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Homily – The Flesh vs. The Spirit (Sunday OT 14 A)

Zech 9:9-10
Ps 145       R/. I will bless your name for ever, my king and my God.
Rom 8:9, 11-13
Mt 11:25-30


In our second reading today, St. Paul reminds us: Brothers and sisters: You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit (Rom 8:9). Flesh and Spirit — St. Paul uses these images to symbolise the internal struggle of the Christian: the battle against our tendency to sin. This is a major theme in Paul’s letters.

But he’s not using this to make a commentary on the body, as if to say that the body — or material reality — is bad and only the spiritual is good. He’s using these words to symbolise deeper realities. For Paul, the flesh symbolises the life of sin (elsewhere he calls it the ‘spirit of the world’), and the Spirit symbolises the life of grace.

St. Paul is trying to help us understand the spiritual struggle that lies in each of our hearts. Deep within us, due to original sin, is the tendency to sin — what we call, concupiscence —, and if we look closely at this tendency and where it points, it becomes easy for us to see why St. Paul clumps it all in together under the name the flesh. Our tendency to sin is always directly to pleasure: be it lust, gluttony, greed, pride, anger, sloth or envy, each of these deals with a certain sense of the pleasures of the body. That’s pretty obvious when it comes to lust, gluttony and sloth, but it’s also true of the others. Greed, for example, is really just a lust for money or material things. And pride is really about puffing one’s own ego to make ourselves bigger than we really are. That’s why we give it bodily terms? (i.e., ‘You’re so full of yourself’, or ‘What a fat head’, etc.). These sinful attractions are what St. Paul means by the flesh, and they’re something toward which each of us leans because of original sin.

But St. Paul seeks to remind the Romans (and us, too!), that we’re not slaves to these fleshly desires. No, we’ve been redeemed by Christ! In Baptism, our fleshliness (these sinful tendencies) was put to death on the Cross so that we could receive new life in Christ through the Holy Spirit. This is why St. Paul tells us, You are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit.

We’ve been claimed by Christ, and it’s His Spirit that now dwells in us. We’re no longer ‘fleshly’ beings, but born of the Spirit. And it’s this life in the Holy Spirit that ought to direct our lives, not our base inclinations to sin, our concupiscence. That’s why we need to do battle with our tendency to sin, so that the life of grace we received in Baptism can continue and grow even stronger. Because, as St. Paul rightly says, if you live according to the flesh, you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live (Rom 8:13).

Jesus has redeemed us by His Death, and He continues to save us through the forgiveness of sins in Confession, not so that we might continue to die according to the desires of the flesh, but so that we might live according to the grace of the Holy Spirit.

That’s why in the spiritual life we often speak of ‘dying to self’. To die to self doesn’t mean that we become disinterested in ourselves and allow ourselves to be victimised by the sinfulness of others. Rather, it means that we struggle against our desire for sin so that we can truly live according to God’s love as His sons and daughters. It means that we must chose to abandon certain practices, certain likes, certain ways of living — that’s the dying part — so that we can remain faithful to God’s commandments.

We have to let go of our sinful habits, and even grow to hate them, so that we can choose to act in love instead of selfishness. And we call it dying because it’s not easy and often feels like we’re dying when we change our ways. It costs us something. In order to receive the grace God has in store for us, we first have to let go of what we’re already holding. That’s why Jesus said in last Sunday’s Gospel, those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Mt 10:39).

This, my brothers and sisters, is what God has hidden from the wise and the intelligent but has revealed to little infants (cf. Mt 11:25). We are called to die to sin, to die to self, so as to live for and with Christ. That’s why it’s so important for us to be constantly examining our hearts: are we living according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit? And this is why it’s so important for us to be constantly repenting of our sinfulness and clinging to God’s mercy and grace. Because we can’t win this battle for ourselves, we can only win if we allow the Holy Spirit to take over, to heal and to lead us in the ways of God. No, we are not of the flesh; we are of the Spirit, and therefore we must live by the Holy Spirit.

Breathe into us, Holy Spirit, that our thoughts may all be holy.
Move in us, Holy Spirit, that our work, too, may be holy.
Attract our hearts, Holy Spirit, that we may love only what is holy.
Strengthen us, Holy Spirit, that we may defend all that is holy.
Protect us, Holy Spirit, that we may always be holy (cf. St. Augustine).

Amen.

