Practicing Community

Practicing Community
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Rev. Dexter Kearny
Longview Presbyterian Church
June 26, 2022

For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.

For you were called to freedom; 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 neighbor 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.

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God. 

In the 16th century, the letter to the Galatians was pivotal for the Protestant movement. Famous quotes like the discussion of works versus faith helped shift that movement away from Roman Catholicism but also from Judaism. While most modern interpreters will note that Paul is speaking to a completely Gentile audience when telling them they do not need to follow the Torah, we will also note that nowhere does Paul tell Jewish people to stop following the Torah, even continuing to follow it himself in many ways. Sadly, that nuance has not always been there in the reading of this letter and has led to anti-semitism in its interpretations. 

Another sticky interpretational issue arises from these famous lines about the flesh versus the spirit of which I am sure you have heard a variety of interpretations. First, this is not the same as works versus faith. As the Women’s Bible Commentary pointed out to me this week, when Paul speaks of the flesh he is not referring to “‘the human body or materiality.” And goes on to say that, “What Paul means by ‘flesh’ is the human ability to put self in place of God, to resist God’s Spirit.” (Carolyn Osiek in the Women’s Bible Commentary 3rd Edition p. 574.)

The final problematic duality that Paul shares with us today is the juxtaposition of slave and free. While slave might not be the best interpretation of this passage it has certainly been used in a few derogatory ways. Paul here is saying we are set free in Christ and that we are no longer slaves. This is great news and fairly straightforward. Until Paul says that we should “become slaves to one another.” This is where the use of slavery starts to miss the point because people who are enslaved do not have a choice in their enslavement. We cannot equate our situations today, especially as a fairly well to do congregation, with those enslaved by the many interlocking systems of oppression in our world. 

So what do all these dualities, binaries, and juxtapositions mean for the Galatians and for us today? What is the role of slave or free for my life? How does this list of vices and virtues play out in our world? To unlock this passage we have to look at the pronouns that Paul uses throughout the text today. The problem with this translation into English is that you (point to one person) and you (gesture to crowd) have two different meanings but are translated the same. When Paul says “you” in this passage he is not referring to the individual but rather the “you all” that is spoken to a community. 

So when we read that we are set free for freedom it is freedom for a community, not our individual rights. So when we read that flesh is self indulgent and lists the vices, it is because of the way those vices disrupt the flourishing of the community. So when we read the work of the Spirit as virtues, we see that they are gifts that build up the communal life. Paul is laying out two options for  how this fledgling community can move forward: they can indulge the individual or they can care for the community. They can put the individual as king allowing them to trample over others or they can work together for the care of all. 

This is not to say that you should sacrifice yourself over and over, especially if you come from a marginalized group, but rather that a community of care should not be forcing you (or anyone) to sacrifice yourself over and over in the first place. You have to take care of yourself in order to be a well functioning member of the community. And you should not put yourself above others or demand that they serve you with no sense of reciprocity. For Paul, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” These are the fruits to practice and grow that will create a sustainable and loving community, these will inherit the kingdom of God as Paul says. 

When we are in positions of privilege and power, when we have individual rights that allow us certain freedoms the only response as Christians is to share power and build up our community. 

What is freedom then? Freedom is having the strength of will and the courage to act for the benefit of my neighbor, to not put them in harm’s way, to not twist rights into a battering ram, to protest injustices done to our siblings of color or our LGBTQ+ siblings, and to continue to practice safety with Covid-19 so that the most vulnerable in our society will not be threatened. We are set free to practice a loving community where we are connected to one another, bound to one another, because that is how God made the world. We are not islands. We are not disconnected people floating around without a tether. We are deeply connected and affected by our communities. We need each other. So your flourishing is my flourishing and my flourishing is yours. Therefore, we are called to love our neighbor for the flourishing of all. We are called by Paul in this passage to practice community. Practice the community we long for and envision. Practice the community that Jesus showed us how to do. And in this practice, we may experience the kindom of God, right here in Longview. 

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