6/26/16 – SPIRIT VS. FLESH? by Lynn Naeckel +


Galatians 5:1, 13-25

For a change of pace, I’m going to grapple with the reading from Paul, rather than the Gospel. After numerous readings of the same text in several translations, I’ve come to the conclusion that my problem is probably not so much with Paul as it is with the interpreters of Paul who use his words like weapons to beat up on people. In one form or another I’ve heard a lot of this and would guess you have too.

What I immediately reacted to in today’s reading from Paul is the way he separates the spirit from the flesh. To put it another way, he separates the soul from the body.

It’s easy to read this as an either/or approach, the implication of which is that all things of the flesh are evil and all things of the spirit are good. This understanding of the relationship of spirit and flesh is contrary to my theology. Here’s why:

· I believe that God is a good and loving God.

· I believe that God created us as we are – capable of choosing good or evil – and that what we are is good. (make mistakes, learn, get better – good, even if mistakes are bad)

· God created us as creatures of flesh and blood. God gave us these bodies. Therefore these bodies are good.

Do you recall a recent reading from Acts in which Peter has a vision of a sheet being lowered from heaven with all sorts of forbidden food on it. The voice of God tells him to eat and he refuses because of the Jewish law. God replies, “What God has made clean, you must not call profane.” As a result, Peter soon baptized some Gentiles, accepting them as followers of Jesus.

So, who are we to look at what God has given us and call it dirty or evil or wicked?

· Our bodies are miracles of complexity. We eat and breathe, urinate and defecate. Sometimes we belch and fart. These activities are necessary to maintain our health and well-being. Why do we all cringe when I say some of those words in church? Because we take Paul at his word?

· Sensuousness and sexuality come with the body God gave us. They are meant for our good, because, like our other bodily functions they are gifts from God.

Who are we to look at what God has given us and call it dirty or evil or wicked?

· I believe the flesh God has given us here on earth as a home for our spirit is good.

· I believe God has given us a world of abundance and calls us to live abundantly.

· Eating and drinking and laughing with friends, sexual intimacy with one you love, the joy of holding a baby in your arms or hugging a child, the pleasure of skinny-dipping – I believe these things are good and God means us to enjoy them – without guilt!

Who are we to look at what God has given us and call it dirty or evil or wicked?

Where evil, wickedness, harm and hurt come in, like always, is when we mis-use the gifts God has given us. We could take the list Paul gives us – from fornication to carousing – and all of them result from someone misusing one or more of God’s gifts. We could add to the list endlessly for we humans are creative in our use of free will, and the mis-use of God’s gifts abounds.

· Intelligence is not wicked or evil, is it? But using intelligence to dominate, to manipulate, or to put others down is.

· Eating, drinking, laughing, are not wicked. Doing so at another’s expense is. Doing them to excess leads to gluttony and drunkenness.

· Sexuality is not wicked. Using sexuality to dominate, to manipulate, to serve your own needs without regard for the other – these are wicked indeed.

What Paul calls the fruits of the spirit, come to us from the proper use of God’s gifts, and I would agree that the results are love, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

When reading Paul we must remember that what we are reading are letters, not theological formulations – letters to specific communities with specific problems. Sometimes Paul sounds a lot like a parent writing to a college student who has strayed a bit. So maybe he overstates things for the sake of making a point. For instance, Paul says, “What the flesh desires is opposed to the spirit and what the spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.” I just plain can’t agree.

Does the spirit desire that the body never eat? I don’t think so. To properly use the good gifts God has given us, the desires of the flesh must be monitored, guided, and informed by the desires of the spirit. In a life of love and harmony the two elements must work together. Isn’t this the essence of patience, generosity, and self-control?

Another issue to consider is this: our church, while influenced and guided both by the Bible and by tradition, is also guided by the findings of science and other advances in all areas of knowledge. Today we know a great deal more about psychology than people in 1st Century Palestine or Medieval Europe did. We know that to be mentally and emotionally whole, we must be an integrated person. We can’t split off part of ourselves and remain healthy. So to take Paul explicitly at his word would produce a very unhealthy person. Whether we deny the spirit or deny the flesh – either one will cripple us.

Spirit and flesh are physically bound together in this life. They both exist in the body we inhabit. I believe they must be integrated for a wholesome life. They have to work together to keep us in good health, so that we can we can live in harmony with God, with ourselves, and with our neighbors.

Let us rejoice and be glad for the gifts God has given us, so that we might do the work God has given us to do – to love one another. AMEN

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