Sins of the flesh

Sermon preached at St James, Colwall, Trinity 5, 2016

Galatians 5.1, 13-25

St Paul, a Turkish Jew, is famous throughout the western Christian world for telling people about the sins of the flesh. St Augustine, an Algerian bishop, writing three and a half centuries later, added to those worries. In between times, many Christian teachers throughout the Roman Empire developed what at times became a preoccupation with the subject of flesh.

Paul left no-one in any doubt about what he thought were sins of the flesh – we heard one of his lists from that circular letter to Galatian Christians this morning. There were the words you heard in Sunday School or church as a child, but didn’t like to ask about: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery. Then there were some more comprehensible ones: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing. The list ends with a dreadful warning: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. With texts like those you can understand how a person with little religious education might think that sin is all about sexual transgression and heavy drinking. You could even understand how such a person might worry about taking an extra slice of chocolate cake, and not realise that the sin of greed is more about how a greedy man can ruin a large company and put 5,000 jobs at risk.

So when Paul writes about the sins of the flesh we should take care that we are not tricked into thinking about chocolate cake or some minor personal failing. That’s not always easy because our culture has trivialised sin and sometimes it seems that Paul himself (Augustine too) got caught up with trivia. But Paul was ever the skilled teacher and leader and he brought his hearers back to the main point. To understand what fired up Paul about sins of the flesh, we have to take into account more of his letter than we heard today. The context of the letter – as so often – tells us what we need to know. Paul had heard rumours from the Ankara region about events that troubled him. He had preached in that part of Turkey; he had walked hundreds of miles from town to town on those Roman roads, and he had set up house churches there. He had got to know the people, he knew their Celtic culture (the Galatae were Celts), he had lived their Jewish religion and he knew their joy at his Christian message of freedom as they moved into a new life of the spirit (as he called it). He was concerned to support them – by letter and by personal messenger – in their development.

But, given the demands on his time and the limitations of first-century communications, he was worried when he learned that some of his Jewish Christian critics – probably from the church in Jerusalem – were visiting to undermine his teaching and to challenge his leadership of those early communities. Paul’s followers were mostly originally Jewish by religion and possibly by ethnicity, though they were also influenced by the local Celtic culture and by Roman influences too. They had taken the enormous step of letting go their Jewish heritage and its distinctive observance of the Sabbath, of rituals in the home, of kosher dietary and food laws and so forth. But Paul had taught them that all of their religious aspirations were now fulfilled in a single new commandment “you shall love your neighbour as yourself.” He told them that this is what Jesus had preached and, of course, that Jesus had relied on the Jewish Bible when he preached it – Leviticus 19.18.

If you were to read the whole of Galatians at one sitting – it’s only a few pages – you would quickly see that Paul wrote passionately when he heard that his work was being undermined. Those Jewish agents of the Jerusalem church were insisting that Christians had first to become Jews. Paul calls them “agitators” and he does not mince his words. He could see that he was driving a process which would eventually lead to the divergence of Christianity from Judaism. The agitators were undoubtedly sincere people, brought up as Jews, missionaries from the Jewish homeland. They believed that Jesus was and is the mashiach who will establish God’s rule on earth, and that the new Christian movement would spearhead that fulfilment, but – tellingly - that the Jesus movement must first live as Jews with all the marks of Judaism. That would mean keeping themselves separate from the goyim (Gentiles), observing circumcision for men, observing the Jewish dietary laws and so forth.

It is not an exaggeration – judging by his language – to say that Paul was incensed. In his more reasoned utterances, he dictates to his secretary that, if you start to adopt bits of Judaism, you can’t pick and choose – you have to have the lot. And that is not Christianity. He had huge respect for the religion and culture in which he had been brought up, but he was only interested in what fulfils all of that – and that, he says, is Christ – God’s mashiach, God’s anointed. Which is where his argument about flesh comes in. In the heat of the argument (it’s a pity we cannot have the other side in print to see the whole thing set out Paul tells his hearers that the Jewish law is about “the flesh”, meaning in this instance about earthly concerns and about combatting the sins of the flesh such as the ones he lists. What Paul wanted to promote and what he preached was that his hearers didn’t need to be concerned with the flesh and all the ills it is heir to because they are called to live according to the Spirit. Paul tells them that life in the Spirit sets them free from tedious and ultimately self-defeating effort. What Christians have to do is one simple thing – to love their neighbour as themselves.

Simple? Yes, in principle, but in principle only. Our archbishops, addressing us before the recent referendum, urged us to vote in the light of that principle – to love our neighbours as ourselves. Simple? It’s one word and one idea, but simple? I think not. Nor did Paul. He understood as clearly as you and I do that, in practice, it is not always easy to know how to love our neighbour as we love ourselves. And who, in the context of last week’s referendum, is our neighbour? And could loving one neighbour mean acting against another neighbour? And am I any good at knowing how to love myself, let alone how to love my neighbour?

Paul knew as well as you and I do that the simple commandment to love our neighbour as we love ourselves is liberating – all you need is love, love, love, love is all you need. And yet, Paul tells his hearers, with that freedom comes great responsibility because there is no end of love and no end of our need of love, and because we know that we do not, we cannot love perfectly. And that thought brings us back again to Paul and the flesh.

Now it is true that Paul counterposed Spirit and flesh – freedom and law. But he also tells us that God’s mashiach, the anointed One, is God made flesh. Christianity is about incarnation - being carnal is being enfleshed - or it is about nothing. At the heart of Christianity is the barely credible claim that, in the person of Jesus, a Palestinian Jew, we see an incarnation of (we see, in the flesh) the God who is the source of all our being, the eternal Word, the Holy Spirit. In Jesus, risen from the dead, we see the fullness of God. What we see is our flesh. Jesus was flesh of our flesh. God joined Godself to human flesh. God has taken our human flesh into Godself. What more elevated, more glorious statement could one make about flesh than this – that, by virtue of our being human, being in the flesh, we are called and destined to become divine, spiritual? They are not irreconcilable opposites, but, in God’s providence, they are eternally joined.

Perhaps I should take it all back. I should not blame Paul or Augustine for banging on about the flesh. Paul – and Augustine – had glimpsed the mystery whereby flesh and Spirit are united, are made one. They understood that, if we do not live by the Spirit, we are condemned to live by the flesh, and so need to live under a controlling system of law, which can never lead to that fulfilment to which we are all called, to become divine.