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Homily – Sunday Lent V A


Ez 37:12-14
Ps 130:1-8b    R.  With the Lord there is steadfast love and great power to redeem.
Rom 8:8-11
Jn 11:1-45

Today is the fifth Sunday in Lent; Easter is now just days away.  As we enter into these final days of Lent, the Liturgy intensifies: you may have noticed over the past two weeks that the Gospel is getting longer, and we’re focussing more and more the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Christ; the Paschal Mystery, by which we’ve been given new life and a guarantee of the eternal life to come.  The story of Lazarus points us toward this great and glorious gift.

The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310-1311. Tempera and gold on panel

The Raising of Lazarus, by Duccio di Buoninsegna, ca. 1310-1311. Tempera and gold on panel

The text tells us very clearly that Jesus purposefully delayed His visit to Lazarus and his sisters, knowing full well that he would die, but so that the Son of God may be glorified through it (Jn 11:4).  You see, as John unfolds his Gospel, the miracles of Jesus become more and more powerful, more and more ‘miraculous’, each pointing to the greatness and power of Jesus; each pointing to His closeness to the Father; each pointing to His divinity, to His power over creation, and today, even over life and death.  That’s why this is the last of Jesus’ miracles in the Gospel of John, because the miracles have reached their theological climax: Jesus the Christ is the resurrection and the life.  Whoever believes in [Him], even though they die, will live (Jn 11:25).  He is Lord of the living and of the dead (cf. Rom 14:9).

Furthermore, the resurrection of Lazarus — which John makes a point of clearly saying it was real: Lazarus was dead four days and already decomposing (Jn 11:39) —, the resurrection of Lazarus is a foreshadowing of Christ’s own Resurrection from the dead for His faith and obedience to the Father.  For his friendship and closeness to Christ, Lazarus is given the gift of new life, but not in the same way Jesus will after His own Death on the Cross; Lazarus would still die once more.  And so in this miracle we see a symbol of the baptismal gift of new life; that life rooted in faith, rooted in Christ, and given by the Holy Spirit.  In other words, it’s the life of the Spirit of which Ezekiel spoke in the first reading: I will put my spirit within you, and you shall live (Ez 37:14).

The gift of new life given to us at Baptism is a direct result of the gift of the Spirit that dwells in us through this Sacrament.  Cleansed by water and anointed with the Spirit, we’re re-created into the image and likeness of Christ and become, as He is, temples of the Holy Spirit.  And from the moment of our Baptism we’re called to live according to this Spirit, because as St. Paul says, Those who are in the flesh cannot please God (Rom 8:8).

Now it’s important to understand what Paul is saying here.  He’s not saying that the body is bad or evil, as some have thought.  Rather, Paul uses the term flesh to mean all that’s not of God; in our contemporary words, he means the ‘spirit of the world’ that teaches us selfishness and materialism.  That’s what Paul means by the flesh.

But, as he continues, you are not in the flesh; you are in the Spirit (Rom 8:9).  Because of Baptism, we’ve been freed from the bondage of the flesh, freed from the bondage of the world, so that we might live according to the Spirit.  John symbolises this in his Gospel by Lazarus rising from the dead all wrapped-up in strips of cloth.  And just like He did for Lazarus, at Baptism, Jesus cries out for each of us, Unbind him, and let him go (Jn 11:44).  Baptism frees us from the bonds of the flesh, which keep us from God.

But if we’re to live according to the Spirit, we have to allow the Spirit to lead us, to heal us, to transform us.  Though Baptism gives us the gift of the Spirit — the gift of new life —, we still need to abandon ourselves to this Holy Spirit and let Him work in us.  In this way, we can even live a taste of eternal life here on earth, a life rooted in God’s love and grace; a life lived in the hope of the glory and fullness of life that awaits us in Heaven, where the flesh will have been vanquished, fully and forever, and we live only of the Spirit.

And so the Church gives us this Gospel passage in these last days of Lent to challenge us, to challenge us on where we stand: Are we living according to the Spirit we’ve received in Baptism (and Confirmation)?  Or are we still living according to the flesh?

Lent is a time for conversion, conversion of heart, and the readings today renew this invitation to turn our hearts back to God, allowing His love and His grace to heal us, to free us, and to give us life.  As we enter into these final days, may we open our hearts more and more to God’s love, embracing the grace of our Baptism, and allowing the Holy Spirit to truly dwell in us, leading us into Life.  Amen.

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