From June 30, 2019 at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Lake of the Isles, Minneapolis
It’s the Sunday before July 4, Independence Day. The reading we had from Paul’s letter to the Galatians is all about freedom. So I think we need to go there.
But I have to be honest with you and tell you that I don’t like reading Paul. It’s probably been several years since I’ve preached on Paul, and I know many clergy who are in the same boat. To me, in church-appropriate language, Paul often comes across as… painfully self-important. He uses unnecessarily extreme and offensive examples. Some of the letters attributed to him really throw women’s leadership under the bus. He’s a hard guy to redeem these days.
But the worst of it is because of the words flesh and spirit. ‘The works of the flesh’ and ‘the fruit of the spirit.’ This language is so tricky because we’ve all been exposed to a version of Christianity that taught us that bodies are sinful. But that kind of ‘your flesh is evil’ and ‘your soul is holy’ stuff is a dualism that runs counter to orthodox Christian beliefs about incarnation. It’s a set of beliefs that some Christians read backwards into Paul’s work and that has so shaped our culture’s shame around bodies and sexuality that many of us would rather just avoid his writing altogether.
Let me be clear: Paul’s words here about the works of the flesh are not an invitation to hate your body or what your body desires. I’d like to invite you to set that body=bad / soul=good dualism aside and try to hear what he’s telling us this morning. I get that it’s tricky, but I think I may have some helpful news for you about it. And I promise I’m not interested in letting Paul off the hook for his other failings. I do think he has something important to say to us about freedom. Can we do this together this morning?
Today’s text from Galatians starts out like this: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
In our context and culture, the word slavery immediately connects to the American history of slavery, the evil practice of kidnapping and buying and selling human beings for the exploitation of their labor. I want to draw your attention to this word because, while human slavery was absolutely an aspect of the culture Paul moved in, he was not talking about that in this text. In the letter to the Galatians, he was not talking about throwing off political oppression by an imperial conqueror or revolting against a cruel master. That’s a whole other conversation that absolutely does take place in the Scriptural narrative, but here, when he talks about slavery in this text, he’s talking to Gentile Christians, non-Jews who had come into the fold of the followers of Jesus, who were trying to make sense of how they related to the Jewish laws and practices of their day. He’s explaining to them that they do not need to take on the religious and cultural practices of other people in order to be faithful followers of Jesus.
So that’s point one: Paul isn’t talking about slavery as the literal enslavement of human bodies here. That’s important because we might be tempted to look around today, 150 years after the Civil War, and believe that this text does not apply to us. This seeming freedom we enjoy, this belief in American progress, shields us from deeper ways in which we are caught in webs of exploitation. We are, even now, caught in systems to which we willingly give our allegiance. Then we spend our lives serving them. That, my friends, is the kind of slavery Paul is referring to in this particular text. What he wants is to encourage the Christians in Galatia to stand firm in their freedom from those idols, those value systems. So that begs the question, then of what Christian freedom is.
In the dominant North American political context, freedom is most often interpreted as the absence of constraint. It means the freedom to do what you want, without anyone else getting in the way or telling you how to be. ‘Freedom’ is freedom from – freedom from a foreign king, freedom from the imposition of religion, freedom from tyranny.
Paul and Jesus both lived in a time when political and familial tyranny was the norm. There was absolute stratification of power by class, gender, ethnicity, race, ability, tribe, and family status. Those were value systems that had extraordinary power over people’s lives and behavior. And they were value systems that told a story about who had worth and who didn’t, how power was used, how wealth flowed, or didn’t.
What are the value systems of this world? What does our culture tell you you must to do to be safe, or valued, or whole?
- Individualism: You must be special, different, living up to your potential, passionate about something, and your needs are always more important than those of anyone else. Your identity, your development as a person, you matter more than what others or the whole need. ‘Rugged individualism.’
- Consumerism: You are what you buy. You are what you have. We are inherently in competition with each other for limited resources, in a zero-sum game. Someone is going to be the loser, and someone is going to be the winner.
- Image: Physical, reputational, social media – we are how we appear to others.
- We could keep going with this list: Technological advancement. Efficiency and speed. Capitalism. White Supremacy.
In the dominant American imagination, we are all free from tyranny to become better versions of ourselves and to demonstrate that with our perfect health, athleticism, our picture-perfect homes and Facebook pages, our technological efficiency. But that version of freedom isn’t free. It makes a mockery of the environmental and human exploitation that such consumption requires. It calls us to a neverending race for security with wealth and militarization and endlessly incentivizes our organizations to be more concerned about their profit than about their impact. We are all caught in this web.
