Fleshed Out

March 10, 2024

Series: March 2024

Speaker: Rob McClellan


Today's Sermon


"Fleshed Out"


Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22

1   O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
          for his steadfast love endures for ever.
2   Let the redeemed of the LORD say so,
          those he redeemed from trouble
3   and gathered in from the lands,
          from the east and from the west,
          from the north and from the south.

17  Some were sick through their sinful ways,
          and because of their iniquities endured affliction;
18  they loathed any kind of food,
          and they drew near to the gates of death.
19  Then they cried to the LORD in their trouble,
          and he saved them from their distress;
20  he sent out his word and healed them,
          and delivered them from destruction.
21  Let them thank the LORD for his steadfast love,
          for his wonderful works to humankind.
22  And let them offer thanksgiving sacrifices,
          and tell of his deeds with songs of joy.

Ephesians 2:1-10
1You were dead through the trespasses and sins 2in which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. 3All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. 4But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us 5even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ — by grace you have been saved — 6and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God — 9not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. 

Fleshed Out

            In a bit we will get to a topic I know will delight you, a discussion of the difference between formal and dynamic equivalence in biblical translation.  Some set up is in order.  Last weekend, I enjoyed an online seminar with John Philip Newell, a Celtic teacher many of you know I follow, and he was teaching on Alexander John Scott.  His teaching, Newell’s and Scott’s, goes a long way toward correcting an error that persisted in the church, persists still in many places, and leads us to a better understanding of what we can affirm.

            Scott was a Church of Scotland minister who in 1831 was convicted of heresy.  Now I’ve gotten your attention.  The vote against Scott in the General Assembly was unanimous, 125-0, among the 125 his own father.  Scott’s heresy was refusing to sign a confession of faith that was the doctrinal standard for Reformed churches.  His qualm was with language such as this:

            “Our first parents…became dead in sin, and wholly defiled in all the faculties and parts of the soul and body.”[1]

            “From this original corruption, whereby we are utterly indisposed, disabled, and made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil…”[2]

            Scott dared to question the notion we are fundamentally defiled, made evil.

            You may have noticed I am reading out of a book, which is “our” book, The Book of Confessionsof the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  You are sitting in a church that shares the name of this confession, The Westminster Confession of Faith, written in 1646.  To be fair, we do not all feel compelled to teach this position today, but as we have evolved theologically, rather than erasing or updating past statements, we have added new ones offering fresh articulations of the faith. 

            Newell, echoing Scott, wondered what damage had been done teaching people they are “made opposite to all good, and wholly inclined to all evil.”  He doesn’t deny the human capacity for evil, only that we are rotten to the core.  I have been listening to Jane Goodall’s The Book of Hope.  Goodall, known for her groundbreaking study of primates, and protection of the natural world, has seen plenty of ugly human behavior, yet still she clings to our capacity to do good and, on balance, be good. 

            Doctrine grows from scripture.  Damaging doctrine often grows from misguided interpretations of scripture.  Consider the Ephesians passage from today.  In it you will find a diatribe, written in the name of Paul, against flesh. We hear flesh and we think skin, the body.  Truth be told, we think sex, as well as other physical desires and appetites. “All of us once lived” the passage goes, “in the passions of our flesh…and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else” (Eph. 2:3).  Our flesh, our bodies, are the problem, our desires broken.  How confusing?  Sure, self-control is a value in almost every tradition, but God gives us desires only to resist them?  We have taught people not to trust themselves and we have dishonored their physical experience of the world—which I don’t believe you can separate from their spiritual experience.  The wider “we” has sent the message the body is bad. 

            What damage.

            This is where our discussion of formal vs. dynamic equivalence in translation, for which I know your innate desires are pining, comes in.  Bible translators, like translators of any ancient text, are faced with a fundamental choice.  Should they translate literally one for one what each word means?  This is called formal equivalence.  If the text says X, then the translation should say the exact equivalent X in the other language.  What is preserved obviously is basic linguistic fidelity.  Lost perhaps is meaning, for sometimes X has one connotation in the original language, and another in the second language.  Or, perhaps X is part of an idiom in the original, and you can’t carry that forward in the second language if you’re using formal equivalence.  Imagine trying to translate popular English idioms such as “beat around the bush,” “by the skin of your teeth,” or the very title of this sermon, “fleshed out” into another language using formal equivalence.

