. Let’s consider some of the modern-day branches that call us to focus on this tree called “the flesh”.
Branch Number One – Literally focusing on bodily stuff. I know, I said this “flesh” word is more than body stuff, sexual and gender stuff, but it does INCLUDE bodily stuff. And our society today calls for us to focus quite a lot of attention on this bodily stuff. I’ll provide some examples:
- Issues pertaining to gender and even gender fluidity or non-binary gender. I’m not an expert in this stuff – I really don’t focus on it too much – and so I’m not even sure I know the correct terms. But I’m talking about focusing on people being able to choose their gender – remember that definitionally, gender, unlike biological sex, is a cultural construct and not something people are born with, I’m talking about focusing on people being able to change their gender at will, I’m talking about the possibility of there being more genders than two – male and female, all the stuff associated with these topics. And some people won’t be happy with me saying that this gender stuff is worldly stuff. Some will say there are JUSTICE issues involved in this gender conversation, and Jesus was about justice. Others will say there are CREATION issues involved in this gender conversation, and it matters to God what we do with these bodies God has created. OK. Fine. My point is that even though these gender issues may invoke some issues God cares very deeply about, these gender issues are STILL flesh issues that distract us from Jesus’ purpose and our purpose, which is about God’s GRACE, not about gender stuff. That’s not to say we shouldn’t care at all about these issues – we should; but, we shouldn’t let them become our primary focus or take our attention from our primary focus. And, I’m here to tell you, for some within Christ’s universal Church, gender issues have become THE primary purpose.
- Another issue pertaining to actual bodily stuff involves sexual identity – you know: heterosexuality, homosexuality, bisexuality, pansexuality and others. Like gender issues, I GET that this sexuality stuff is really important to some of you. I do. I get that for some people it’s the biggest justice issue of our day, and I get that for others of you it’s the biggest holiness or purity issue of our day. For me, the reality that the gospel writers don’t record Jesus as having discussed these issues suggests that we shouldn’t be hyperfocused on them, either. While doing my research this week, I read an interesting article that tries to explain why Jesus not discussing these issues doesn’t mean WE shouldn’t be focusing on these issues. Here’s what I read: “The fact that Jesus himself did not directly address the specific question of homosexual acts carries little weight. His intent was not to publish a compendium of moral theology; rarely does Christ address particular moral issues but focuses instead on the broader goals of love of God and love of neighbor.” Notice how the author of this article makes my point for me: Jesus’ work, Jesus’ focus, the forest, was NOT about specific moral issues but rather God’s love given to us by grace. THAT is my point. I’m not suggesting there’s not a place in the Church to consider and evaluate these issues, but it’s ESSENTIAL that we don’t let these issues become a distraction.
With regard to this branch of bodily stuff, I know of congregations and even whole denominations that make this their focus. If we DO this, don’t we lose focus on what Jesus was primarily about?
Branch Number Two – Material Stuff. Outside of the literal flesh, I don’t think anything demonstrates the difference between “the flesh” and “the Spirit” more than material stuff. For the ancients, the primary difference between the worldly realm and the spiritual realm was all the physical, material stuff. People exist in this worldly realm full of tangible things, things we can see, smell, hear, taste, and touch. But God – along with a host of other spirit-beings – resides in a Spiritual realm in which this physical stuff, this tangible stuff, this worldly stuff doesn’t matter so much. You can see this theme running throughout the New Testament; I’ll use the book of Hebrews to provide two examples. The author of Hebrews presents the earthly Jesus as a “reflection of God’s glory”, a reflection of something in the Spirit realm. The author of Hebrews also presents earthly sanctuaries as “shadows” of the heavenly sanctuary. It’s like there are two realities: the Spiritual reality of God’s realm and the material reality of this realm.
It becomes a problem for the Church when we get too focused on this material stuff, this stuff that Jesus told his disciples – and us – to not worry about. And yet, what do we as congregations so often do? We focus on this material stuff:
- Chairs – I served one congregation in which the congregation literally SPLIT as a result of a choice that was made regarding the new chairs for the fellowship hall.
- The color of the roof
- What clothing is acceptable for worship
Obviously, there’s nothing inherently WRONG with talking about and coming up with plans for these kinds of things and even communicating those plans – as long as the purpose is to build up the body, keep us unified, and AID in our focus on Jesus’ primary purpose that is our primary purpose. However, too often, we get FOCUSED on these things to the extent that they distract us from our primary purpose.
Branch Number Three – Worldly Definitions of Success. Numbers – worship attendance numbers, Christian Education attendance numbers, financial numbers! All kinds of numbers. It’s so easy to focus on them as measures of success for a congregation, as measures of success for our ministries and our work to follow Jesus. But I wonder, do we look to the numbers because JESUS told us to look to the numbers as a measure of success…or do we look to the numbers because the WORLD both tells us to look to the numbers and because people in the world judge and evaluate us according to the same kinds of numbers THEY use to evaluate their worldly pursuits?
I remember serving a congregation in which a leader of the Board told me worship attendance numbers would be THE criterion by which my ministry would be judged. I took the opportunity to lead the congregation’s Board through a study about how Jesus evaluated ministry. And Jesus’ evaluation of ministry was VERY different from ours in the modern Church. When Jesus sent out the twelve to evangelize, Jesus told them that if no one would listen – if no new NUMBERS were added – it didn’t mean the disciples had failed; NO, it meant the people wouldn’t listen…so “shake off the dust from your feet as you leave that house or town”. In other words, don’t evaluate the success of your ministry by worldly criteria like numbers.
In fact, by worldly criteria, I would imagine Jesus’ own ministry – at least in his time – was a COMPLETE FAILURE. By the end of Jesus’ ministry:
- Jesus was executed in a humiliating fashion;
- Jesus’ followers had been reduced to no more than the number of people who could lock themselves away in a room;
- Those followers of Jesus’ who remained did not appear to remember much of anything Jesus had taught or commanded them.
Y’all, by the evening of that first Easter Sunday, by worldly standards, Jesus’ ministry had FAILED. And yet, here we are today. And we look back on that very SAME day as the day of Jesus’ greatest victory, his greatest success.
What I’m trying to say is this: when Church, when congregations, get so caught up in achieving any worldly standards of success – including numbers, we lose focus on what really matters. It’s entirely possible, First Christian Church, Grand Junction, that at THIS very moment, when the COVID pandemic has pushed our numbers to lows that likely haven’t been seen in more than 130 years, it’s possible and even LIKELY that we are more successful than at any other time in our history. For certain, the success of our ministries has little to nothing to do with the numbers.
These branches that I’ve mentioned today, they are but three of the many, many branches of these trees known in scripture as “the flesh”, the trees of worldly stuff. I’m sure you can imagine many more, not the least of which include things like:
- Church governance – documents and structures, typically adopted from the ways of the culture around us – that govern what we do as congregation.
- Denominations and Sectarianism – Perhaps a better way to say this in worldly terms is tribalism. Isn’t that why we have so many denominations, so there’s a THEM against which we can define US? Such a worldly thing.
- Politics – I know of many denominations and congregations that are so enmeshed in one political party or the other that there’s absolutely no room for Jesus’ purpose. Dare to point to Jesus in ways that oppose a particular political party in these congregations and you’ll find yourself OUT.
I could mention more but the point would be the same: it’s so easy, SO easy, to focus on worldly stuff as Church, as congregation, and then, since we ARE Church…to think this worldly stuff must be Godly stuff, must be our purpose. It’s why we have so many congregations that are MORE aligned with one or more of these worldly things than they are with God…so that anyone from the outside, when trying to ascertain the congregation’s identity, would point to something worldly, something of these trees, more than they would point to Jesus’ primary purpose.
What can we do to ensure we don’t fall prey to the same kind of thing? The answer is simple and found in Paul’s words from scripture for today. “For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit set their minds on the things of the Spirit.” All we have to do is put this in reverse. Whenever we gather, whenever we decide upon a course of action, whenever we choose to DO anything as congregation or as individuals, we should ask one simple question: is my mind, are our minds, in doing this, on things of the Spirit or things of the flesh? If we’re doing what we’re doing because our mind or minds are on the flesh – on worldly stuff – we must STOP and re-evaluate. Even if there’s a dispute about where our minds are, we should likely re-evaluate. In short, we should work to ALWAYS ensure our minds are on the Spirit. If they are, when they are, we will be “of the Spirit” rather than “of the flesh”, and our focus will be on the forest. It probably wouldn’t hurt to keep this forest thing front and center – recounting a summary of the gospel message whenever we gather for worship, whenever we gather to meet, whenever we gather to do ministry. It probably wouldn’t hurt to keep this forest thing front and center – even to the point of having a conversation at the beginning of each meeting and each gathering for ministry, a conversation about HOW and WHY what we’re doing is a forest-thing. It seems to me like a good way to do what Paul suggested: intentionally keep our minds on the forest, intentionally set – or maybe re-set – our minds on things of the Spirit…every time we get together.
Let’s set, let’s focus, our minds on the Spirit instead of the flesh. For…”To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life and peace.”