Paul rebukes this notion of freedom and says, “You were called to freedom not for self-indulgence but through love to become slaves to one another.” Christian freedom is not about freedom from constraint. It’s about freedom for the Kingdom of God. Freedom to see the inherent human dignity of oneself and others, and to act accordingly, despite the inevitable social and political consequences. Jesus wasn’t deluding himself about what would happen in his violent and stratified society when he exercised the freedom to love his neighbor. For Jesus, freedom was about practicing the Kingdom of God out of a belief that that is more real than whatever consequences may follow.
So here’s point two: If we are free in Christ, that freedom is for loving our neighbor even and especially when the value systems of this world tell us we shouldn’t.
Point three: I want to share with you a hack I use for making sense of Paul. Whenever you see ‘the flesh’ in his writing, I invite you to mentally retranslate that as ‘the value systems of this world.’ Whatever our culture tells you you must to do to be safe, or valued, or whole. The unexamined, inherited mindsets that encroach on our ability to walk in love. Walking in the Spirit, then, for Paul, is, walking the way of Jesus, living out the value systems of God. The practice of the Kingdom of God.
Ok, class, here’s your quick review:
- Slavery, in this theological conversation, is about the ways our minds and our lives are colonized by the value systems of this world, beliefs that have little to do with God’s love for us.
- Freedom: Not freedom from external political oppression, but freedom for practicing the kingdom of God, the Beloved Community.
- The works of the flesh: what happens when we let ourselves be driven by the value systems of this world
- The fruit of the spirit: what happens when we practice the Kingdom of God. Some might call it resistance.
So here’s where we put this all together. Later in chapter 5, Paul writes, ‘Now the works of the flesh are obvious:’ – and then comes a list of all the bad things we were taught in Sunday school we weren’t supposed to do, even if fornication sounded really interesting at the time. I want to invite you to do the translation work we just talked about here.
If we sub in those words ‘the value systems of this world,’ what we read instead is: ‘Live by the Spirit and do not gratify the desires of the value systems of this world. Now the results of the value systems of this world are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.’
Then he goes on to say, ‘Those who do such things will not inherit the Kingdom of God.’ Oh geez, here we go again, Paul. I want to tell you that that is not a good translation. That word ‘inherit’ is from the greek peripateo – to walk all around, to go about, to embody. It should be translated instead ‘Those who do such things do not walk in the Kingdom of God, do not practice the Kingdom of God.’
If you’re reading Paul’s list here and you recognize yourself – if you’re worried about that one time you got drunk in college, or maybe more than one time, or the time you got mad at your boss, I want to put you at ease. Paul is not preaching a God who is keeping a cosmic record book of all your failings and has a detailed list of why you’re not going to make it past St. Peter. That is not good news. That’s a small religion with a small god.
This is what Paul is preaching to you this morning: If you let the value systems of this world colonize your mind, you will wind up behaving in ways that are their own punishment. The value systems of this world tell us you are what you buy, you are what you have, you are your job, you are the image of yourself you put on Facebook – and those stories lead us to live in ways that eat away at our ability to be present to God’s kingdom when it’s right in front of us. Enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, factions, envy. (Maybe carousing isn’t so bad?) And I might also want to add a few things to the list of what happens on a societal level when we make an idol out of human value systems: discrimination, human trafficking, slavery, ethnic cleansing, environmental exploitation, et cetera.
These value systems wreck our ability, on an individual and on a systemic level, to experience God’s kingdom where the lion lays down with the lamb, where the rough places are made smooth, where every tear is wiped away.
So you are responsible, Paul says, for hanging on to your freedom in Christ. God is interested in the way your pattern of life opens you up to, or turns you away from, the Kingdom of God right here and now. How are your habits, your pattern of life, your deepest values, shaping you to be present when God happens?
The story that God tells about you is that you are beloved, along with everyone else, and that you are gifted and called to take part in God’s kingdom right now. Paul believes that letting that story shape our behavior leads to the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Christ has set us free to choose to live in God’s kingdom, even when there is a cost. We are free for loving our neighbor. We are free for and responsible for decolonizing our minds of the narratives we hear, over and over again every day, about what we must do or be or have in order to be ok. The freedom we have in Christ is to trust that we are in fact already beloved and then to act accordingly. Stand firm, then and do not submit again to the stories this world tells about what you must do to be ok.
- What are the messages from the value systems of our world (stories about what you must do to be ok) that you find yourself tempted to believe?
- What do you do to remind yourself to listen to God’s story about you – that you are already beloved, gifted, and called?
- You’re free for practicing the kingdom of God. You’re free for loving your neighbor. What’s one simple way you can practice that this week?
- Which ‘fruit of the Spirit’ – signs of practicing the Kingdom of God – can you identify in your life? In your neighbor’s life?
- Love | Joy | Peace | Patience | Kindness | Generosity |Faithfulness | Gentleness | Self-control
- How might you seek more of one of these fruits in your own Christian practice?