“Walking in the Flesh”

by James Bryan Smith

Paul uses the phrase walking in the flesh in opposition to being led by the Spirit. “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16-17)
Many people assume that flesh refers to the body. But the “flesh” here is not the physical body but rather living from one’s resources, in opposition to (or at least neglect of) God and his resources. The early church preacher John Chrysostom wrote, “The flesh is not the body, nor the essence of the body, but an evil disposition.” There is a disposition within us that is prone to wander from God, and when we roam we are “walking in the flesh.” Those who live (or walk) in the flesh rely on their own capacity to solve problems. 
When people think of fleshy or carnal sins, they think of lust and fornication, or drunkenness and carousing, which certainly are carnal. These behaviors are used to find happiness in something other than God. But fleshly sins also include pride and jealousy, worry and false judgment, resentment and anger. Unrighteous anger rarely happens when we are led by the Spirit. It is spawned by not seeing our situation in light of God’s kingdom.

Taken from The Good and Beautiful Life, p. 74.

Does Jesus Support Violence?

Early in Jesus’ ministry, he gave instructions for his followers to “take no purse, bag, or even sandals” for the mission field. Rather they are to rely on the benevolence of the community. However, as Jesus is nearing the time of his arrest, he instructs the disciples to not only take a purse and a bag but a sword as well. Why would Jesus, who throughout his ministry advocated nonviolence, tell his disciples to arm themselves?

There are disputes regarding the intention of Jesus in this verse. A plain literal reading of the verse indicates Jesus wants his followers to be armed. Yet there are some clues to suggest that what Jesus meant isn’t so clear. Here are some of the clues:

  1. In Luke 22:37, Jesus suggests that carrying a sword would help to fulfill the passage in Isaiah 53:12 that, “he was counted among the lawless.” Carrying the sword would be like what Jesus did when he entered Jerusalem on a donkey. It was primarily for symbolic reasons to fulfill prophecy. While this is a compelling argument, it is not convincing for me.
  2. In Luke 22:38, the disciples say, “Here are two swords” and Jesus says, “It is enough.” This may be Jesus clearing up another misunderstanding by the disciples. When Jesus speaks of taking a sword, he means this in a symbolic way, i.e. be ready for conflict. When the disciples press him about having two swords, his answer is better understood as “it is enough talk about swords.” Again a compelling argument but not completely convincing.
  3. In Luke 22:50-51, Jesus’ actions speak louder than words. The most compelling case that Jesus didn’t advocate violence is based on his behavior in the Mount of Olives. When one of his followers actively uses violence, Jesus says, “No more of this” and heals the ear of the high priest’s servant. Jesus himself never takes a sword. He taught his disciples to love their enemies and to not fear those who can kill the body but not the soul. When faced with his impending death, he willingly submitted his life.  

Although there were anti-Roman insurgent, pro-violence movements (like the Zealots), Jesus and his followers never aligned themselves with them (outside of Simon the Zealot being one of the 12). The direction of Jesus’ life and teachings support non-violent interaction and confrontation. One section of a gospel that is highly contested shouldn’t encourage the advocacy of violence as a justified Christian method. Based on Jesus’ overall life, violence should never be advocated in his name.

Wearing the Mask

Often we present public facades of joy, happiness, peace, and contentment. Yet buried within us may be feelings of anger, sadness, brokenness, and envy. Our artists capture this feeling better than many. The poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote of “wearing a mask” to hide our “torn and bleeding hearts.” Smokey Robinson sung these words, “If there’s a smile on my face, it’s only there trying to fool the public.” As humans, we have perfected the art of putting on a good face to hide our feelings.

As Jesus is celebrating what would be his final Passover on earth, tensions are running high. Jesus is beginning to gain an audience at the Temple and there are some who don’t like it. The gospel writer Luke describes the scene aptly. He says, “the leading priests and teachers of religious law were plotting how to kill Jesus but they were afraid of the people’s reaction.” They were putting on a mask of piety in order to protect their reputation. Meanwhile violence reigned in their hearts. This violence inside eventually manifested itself and led to the death (or should I say murder) of Jesus.

