Looking South East from Hilltop Farm, Gladstone South Australia

It's not about you!

Week of Sunday June 30 - Pentecost 6
Epistle: Galatians 5:1-26

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

2 Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. 3Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. 4You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. 5For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. 6For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love.

7 You were running well; who prevented you from obeying the truth?8Such persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. 9A little yeast leavens the whole batch of dough. 10I am confident about you in the Lord that you will not think otherwise. But whoever it is that is confusing you will pay the penalty. 11But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offence of the cross has been removed. 12I wish those who unsettle you would castrate themselves!

13 For 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 neighbour as yourself.’15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live 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.

22 By 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. 26Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

As a young husband desperately trying to help and to be good to my wife, I was told somewhat forcefully that it was not about me! Apparently there was some other way of relating of which I was completely ignorant. So I tried harder, but it didn't work.

This was not a young woman being unreasonable. I had no idea how to relate, and therefore misunderstood everything.

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Coming home on the train, a tiny Filipina woman began to talk to me about her experience of God's love. It was expressed within the theology of the Jehovah's Witnesses, and yet notable for no mention of the judgement of God. She was not judgemental of those around her; she was sad for their suffering now, in this life. I asked about her life journey from The Philippines to the USA, and then to Australia. How had this come about? This sister of a priest, formally a devout Roman Catholic herself, constantly spoke of her joy and freedom. It showed.

When the JWs do one of their periodic sweeps of our local streets, they are instantly identifiable. Grim, stodgy couples methodically plod from house to house. They come back day after day; all credit to them for their thoroughness, they do their best to make sure we don't miss out by virtue of being away, but there is something threatening—apocalyptic, even—about their presence.

One of the neighbours has been roped in. It takes only a half second glance to determine that these visitors to the flats are not social workers, or cops, or the District Nurse.

I've spoken to religious visitors at the door occasionally, and been struck by their earnest sadness. Paul said of his opponents in Galatia that "They make much of you, but for no good purpose; they want to exclude you, so that you may make much of them." (4:17) It is an acute insight into the psychology of some fundamentalism, but many of the visitors seem simply to be seeking to maintain, or perhaps even find, the freedom promised to them.

The woman on the train witnessed to something more.  Her most un-Australian religiosity and evangelism was so far removed from the strident street preachers of Rundle Mall, that you might wonder if it concerned the same God. Paul says that "For freedom Christ has set us free," (5:1) and she seemed to have a freedom. I would never have picked her as a Jehovah's Witness, and there is a sense in which I hope people cannot pick me as a Christian.

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. (5:1)

I expereience so much of what we do in church circles as the keeping of rules disguised as freedom. There is a certain prissiness; a kind of wowserish righteousness, that delineates who is a proper Christian, and whose discipleship is somehow less spiritual. It's a self satisfied kind of walling off from the world; an in-group promising a freedom that doesn't seem very free at all.

I remember when we were not long escaped from a congregation which had a strong contingent of such Christians. Someone had given us an extraordinarily generous gift voucher for a "Christian" bookshop in Adelaide, and I entered this one-brand-only religious supermarket with the suspicion that I would have trouble finding something upon which to spend the voucher.

My teenage kids, antibodies still high from their last parish, were stunned by the pretty piety of the place, and coped with their acute discomfort by trolling the aisles with sotto voce remarks, which became ever less sotto. The accuracy of their ridicule was startling. They discerned an artificial edifice, a set of rules and niceties which were the exact opposite of freedom in Christ. And yet the place was so earnest about it all!

Paul says in chapter four

Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again? You are observing special days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.

Pastel piety and nauseous niceness was the enslavement of that place—with the best intentions to serve God, but wrapped in such fear, and with such poverty of freedom, that a salesperson flatly refused to order us a book because of its author's name.

Paul's words "For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery," had always called to me of something beyond our common ideas of freedom. That day I saw in our children's discomfort—their clear vision, really—and in the fear of the shop, what he meant when he said, "Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you."

Keeping rules does not work. If we are lucky it makes us looks ridiculous, or perhaps merely disillusions us if we are awake enough to find we cannot keep the rules. But it can also enslave us, making us into a parody of what we desire to be for God.

What Paul is trying to do in all this is protect our freedom and protect us from rules. If we see that the verses this week about the fruits of the spirit and the works of the flesh concern the keeping of rules we fundamentally misunderstand him.

When I stop to think about "the works of the flesh" and "the fruits of the Spirit," I struggle to understand Paul's conception of what happens to us in our life as Christians, and I am even less confident of being able to translate it into psychological and philosophical language that works for me. What I do find is a slowly growing freedom from things that used to bother me or worry me, or had a hold on me. I am different.

As I once tried to help my daughter deal with a difficult situation she wailed, "It's easy for you, Dad! You like everyone!" At which point I most insensitively burst out laughing. On reflection I realised she had paid me an enormous compliment, and as I have further reflected on that incident, I realise something has happened in me. There is more patience and kindness and gentleness. If you cause me grief, I am likely to be perplexed, at a loss to know how to relate, perhaps even able to see your pain and struggle! Previously, I would have written you off, quickly, and with no compassion.

This is something I did not have. It is not something I have achieved, and I don't think it is something I do, so much as it is a fruit of a growing freedom from the need to prove myself, to be better, to be right, to be "good enough," or to defend myself. It's also fragile; I 'return to type' with distressing ease and speed. 

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Paul contrasts ill behaviour which fractures community—if ... you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another (5:15)—and community which truly experiences the gifts of God. There are "works of the flesh," and "fruits of the Spirit."

The NRSV translates Galatians 5:13 as "... do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self indulgence." (lit: for the flesh.) Martyn (Galatians pp479) says "do not allow freedom to be turned into a military base of operations for the Flesh, active as a cosmic power." Flesh is given an upper case F. There is much more implicit in the words than NRSV reveals.

