June 30, 2019, The Third Sunday of Pentecost

The Third Sunday of Pentecost – Proper 8, Year C
June 30, 2019
The Rev. Anna C. Shine


Readings: 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14; Psalm 77:1-2, 11-20; Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51-62


May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strong rock and our redeemer.


The Letter to the Galatian Churches is a highly complex piece of literature, with exhortation as well as pastoral sections, biting criticism as well as loving adoration, intensely and exquisitely argued points of scriptural exegesis, and an often-unnoticed overarching apocalyptic narrative. All this within a mere six chapters. Paul is writing in the context of being away from these communities, which he founded. In his absence, members of what is assumed to be part of the Circumcision Party within the Jerusalem Church, I’ll call them the Teachers, have come preaching and teaching to the Galatians, who are Gentiles, the necessity of being circumcised in order to be truly Christian. They are arguing that there is need for circumcision in order to receive the blessing that God gave Abraham and his seed in Genesis 15. Paul argues against this interpretation of Scripture, and assures the Galatians that circumcision is not necessary in order to be followers of the gospel of Christ. He assures them in this letter that their receiving of the Spirit of Christ at baptism is enough to give them this blessing of Abraham’s lineage. After all, he argues, the covenant of circumcision came later than the promise God gave Abraham, and the blessing for Abraham’s descendants came on the basis of Abraham’s faith. I am basing my understanding of this letter off the seminal work of J. Louis Martyn, who wrote a 577-page commentary on this six chapter book. Needless to say, I will try to keep my sermon shorter than that…you’re welcome.


I am about to embark with you on a journey through a small portion of Galatians which will hopefully help you to see why translation and a deep study of Scripture is so important. Because the interpretation can vary greatly as a result. Bear with me as I read Martyn’s translation of today’s epistle reading. You will come to see quickly how much it reshapes our understanding of this important letter.


“It was to bring us into the realm of freedom that Christ set us free. Stand your ground, therefore, and do not ever again take up the yoke of slavery! For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not allow freedom to be turned into a military base of operations for the Flesh, active as a cosmic power. On the contrary, through love be genuine servants of one another. For the whole of the Law has been brought to completion in one sentence: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself!’ But if you snap at one another, each threatening to devour the other, take care that you are not eaten up by one another!


In contradistinction to the Teachers, I, Paul, say to you: Lead your daily life guided by the Spirit, and, in this way, you will not end up carrying out the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh. For the Flesh is actively inclined against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the Flesh. Indeed these two powers constitute a pair of opposites at war with one another, the result being that you do not actually do the very things you wish to do. If, however, in the daily life of your communities you are being consistently led by the Spirit, then you are not under the authority of the Law.


The effects of the Flesh are clear, and those effects are: fornication, vicious immorality, uncontrolled debauchery, the worship of idols, belief in magic, instances of irreconcilable hatred, strife, resentment, outbursts of rage, mercenary ambition, dissensions, separation into divisive cliques, grudging envy of the neighbor’s success, bouts of drunkenness, nights of carousing, and other things of the same sort. In this regard, I warn you now, just as I warned you before: those who practice things of this sort will not inherit the Kingdom of God.


By contrast, the fruit borne by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faith, gentleness, self-control. The Law does not forbid things of this kind! And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the Flesh, together with its passions and desires. If, then, we live in the Spirit – and we do – let us carry out our daily lives under the guidance of the Spirit.” (432, 479-480, 541)


Sounds fairly different from what we heard read earlier, doesn’t it? In this rendering, Paul is describing the reality of daily life in the church within the context of an apocalyptic battle. He is describing “the real world, the world that has been made what it is by God’s sending into it Christ and his Spirit” (482). His description of reality pits two cosmic powers against one another – the supra-human power of the Flesh – capital F, as well as the supra-human power of the Spirit, namely the Spirit of Christ. Paul is describing a “war of liberation that has been commenced by the Spirit upon its arrival” (483). And as receivers of that Spirit in baptism, the Galatian churches become the soldiers fighting this war against the Flesh. In order to portray the landscape of this battle that the Galatians are fighting, Paul introduces a list of vices and virtues – however, this catalogue is not given as a means of moral norms, as it has typically been understood, rather it is a listing of the marks of what these apocalyptic powers, the Spirit and the Flesh, leave upon the communities they touch.


In the more common understanding of this passage, we read “flesh” as an aspect of the human individual. The brilliance of what Paul is doing within his letter, however, is that he transcends the initial argument, talking of the flesh taken off in circumcision, namely the foreskin, to lead into a discussion of the apocalyptic level of that which leads us astray from our inheritance of the Kingdom of God, the Flesh that impacts us on a communal level.


And that battle is still raging, as we see evidenced in our reality today. On a daily basis, we hear of many of these effects of the Flesh in all levels of our communities – particularly the “instances of irreconcilable hatred, strife, resentment, outbursts of rage… dissensions, separation into divisive cliques, [and] grudging envy of the neighbor’s success” (480). Due to the click-bait and ratings-driven nature of news today, we hear fewer of the stories of the Spirit working throughout our communities. However, I know that the Spirit is actively working on a communal level in the Body of Christ that is made up of all of us who have been baptized in the name of that Spirit, as well as in those who have found Christ in another name. I see it within the ways in which we respond with love and gentleness and patience and kindness toward one another here at Holy Cross.


So what does any of this mean for us today? I’m fairly certain that talk about apocalyptic and spiritual warfare and cosmic powers are not often uttered within the walls of an Episcopal Church, which is why I am taking the time to introduce it to you cradle Episcopal folk. Paul’s exhortation to the Galatians will begin in the next verse, which of course, we won’t get to until next Sunday. Here Paul will talk in more depth of the fruits of the Spirit, he’ll flesh them out, if you will (see what I did there).


The tension at the time of this letter regarded what was necessary in order to be included within the community of Christ. The question asked was whether Gentiles needed to first become Jewish in order to become Christian. And Paul answered resoundingly – no! For the Teachers, however, circumcision was the mark that determined your status as family of Abraham and therefore inheritor of salvation through Jesus. You received the blessing of God and the kindness of others once you participated in this covenantal transaction. What is the mark that someone should bear today before we extend these kindnesses? Is it baptism? Is it a cross? Is it the color of one’s skin? The orientation of gender and/or sexuality? Papers of citizenship? Or is it the image of God? And who gets to decide?


Paul remarks in this passage from Galatians that the whole of the Law has been brought to completion in one sentence: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’.He is not summarizing the whole of the Law, but rather is telling us that Jesus has perfected and completed for us, in his life, death, and resurrection, the whole of the Law. And Jesus completed it in showing us that love that we are to show one another. This will become what Paul later calls the Law of Christ. And so it is now our turn to bring that Law of Christ to completion, in the ways in which we live out that love ourselves.


We do that with the Spirit, which we received at the advent of Pentecost and through the initiation of baptism. We see in our baptismal vows the recognition of our being caught in the midst of this apocalyptic battle still. Beginning with the cosmic level – we renounce “Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God.” On the structural level – we renounce “the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God.” And on the individual level – we renounce “all sinful desires that draw [us] from the love of God.” [BCP 302] And then we turn to Christ and make vows regarding love of God and love of neighbor. And we do it with God’s help, through the Spirit of Christ that we have been given. May God continue to help us in the living out of these vows as we strive to follow Paul’s call to carry out our daily lives under the guidance of the Spirit.