Romans 8: Gifts of the Spirit, Burdens of the Flesh
by Paulist Fr. Rich Andre
July 13, 2017

Paulist Fr. Rich Andre preached this homily for the 14th Sunday of Ordinary Time on July 9, 2017 at St. Austin Parish in Austin, TX. The homily is based on the day’s readings: Zechariah 9:9-10; Psalm 145; Romans 8:9, 11-13; and Matthew 11:25-30.

This month, we’re spending four weeks with one of the most important chapters of the New Testament: the 8th chapter of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans. It can be challenging to pay attention to epistle readings: they are theological treatises, not stories. The key is to ask ourselves: how do I apply my experience, my life story, to this passage? 

Today, we will delve more deeply into this passage of Paul’s that uses the word “Spirit” 5 times. We’ll try to reconcile it with today’s gospel passage, a passage of great consolation. It is the most common passage families ask me to use at funerals to commemorate their loved ones.

Let us celebrate that with God’s mercy, all things are possible. 

After Jesus Christ, who is the person in the past 2,000 years who has done the most to form our understanding of Christianity? I would argue that it’s St. Paul. Other early disciples wrote down their ideas, but at least seven of Paul’s letters are included in the New Testament. Another six books of the Bible were written either by Paul or by his followers. 

Paul’s writings are essential to our understanding of the faith. And ideas don’t get much more essential than the passage we heard today. Paul tells us that we must live “in the Spirit,” not “in the flesh.” Even today, lots of people reject Paul’s idea for older philosophies – such as Platonism, stoicism, and Gnosticism – that teach that the material world is evil and only other-worldly pursuits are good. That’s not our Judeo-Christian belief. Everything God creates is good. How can our material world and our bodies be intrinsically bad? But as Catholics, we’re guilty of this “soul-good, body-bad” theology when we praise only those people who flee from the day-to-day realities of living in the world. Our lives can be just as holy while we work and live in “the real world,” with all its complexities.  

Need further proof? Look at Paul himself. While we are most familiar with his words, Paul was a man of action. We presume that he walked thousands of miles on his missionary journeys. His hands were calloused from his work as a canvas maker. Paul encouraged others to use their worldly talents for the good of the church. He asked Lydia to bankroll his travels away from her hometown. He urged Phoebe to use her business connections to deliver messages (including the message that was proclaimed today). He sent Prisca and Aquila out as his “advance” team to set up new Christian communities. Paul lived a life of the Spirit, but he also lived an earthy, physical life.

How do we square Paul’s life with our gospel passage today? Jesus says that God reveals the Truth to those who are childlike, but Paul told the Corinthians that when he became a man, he put aside childish things. Jesus says that “my yoke is easy.” Yet Paul suffered imprisonments, beatings, and shipwrecks, not to mention threats of inhospitable weather, hunger, and robbery, all to carry out the work of Christ. It sounds as if his yoke was anything but easy.  

The first thing we need to know is that the Greek word that’s translated as “easy” has nothing to do with weight. It means that the yoke fits well on the one who carries it. So, perhaps we can think of Jesus saying, “you are well suited to carry this yoke.” I think the key is determining who or what has fashioned the yoke we carry. Do we carry a yoke of the flesh? Are we caught in the rat race, working for “the man,” running ourselves ragged to accumulate material pleasures? Such a yoke may well lead to a spiritual death. Yet a life “in the Spirit” can also burden us with a yoke of complexity. It’s a question of doing the same things with a different attitude. If God has entrusted other people to our care, we may work long hours in order to provide security for them. Our professional labor may help to bring forth the kingdom. Our leisure time may be a way of praising the God who makes all good things. It’s a way of singing the ancient “lauda, laude” again in a new way.

As adults, we must embrace the complexities of life. Like Paul (and Lydia, Phoebe, Prisca, and Aquila), our yokes may not be lightweight. And the path we must plow may not be straightforward. But the One who has given us the yoke has a plan. And maybe if we could see things from the Spirit’s viewpoint, it wouldn’t seem so complicated. If we trust in the Spirit’s direction with a childlike faith, surely everything we do will praise the God of All Good Things.

First portion of “A Simple Song” from MASS by Stephen Schwartz and Leonard Bernstein:

Sing God a simple song:  lauda, laude.  
(“Laude” is Latin for praise, laud, extol.)
Make it up as you go along:  lauda, laude.
Sing like you like to sing.
God loves all simple things,
For God is the simplest of all.
For God is the simplest of all.

Renee Fleming singing “A Simple Song” at Mainz Cathedral, 2005: