Sunday, September 2, 2012

Fourteenth Sunday after Pentecost

Galatians 5:16-24 / Matthew 6:24-33

Walk in the Spirit: and you shall not fulfill the lusts of the flesh. For the flesh lusteth against the spirit: and the spirit against the flesh.

On the face of it, St Paul's word to the Galatians seems at best ill-formed, at worst, altogether contrary to the Gospel. Minimally, it might prove to be a source of confusion. After all, we confess by faith that the Word of God, the eternal Son of the Father, took upon himself our whole human nature. That is, he did not merely appear to be human, but shared in everything proper to us, having not only a human soul, but a human body, and if a body, then flesh as we have. More than that, we hold by faith that the humanity, and thus the flesh, assumed by the Word of God was not merely a means for communication, that the invisible God might be seen and speak with a human voice. Rather, we profess that his humanity, his flesh and blood, both was and remain even now the very instrument of our salvation. What the Son of God did and suffered in his flesh, not only the divine and miraculous works, but also those daily experiences he shared with us, both served then and serve now to work out our salvation, to redeem our whole nature, that as he shared in our humanity, so we might come to share in his divinity.

Over the centuries, the Church has struggles against those who would assert, even from within the flock of Christ, that God cares only for the spirit, for what is immaterial, even to go so far as to claim that the material world is evil, a trap for luminous spirits, the creation of a wicked and wayward god. Again and again the Church has stood against this mistaken view, which all to often has turned to claims such as St Paul's in his letter to the Galatians to buttress their assertion.

Of course, as with most errors, this mistake is rooted in something quite true. Partly, our task is to be a careful reader of the Scriptures, and in being such to see that the New Testament uses the word flesh, and likewise the related word world, in two different ways. Sometimes, by flesh is meant the stuff of which animals are made, even as world means God's creation. From this perspective, flesh is good, being what the Lord Jesus Christ took upon himself for our salvation, even as the world was the object of God's love, such that he sent his only-begotten Son that whoever believes in him might have eternal life.

In other passages, however, the flesh and the world are taken to mean not our material reality as such, but rather the created order when lived apart from God. That is, when the flesh is seen to have its own needs and demands, and these are seen to be unrelated to and competitive with the holiness of God, when the demands and logic of worldly possibility are seen as motives not to pursue God's righteousness, then the flesh and the world are taken by the New Testament to fall under God's wrath, and those who live by them to be subject to the condemnation of God's holy Law.

Moreover, there is another way that the flesh, even taken in its good sense, must still necessarily by transcended, and in that sense overcome, without its being thought to be evil or contrary to God. As human beings, which is to say, as animals and not pure spirits, while God has gifted us with the power of reason, the power to know beyond what we can sense and what the sensed world means to us for good or ill, we share with all animals the power of imagination, of considering the world always through the sensory images impressed on us by things present, things remembered, or things woven together from both. Try as we might, everything we think of, even the most sublime, we always and necessarily think about by using mental images drawn from the world of the senses. Those who imagine that they have transcended images, that they can think without them, have deceived themselves. So, even though our reason may know that God and his angels, that mercy and kindness, are not in themselves things of the world of sense, the minds God made for us will inevitably imagine each as something we could see, touch, hear, smell, or taste.

None of this is a dilemma or a tragedy in itself. It is how God made us, and it is our special joy to be able to move from the same kind of things that animals sense to the most sublime of truths by the power of reason. All the same, such a move is difficult, and we can easily fall short. Sometimes the error may be easily overlooked and causes little harm in itself, as when children might actually imagine angels to have wings or God the Father to be bearded and seated upon a throne in the clouds. On the other hand, sometimes we fail to move to the best of things because of our bent wills and wayward desires. We allow ourselves to believe that only what we can imagine really exists. So, without the notion of joy in God, we satisfy our longing with fornication, uncleanness, immodesty, luxury. Refusing to believe in a God who transcends and shatters any category or limit we place upon him, we fool ourselves into thinking we can control and bargain with him, and so dabble in idolatry and witchcrafts. Each of the sins, and far more besides, that Paul lists, can find its origins not in a failure to imagine, but in a failure to allow that there is something beyond imagination itself.

God invites us to a world, a life, a kingdom, which passes anything we have our even could imagine. In Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, we can come to inherit the kingdom with confidence. Can we trust that nothing placed before our senses, nothing our mind imagines, not even the holy flesh of the Savior himself, can compare with the unimagined glory of the Father's face, the glory to which we are called by our life in the Spirit?

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