5-28-17 Galatians Sermon Series “Flesh v. Spirit”
I have seen the 1983 film “The Big Chill,” maybe 20 times. It’s not a hugely successful film in the sense of having won lots of awards or of being a huge money-maker, but it’s a film that has touched me deeply, has resonated with me on an almost spiritual level, and that I could watch over and over again and never grow weary. There are other films I’ve watched repeatedly that I have really enjoyed, or that kept me on the edge of my seat even though I knew how the storyline went, like “The Godfather” or “The Dirty Dozen,” but none of them have gripped me in the same way or to the same degree, as “The Big Chill.”
Have you ever had an experience that was so good, so wonderful, so intoxicating, that you couldn’t wait to do it again?
Maybe it was somewhere you visited that so enthralled you that you couldn’t wait to go back again.
Maybe it was a movie you saw or a book you read that impacted you so deeply that you just had to watch or read it again and again. Or maybe it was a food that, the first time you ate it the taste was so powerful, so overwhelming, that it nearly brought tears to your eyes, it was so good! Or maybe it was just a moment in time, a moment of intimacy or of joy that you long to experience again. If you’ve experienced anything like that in any way at any time, then you might begin to understand a little more clearly, the apostle Paul. In a moment you’ll see what I mean.
Morgan Guyton is the Director of the Wesley Foundation at Tulane and Loyola Universities in New Orleans, Louisiana, and in a recent blog post published on a Christian website, offered up that “Christianity is a religion of clergy trials.” And he makes that statement in the context of the recent trial of United Methodist Bishop Karen Oliveto, the first openly lesbian clergy person elected as a Bishop in the United Methodist Church, and points out that this is just another in a seemingly never-ending series of clergy trials that have taken place within Christianity over the past two thousand years, beginning with the trial of Jesus himself.
And he says, “It’s how we measure in each generation how far we’ve strayed from Jesus. Most of our clergy trials are the product of a fierce underlying debate within the Judeo-Christian tradition that has never been resolved over the course of thousands of years.” And it’s a debate that he sees as being between moral legalism and pragmatic mysticism.”
We talked about “legalism” in religion last week, if you remember, as the idea that the only way to please God, and to find salvation, is to follow all the rules and laws in Scripture. And Guyton says the question comes down to whether “the laws of God are ends unto themselves as opaque, that is, difficult to understand expressions of God’s authority or are they more pragmatic or practical guides whose purpose is to accomplish a deeper goal such as mystical union with God?”
And he goes on to say that for legalists, their primary concern is to respect and enforce the authority of God, and that the only reason to study the Bible is to figure out exactly what God said so that it can be obeyed “perfectly.”
“Perfect obedience” to the law is what Paul claimed to have accomplished as Saul, the Pharisee. He tells us in Philippians 3, that he was a perfect law-abiding Pharisee: “As far as the Law can make you perfect, I was faultless,” he says. Saul was an exacting moral legalist.
Legalists, Guyton suggests, don’t ask why questions of Scripture because trying to get “behind” the purpose, that is to get to the spirit of the law instead of looking only at the letter of the law, somehow subverts God’s authority. The bumper sticker version of this approach is familiar: “The Bible said it. I believe it. That settles it.” And to a legalist the measure of a person’s respect for God’s authority is tied directly to the cost of obedience. In other words, obedience should not be practical or in any way related to self-interest because if your will coincides with God’s will then you’re not really choosing God’s will over your own. It’s a kind of “no pain - no gain” approach that makes pragmatism deeply suspect to a legalist. Now, that idea may not make sense to you in that context, but here’s a story in another context that might help make it “perfectly” clear.
One Christmas during my Kmart years, it was a very busy time, as you can well imagine, and I had little time to do other things like, say, go Christmas shopping.
Well, my then wife had told me something that she really wanted for Christmas, so I picked it up for her at my Kmart store because we happened to sell that very item. When, however, she learned after Christmas that I had bought that gift for her at my store instead of going elsewhere to make the purchase, she became irritated, shall we say.
Buying it there, she complained, was “too easy” for me, there wasn’t enough effort put into it for the gift to have any true meaning. Mind you, it was exactly what she asked for and buying it elsewhere would have cost 10-20% more. Maybe this example can help you see how this idea of pragmatism, or logical practicality, is kind of repugnant to a legalist, and perhaps also provide some insight as to why she was my wife then, but not my wife now.
