First Thoughts on Year C Epistle Passages from the Lectionary

Pentecost 6

William Loader

Pentecost 6: 30 June  Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Paul needs to persuade the Galatians that those preachers who were telling them they should be circumcised and submit themselves to biblical law are wrong. There was nothing deficient with the way they came to faith. There would be no gain if they went along with such influences. In fact, there would be serious harm (5:2). They would be abandoning the truth about God and God's way of setting people right. Paul is very annoyed. In 5:12 he shows his frustrated anger: if they must mutilate someone, let them mutilate themselves!

From their point of view Paul's words would have been outrageous. Fancy describing God's instruction to Abraham and through him to Israel about circumcision of Gentiles as mutilation! Fancy referring to strict adherence to the Bible as slavery! Fancy comparing that slavery with the slavery they once had to pagan deities! Yet that is how Paul sees it. His call to freedom in 5:1 is a call to freedom from a certain style of religion which he believes misses the point and does harm rather than good - in the name of God and on the basis of the Bible.

Paul has just argued his point using another of his rather contrived biblical interpretations, where he equates Sarah and Hagar with freedom and slavery (4:21-31). His supporting arguments are not always convincing, but his overall emphasis is clear. Through Christ God offers a relationship without preconditions except that one remains in the relationship itself. There is no need to take on oneself the biblical law in addition . This does not mean that Paul has abandoned ethical values, although some of his opponents accuse him of just that. They could point to what was happening at Corinth in support of their views. Surely Paul's gospel of freedom created chaos at Corinth. If you want people to do what is right you must give them rules; they must know and keep the divine commandments, they argued. Paul disagrees, but he is sensitive to this criticism.

In 5:13 he makes it very clear that freedom is not just release from something - in this case the demands of the Law - it is also freedom for something, namely a relationship with the God who loves. That has to mean that one also engages in such loving. When this happens we are more than fulfilling the requirements of the Law (5:13-14; if you forget all the ritual and other commandments, which Paul was quite happy to drop - others weren't!). Paul repeats and expands this argument in Romans 8:1-4. 5:15 comes from sarcasm and belongs, like Paul's outburst in 5:12, to his frustration.

This new lifestyle which has its base in a relationship with the God of compassion and goodness results in good living. But Christians, says Paul, still need to make this their focus. It is still possible to enter a relationship with God, but then abandon God's priorities and follow after selfish impulses at the expense of others. Just to follow one's impulses and to gratify one's own needs without regard for others is to live "according to the flesh". Not that our normal human impulses, whether sexual or for food or anything else, are wrong. They become wrong when they are handled in such a way that we do harm to others - and to ourselves.

Paul offers a list of the consequences, which probably matched many such lists of this day (5:19-21). Sexual immorality tops the agenda partly because in the Septuagint it was the first prohibition on the second table of the law (unlike in the Hebrew) and was a constant theme in describing the evils of the pagan world. But Paul goes beyond sexual immorality and beyond sins related directly to physical desires to include themes which are more directly relational or spiritual. People who live in this way are not heading for the kingdom of God. This was a standard assumption.

By contrast Paul then lists "fruit of the Spirit" (5:22-23). It is a wonderful image, perhaps deliberately chosen, for Paul is not wanting people to keep rules of goodness (such as we find in the biblical law). He wants people to change in themselves through their new relationship with God with the result that goodness is a consequence of their being. Goodness as it develops within generates goodness without. Love generates love. So Paul is arguing that a lifestyle lived on the basis of God's love declared in Christ will produce behaviours which flow from that relationship. It needs focus. That is why Paul urges the Galatians to keep focused on the relationship. The more they do, the more their lives will reflect the goodness and generosity they celebrate. They will not be loving because they know they ought to be loving, but because their being is undergoing change. There is nothing wrong with commanding people to love. Paul would say: it is just that it simply doesn't work most of the time, because there are things which block people from loving, and until they are dealt with the default position for them will be: not love (or love only by big effort).

In 5:23 Paul quips: there is no law against such goodness! He wants the Galatians to see that he is talking about something which goes beneath biblical laws and has more to do with underlying biblical laws or principles about how people change. His approach to scripture is nearly always designed to penetrate to its basic principles rather than parrot its rules (which he often sees as peripheral and sometimes no longer applicable). 5:24 reiterates the basis of the change. Those who have chosen to respond to God's offer of a relationship of love have turned their back on the way of self indulgence. Paul puts it more dramatically: they have crucified that old way. Thinking of believers as incorporated into Christ as their representative, Paul can declare that as Christ died, so we died. 5:25 then turns to resurrection: we now need to make sure we live out the new potential created by the new lifestyle. 5:26 returns almost to the sarcasm of 5:15. The Galatians must move away from the destructive and divisive influences which have come into their midst.

It bears reflection that Paul had to spend so much energy fending off Christians who were convinced they were right and he was wrong, and who appear to have put at the centre of their faith an obedience to what we would call a fundamentalist understanding of the scriptures' authority. Not all of his answers are convincing. He is however at his most convincing when he talks about what really changes people and what really matters most to God. It was a theological struggle and still is, but one which reaches right to the heart of what makes people whole. Religion can damage people. It can also make them well. Paul sees that clearly and is not willing to accommodate such abuse in the name of not rocking the boat.

Gospel: Pentecost 6: 30 June Luke 9:51-62
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