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Sermon for Proper 8/Ordinary 13 Year C Flesh and spirit in Galatians

June 5, 2016

flesh spiritFor freedom Christ has set us free. – words from our second reading

In the name…


(I was drinking coffee on Friday morning with a priest friend of mine. We were both shocked by the Brexit vote. I’m preaching on Sunday she said.


So am I, I said.


Being the sort of people we are, we’d both already written our sermons. Should we go back to the drawing board and start again? No – I’m sticking with the lectionary.

The referendum process has unleashed so many warring factions and thrusting egos that we do well, to alter the phrase, to keep calm and carry on …. praying.

And we’re still in the beautiful game – Euro 2016

Meanwhile, you might see some relevance to these warring factions and thrusting egos in the passage Mother Church has given us for today.)

In the film When Harry Met Sally, Harry says that men and women can’t really be friends because the sex part always gets in the way. As if friendship is noble spiritual while sex is carnal, fleshly

In our reading, Paul said that ‘what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh’. This reading has done so much damage. Some monks and nuns used to whip themselves on Fridays to mortify the flesh; some people still wear hair shirts.

Yet we know that Paul was on to something. Freud said that inner conflict is the cause of man’s psychic disorders.

Dr. Karl Menninger said that this internal warring is caused by the life instinct and the death instinct

Carl Jung said, “What drives people to war with themselves is the intuition or knowledge that they consist of two persons in opposition to one another. The conflict may be between the sensual and the spiritual man.”

Robert Louis Stevenson wrote about Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde, one person who displayed two very different and opposing personalities.

Actor Sir Ben Kingsley who played Gandhi said : Inside all of us is a balance of all kinds of forces….the monster and the saint, Mother Teresa and Myra Hindley.”

Paul was on to something but the problem is with the translation of the Greek word σάρξ as ‘flesh’. Christianity is not opposed to flesh. After all, in Jesus, the word became flesh. In marriage, two people become one flesh.

 And according to Jesus, sin isn’t merely done by the flesh. He said that anyone who looked with lust at another had already committed adultery in his heart. Then again, heart and head are made of flesh.

Paul was a Jew. The separation of flesh and spirit is a Greek notion – dualism. For Jews like Paul, humans are a psychosomatic unity – Ψυχή – soul; σῶμα – body. Body, mind and spirit work in tandem, holistically.

Some think that when Paul spoke of flesh he was talking about our animal desires but that’s speciesist.And Jewish thought calls these desires yetzer hara יֵצֶר הַרַע‎‎, – something that can be harnessed for good: selfishness leads you to compete to get good grades at school and a good job so you can support your family; lust can ripen into love and a good marriage

The New English Bible translates ‘flesh’ as ‘lower nature. Maybe if this lower nature acts out of synch. with our minds and spirits. It creates the split personality of Jekyll and Hyde. Hence the church’s traditional teaching that sex outside a loving relationship falls short of what is best for us.

Paul’s hearers in Galatia, at the very time at which his letter was composed would have known of the emperor Nero, who regularly stalked the streets of Rome with his entourage, choosing people at random to satisfy his lusts.

You could characterize Paul’s categorizations according to speed. The ‘lusts of the flesh’ are about quick results, instant gratification, shortcuts, the instant sating of desire.

The ‘fruit of the Spirit’, on the other hand, does not grow overnight. It takes time.  The cultivation of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, self-control, humility, gentleness and faithfulness take a lifetime. A lifetime, indeed, of wisdom, maturity, practice, humility and learning. Love that is worthy of the name may begin with a spark, but it never comes fully formed. Like a person, there is much growing to be reckoned with. Martyn Percy in Reflections for Daily prayer Advent 20112-2012 (Church house 2011) p84

For freedom Christ has set us free. Four weeks ago I preached here about Paul’s opponents who wanted to add something to the gospel who kept all sorts of rules so as to gain brownie points with God. Paul’s gospel of grace means that can become free of conflicting desires. As Christ grows in our hearts, we no longer want to earn points. Our desire changes – we no longer want to do things that are out of synch. Christ sets us free.

Scholar Anthony Thiselton defines the flesh like this: “The outlook of the flesh is …. oriented toward the self, that which pursues its own ends in self-sufficient independence of God.” – and of other people.

Independence of other people. I don’t want to be too critical of a romantic comedy but Harry and Sally were wrapped up in their sweet introverted ways , always talking about themselves.

But to be embodied means to live somewhere, in this hut, tenement, or grand mansion; to eat this or that, bits of paper if you are poor in Rio de Janeiro, or the fruits of the whole earth if you are the fellow of an Oxford college or a North American businessman; to be unemployed and therefore unable to keep body and soul together, as we say, or to be grossing more than the poorest 17 million of your fellow citizens, as it is with the richest Mexican.

Bodies are given us to challenge and change this world. To live graciously is to seek the kingdom and pursue it, and that, finally, is what we are called to use the senses for and it is failure to do so which is what we mean by that much misunderstood term ‘sin’, which never, I hope I have shown, refers primarily or above all to ‘the flesh’.

Philip Sheldrake writes about spirituality. He says: Appropriate sexual body-language is a sacrament of Real Presence — both the true and unashamed presence of one person to another and, within that and cementing that self-disclosure, the Real Presence of the indwelling God. ‘This is my body — my life — given for you.’ ‘And they recognised him in the breaking of the bread.’ And we may recognise God too, in the breaking open of bodies, the breaking open of self, for each other.

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From → My Sermons, Sexuality

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