The Only Thing That Matters

Living by the flesh involves a life focused on the self and its needs above all else. We seek to satisfy our desires by consumption and control, rather than relationship and care. The obvious examples of living by the flesh include the contrast between fossil fuel consumption and global warming, opulent living and starvation, and suburban security and inner-city violence. On the other hand, living by the spirit involves behaviors that build community and create interdependence. Guided by the Spirit, we go beyond the artificial boundaries of ethnicity, race, class, and nation to experience the unity of all life in God’s spirit. Our own self-interest expands to see the well-being of others as essential to our own well-being. 


 

Tom Price, an associate evangelists with the Zacharias Trust reported the following : “The British zoologist Richard Dawkins says that, ‘Religion causes wars by generating certainty.’ And then he wrote: “And the news that constantly beams into our homes and cars reminds us that the most violent and seemingly intractable contemporary conflicts (9/11, Iraq, Afghanistan, Northern Ireland, the Middle East, Bosnia, Sri Lanka) have taken place across lines of religious difference. What is more worrying and relevant is that these conflicts have often been fed, in more or less direct ways, by appeals to religion.”

One could read the Old Testament story of the conquest and settlement of the promised land by the Israelites as cultural genocide fueled by religious intolerance. We have the voices that have pointed to intolerance to the religious views of others that that fueled the fires of the Civil War and contributed to the advance of Naziism. Michael Servetus, a deeply devoted Christian, was burned at the stake in 1553 due to the religious intolerance of none other than John Calvin. I think Dawkins may have something when he says that religion causes war by creating certainty. When I’m certain that I’m right and just as certain that you are wrong and we imagine that the issues at stake have eternal consequences – well, that can lead to war.

Maybe that helps us to understand Paul’s anger when he dictated his letter to the Galatians. It is all about freedom, freedom from and freedom to. The freedom from is freedom from the demands of the Jewish Law. The freedom to is freedom to live nourished and guided by the Spirit of Christ.

 

Galatians 5: For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

13For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

William Loader, an Australian minister, says that when Paul wrote Galatians he was very annoyed. That is an understatement. This letter is his attempt to counteract the effect of those who were telling these new gentile converts to Christians they had to be submit themselves to biblical law and be circumcised. Not only would there be no gain if they went along with such influences, in fact serious harm would be done. They would be abandoning the truth about God and God’s way of setting people right.

From the point of view of these devout Jewish followers of Jesus Paul’s language was outrageous to the point of sacrilege: describing God’s instruction to Abraham about circumcision as mutilation!; referring to strict adherence to the Bible as slavery! Yet that is how Paul describes it. His call to freedom is a call to freedom from a religious orientation which he believes misses the point and does more harm than good. Through Christ God offers a relationship with no preconditions and one requirement: and that is that you remain in the relationship itself. There is no need to keep a kosher kitchen, no need for temple sacrifice, no need laboriously keep the biblical law, no need for circumcision, other than that of the heart. This does not mean that Paul has abandoned ethical values. Even today, some people subscribe to the idea that if you want people to do what is right you must give them rules; they must know the rules and keep the rules. Paul disagrees.           

In 5:13 he makes it clear that freedom is not just release from something – in this case the demands of the Law – it is also freedom for something, namely a relationship with the God who loves. That has to mean that we too engage in such loving. When this happens, Paul concludes, we are more than fulfilling the requirements of the Law. This new way of living is based in a relationship with the God of compassion and goodness and it results in good living.

Paul recognizes the danger of such unstructured living. Christians, says Paul, still need to make living in this relationship their primary focus. It is still possible to enter a relationship with God, but then abandon God’s priorities and follow selfish impulses at the expense of others. Just to follow one’s impulses and to gratify one’s own needs without regard for others is to live “according to the flesh”. Not that our normal human impulses, whether sexual or for food or anything else, are wrong. They become wrong when they are handled in such a way that we do harm to others – and to ourselves.

Paul offers a list of the consequences of living according to the flesh. Most likely, because it was a constant theme in describing the evils of the pagan world and also in the Septuagint, the Bible of their day, was the first prohibition on the second table of the law, sexual immorality tops Paul’s agenda. But he goes beyond that and beyond sins related directly to physical desires to include themes which speak more directly to our relationships with each other and our community. When people live this way they are not heading for the kingdom of God.