The idea of mysticism and pragmatism are not usually thought of together in every day life, but they go well together in the arena of spirituality in this way: a mystic is one who has experienced a deep union with God in a very realistic, practical, or pragmatic way, and will do whatever it takes to experience that union again.
It’s like those experiences I invited you to remember at the beginning, the one that was so intoxicating that you would do anything to experience it again, only better.
So, unlike the approach to scripture taken by a legalist,
a mystic uses biblical teaching not as an authority to be obeyed but as a practical tool or means for connecting more deeply with God, to get that divine fix once more - what John Wesley meant when he said reading scripture was a “means of grace.” And using the Bible in this way, as a means for deepening one’s intimacy with God, to the legalist, would be disrespectful, because as Guyton puts it, “if the Bible is a tool for deepening my intimacy with God, then I’m going to focus on the verses that prove helpful to me in that journey and set aside the verses that don’t, even if I trust that some day under different circumstances, the verses that seem unhelpful now might well be indispensable later.”
Now, before anyone suggests that that’s a “buffet” approach to scripture, remember that in 1 Timothy it says that “all Scripture is God-breathed and useful,” a pretty pragmatic approach to scripture if ever there was one, right? It would never occur to a pragmatic mystic to think of scripture as “authoritative” in the same way that a legalist would. In fact, when most people talk about scripture as being authoritative, Guyton says, he wonders if they’re “[giving irrational reverence to] the idea of scripture in general” as opposed to engaging any particular passages of scripture.
For a true legalist, though, it’s an all or nothing proposition; either all scriptures are authoritative or none are.
I would suggest, however, that it’s relatively easy to show that someone who professes this position takes a “buffet” approach to scriptural authority as well.
For example, and in the spirit of comedian Jeff Foxworthy…
If you have a child who was ever stubborn or rebellious toward you at some point in their life, which ALL children do, if you did not stone your child to death at that very moment, as scripture commands, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life.
If you have ever enjoyed shrimp, crab, lobster, or oysters at home or at your neighborhood Red Lobster, contrary to what scripture commands, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life.
If you are right now, or have at anytime, worn clothing made of two different materials, wool, cotton, polyester, whatever, contrary to the law given in scripture, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life.
If you grow a garden with two different kinds of plants in the same bed or pot in violation of what the law in scripture requires, then scripture may not be authoritative in your life.
And I think you get the point.
In John’s gospel, (14:15) Jesus says, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments;” an oft-quoted verse by legalists because it seems pretty straightforward. The problem is, Jesus doesn’t give any specific commandments in John other than “love one another,” which is about as abstract as you can get.
John’s gospel, often referred to as the “mystical gospel,” provides incredible mystical imagery and shaped the imagination and deepened the divine intimacy of many Christians, more, some offer, than any of the other gospels. But there just isn’t much to “obey” in the clear sense of a thou shalt or thou shalt not. Outside of the Sermon on the Mount, in the synoptic gospels, Jesus gives few concrete commands, which is what makes the statement in John 14:15 seem inherently mystical. Maybe the legalists get the flow of cause and effect backwards and it’s by loving Jesus that we’re made capable of keeping his commandments rather than proving our love for Jesus by following rules that aren’t anywhere near that verse.
And I say all of that to get us to here: Like Guyton in his blog post, and like Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan and others before him, I think that Jesus and Paul are both pragmatic mystics and that their Pharisee opponents are moral legalists. Jesus and Paul are both doing whatever is necessary, including taking a non-traditional approach to scripture and the religious practice of their day, in order to be in union with God, while the Pharisees and those who follow them are doing whatever they can to insist that the only way to get to God is by following all of the rules and laws as laid out in scripture. But even a cursory reading of their interactions in the New Testament makes it hard to believe that anyone could read these stories and adopt the legalistic position of the Pharisees who are continually repudiated by both Jesus and Paul.
What’s not surprising is to see Paul’s pragmatic mysticism perverted into moral a legalism that attempt to correct or challenge the genuine Paul, divorcing his teachings from their original context.
But legalistic interpreters today make Paul’s words into a law which they use in precisely the way Paul teaches us not to use “the law”: to justify themselves as a means of asserting control, authority, or moral superiority over others.
