A Reflection on Galatians 5:13-26 for Sunday, May 17 at Mosaic Baptist Church
For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.
Galatians 5:13-26 (NRSVA)
Paul writes to the Galatian community with a sense of urgency and alarm. The church is being swayed from the gospel of freedom that Paul originally proclaimed. Unofficial representatives of the Jewish church advocate for something of a hybrid-faith uniting circumcision – and all its legal implications – with the freedom won by the Christ.
Predictably, Paul will have none of this. He’s adamant that there is no room for both legalism and grace in the gospel he declares. Such a hybrid is no longer the message he preaches across the known world. It is a different gospel.
And naturally, a different gospel will have different outcomes.
At the beginning of the passage above, Paul spells out the outcome of the message they initially accepted: freedom. In contrast, the outcome of the pseudo-gospel they flirt with is legalism.
Perhaps this helps us to understand that in Paul’s mind everything he has worked for is at stake.
Freedom is an easily misunderstood concept. We are prone to contrast legalism with an unrestrained freedom to do whatever we desire. We rarely recognise a middle ground.
True freedom is about doing what we were created to do. A bird is not free in the ocean, but a fish is. A fish is not free in the sky, but a bird is. In the same way, a person is not free living in self-centredness.
You see, we find our true freedom as we love God and love others. This is what we were created for. It is where we thrive.
In this passage, Paul’s language for this is ‘Live by the Spirit’ and he contrasts this strongly with the flesh or ego. These paths move in opposite directions and have radically different destinations.
The outcome of following the ego is Paul’s disturbing list of ‘works of the flesh’.
One might be prone to respond with a sense of crippling guilt or perhaps a sense of religious pride. Either way, the alarming temptation is to read this as a list of laws to keep, attitudes to check, and places not to go in order to gain entry into the ‘kingdom of God’. This, of course, would be alarmingly like the legalism Paul rages against.
Paul’s answer to these works-of-the-ego, however, is a third way: the Spirit. The apostle simply says it this way: ‘…if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.‘
For Paul, this is the realm in which people were created to thrive. And its only as we are ‘…led by the Spirit…’ that we genuinely enter into the realm of loving God and loving others – a space above and beyond legalism.
It seems to me that Paul is taking quite a risk here. His opening warning against biting, devouring, and consuming isn’t here to fill parchment. Neither are his final words on conceit, competition, and envy. This is a community – like too many others – that is fighting one another.
What strikes me about this is that Paul does not give them a list of rules to keep – or create – the peace. Rather, he bravely points them to Spirit and expects that the Spirit’s produce will be enough. Even in the midst of conflict we can ‘live by’ and ‘be guided by’ the Spirit.
Perhaps it is worth noting that this is a message to the community. It is not written to an individual – as though conflict can ever be resolved by one. AS Paul reminds us elsewhere, ‘If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.’ (Romans 12:18). Only a communal openness to the Spirit can bring healing.
And it certainly will be if they are led by the one who produces ‘…love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.’
The Spirit grows in us a love that is beyond law!
Of course, there is no surprise here that Paul relates this easily to the death and resurrection of Jesus. For Paul a ‘crucified’ ego gives space for the Spirit to grow in us what qualities that the law never could.
It is simply another example of how the death and resurrection movement has become the overarching motif for the Jesus-community.
In what ways have you noticed the Spirit producing the fruit Paul lists in you?
How do you interpret Paul’s term ‘flesh’ here? Are you comfortable with this implying ‘ego’ rather than the physical body?
How do you respond to the idea that love is the natural environment in which we find our freedom?