Then Paul lists the “fruit of the Spirit”. This isn’t a list of rules. He wants people to change in themselves through their new relationship with God. Goodness as it develops within generates goodness without. Paul urges the Galatians to keep focused on the relationship. The more they do that the more their lives will reflect the goodness and generosity they celebrate. They will not be loving because they know they ought to be loving, but because they are undergoing real change. Paul would say that there is nothing wrong with commanding people to love: it is just that most of the time it simply doesn’t work, because there are things which block us from loving, and until we’ve dealt with those things, what ever we do will not be love or come from love.

 

Paul wants the Galatians to see that he is talking about something which under girds biblical laws and has more to do with underlying biblical laws or principles about how people change. He wants them to understand that those who have chosen to respond to God’s offer of a relationship of love have turned their back on the way of self indulgence. Paul puts it more dramatically: they have crucified that old way. Paul is at his most convincing when he talks about what really changes people and what really matters most to God.

Living by the flesh involves a life focused on the self and its needs above all else. We seek to satisfy our desires by consumption and control, rather than relationship and care. The obvious examples of living by the flesh include the contrast between fossil fuel consumption and global warming, opulent living and starvation, and suburban security and inner-city violence. On the other hand, living by the spirit involves behaviors that build community and create interdependence. Guided by the Spirit, we go beyond the artificial boundaries of ethnicity, race, class, and nation to experience the unity of all life in God’s spirit. Our own self-interest expands to see the well-being of others as essential to our own well-being. This is surely the case in our world today – our attitudes toward consumption and the environment will bring joy or catastrophe to future generations as well as to the planet. Our own hopes and dreams will reach beyond our deaths to affirm unborn generations or shrink to our own selfish needs in the here and now.

If your Bible has study notes, you might see that some ancient manuscripts insert an extra verse at Luke 9:56. I’m reading from the King James version just to make the point.

 

51And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem,

 52And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him.

 53And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.

 54And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?

 55But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of.

 56For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.

This extra verse may be the most important verse not officially in the Bible. Luke tells us that as Jesus traveled to Jerusalem he sent his advance team to a Samaritan village to prepare for his arrival. Because they rejected Jesus, or maybe because of the Samaritan’s ethnic hostility toward Jews, it reads “But the people there did not welcome him.” James and John were enraged: “Lord, do you want us to call down fire from heaven to destroy them?!” Instead of rebuking the Samaritans who rejected him, Jesus rebukes James and John. This is where we find that extra verse that shouldn’t be in the Bible: “And Jesus said to them, ‘You do not know what kind of spirit you are of, for the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.'”

 

When textual scholars compare, contrast and cross-check every last one of the 5,735 fragments of ancient manuscript they reach the overwhelming consensus: even though we don’t have the original documents, and even though there are many differences among those 5,735 manuscripts and fragments, the Bible that we read today consists of texts as they were originally written. Unfortunately this unprecedented textual precision leads the experts to reject the idea of including this verse in the Bible.

I’m glad that some copyist violated the rules and inserted it in his work. It’s like a one-sentence commentary on what he thought the Gospel story meant: Their reaction revealed what spirit was controlling their hearts. Yes, “Jesus didn’t come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them.” Even though the addition doesn’t convey the original words of Luke’s gospel, it surely communicates the authentic spirit of Jesus.    

When James and John invoked divine wrath on the Samaritans, they exemplified an attitude diametrically opposed to everything Jesus said and did. A few verses earlier John tried to stop an exorcist from healing a person because “he was not one of us” (Luke 9:49). These zealous disciples were transforming the good news of God’s unconditional love for all people into the bad news that God had it in for them. They had the idea that the “good news” belonged to them, the “bad news” was for others. For many people today, religion is what Christopher Hitchens calls a “force multiplier of tribal suspicions and hatred,” and God is an angry tyrant before whom people must grovel in fear.       

But not for Jesus.   And Paul emphasizes divine favor expressed through human love. “The only thing that matters,” wrote Paul, “is faith expressing itself in love.” You can summarize the entire Bible, he insisted, in five words: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus quoted it from Leviticus. To the Corinthians Paul wrote that the “greatest gift” is love, without which we are nothing but an irritation and a nuisance. And writing to the Romans, Paul urged the believers not to owe anyone anything, “except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law” (Galatians 5:6, 14; Romans 13:8).            

Demonstrating divine favor to every person, rather than denying it to any person, validates claims about the love of God. For both Jesus and Paul divine love made human was the only thing, the entire thing, and the greatest thing. The additional verse added to the text of Luke 9:56 is clearly spurious, but the authentic voice behind it is unmistakably original: “the Son of Man did not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them”. It calls us to examine what spirit is at work in us.

 

 

 

 

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