It’s funny that the priests and teachers of the law were more concerned with the reaction of the people than the reaction of God. While maintaining a public face of piety in order to protect their reputation with others, they failed to consider their standing with God. While acting as intercessors on behalf of the people and teachers of the Scriptures, they nevertheless rejected the Spirit of God and refused to follow the Word of God that said, “You shall not murder.” Ultimately they allowed their hatred of Jesus to overrule their fidelity to God and the law.

Often there are thoughts and feelings inside of us that are less than holy. We may feel anger, disappointment, fear and jealousy towards others and even toward ourselves in some instances. When these thoughts occur, it is so important to, as the old hymn goes, “take it to the Lord in prayer.” Allow God to form our Spirits so that our love toward others can be genuine. Once this occurs, we are then free to love God and others sincerely.

Seeking God over Significance

There is an innate desire within many of us to be recognized. We want to be seen as significant. Often this desire is cloaked in the use of the word “meaning.” We want our lives to have meaning and to matter. This desire in and of itself is not a bad one. Like anything, the notion of meaning and significance can become idolatrous and evil when these notions are given priority over seeking God.

In Luke 20, Jesus gives his disciples a warning about “the teachers of the law.” (Teachers of the Law were bible scholars and “professors.”) Jesus says, “They like to walk around in flowing robes and love to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and have the most important seats in the synagogues and the places of honor at banquets.” (Luke 20:45-47) Their actions were based on an appeal to significance. They felt they were significant because they dressed like holy people, because they were greeted as if they were important, and because they received the honor of respected members of society.

However, for the teachers of the law, their significance was based on the treatment and response of others. For Jesus, his significance was based not on his treatment from others but from his fidelity to his Father. Jesus said, “Whatever the Father does the Son also does.” (John 5:19) His significance was centered on doing the will and work of God.

As we consider how we seek our own significance we can ask ourselves, “Is protecting my reputation more important than following God? Do I spend more energy promoting myself than seeking God’s will? Do I get my significance from what others think of me rather than what God thinks of me? As a community, do we seek to look good in front of our Uptown neighbors or do we truly seek the will of God?

“I Can’t Keep Silent”

Have you met someone who can’t stop talking about something? It could be about their families, careers, favorite sports teams or a new store in their neighborhood. They are so excited that they can’t hold it in! They can talk on and on about it. I was in the airport once and a gentleman I never met before talked incessantly to me about his favorite Los Angeles-based basketball team. He was so excited about this team (the Red and Blue one not the Purple and Gold for those of you in the know!) that he couldn’t keep silent!

As Jesus is approaching Jerusalem, the “whole multitude of the disciples began to praise God joyfully with a loud voice for all the deeds of power that they had seen.” (Luke 19:37) Evidently this spontaneous exclamation of praise got the attention of the local band of Pharisees. They told Jesus, “order your disciples to stop.” Jesus answered, “If these were silent, the stones would shout out.” (Luke 19:39-40) Praising God is something that even excited nature! Unlike many of our own pursuits that excite us, the disciples were excited about all that Jesus had done. The disciples couldn’t keep silent!

How excited are we about what God has done in our life? Our gratitude and appreciation should begat praise and adoration. This week, let’s focus on God’s goodness to us. Let’s get excited about God’s promises. Let’s tell our families and friends about God’s goodness. Let’s be so filled with gratitude and appreciation that we can’t keep silent!

“Self (Righteous) Confidence”

In Luke 18, Jesus is on his way to Jerusalem. While traveling, he tells a story to the disciples. Luke, the narrator, says the story is about “some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else.” The story begins with a Pharisee praying in a self-righteous manner. He thanks God that he is not like “robbers, tax collectors and other ‘sinners’” because of his religious activities. A tax collector, conversely, humbly casts himself upon the mercy of God.

The Pharisee in this story was practicing what I call self-righteous confidence. Self-righteous confidence says “I am better than you because of my own good deeds or good heart.” As illustrated in this story, it is a dangerous spiritual sin. It is dangerous for two reasons. First, it undermines God. It undermines God because it devalues our need for Him. Self-righteous confidence focuses on our works rather than on God’s love and mercy. Second, it undermines our neighbor. It undermines our neighbor because it places ourselves above those who may not “measure up” to our own (self-defined) righteousness.

