Readings (Track 1; the citations from Galatians are from the New International Version)
Our second reading from Galatians is a gem. With its probable allusion to baptism (“those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh”) and all its references to the Spirit it inspires a sermon that we might entitle “Baptism: P.S.”
As you may recall, the letter to the Galatian churches was prompted by the arrival of folk who argued that to properly follow Jesus the (Jewish) Messiah, the gentiles had to be circumcised and observe all the law of Moses. Paul writes to convince the Galatians that this is a dead end. That said, let’s walk through our text.
“It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” The yoke of slavery: all the commandments in the law of Moses, particularly those which served to separate Jews and gentiles: circumcision, the Sabbath, the food and other purity laws.
We Americans really like this verse, whether in relation to last week’s Juneteenth, or next week’s Independence Day. Freedom! But what Paul does with it: “But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love.” Slavery no, but becoming “slaves to one another” as the NRSV puts it, yes. Say what???
Our culture likes the stoic philosopher Epictetus’ definition of freedom: “He is free who lives as he wills, who is subject neither to compulsion, nor hindrance, nor force, whose choices are unhampered…”
“Who lives as he wills:” for Paul that can’t be what freedom’s about, first, because it ignores Jesus’ model, serving us humbly in love. In love: enact “Love your neighbor as yourself” and you’ve nailed the entire law.
“Who lives as he wills:” for Paul that can’t be what freedom’s about, second, because it’s impossible in light of the following verses (vv.16-17). The Spirit and the flesh in combat: in the middle of that battlefield anyone who thinks he “lives as he wills” is a bit naïve.
The Spirit and the flesh. The Spirit: the Holy Spirit. The flesh: that’s a bit more complicated. Sometimes it’s a morally neutral term, us in our vulnerable humanity. Sometimes—as here—it captures our “autonomous fallen humanity…standing in opposition to God” (Hays). And in this text we might hear it as personified, an exterior force like Sin and Death ranged against us. So Paul’s Spirit vs. Flesh isn’t about two parts of the human person, but about two powers locked in combat. And, again, in that context simply living as one wills is not on the menu. This seems to be the point of the last part of v.17: “so that you are not to do whatever you want,” or, as the KJV translated it, “so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.”
We can get a better handle on ‘flesh’ and ‘Spirit’ by looking at Paul’s two lists. The “acts of the flesh” list starts and ends where we might expect: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; … drunkenness, orgies.” But having named these, Paul gives them no further attention. His focus is on the center: “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy.” This is what he highlighted in v.15 (“If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.”). ‘Bite’ and ‘devour’: in the Greek text that’s characteristically what animals do, so we’re back to last week’s theme that our baptism gives us the possibility of living humanly. And these acts are what Paul returns to in the final verse (“Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.”). It’s pretty clear that if Paul wanted to organize a tour of the sins of the flesh he’d head not to Las Vegas but to Washington D.C. Paul’s list might encourage us to revisit where we see “the flesh” at work, to not get behind on the weeding.
The fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” This is fruit tailored for very imperfect communities (love, peace, forbearance, kindness, gentleness), and that’s encouraging. It’s fruit that strengthens relationships, that enables us to encourage each other’s flourishing.
The fruit: notice that the list isn’t an implicit to-do list: cultivate these virtues! It’s saying that this is what walking in the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit, produces over time.
Spirit and flesh locked in combat. Yet Paul says “Live by the Spirit.” Why does he think we have a choice? Here’s where v.24 comes in: “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Earlier in the letter Paul said:
“I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (2:19b-20).
“Crucified with Christ:” when did that happen? Judging by the common testimony of the early Church and what Paul writes in Romans, at baptism. Here’s that Romans text:
“Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his. We know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be destroyed, and we might no longer be enslaved to sin. For whoever has died is freed from sin” (6:3-7).
“Freed from sin.” But Paul, we might say, why then is sin such an issue in the church, why so many admonitions and warnings in your letters? I think Paul would say that while our baptism gives us wonderful new possibilities, it isn’t a lobotomy. God still treasures our freedom. And the freedom to live humanly, to love, is more like the freedom of a ballerina or a pianist than the freedom to choose this or that dessert at the buffet. It takes focus, practice, openness to accept correction. It’s a skill, something we acquire over time.
OK Paul, we might say, what would a dummy’s guide to this text look like? After Paul stopped laughing here are three things he might include: (1) Freedom. Remember that it’s freedom to serve. Remember that exercising it is a skill.
(2) Walking by the Spirit, keeping in step with the Spirit: that demands focusing on the neighbor. If we’re to serve one another, what does that “other” need, how does that “other” experience the world? Focus, practice, and openness to correction come into play if we think about listening. It’s remarkably easy to assume that we can love or even serve the neighbor without listening to the neighbor, although a moment’s reflection on our own experience at the receiving end will remind us of how well this works. And listening is not easy. Stephen Covey got it right in his Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:
“’Seek first to understand’ involves a very deep shift in paradigm. We typically seek first to be understood. Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply. They’re either speaking or preparing to speak. They’re filtering everything through their own paradigms, reading their autobiography into other people’s lives.”
Listening, one example of a human activity that demands a surprising amount of focus, practice, and openness to correction.
(3) Focus, practice, openness to accept correction: these all assume some awareness, some remembering what story I’m in. So how do I help myself stay aware, remember I’m in a story centered in Jesus (who’s usually already standing next to my neighbor)? Here I have many options including making the sign of the cross before beginning an activity (balancing my checkbook, responding to a problematic letter, etc.), sending up very short prayers throughout the day, cutting a bit out of one of today’s readings and taping it to the bathroom mirror or the door on the fridge—and reviewing these options when they begin to get stale. How to stay aware, to remember, is a non-trivial question.
So let us end where our reading began: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.” Amen.
 Diss 4.1.1 as cited in Hays “The Letter to the Galatians” in The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary.