I’ve heard that if you ever get to Venice, one of the places to see is Saint Mark’s Square, the spot Napoleon called “the drawing room of Europe”, a veritable holy ground of history. I’ve also heard if you go there that you better make sure your midriff is covered up.
It’s not that there’s exactly a dress code, but there is an expectation of decorum.
Venice, Italy had over 20 million visitors last year, so at any given time, there can be thousands of people in this famous square, which is surrounded by great architecture and sites of historic importance.
But some people just don’t get it and they aren’t above wandering onto the square bare-chested or with their midriff exposed.
Some carelessly drop litter, others try to set out picnic lunches on the square, all while others treat the nearby Grand Canal as if it were a beach.
The city leaders view these behaviors as disrespectful.
City council member Augusto Salvadori, who is in charge of tourism, says, “Venice is a city of art and a city that belongs to the world. Guests are welcome— but Venice has to be respected.”
City leaders have no interest in keeping tourists away, but they do wish for certain considerations to be observed. Therefore, in an effort to help make such happen, in addition to posting signs naming the prohibitions, they have started employing what they call stewards of the square to make sure tourists are not taking unwarranted liberties.
These stewards of the square, whom can speak more than one language so as to deal with foreign tourists, walk the square and are ready to intervene at the first sign of unacceptable behavior. They wear uniforms to identify their role, and always do their work in a friendly and courteous way.
For example, if a family starts to lay out a picnic, a steward of the square will politely direct them to a location where such activity is permitted.
It is reported that the majority of visitors who are corrected by a steward respond positively. However, some tourists do turn belligerent, which is when the stewards call in police backup who intervene and will even hand out fines as high as 500 Euros.
The point of this is that the stewards of the square aren’t there to stop people from enjoying themselves, but to remind them of the importance of conducting themselves in a way that recognizes the specialness of the place.
And actually Venice is not alone in this kind of effort.
For instance, you can’t go into St. Peter’s in Rome, another holy ground site, in shorts or sleeveless blouses.
The reason for discussing all this, however, is not to bemoan the state of our dress or manners, but rather to illustrate the idea that there are times and places where we need someone, like a steward in the square, to direct us in how to live in the square that we call life so that we, and those around us, might enjoy life to the fullest as those who are holy and beloved in the eyes of God—much more so than any historic holy plot of land.
In our passage for today the Apostle Paul is telling us that there are two possible ways of living in the world. One is guided by our human nature and the other is guided by the Spirit of God.
Paul describes the first by using the phrase “walking according to the flesh.”
Now, it should be noted that in this case Paul is not referring to the physical body or to what we sometimes call “sins of the flesh.”
Rather, he means our human nature, our humanness with all of its vulnerability to sin, with its inclination to be self-serving, with its attachments to the immediate moment as opposed to the longer vision and calling.
Paul knows that if left to its own devices, our human nature will move in the direction of lowering standards, of considering acceptable what previously was not—meaning our human nature wears sweatpants and a tank top to the formal banquet of life, and sees no problem with that.
It isn’t that walking according to the flesh is always evil; it’s that actions and behavior are unregenerate; they lack the consideration of the surrounding present state.
When we walk according to the flesh its only standard is itself, and what it feels like at the moment.
Therefore, when we operate solely out of our human nature, we need a steward like those at St. Mark’s Square to keep us out of trouble because mere laws, posted guidelines, and prohibitions, are not enough, because as Paul put it here in Romans 8, “the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law — indeed it cannot …”
Mean, too often our humanness won’t submit to God’s law, which is why we need someone to come and politely tell us when we’re straying.
Now, in the Bible, it is the Apostle Paul, among many others who do this.
But what about in our real world today, in a more modern voice of today?
Who can we turn too to guide us in ways and actions that are appropriate and considerate of the places we are and the people around us?
Well, if you ask me, the perfect steward for the square of life today is none other than Washington Post correspondent Judith Martin who is best known as Miss Manners.
Martin’s wise, funny, and nearly always right syndicated column, “Ask Miss Manners,” appears in newspapers all over the country, including our own Akron Beacon Journal, and so to find out what living in the spirit might mean and look like today we need look no further than this woman who’s one of the world’s leading authorities in the field.
Take for instance the time somebody in the midst of a messy divorce wrote and asked, “Dear Miss Manners: Does joint custody mean I always have to be polite to someone I can’t stand?”
Her reply: “Gentle Reader” (she always calls her correspondents “Gentle Readers”): “Yes. But think of the benefits. You will set an unparalleled example of civilized behavior to your children and impress your admirers as one to be trusted even under adversity.”
A wise woman, that Miss Manners.
She was even wiser when someone wrote and asked, “Dear Miss Manners: What is the proper way to eat potato chips?
Her reply, “Gentle Reader: With a fruit knife and an oyster fork.”
Her sarcasm became clear when she then continued by saying, “Good heavens, what is the world coming to? Miss Manners does not mind explaining the finer points of gracious living, but she feels that anyone without the sense to pick up a potato chip and stuff it in their face should probably not be running around loose on the streets.”
I so appreciate that the High Steward of Etiquette has a sense of humor.
But perhaps one of the wisest things Miss Manners ever wrote was a little observation on the nature of etiquette itself.
She writes, “Etiquette is little more than applied kindness. Nearly all the rules of etiquette — even questions like which fork to jab into your salad and how to introduce a newcomer to a roomful of strangers— are designed for one purpose: to show consideration toward others, to make them feel comfortable and valued.
Etiquette is simply another form of consideration, kindness, compassion, and valuing another as a child of God. It is not to keep us down, it is for us and those around us, to enjoy life even more.
This is true of etiquette, and this is true when it comes to the laws and guidelines of living and walking in the spirit.
Christ Jesus, today through the Apostle Paul, is calling us to walk in such a way, and Paul calls this “way of being” as “walking according to the Spirit.”
Paul is of course referring to the Holy Spirit, the indwelling power of God, which brings to a person an overriding motivation and guidance to live a Christ-like life— for when we live a Christ-like life that embodies love, respect, compassion, consideration, selflessness, and valuing others as children of God, then we and others around us experience the joys of life to the fullest—in the way that Christ intended.
A person walking according to the spirit receives motivation and guidance not from his or her human nature, but rather receives it from God.
Paul is telling us that walking according to the Spirit is listening to our internal steward of life that is the Holy Spirit—the Spirit of God within us.
Then after listening to that internal “Holy Spirit Steward”, we act and respond and love in a manner that is reflective of the holiness in us and in others.
Thus, walking according to the Spirit is living a Christ-like life, and it is how we are to live if we truly want to be those who strive to be faithful, and those who strive to bring about joy and fullness of life to ourselves and to others.
“To set the mind on the flesh is death, but to set the mind on the Spirit is life…”
Paul wanted the Romans, and all of us enjoy life to the fullest, embrace God’s blessings—and he knew that to live in such a way one would need to set their mind on the Spirit.
Or, to use our metaphor, we would have to tap into our steward in the square of life to guide us in walking according to the spirit.
This is not to keep us from having a good time, but it is to show us how to live in ways that recognize the holiness of being children of God. Amen.