|Bee on fading hydrangea|
"...put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the desires of the flesh." Romans 13:14As we begin the new liturgical year, we are confronted with these rather stark words from St. Paul. Taken out of literary and cultural context, these words can easily be understood as referring to sins that have to do with the body. In fact, in the immediately preceding verse, Paul warns against "orgies and drunkenness... [and] promiscuity and licentiousness." In my early religious formation, these were exactly the issues, sins that had to do with the body and especially sins of a sexual nature. As an adolescent, these were really the only sins that concerned me. My spiritual life consisted in sequentially failed attempts to avoid sexual thoughts and actions. These and similar verses and the re-enforcement of teachers made it seem that abuse of alcohol and sexual sins were the key issues. If one could avoid these, then one was or could lead a life consistent with the teachings of Jesus.
As a seventy five year old non-drinker, I would seem to be an exemplary Christian. Somehow it doesn't seem right that the ravages of time and nature should be the key to living the life of a disciple of the Savior. There must be more...and indeed there is. That list of behaviors I quoted above actually contains two more: "rivalry and jealousy." Wait a minute. Maybe jealousy but rivalry? Two other translations use "quarreling" and "bickering." How can these be sins on the same order as all those bodily ones, the real "sins of the flesh?" There must be some other meaning lurking here.
"Sins of the flesh" or "desires of the flesh" is a term used often by Paul. The key to understanding is the meaning of "flesh." In the thought world of Paul, flesh referred to the totality of human nature. We can hear a reminiscence of that in our use of "flesh and blood." "Sins of the flesh" are "sins of human nature." Left to our own devices, we desire to please ourselves, to advantage ourselves vis a vis others. As Americans we typically see nothing wrong with competition. In fact, to us it is the essence of achievement and effectiveness. This is the way of the world, the way of human nature, the way of flesh.
Jesus preached a better way, the way of the Spirit. Through the action of the Spirit, we are called to become new beings in Christ.
"To put on Christ" is a way that Paul expressed this. When we do this, we are called to live lives that are not oriented around the desires of human nature but the desires of the spirit. In many places, Paul enumerates what those desires might be when he describes a life animated by the love at the core of the Christian calling. "Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres." 1 Cor 13:4-7We avoid the "desires of the flesh" by living a life animated by love.