There's a battle going on...
This is the final post (perhaps) in a series on Paul's letter to the Galatians.
Recapping: It is important to understand the nature of Paul's letter.
We are not reading a systematic theology book. We are reading a letter where we are only hearing one side of the conversation. Paul does not give us a whole theology. He only mentions material that is relevant to his conversation with the Galatians.
Our task is to ask, "What is Paul's experience of God? What is Paul's experience of the world? How can this experience inform our experience of God, and of the world?" Paul is working with a worldview which is vastly different to our own. It is important for us to try and understand his worldview, but we do not have to agree with or submit ourselves to his worldview.
For example; Paul spends a lot of time speaking about circumcision, what circumcision means, and how circumcision affects our relationship with God. Paul says it does not enable our relationship with God; if anything, it disrupts it. "Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything..." (6:15) "You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ;..." (5:4)
But for our time, circumcision is irrelevant. It means nothing to me if I am circumcised or not. It certainly has nothing to do with my relationship with God. And for a 21st century woman to be basing her faith around whether the men to whom she relates are circumcised, is plainly ridiculous and offensive.
So I do not take Paul's concerns and Paul's examples on board as things I must believe or subscribe to. Instead, I seek to understand his argument in the hope that I might meet something of the same God whom he has experienced.
What is the experience Paul has of God? Closely aligned to this question, of course, is the question, what is Paul's experience of the world?
Paul's experience is that there is a battle going on in the world. There are things which are fundamentally good and full of hope, and there are things which are fundamentally evil. This is, in his view "an evil age." (1:4) Paul recognises that God is good, and that God loves us with an undeserved love which we have to do nothing to earn. God simply loves us. It is a counter intuitive understanding of God, for we feel very deeply that we must do something to earn God's love. Paul's great insight is that God simply loves us. We have been enslaved, and through the faith of Christ we have been set free. (5:1)
Paul sees that this battle in the world has a cosmic dimension beyond us. We are part of the battle, but in a sense we are bit players. There are much larger forces involved, and we are sometimes enslaved to these. We can choose which side to be on. Faith, or trust, essentially means to choose to be on God's side. We have a truism in our culture which says "not to choose is to choose." Not having faith in God is really to be choosing to be on the side which is against God.
One of the forces that is involved is something he calls The Flesh. The word "flesh" is an excellent example of why we need to understand him, as opposed to accept his hypothesis of how the world works, if we are to hear what he is saying and in some way meet God through his words.
Flesh has a variety of meanings in Galatians. It is used as a kind of extended pun, and a running joke; for example, "You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ..." (5:4)
- Flesh can mean just our skin and body
- Flesh is often referring specifically to the foreskin, the piece of flesh removed in circumcision.
- Paul says we can "indulge the flesh." (5:13, 16) Indulging the flesh is selfish behaviour which imagines that we are the person who matters; behaviour where we act as though the world was here for us, as opposed to us being here for the world. Church people often imagine "sowing to the flesh" (6:8) as some kind of sexual sin. Always choosing to be first in line, or stealing all the Scotch Finger biscuits, or not letting other people talk because we are too busy talking, are all sowing to the flesh. They each say we are the only one who really matters.
- And finally, there is The Flesh. In Paul's view, this upper case Flesh is a cosmic power. It is a force, a principality or power, which is in rebellion against God, and which enslaves us. Because of this power and others like it, God has invaded the world and is making a new creation in which we are set free.
We need to be careful we do not think Paul's "powers" refers to a belief in demons and ghosts which our age tends to ridicule. This trivialises what Paul is talking about. There are forces in the world which are evil and which are in opposition to everything we know about the God we have met in Jesus Christ. In that sense, The Flesh is a real thing. Groups, systems, churches even, governments, corporations, all take on a life which is "more than the sum of their parts" and do things and have policies which are in obvious opposition to that goodness of God which we call the Spirit. They do this despite the best efforts of the people within them, and often leave those people feeling powerless to do anything to correct the situation.
We know that we can align ourselves with these forces instead of aligning ourselves with the ethics of Jesus and God's message of freedom and love. We can sow to the Spirit or sow to the Flesh; either behaviour has a harvest.
When we live only for ourselves, and as though the world was here for us, rather than us being here for the world and the community of Christ, we align ourselves with those forces Paul calls The Flesh.
They will leave their mark upon us. We will be corrupted by them. How many people have started out with high ideals, wanting to do well and wanting to do good, and made the wrong compromises and wound up wondering how on earth they have ended up in prison, or worse? It is because as Paul said, "God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow. If you sow to your own flesh you will reap corruption from the flesh; but if you sow to the spirit you were reap eternal life from the spirit."
To be clear: the works of the flesh; the "idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these, " (5:20) are not themselves the sowing to the flesh self indulgence he is talking about. They are the results; the corruption (6:8) that our community and our own life experiences because we have lived for ourselves and not for others with the serving love which is the mark of Christ.
Paul might be using different words from us, but he is talking about a real thing, something that we see happening in the world. We know that each thing we do is practice for the next time, and that habits can end up controlling us. We experience community which has been so corrupted it is beyond reconciliation.
"So let us not grow weary of doing what is right," as he says in verse nine, because we will reap the harvest. And if we don't do what is right we will still reap a harvest, but it will be a harvest of damage and pain.
So out of Galatians I find I agree with Paul there is a battle going on in the world. And I can choose to be on the side of the God who loves me, or I can choose to go somewhere else. Nothing matters in all of this except the cross of Christ crucified. (6:14)
We need to understand what the cross was. The cross took a long time to become an object of devotion in the early church. Before this people had depictions of the good Shepherd carrying sheep. They had depictions of the Pelican the mother which picks its own chest for the blood to feed its chicks, and of fish and boats. This is because the cross was too shameful and too offensive. As the comedian Lenny Bruce apparently said to a woman in the audience who was wearing a cross, "Would you wear an electric chair around your neck?" The cross was the punishment for treason, not something to boast about. It was offensive yet it was this that Paul would boast about. (6:14)
It's because the power of God is manifest in weakness and shame. God's power is not something which comes down from on high and forces submission. God's power is shown only in the cross, which is weakness. There is nothing more to say. God's new creation is forged out of weakness and the scarring of being crucified.
He doesn't say that he has turned aside from the world or withdrawn from it. He says the world has been crucified to him, and he to the world. He shows God's love and God's power, and he experiences God's love and God's power, in the weakness and shame of standing alongside the least. God loves them and the least he can do is love others in the way God has loved him.
This all brings us to verse 17. The mark of Jesus is not circumcision. The mark of Jesus is the scars of our own crucifixion; the often very real physical scars that come from standing alongside the oppressed and dispossessed. And the psychological damage that comes from standing up for the poor or the sick, and being abused for it.
These are the real marks of faith. They are cuts in the flesh not to earn the love of God which is freely given, but which instead show we have loved in return. They are also the marks of the spirit. They are the marks of our freedom. They are the marks of our healing.
The smooth skin of expensive lotions and oils, the sleek fat of self indulgence, and the fine cut of luxury clothes, are also scars. They are the corruption of The Flesh.
It's clear that Paul and I have some agreement on the nature of the world, but have I met the God of Paul speaks as I've read the letter to the Galatians? I certainly haven't been knocked off my horse as I rode into Damascus! But a more subtle process has been continuing. Galatians has contributed to a growing understanding of God which has two characteristics. To begin with, I am slowly moving to a very different understanding of the nature of God's power. And I am coming to an understanding of God which has a feeling of reality about it, instead of being a theory which always seems a bit academic and artificial.
Let me try and explain the second point. Some theologies, and some metaphors for God, remain artificial illustrations of the mystery which we call God. They never feel particularly real, and never really engage me. But what Paul says about God in Galatians correlates with a developing a model of God which engages me, which actually feels true. I feel like I believe this stuff instead of feeling like I'm repeating somebody else's words.
It's got to do with the constant call to costly discipleship that we find in the Gospel of Mark, my favourite Gospel. And it has to do with the realisation that the cross was initially a thing of shame, and a huge barrier in any logical sense, to thinking that Jesus might be the Messiah of God. The cross says the power of God is somehow made known in weakness and suffering and pain. And our fulfilment as human beings comes, according to the Gospel of Mark, when we embrace that same defeat and shame, even to the point of fleeing with the women rather than telling the good news that Christ is risen. (Mark chapter 16 1 to 8)
I am beginning to be convinced that the real power of all-that-is, and the power that fulfils our lives, is based in community, in solidarity, and in a determination that justice is only known where the actions and opportunities of society treat all people with equal dignity. Real power does not come from the barrel of a gun. Real power comes from the kind of solidarity and respect of other people which we saw in Jesus. It is that, finally, which changes the world for the good.
God is the same, for Jesus shows us an understanding of God which has progressed beyond the notion of a God who could crush us all at the flicking of a fingertip. Jesus, and Jesus' death, reveal God. God's power is about solidarity and justice, not force. Resurrection comes through suffering solidarity, not victory. This Thing—this Mystery—that we call God hopes, loves, persuades, suffers in solidarity with us, loves us, stays with us, dies with us. Any little patches of good that break out in the world, and we only get transient glimpses of the Kingdom in this battle; any little patches of good that exist in the world are there because they "wish to be;" they are real, not some artificial goodness propped up by force or the fear of punishment. This good from weakness and love and compassion is far truer than a law imposed from above, however good that might be.
In the thinking of the world, and in the thinking of much traditional theology, which wants to see God as all powerful, this understanding of God seems most unlikely. But for some strange reason it is beginning to ring true within me. I hear its echoes in the words of Paul in Galatians. So perhaps I have the God that Paul met. Amen.