This Sunday we hope to delve into the details of this parable. For now, we can ask ourselves, “How have I practiced self-righteous confidence in my life?” Have I looked down upon others because of their status in society?” “Have I convinced myself that I don’t need God in most instances?”

God and Wealth

“You cannot serve God and wealth.”- Luke 16:13

Everyone has a primary devotion. There is one ultimate in our lives, one thing that draws our attention and time. Of course, Jesus understood this. After speaking to his disciples about shrewdness and wealth, he concluded by telling them, “ You cannot serve God and wealth.” Jesus was speaking against a religious culture that equated blessedness with wealth and money. Wealth was seen as a “material witness” to the blessedness and faithfulness of its possessor. In other words, one’s wealth proved one’s fidelity to God and blessedness by God.

Wealth, however, doesn’t necessarily equate to faithfulness to God. In fact, wealth has its own demands separate from God. Wealth (or the more traditional rendering mammon) can be a demanding taskmaster that leads us to worship status and objects rather than God. Wealth can seduce us and lead us to believe that it is the sustainer of life and not God.

Jesus is being clear that there are no rivals to or replacements of God. Our devotion is to him first and foremost. All other devotions flow out of our devotion to God. Love of neighbor, family, nation etc. for the Christ follower starts with love and devotion to God. We either choose to put God first or we choose to live in idolatry of wealth.

“God’s Seeking Love”

I have a well-deserved reputation for absent-mindedness. The cliché, “He would lose his head if it wasn’t attached” is an apt description of my lack of attentiveness to things! As a result, I frequently lose keys, wallets, and money (As I write, my warmest hat and gloves are both missing. Right before writing this, I found my mask.) Inevitably, this sparks the need for a frantic search around the bedroom, living room, spare bedroom, kitchen, etc.

In Luke 15, Jesus tells the story of a lost coin. Jesus describes the story of a woman who frantically searches for this lost coin. Upon discovering its “hiding place”, she eagerly tells her friends of her discovery. “Rejoice with me”, she says, “for I have found the coin that I had lost.” Jesus compares the joy of the woman to the joy God has when he finds one of his lost children. What a picture! God, rather than stoically hoping we find him or playing proverbial hide and seek with us, actively seeks us and rejoices when we are reunited.

The God described in this parable is a God who passionately loves us. It is the nature of God’s love to seek. It is a love that misses us, seeks us, and desires us. “He is jealous for me,” the songwriter David Crowder wrote in his song How He Loves Us. His love isn’t covetous or possessive like a scorned, jealous lover. However, his love is consuming, good, and powerful. This week, as we celebrate Valentine’s Day, let’s remember that God showed his love for us by giving more than just chocolate, roses, and cards. He gave himself, he continues to give to us today, and he will give to us into eternity.Walter Pierce

Technology Free Spiritual Exercise

Taken from Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline, pp. xi-xii

Day One – For thirty minutes, turn off all technology. Make a cup of coffee or tea. Begin with this prayer, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 139:23-24) Then, be still. No writing. No talking. Nothing. The objective here is to clear away all “creaturely activity,” to use a phrase from the old writers.

Day Two – Again, for thirty minutes, become free of all technology. Today, take a walk, allowing your footsteps to fall into the rhythm of your whispering of the Jesus Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”

Day Three – Again, all technology is off for thirty minutes. A good cup of coffee or tea and a comfortable chair are in order. Begin with the simple prayer I composed for coffee time: “O Spirit of God, blow across my little life and let me drink in your great Life. Amen.” Next, ever so slowly, pray the words of the Lord’s Prayer (Mt. 6:9-13). With each phrase of the prayer add your thoughts or concerns a little like you are decorating a Christmas tree with your own ornaments. See if your extended prayerful meditation will bring you to the end of the Lord’s Prayer at about the thirty-minute mark.

Days Four, Five, and Six: Repeat the same rhythm of days one, two, and three.

Day Seven: Use Your Technology to Your Heart’s Content.