For example, the word aphorme, which NRSV translates as an opportunity for the flesh, was also used as "a base well suited to the operations of an army." (p485) And we are no longer talking about the flesh of the foreskin at this point, or, in Paul's understanding, some kind of inherent proclivity that is in us. Flesh has a power all its own. In Paul's understanding it is something beyond our mere willing.  

Martyn translates more fully below.

Martyn: Lead your daily life guided by the Spirit,
    NRSV: Live by the Spirit
and, in this way, you will not end up carrying out the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh.
    and do not gratify the desires of the flesh (literally: from the lust of  the flesh)
For the Flesh is actively inclined against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the Flesh.
    For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit
 Indeed these two powers constitute a pair of opposites at war with each other,
    for these are opposed to each other,
the result being that you do not actually do the very things you wish to do. (5:16-18)
    to prevent you from doing what you want

 

It's not about you! Any bloke will say, when those words are yelled at him, that it is about him, because he is getting an earful. He is in the thick of it. He is being told he is the problem. But it is not about what he is doing. It is about how he is relating, and it is about how he is seeing the problem. It is about who he is being.

Blokes think they have to do things and fix things, when most often all they need to do is listen with compassion. It's a way of being that does not come easy! It involves a letting go of self that is foreign to the masculine ego which has survived until now by being impregnable against all comers.

In our congregation; in our being Christian in church, for Paul is speaking pastorally in these last two chapters, it is not so much about doing as it is about how we relate, and how we are. Fundamentally, life lived according to the way of the Spirit is life which is outside ourselves. It removes the focus from us, from the ME, and places it upon Christ and upon the body of Christ, the church. It is counter-intuitive. It is to give ourselves up, to be crucified. Our baptism allows us me to let go of my self. Because it is not about me. The world is not here for me; I am here for the world.

Martyn translates as he does above, because

... knowing that the power of Christ's rectifying love is embodied in the daily life of the church... Paul is intent on describing the real world ... [made] by God's sending into it Christ and his Spirit... That world has about it the character of a drama. On its stage... a number of actors are playing their parts... an actor of great importance [is] the Flesh... more fully ... "the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh," [epithumian sarkos: lustful flesh] This actor is not a mere component of a human being, a person's flesh as distinguished from his spirit. The Flesh is rather a supra-human power, indeed an inimical martial power seeking to establish a military base of operations in the Galatian churches, with the intention of destroying them as genuine communities.

To live in the real world, therefore, the Galatians must deal with this powerful actor... [they] are not alone... For in v16 Paul speaks of another actor, again supra-human, the Spirit. Here, too, Paul does not refer to a component of the human being, a person's spirit as distinct from [their] flesh or [their] body. Paul speaks of the Spirit God has sent into the Galatians' hearts, the Spirit, specifically, of God's son. (4:6)... these actors are locked in combat with each other. pp482-3

It's not about you!

 How adequate or useful today is Paul's imagining of what is going on in our communal life as a church?

1.  I am sure there is an aspect of 'not about me' concerned. I can make no progress as a communal human being, which is inherent in being fully human, unless I let go of my attachment to my self.

2.  I know too well his frustration that there is something "opposed" in me that prevents me from doing the good I want. (5:17b) As he says in Romans 7:15, I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.

3.  I know the fruits of the Spirit. I mean, as I said above, there are changes in me which I have not wrought, and which I do not own or control. These are mysterious. They seem more than the practice of habit or the acquiring of skill, although clearly this happens as well.

In  Paul's view, we are on the battle field of earth which God has invaded. How do we know where we are, and how to live? Martyn points to the list of vices and virtues with which we are so familiar as the "works of the Flesh" and the "fruits of the Spirit."

For specific clues to the topographic details of the war in which the Galatians are caught up, Paul refers them to the marks of the two antagonists, the Flesh and the Spirit.... Paul does not identify as infractions of the Law the odious behavioural characteristics he lists in vv19-21a. ... Fornication, idolatry, etc., are rather the effects[my emphasis] of the power called the Flesh... Nor in referring to behavioural characteristics elsewhere known[my emphasis] as virtues, does Paul employ the Jewish tradition in which the Law is held to have the power to produce virtue. He speaks rather of the effects [my emphasis] of the power called the Spirit... (pp484)

It's not about you!   We and our community will bear the marks of the power with which we align ourselves.

4.  Here I think I detect a fourth correlation between my experience and Paul's analysis. Where community is inward looking, and concerned with its own problems and survival, the marks of the Flesh are more prevalent and problematic. Those congregations more concerned with serving and giving—less concerned about their own survival—are not free of these things, but they do bear other marks rather closer to the fruits of the Spirit.

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When someone comes to me with a problem, I can seek to fix it. It's what men do. It's what ministers are supposed to do, in the eyes of many people, and sometimes in their own eyes. When the complaint comes and it is also about us, apparently, how will we respond? Especially when that someone is our significant other, for then we have a greater stake in the outcome.

If we make it 'about us,' we are aligning ourselves with the Flesh. If it's about us, and defending us, then strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions and envy, will follow as we seek to hold our ground. Drunkenness and carousing may follow as we seek to drown our sorrows when we cannot solve the problem. If it is all too much for us to dispose of with ordinary nastiness, there is always fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, and other enmities. And all these things are only examples; we each have our unique scarring from where we were too attached to our self.

But sometimes a person's rage has been white hot, or my wife's pain has been grievous, yet by some grace I have been enabled to see the problem is not about me. I have somehow aligned myself with the Spirit and been patient, gentle, and generous beyond myself.

Something is happening. The balance in the war within me is tipped. There are moments of sheer joy and real freedom.

Andrew Prior
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!


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