            This is where the merits of dynamic equivalence come in.  In dynamic equivalence, the interpreter is most concerned with carrying forward the meaning of the text, if not the precise wording.  We know, for example, that male pronouns were often used when more than just males are being addressed, so more inclusive language is chosen.  Words are not static.  Their meaning changes across time and place.  Dynamic, or functional, equivalence tries to keep up with these changes.  Take as an extreme example the word “gay.”  Imagine the connotations of this word have changed in even the past 100 years.

            How does this discussion advance our earlier one? Here’s how:  most of our translations of Ephesians, and other works attributed to Paul, fail to dynamically or functionally, as it’s sometimes called, translate the concepts therein, including a key word in today’s passage. The word is sarxin the Greek, and it does mean “flesh.”  To a degree, it does refer to physical desire, but it also is meant to signify “the ways of the world.”  Evidence is right there in the first line of the text:  “You were dead through the trespasses and sins in which you once lived, following the courseof this world” (Eph. 2:1-2).  The course of this world is the dominant culture. We have spoken in here many times, including last week, about how faith compels us to go up against the norms of the wider society. 

            Paul is an effective communicator, a good debater, so he lays out this contrast in stark binary terms, as do those who write in his name.  The author of Ephesians is trying to get us to learn to discern which leadings are good, useful, charitable, just, or, to use theological language, are of Christ. To use a directional metaphor, what is of heaven and what is of this world, but this binary metaphor runs the risk of depicting the earth as fallen, depraved, and devoid of goodness.  By extension the physical and material realities of our world are likewise profane, but the church long ago rejected the dualism between matter and spirit, exemplified in an early Christian movement called Gnosticism.  Much of the church has not rejected that the world is fallen and we have succumbed to original sin, but it should. 

            Our tradition doesn’t just deny physical reality and our physical needs.  It honors them.  Did you notice there were verses from your Psalm cut out.  I’m sure this is how the lectionary presents the passage.  You’ll recall the opening begins with the familiar

1 O give thanks to the LORD, for he is good;
          for his steadfast love endures forever.

The missing verses read, in part:

4Some wandered in desert wastes,
   finding no way to an inhabited town;
5hungry and thirsty,
   their soul fainted within them.
6Then they cried to the Lordin their trouble,
   and he delivered them from their distress;
7he led them by a straight way,
   until they reached an inhabited town.
8Let them thank the Lordfor his steadfast love,
   for his wonderful works to humankind.
9For he satisfies the thirsty,
   and the hungry he fills with good things.

            Though the text always operates on multiple levels, don’t get too metaphorical too quickly.  The psalmist is giving thanks to a God who meets the people’s bodily desires with material sustenance, desires for food, for satisfying drink.  If you are noticing that the bodily desires with which portions of the church have been historically obsessed, sex, is missing here, it too gets a positive reading in the Bible.  The Song of Songsis not just some metaphor for God and the church; it is erotic poetry.  Yes, sex too is a gift, one that can be abused like any other, but isn’t fundamentally dirty or shameful.

            What then, is the quest, the challenge?  It is not separating the flesh, in a literal sense, from Spirit.  It is about sorting through what is helpful, what embodies Christlike love in ways of being in relationship, in community, vs. what is destructive or counter to that. That is accomplished, however—and I love the divine irony of this in light of our discussion—in precisely learning to merge the so-called heavenly and earthly, the physical and the spiritual, to bring these realities into alignment.  How Newell summarizes the task, drawing upon Scott, is this – he says “Our highest calling is to combine earth and heaven, time and eternity, spirit and matter in common ways in our lives.”

            What we can affirm, what we can be about is recognizing that Spirit and matter can be at one, and thus we need to honor the physical and material world, restoring this sacred recognition and thus radically changing the way we relate to it.  You cannot exploit what your treasure as sacred. 

            We can be about recognizing that eternity seeps into every temporal moment and thus each moment contains eternal possibility and holiness and we can show up to each moment with a different kind of presence.  You do not have to waste all your time on earth trying to get into heaven later. Heaven awaits at the heart of every moment.

            We can, as Jesus implored us to do over and over again, live by the ways of heaven on earth.  That was his point. 

            Isn’t that a better calling?  We are to live in the world in a way that loves it, as the scriptures say God loves it.  I don’t know if that’s a formal existence, but it sure is a functional and dynamic one. 


[1]The Westminster Confession of Faith, 6.031-2.

[2]Ibid., 6.034.