Those whom Paul battles most consistently throughout his letters are not anything-goes free love hippies, but dour authoritarians who teach that the way to get right with God is to follow the rules they choose to enforce - remembering that it was impossible to follow all 613 laws at the same time.
So Galatians is the battleground between the moral legalism of Paul’s opponents and his pragmatic mysticism.
Think about the fundamental question Paul asked the Galatians in chapter 3: “The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” (Gal 3:2) The point for Paul is to receive the spirit.
Following the rules is not an end unto itself and proving your loyalty to God”s authority means nothing if you don’t receive the spirit. What you should be doing is whatever it takes to receive the spirit. For Paul, it’s not about whether your earthly obedience to God somehow punches your ticket to heaven. The question is, “are you doing whatever it takes to experience union with God in this life right now by receiving the Spirit?” Trying to twist Paul’s teaching into a legalistic reward/punishment system is doing exactly what Paul says not to do.
So let’s look at what is considered to be one of the most important passages and the core of Paul’s virtue ethics: the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit in Galatians 5:
>>>GO TO “FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT” SLIDE<<<
16 I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. 17 A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. 18 But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. 19 The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, 20 idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, 21 jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.
22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. 24 Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.
25 If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. 26 Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. (CEB)
A couple of things to consider here. We should note that even though Paul lists several things here as being pretty big obstacles to someone inheriting the kingdom of God, among them idolatry, fighting, selfishness, and jealousy, no moral legalist has ever tried to make “jealousy” or “selfishness” a chargeable offense in our United Methodist Book of Discipline resulting in a clergy trial, even though that would seem to be required of any who hold scripture as authoritative in the way those who brought charges against Bishop Oliveto have done.
Also note that Paul pretty clearly states “if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”
This is not a mere proof-text - that is, plucking a passage of scripture out of context to use it to justify a position held by the “plucker.” No, it actually reveals Paul’s way of thinking about spiritual authority.
He claims that people can be “led” spiritually in a way that involves intuitive sensibilities that override explicit religious teachings. Notice also that he doesn’t say that if you’re led by the Spirit, you will naturally do everything the law tells you to do anyway. In this letter Paul is trying to free the Galatians from slavery to the law that these legalistic missionaries seek to bind them with, so this statement explicitly takes aim at the authority of the legalists who are trying to control other people.
Many Jewish rabbis say similar things about the law: namely that it’s subtle enough that honoring its spirit can look like breaking the law to a legalist.
The law is not the real problem - it can be understood in context. Slavish legalism is the problem.
As Paul says in 2 Cor. 3, “The letter kills, but the spirit gives life.”
So with all of that said, there are two major ideas that I believe this passage presents to us.
The first is that Paul wants us to live by the spirit rather than the flesh, or by what the CEB translates as “selfish motives.” And it’s important to understand when Paul speaks of flesh and spirit he doesn’t mean what has been misconstrued as the physical and the non-physical.
Paul is not a practitioner of Plato’s Greek philosophy that despises dependency on the physical for meaning or existence. Guyton suggests that a more accurate understanding of what Paul intends can be had by translating the word Paul uses for flesh, sarx, as meat, and the word for spirit, pneuma, as breath.
So, Guyton writes, “Living according to the flesh is treating the world around you like meat to be consumed.It’s mindless, self-centered consumption in which every appetite must be quenched and every itch must be scratched.” That’s what the CEB calls “selfish motives. “Living in the spirit does not mean that I don’t eat or drink. It doesn’t mean I [give up] all forms of pleasure…It means…that I seek God in all that I do (1 Cor 10:31). In other words, I savor life rather than stumbling through it like a half-dead zombie. When you live according to the spirit, it doesn’t make your life more physically dull. It means that instant oatmeal can taste like an amazing delicacy and a boring Nebraska cornfield can become a glistening cathedral of God’s kingdom. Paul isn’t giving us rules to follow to establish his authority; he’s giving us concepts to contemplate in order to pursue a life that is fully alive.”
The second idea we should take from this passage is this: Paul says that it’s the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control - that are the true measure of right living, not obedience to laws. If I told you that we had to “obey” this passage we wouldn’t know how because Paul doesn’t give a list of “dos and don’ts,
he gives us a list of character qualities that show whether we’ve taken a right or wrong turn in how we’re living our lives. It’s not about obeying Paul or anyone else, it’s about examining whether the fruit we produce in our lives is peace and patience or strife and envy. If that examination shows that we’re going the wrong way then a change of direction, that is repentance, is called for. “The purpose of following biblical teachings,” Guyton suggests, “is not to be able to say, ‘Look God; I did everything you said; so what’s my reward?’ but to experience love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
The reward is the fruit itself.”
