It has been almost six months since we have been back in the building. (Almost everything is done now; we are just waiting for the real exterior doors on the main floor.) Everyone once in a while I notice something that we forgot to add to the list of improvements. The Church of the Brethren so generously gave us a peace pole but how could we have forgotten to get a church sign that flashes pithy quotations in order to lure commuters into the pews?
This text from Galatians always reminds me of one of my favorite church signs – “God wants spiritual fruits not religious nuts.”
The fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 is a familiar text, a beloved and guiding text for many. We have it on our kitchen wall and my children have accidently memorized it, from seeing it every day.
For too many years I have found Paul a tyrant from whom I would rather stay far away. His writings have been used as a weapon, or if not a weapon at least a warning. But this scripture, the fruit of the spirit, is comforting and gives us direction. Even taken out of context it works as a guidepost.
Yet, if we take the fruit out of context we miss the larger picture – which is that this letter to the Galatians is written to a group that has begun to fall for the “nuts.” It is probably unfair to call them that, religious nuts. But it seems that this church that Paul started in Galatia is beginning to be influenced by another group of Jesus followers who lean more toward tradition. They know Jesus as messiah -but they also believe that to be a true follower one must be true to the Law, the Jewish Law, since after all Jesus was Jewish.
And to be a true Jew, well a true male Jew, one must be circumcised.
Paul writes this very direct letter to make sure that the followers in Galatia know that what is required is less about the body and more about the Spirit. He writes: (3:1-3)
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?
The flesh that Paul is so concerned about is just that small symbolic piece on men, that must be removed in order to be a true and faithful Jew. These uber religious types have been trying to convince the church in Galatia that if they are going to no longer be Gentiles they have to be circumcised. Paul will have none of this. He knows Jesus was Jewish, Paul is Jewish too. But ever since he had that mystical experience, “a revelation of Jesus Christ” he sees differently. Paul now understands in a very real way that it is no longer the Law that he serves. It is not the Law that saves, it is faith. It is the Spirit – living life in the Spirit – that is what matters. And this is available even to Gentiles in Galatia – without circumcision.
Later in chapter 6 Paul says:
6: 12It is those who want to make a good showing in the flesh that try to compel you to be circumcised—only that they may not be persecuted for the cross of Christ. 13Even the circumcised do not themselves obey the law, but they want you to be circumcised so that they may boast about your flesh.
Paul writes that an accounting of new circumcisions is more important to the Tradition and Law- bound Jewish Christians than how lives are changed. It is almost as if there is some kind of score being kept so they can, “Boast about your flesh.” Paul says that Jesus already has fulfilled the Law; there is no need for the procedure. Now they are to be reconciled to each other, they are all one. There is no longer male and female, Jew or Gentile, slave or free.
We might wonder at the irony of how many serious readers of Paul, who all these years later having taken him to heart, have begun another kind of accounting and division. It is souls that are counted and bragged about, not foreskins. And the divisions are now straight and gay, Christian and Muslim, poor and rich. It is never easy, living in the body.
This summer I am quite aware of my own body and how it occupies the space around it, in the swimming pool, on the sand volleyball court, on the bike path. It is a gift to be able to move and play with others as I find my inner jock at age 50. So it is a bit disturbing to me that Paul is so negative about the body. Paul seems to argue that the body is a lesser avenue to God, perhaps not even an avenue to God; this is troubling.
We know of course, that Paul is being so harsh because he is trying to contrast his own understanding of the importance of the Spirit with his traditional Jewish counterparts’ preoccupation with the body, or at least the ritual actions of the body.
So Paul lists the negative things that bodies can do: lewd conduct, impurity, licentiousness, (or recklessness) idolatry, sorcery, hostility, arguments, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, orgies and more. It is such a specific litany of negative behaviors that Paul must have inside knowledge of how the community is relating to each other. If this is how the church is living in community, as the body of Christ, no wonder he is so upset with them.
Reading the list today, out of context, it almost sounds as if this is all bodies are good for. We who live in bodies know we are quite capable of all these things. We may have already committed one or two of these transgressions and the day is not yet half over.
Paul goes on to name the right way to relate in community, in a congregation, associating these behaviors with the spirit side of ourselves, with the Holy Spirit itself: love, joy, peace, patient endurance, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Yes, these are good and helpful ways we can be in the world, be in community in the Body of Christ.
But how else are we to be joyful, patient and kind except in our bodies? And are not jealousy, hostility and outbursts of anger things that emanate from our spirits, not only our bodies?
The way that Paul speaks of the spirit and the body, he seems to pit them against each other. “…our flesh is at odds with the Spirit – and the Spirit with our flesh – the two are so opposed…” Body vs. Spirit; Law vs. faith. These dichotomies persist to this day, thanks to Paul’s keen analysis of the problem. Now I am no match for Paul’s intellect and theology but I wonder if in our own context we might consider a different remedy than the flesh and Spirit being so at odds.
We are stuck with these bodies; Jesus was incarnated in a body. There must be something about how we live in these bodies that can be good, that is good. Indeed Paul affirms the Law in saying that the whole Law can be summarized in one: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
I wonder what might happen if instead of raising the spirit above the body, we worked at integrating body and spirit so that we can love our neighbors as ourselves? After all we know when we act with kindness we do that with our body. When we are patient, it is the spirit, and body, that must wait.
Paul says “Freed in Christ, we are meant to remain free.” How can we find freedom in living in these bodies without condemning them?
There is a beautiful phrase from scripture, “the one in whom we live and move and have our being.” An awareness of the body alive and in motion “in the One in whom we live and move and have our being” gives a grounding of the body in the Spirit. Body and Spirit become more integrated, more familiar to each other. And when I am more comfortable in my own body, it is much easier for me to treat other bodies with respect and care, to treat the neighbor as myself, to fulfill the “love commandment.”
In some ways, as Anabaptists, we specialize in caring for the body. We rebuild homes with Mennonite Disaster Service, we provide relief and development through Mennonite Central Committee, we encourage people to give a year or two of service with Mennonite Voluntary Service. Over the years in this country we have started hospitals and retirement homes and services for those with developmental disabilities. We care about the body and we know that Christ is among us when two or three bodies are gathered together.
Tomorrow I will go to Phoenix to join several thousand other Mennonites, from Mennonite Church USA, as we gather to do the business of the church. And while we would rather not admit it, bodies will figure quite prominently into the week. For one thing it is supposed to be 115 degrees so we will all be quite aware of the needs of our bodies for water and cool air.
Choosing to go to Phoenix in the first place raised questions of how we stand together as sisters and brothers in diverse bodies, of varying skin tones. What does it mean that many Mennonites who speak Spanish, or Indonesian or any number of other languages and have dark skin will not be joining the group in Phoenix? How do we join our bodies and spirits with those who are deemed “illegal?”
And then of course there are the pink bodies, LGBTQ people and allies, who will be seen as threatening to the spirits and bodies of others because we are wearing pink clothing or accoutrements.
It is not easy living in these bodies, choosing to live out the fruit of the Spirit when the “desires of the flesh,” as Paul calls them, are so strong. The temptation to “hostility, arguments, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, and factions” may be strong for many this week in Phoenix. I invite you to pray with me that the Spirit will be alive and moving, that we will see the Spirit in each other, even as we inhabit these flawed and holy bodies.
With Paul, may we all find freedom in Christ, loving our neighbors as ourselves. And may we use these bodies that we are given to “live by the Spirit, and follow her lead.”