The apparent duality in the 2nd reading Sunday from Galatians can be a turn-off to the modern ear. The
false dichotomy between flesh and spirit to us who have been raised on the incarnation and the sacredness of creation might make us want to turn away from Paul’s exhortation. But listening to the reading Sunday, I was struck by his message. What I heard was not a warning about the eternal war between body (flesh) and soul (spirit), but a song to the freedom that arises from the life of agape in Christ, and as startling a summary of “the whole law and the prophets” as Jesus himself gives us in the gospels. Finally, what I heard was a doorway opened up for humanity to be freed from the clutch of instinct, the inborn need for self-preservation, a doorway that agape itself opens between the natural and supernatural world, transforming self-preservation into other-preservation, and mirroring the paschal mystery, the very life of God.
Freedom is hard. We want our golden calf; we want the certainty of the soup-pots of our slavery. We flounder in freedom. We desire it with all our hearts, and yet, the challenge of really loving people, being attentive to them, living to serve their needs, is daunting. The rewards are a dream; in fact, to love is to live beyond desire for reward. What we want is the law. We want to see the obstacle course for what it is, to know the hoops there are to be jumped through, which ones have fire around them. Strategizing the obstacles gives us a sense of accomplishment, negotiating them gives us a sense that we earned a reward. But no one can legislate the heart. We can’t get to agape by way of law. Agape is an open invitation, there is no coercion in it anywhere. It is a response to grace, an act of thanksgiving, intimacy, and solidarity.
St. Paul is addressing an ongoing argument between Jewish Christians and others in the Greek diaspora churches about the necessity of conformity to the Mosaic law to be a follower of the Way. He has been a passionate advocate of the freedom offered to the believer in the Holy Spirit, in fact, he has fought and won a battle with Cephas (Peter) and James over this very issue and similar ones in what we call the Council of Jerusalem. Grace leads Peter around at last to the same conclusion: there is no need for non-Jewish Christians to be circumcised or have special diet like their Jewish counterparts, because in Christ there is no more Jew or Greek, slave or free,man or woman. Everyone is a new creation. In the middle of his argument with the church of Galatia, we heard these words:
For freedom Christ set us free; so stand firm and do not submit again to the yoke of slavery. For you were called for freedom, brothers and sisters. But do not use this freedom as an opportunity for the flesh; rather, serve one another through love. For the whole law is fulfilled in one statement, namely, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. But if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another. I say, then: live by the Spirit and you will certainly not gratify the desire of the flesh. For the flesh has desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; these are opposed to each other, so that you may not do what you want. But if you are guided by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
In the Spirit, then, the law is broken asunder and what we are left with is “just like” (in Jesus’s words) the ancient prescription of the sh’ma yisroel: “love your neighbor as yourself.” The freedom given by Christ is to open up every possibility of serving one another, unhindered by legal, ritual, even ethical prescriptions. Ethics is replaced by doxology - being beloved children of one Father calls the believer into awareness about the other, that the other is equally beloved of God, and entitled to the same benevolence of life and land as the self or anyone else.
What the flesh wants, Paul seems to be saying, is to save itself. What the flesh wants is to love itself first and primarily, but the Spirit is calling us to love the other in that primal way. Preempting the instinct for self-preservation, then, the Spirit allows us to love with agape, the life of God, which allows us with Christ to enter into the paschal mystery and, instead, choose other-preservation. This is nothing more or less than true love, the image of the invisible God, the Spirit at work in us enabling us to become divine. It is in this sense that the “flesh” is opposed to the Spirit. The flesh wants a counterfeit of life, it can only see up to the end of its nose. The Spirit wants to give a life that is infinitely richer, but can’t be experienced from the outside.
This is why it’s so important for us to live the faith - so that “others will see the deeds you do and give your Father praise.” The invitation to love, the experience of being loved, is an entry point into the paschal mystery. No one can appropriate that to self - it has to be given freely, then received. It’s as though St. Paul is saying, “Stop trying to lay the burdens of law, restrictions, rules, on each other! You’ve been freed of all that. Love each other the way you love yourself. Don’t be slaves to a law that can’t save you.”
There are all kinds of ways this speaks to me, certainly within the ecclesial reality. While it has repercussions in the area of worship, it is not primarily a directive about worship, because public worship is less than 1% of the time we spend (most of us) in our lives. To “serve one another in love,” to “love your neighbor as yourself,” takes practice, and another thing it almost certainly takes is reflection, unless your gift is acting in love, and some people seem to have it. It’s hard to know when we’re acting out of self-interest and when we’re acting on behalf of the good of others, and patterns of behavior can be hard to decipher unless I take the time to reflect on what I do when I’m with other people and measure it up against the call of the gospel.
Leaving the past behind, including the old self that died when Christ claimed us in our baptism, is the task. “Ya gotta serve somebody,” Dylan wrote, “it may be the devil, and it may be the Lord, but you gotta serve somebody.” We can serve the counterfeits of life, or even avatars and microcosms of life, but until we serve Life itself, there will be something missing. Dated as it sounds today, the finale of Stephen Schwartz’s Pippin allows the dissolute son of Charlemagne to discover, like so many did after the wild experiments of the 1960’s, that “If I’m never tied to anything / I’ll never be free.” The love of the Spirit, agape, allows us to leave even self-preservation in the past, and to live for others, “that they might have life, and have it in abundance.”