a sermon, based on Galatians 5.1, 13-25, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, June 26, 2016
(Note: On occasion, I preach what I term “a theological sermon” – though all sermons are innately theological as they speak of God and address the relationship between God and creation – in which I take a concept I find in scripture and reflect on it, proverbially “run with it”, rethink it to see whether I see something new or, at least, new for me!)
Philosophy, the age-old love and pursuit of wisdom, and Christian theology, for two millennia the philosophical engagement with doctrine, seek to interpret and make sense of human experience.
On many matters, they diverge. On one, they agree.
Within the human soul there is a war between competing, conflicting forces; for the Apostle Paul, flesh and Spirit, which “are opposed to each other.”
Paul wasn’t the first to recognize an inherent human inner conflict…
Centuries earlier, Jewish phenomenology identified within us a good nature calling us upward and an evil nature pulling us downward…
Some ancient rabbis, reading the story of Noah and the ark, interpreted God’s lament for creating humankind leading to the decision to flood the world (in effect, to start over) as a divine admission, confession, a heavenly “Oops!” for having implanted evil in the human soul…
In Greek thought, Plato described the soul as a charioteer struggling to control two horses; one noble, named reason, running skyward; the other, called passion pulling the chariot to earth…
Recall, too, the dramatic scene of Jesus’ forty-day wilderness journey; on one side, beleaguered, bedeviled by Satan’s incessant temptations and on the other, bolstered by the ministrations of angels.
The idea of the soul as a playground, a war zone between good and evil is ancient and seemingly universal. As Christians, in our quest for understanding, let us turn again to Paul’s “flesh” and “Spirit.”
Flesh, from the Greek sarx, points to our mortality. As Janis Hoffman, a dear friend 95-years young and one of my favorite practical theologians, oft says, “Once you’re born, you’re done for.” Once, at birth, we “begin”, we can experience the joys and are exposed to the sorrows creation holds until we “end” in death. Even more, flesh signifies that we are susceptible to the sway of temptation and ruin, abandoning God’s way and following, as the prayers laments, “the devices and desires of our own hearts.”
Spirit (whether with an upper or lower case “s”) is that life-giving, animating power within us most akin to God, who is Spirit.
Reflecting on Paul’s dualism of flesh and Spirit, I see the sense of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin’s notion that we are not so much human beings seeking to become spiritual, but rather spiritual beings immersed, enfleshed in earthly experience. Through the lens of this viewpoint, which rejects that dominant idea in Greek thought that the body is evil, I look beyond a standard interpretation of Galatians that considers flesh as bad requiring subjugation and spirit as good.
Indeed, I reinterpret Paul!
Yes, the spirit is inherently good, yet the flesh is not innately bad. Both are essential. Spirit needs flesh in order that its fruit, principally love, has a body through which it can be revealed, literally become real. Flesh needs spirit for self-control to restrain, even transcend, if only on occasion, our selfish self-interest, our impulsive passions that make vice more appealing than virtue.
Paul makes a case for war. This Paul calls for a ceasefire; that we, as spirits working not against, but through flesh, call a truce so not to be at war with ourselves. If, as Paul says, the whole law is fulfilled in loving neighbor as self, then for us to share, spread the fruit of the Spirit, each of us first must know it, taste it, savor it ourselves. We, in the Spirit, are empowered to love ourselves, to find joy in ourselves, to be at peace and patient with ourselves, to be kind and good to ourselves, to keep faith and to be gentle with ourselves.
Good idea. It’s the implementation that’s hard. At least, for me. I often am at war with myself whether it’s a clash between Paul’s flesh and spirit or my values of love and justice and my sometimes very conflicting desires to be and do otherwise. Yet I behold one saving grace: I can choose. It’s no accident that when Paul speaks of the fruit, the outer manifestation of inner Spirit, he begins with love – not merely emotion that feels kindness toward another, usually because of shared experience and perspective, but rather active unconditional goodwill that does kindness for another however different. So, even when I am most at war with myself, I still can choose to do love and to do justice for the sake of others whether I like it (or them!) or not.
Illustrations: The Great Flood (1864), Ivan Konstantinovich Aivazovsky (1817-1900), The State Russian Museum, St. Petersburg; The Temptation of Christ on the Mountain (1308-1311), Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255-1319)
 Genesis 6.5-8.22
 Genesis 6.6-7
 Plato’s Phaedrus (246 B)
 See Matthew 4.1, 11 and Mark 1.13
 From the Confession of Sin, Evening Prayer: Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, page 62
 John 4.24
 Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881-1955), French paleontologist, Jesuit priest, philosopher, and mystic.
 A reference to Galatians 5.22-23 and our bearing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives