A Sermon for June 26 on Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I spent two evenings this past week, listening to some great live jazz music. On Tuesday evening Rob Burton and I went to see Kamasi Washington, the rising star in the world of jazz. With an incredibly good and inventive band, Washington is filling theatres across the continent, and getting the kind of enthusiastic reception generally reserved for rock stars. Then last night Larry and I went to see the Tia Fuller Quartet at the West End Cultural Centre. They certainly took a more conventional approach to jazz than does Kamasi Washington’s band, but there was still lots to soak in. The young drummer was actually playing his first gig in the quartet, and he pretty much grinned from ear to ear the whole time. I particularly loved watching the bass player Mimi Jones, who all but danced with her upright bass, as if playing with the whole of her body.
Jazz is improvisational music, in which the musicians are freed to explore and create on the spot and in the moment. And yet as the theologian and musician Jeremy Begbie has argued, even improvisational music is not without “constraints.” There are musical constraints—things like meter and harmonic sequence—but also what he calls “occasional restraints;” things like the physical space in which the music is performed, the way the improvising participants play off of each other on that particular night, even the response of the audience itself. Improvisational music, in other words, doesn’t come out of nowhere. It has a context, a dynamic, a “container” as it were. It is the reason that great jazz improvisers need first to really learn the standards, work hard at scales, have a command of chord structures. Great improvisational musicians don’t presume to have a license to do anything they please, even if it can sometimes sound like it to people who don’t “get” jazz music. There’s tons of creative freedom in this music, but at its best it is not freedom from all the rules, but rather freedom for the creation of music in the moment. When Mimi Jones was dancing with that upright bass at last night’s concert it had much to do with how freed up she was in the creativity of the moment, but it also had to do with how anchored she was within the “constraints” those four musicians were all actively acknowledging.
I think this is part of what Paul is working at here, in this section of his letter to the Galatian churches. He’s very big on freedom in this passage; in fact it is one of the recurring themes in the epistle as a whole. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” he proclaims. “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters,” he continues a bit further into the passage, “only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” Do you see what he’s done there? He’s begun by telling his readers that they have been set free, and so should not “submit again to a yoke of slavery,” but when he begins to work that out a bit more fully he tells them that at the heart of their freedom is a call “through love [to] become slaves to one another.” It is rather interesting that he uses slavery language, when a bit earlier in this same epistle he’d announced so clearly that in Christ there is no longer any distinction between slave and free; that on account of Jesus, the old dividing lines set so firmly in place by the dominant culture were null and void. Yet here he is, telling this graciously freed people to become slaves to one another, while in other letters he writes of being freed up to be a “slave of Christ” (1 Cor 7:22) and a “slave of righteousness.” (Rom 6:18)
This is because Paul knows that true freedom is not the same thing as raw license. True freedom is not freedom from, but rather freedom for. It isn’t freedom from all imaginable standards and constraints; it is a freedom for something deeper and more true. That’s where he begins to work his contrasting lists of what he calls “the works of the flesh” and “fruit of the Spirit.” “Live by the Spirit,” Paul writes, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” It might be easy to hear those words, and imagine that Paul is drawing some firm line between body and spirit; that he is suspicious of the physical body, and so is calling his community to live a sort of pure, spiritual life. “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh,” he continues, and so we might think that he wants people to deny all things connected to the physical body for the sake of being more “spiritual.” The shorthand might be “body bad / spirit good”… so tame all of that base and nasty stuff connected to your bodies, and turn all of your energy and attention to the pure stuff of spirit and soul.
But there are some deep problems in hearing Paul in this way. For one thing, his world-view is far too Jewish to be dualistic in that “body bad / spirit good” kind of way. In the Jewish way of seeing things, to be human—to be alive—is to be embodied. Spirit and body are inescapably intertwined as one. There is no pure spirit trapped in a base body as most of the Gnostic sects taught, because the body is not a trap… it is very much constitutive of who and what we are.
But even more important is his use of the word “flesh,” rather than “body.” The Greek word translated as flesh is sarx, and in Paul’s hands it tends to be a value-laden word. The Greek word for body, on the other hand, is soma, which is the word used in the gospels when Jesus takes bread, blesses it and gives it to his friends saying “this is my body—my soma—broken for you.” It is soma that is used when Jesus’ dead body is laid in the ground, and it is soma Paul uses when he begins to write of the Christian community being the “body of Christ.” Soma is the straightforward word for the created, physical human form.
Sarx/flesh is different, particularly in the meaning-laden way in which Paul is using it here. Some biblical translations actually try to get a hold of this, by opting for alternatives to the word “flesh”. The New English Bible goes with “lower nature”, the New International “sinful nature,” and the Jerusalem Bible opts for “self-indulgence.” You see the shading, right?
As Paul is using this word sarx or flesh, he’s talking about the ways that we can get distorted, diminished, and destructive; both self-destructive and destructive of others. He’s got quite a list of “works of the flesh,” which opens with that loaded word “fornication” and concludes with “drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” It sort of sounds like he’s got the stereotypical weekend in Las Vegas in view, doesn’t it? And maybe there’s a sense in which he does… You know that famous marketing slogan, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”? I think Paul would counsel that you can’t bracket off some part of yourself or your experience like that, and expect it to “stay” there, because what we do with our bodies or to our bodies actually is done to ourselves… and to other bodies and selves as well.
At the same time, he’s not just listing off a series of prohibited behaviors that Christians should avoid. No, instead he’s saying that if these are the things that are characterizing your life, you’ve got a problem. It is like the proverbial canary in the coal mine; if the canary dies, it means the oxygen is running out and it is time to get out of the mine and back to the surface. If you’re finding your life is dominated by the things in his list—which include not only the stereotypical Las Vegas kinds of muck, but also things like “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy,” then it is time to get up and get out into the air that the Spirit wants you to breathe. And what is in that air? “[L]ove, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are what he calls the “fruits of the Spirit,” and he is clear: “There is no law against such things.” That’s freedom, you see, to break from raw license and to be constrained by a loving commitment to the welfare of others in the community.
I like to think that had St Paul come with Larry and me to that concert last night, and seen the great grin on the drummer’s face and watched as Mimi Jones danced with her bass, he’d have said, “that’s what I’m talking about.” There’s no sign of jealousy, anger, dissension or envy on that stage, just a whole lot of shared joy and generosity that is spilling out into the audience. That’s what I’m talking about, he might have said. Now go, and be free like that in your own lives.