So then to come full circle, if Paul wrote this letter to the Galatians to rebut the sinful, heretical, moral legalism that these Jewish-Christian missionaries were trying to impose on them, then are our brothers and sisters within the United Methodist Church who bring to trial LGBTQ clergy actually disobeying the scriptural authority of Paul’s teaching when they reject his criteria for determining whether someone is living according to the flesh or the spirit?
If an LGBTQ Christian is clearly filled with the gifts of the Spirit and exhibits the fruit of the Spirit in their life and their ministry, would Paul want us to prevent that person from obeying God’s call on his or her life simply because they violated a law that scripture gives no more or no less importance to than eating a shrimp cocktail?
What would Paul say if he took the witness stand at the trial of a gay or lesbian clergy person? Would he speak as he did at the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15, testifying to the Twelve of all the Holy Spirit-filled work that had been done by these non-circumcised Gentiles - the fruit of the spirit they had exhibited? Or are we to just blindly adhere to the carefully constructed legalisms intended to help us feel like we’re obediently resisting change in our world, as we did with the role of African Americans in the church a century and a half ago, and with women more recently?
The United Methodist Church is fast approaching a crossroads, if you will, where we will have to decide HOW we are going to be together, or IF we are going to be together. For me personally, I’m of two minds on the issue. It blows my mind that a denomination that’s history is built on the twin ideas of God’s abundant grace and of our connectional nature cannot even “agree to disagree” on the issue of homosexuality when there is so very much more that we agree on. At the same time, I see all the time and energy, all of the enmity, bitterness, strife, fighting, and other things produced by what Paul calls “selfish motives” and wonder if Christ’s mission wouldn’t be better served by our just going our separate ways so that as two churches, we could get back to the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
I have to agree with Morgan Guyton when he says,
“I understand that we have a discernment process to go through. And I get that the moral legalists are sincerely trying to be faithful to a God they think is being kicked around by moral relativism.” But I also see, as Paul testifies, that as Saul he was himself a man of the law, and he saw that it led him to “breathing threats to slaughter the Lord’s disciples” (Acts 9:1). But later he seems to wonder, “How could such perfect religious observance still create hateful and violent men like me?” That was Paul’s utterly honest and humble question, and is one that many folks today would be wise to ask of themselves.
What moral legalists don’t recognize, is that when I, or others, read Galatians 5 and declare our support for Bishop Oliveto and other LGBTQ clergy, we do so out of obedience to God, however wrong we may be in what we believe we’ve heard God tell us. If we are wrong in our understanding, we will err on the side of grace over legalism, on the side of inclusion over exclusion, on the side of love. And likewise, if God tells me, or others, to take up my cross and risk my ordination by marrying [LGBTQ] people, I would see it as disobedient and cowardly not to do so. We understand this not only as an issue of interpretation, but as a matter of justice, and we cannot simply cover our ears from hearing whatever the Spirit might say through that process.
As Christians, our religion started as a movement that exploded after the clergy trial of a young Galilean rabbi that resulted in a horrific execution and a miracle that changed human history. If Jesus hadn’t been resurrected, he would be known merely as an eccentric prophet who went too far, blasphemed God, and was killed for it. Ironically, the clergy trial of Jesus, brought about by the religious moral legalists of that day, also led to both the punishing savagery imposed by those same religious moral legalists and to the miracle by which God categorically and unequivocally rebuked them and what they stood for.
It seems that too often this conversation has been an argument about whether or not people who have already made up their minds, on both sides, have to keep listening to others. Defending the right to stop listening doesn’t seem like living into the fruit of the spirit. So all of us should examine our hearts for the fruits of the flesh and the fruits of the spirit. Paul would tell us that whoever wins the argument has lost everything if they’ve given their hearts over to enmity, strife, and quarrel.
Perhaps most importantly, we should try to find the fruits of the spirit in those we consider our enemies.
The goal is not to validate ourselves and invalidate others; the goal is to find Christ and let him draw us closer. That is where we truly experience mystical union with Jesus Christ. Amen.
“The debate that’s older than Paul’s letter to the Galatians (#NoSuchLaw)”