The Hardest Question was an experiment in preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. All posting is finished, but the content will continue to live here in archive form. You can discover new content by former THQ curator Russell Rathbun at Question the Text.


Incarnation, Schmincarnation

What are we putting on, exactly?

by Danielle Shroyer

Epistle Reading: Romans 13:11-14

For Sunday, December 1, 2013:  Year A—Advent 1

Oh, the use of the word “flesh” in the New Testament letters: is there anything more thrilling to debate? Well get ready, because it’s Romans, and that means there are flesh words flying all over the place. Of course, they aren’t really flying. They are being fleshy and solid (and presumably bad, right?).

First Things First

The lectionary text of which we speak is coming right after a section of verses where Paul is encouraging, if not commanding, everyone to do their civic duties and pay taxes and the like. Be good and upright citizens.

And sure, reveling and drunkenness and debauchery and quarreling are not good citizen-like things to do. So, to be clear, I have no problems with any of that. Thanks, Paul, for the reminder.


But do we really have to describe the difference between good citizen behavior and bad citizen behavior as the difference between putting on Jesus, and putting on “the flesh?” I know, I know- the word “sarx” in Greek is meant to conjure up an image of carnality, or animal-like desire. Clearly, the specificity is lost in translation. But it seems like we lose a whole lot more in translation than that.

I just can’t help but feel that we shoot ourselves in the foot when we berate the flesh out one side of our mouths and then proclaim that we ought to take and eat the flesh (yes, same word) of Jesus out the other. Do we claim the flesh of Jesus, the incarnation of the Son of God, or don’t we?

Apples and Oranges

In this dichotomy that Paul has set up between works of darkness and works of the light, between good citizenship and bad, it seems odd to include these two dueling “sarxes” as if they were as categorically different as the others. The call to discipleship is not a call to abandon our bodies, but to find our rightful alignment within them.

In contrast, you don’t find your rightful alignment in a work of darkness. You can’t find that in the middle of your bout of debauchery. But you CAN find that- indeed, our faith requires that it’s our primary job to find that- in our flesh. Not outside of them. Not ignoring them.

Take and eat, this is the body given for you. It seems like that’s a pretty important provision for our flesh. I think we should take it.

The Hardest Question

Every time we use the word “flesh” pejoratively, are we shooting our incarnational Christ in the foot? So what do you think- should we just find another word, already?

Danielle Shroyer is part of the of Journey Church in Dallas, TX. She is the author of The Boundary-Breaking God: An Unfolding Story of Hope and Promise (Jossey-Bass, 2009) and blogs at Danielle lives with her husband, two children, and two wild and crazy dogs in Dallas.


  1. Doug H says:

    There are two really good questions here. To the first I would give one vote for an unqualified yes. The use of “flesh” in the pejorative does offend the incarnation. To create a sort of body-spirit dualism where the created order in not big enough for both of them is incoherent with not only the incarnation, but also the theology of creation and of humanity.

    So what do we do? I would suggest that we not avoid Paul’s use of the flesh in our preaching and teaching. Paul consistently taught that those who are “in Christ” present their bodies to God as living sacrifices or as instruments of righteousness. The sow to the spirit and they walk according to the spirit. The results of this are both the fruit of the spirit and the ability of conduct our vessels in holiness and honor. All of this seems to teach two things: 1) This is a matter of Lordship (the spirit and not our nerve endings) rather than a matter of defeated or eliminating the flesh. 2) The vessel can by conducted in holiness and honor. It can come along on the spiritual journey.

    Since we see the flesh so often in the New Testament, Paul’s full teaching on the subject could be taught often as well. What do you think?

  2. Danielle says:

    I appreciate your thoughts Doug! That’s a good approach.

  3. Matthew Camlin says:

    Hi, Danielle!

    I don’t think it’s pejorative of the incarnation, because it is in the incarnation that Christ sanctified all flesh. Dr. Achtemeier offers a helpful take on Paul’s use of “flesh” in his Interpretation commentary on Romans. His suggestion was that there was, in Paul, no dualism of flesh vs. spirit; rather, the “flesh” connotes the world (and ethics) of “this present age” (however one defines that), while “spirit” connotes new life in Christ (both now and after the parousia). It’s more about “who were were before Christ” vs. “who we are IN Christ.” Therefore, the terms do not describe dualism, but sanctification.

    Food for thought (on this day after Thanksgiving)!

  4. Bill Fulton says:

    I find it easier if I substitute “human nature” for “the flesh.” Our human nature, as opposed to our spiritual nature, often deters us from the life of the spirit. But it’s not entirely lustful, evil, and carnal, as the word :flesh” implies.

  5. Danielle says:

    Thanks Matthew- I agree, but I do think that distinction flies over the heads of most people in the pews, and what they hear is something that is definitely dualistic. At least, I tend to see that in the way I hear people practice and describe their faith. I wonder if there are ways for us to make it more clear.

    Bill, I think “human nature” has the same potential problems, as pitting human nature vs. spiritual nature is also dualistic. Personally I’m more in favor of the phrase “life in the spirit” (very Moltmannian!) as it implies what Matthew mentioned, which is an act of sanctification IN our human natures.

How do you read?