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Lectionary texts for Sunday, June 30, 2019:

2 Kgs 2:1–2, 6–14; Ps 77:1–2, 11–20; Gal 5:1, 13–25; Lk 9:51–62

The OT text for this week in 2 Kings continues with Elijah from last week and tells the story of the transition of leadership from Elijah to Elisha. Elijah was the senior prophet and mentored Elisha and in this story (literally!) passes the mantle of leadership to Elisha. We see once again that Elijah's role as prophet parallels Moses as his relationship to Elisha is very similar to Moses's relationship to Joshua. As noted in Texts For Preaching: A Lectionary Commentary Based on the NRSV-Year C (hereafter TFP), p. 401, there is also an echo of Acts 1 where Jesus ascends into the heavens similar to Elijah, but I would be careful of reading too much into that connection. I would note, however, that the Holy Spirit supplies a Spirit-empowered person to fill the leadership vacuum whenever a great leader of God's people is, for whatever reason, no longer available to the community. 

In the Gospel for this week we see that, unlike Elijah with prophets of Baal, Jesus does not call down destruction on those who resist him. He does, however, outline what it means to follow him so that it seems to those listening all but impossible to do. As TFP notes, "What Jesus requires of those who would be his followers is nothing other than single-minded faithfulness."

Psalm 77 is a cry of distress from someone in trouble, but most of verses selected for today's reading are focused on the psalmist's meditation on the goodness of God and how God has acted in the past to save the psalmist. The primary point underscores the importance of memory for God's people and in particular, that hope for the future is rooted in God's faithfulness in the past.

But I'd like to focus more on the NT reading from Galations 5 (as that is where I will focus the sermon on Sunday), and will simply jot down some notes from my study of and reflections on the text. These come from my engagement with the following commentaries, which I have found very helpful: J. Louis Martyn's Anchor Bible Commentary Galatians: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary (hereafter MG); Richard Hays's commentary, "The Letter to the Galatians," in The New Interpreter's Bible Commentary, Volumes 11 (hereafter NIBC); and Charles Cousar's commentary, Galatians (hereafter CG) in the Interpretation: A Commentary for Preaching and Teaching series (John Knox Press).

First off, our reading from Galatians 5 is an incredible statement on Christian freedom, and even more importantly, a statement on the work of Spirit within the community of God's people. I am particulary struck by the statement in v. 16: "But I say, live by the Spirit and you will not carry out the desires of the flesh" (NETBible). This seems absolutely crucial to me, and something that has not been taken seriously in the literature I have read on spiritual formation and discipleship. (It makes especially interesting reading alongside today's Gosple reading from Luke 9!) Hays notes that "Galatians 5:13-26 is the most impassioned defense anywhere in Scripture of the sufficiency of the Spirit to guide the community of faith" (NIBC, 329).

Here's how Martyn translates v. 16 in MG, which I find very helpful: "In contradistinction to the Teachers, I, Paul, say to you: Lead your daily life guided by the Spirit, and, in this way, you will not end of carrying out the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh."

What is key for Martyn is that in v. 13 Paul has employed a military metaphor to talk about "the flesh," which is almost never translated as such. Speaking to the Galatians about their freedom in Christ, Paul literally says "do not allow freedom to be turned into a miliatary base of operations for the Flesh" (Martyn's translation), which is "active as a cosmic power" (MG). Most translations talk about an "opportunity" or "occasion" for the flesh, but Martyn highlights that the word ἀφορμὴν (aphormēn) primarily refers to "a place from which a movement or attack is made, a base of operations." He uses this to emphasize that in this text, Paul is presenting the Flesh and the Spirit as opposing (but not at all equal) powers.

As Richard Hays notes, there are (or have been) a group of Missionaries (Martyn refers to them as "Teachers") in Galatia claiming authority from the Jerusalem Church, who have been teaching that circumcision is necessary to inherit the kingdom of God. They are teaching that the OT Law is normative for Christian life and that Gentile believers in Jesus must be circumcised. So we see that when Paul uses the term "flesh" he is using a double entendre - he is using the Missionaries' fixation on removing the foreskin as representative of a legalism that emphasizes that the Law provides guidance to keep us from going astray unto sin and error: their focus on removing the flesh (of the foreskin) is an example of the power of The Flesh at work in the community. Paul is adamantly opposed to this and refers to this teaching as not coming from God (Gal 1.6). The Missionaries have taught that Paul has been irresponsible at best, and a false teacher at worst, and they came to correct the Galatians.

"The Flesh," then, for Paul, as Martyn has said, is an active, cosmic power - an extra-human power that moves us to action and provides us with impulses to act in the world in specific ways. It is literally, Paul tells us, at war with the Spirit of God; the Flesh opposes God at every level. Richard Hays describes Paul's use of the term as "a comprehensive term for the sphere of autonomous fallen humanity, conceived as standing in opposition to God. 'Flesh' asserts itself anywhere that self-seeking human desire opposes itself to the divine will and the wholeness of the community" (NIBC, 326).

Note as well that "flesh" in this sense is not at all related to the sort of puritanical understandings of the concept which fixate on sex - as if sexual desire is "of the flesh," and is therefore bad and that Paul is urging Christians to avoid sex.

Paul's challenge in this text is to demonstrate (or describe) how his emphasis on the freedom of believers in Christ does not mean that he has thrown out morality with his emphasis on the freedom in the Spirit (over the Law) and to show how that accomplishes what the Law, in fact, cannot (i.e., combat the cumpulsion to sin). In other words, he must show the Missionaries and the Galatians that Christian freedom is able to counteract the desire of the flesh.

Hays notes that the Missionaries' insistence that the Law provides the organzing structure for the Christian community must have tapped into the Galatians' deep need (which is a basic human desire) for rules and structure (NIBC, 329). Paul message to them in our text, however, is that this is a false sense of security. The Law cannot deliver on its promises because it has no means of counteracting (what Martyn calls) "the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh." 

In our text, then, Paul is concerned to instruct the Galatians on how to deal with the problem of "the flesh" (NIBC, 321). The Missionaries emphasize the Law as a means of right living and teach that it provides the means of counteracting the Imuplsive Desire of the Flesh. Paul counters this with the claim that the Law is powerless to do this and that following it leads to slavery to the Flesh. In other words, if the Galatians follow the Missionaries' teaching they will no longer be serving Christ, but will allow the Flesh to take control. This, Paul warns, is ripping the Galatian community apart. It is the way of unfreedom, misrelationship, and death.

Paul's astounding counter proposal to the Missionaries, here, is that the way for the Galatians to live in the freedom Christ brings is to, in love, become slaves to each other (cf. NIBC, 321). The Glatatians are to use their freedom to becomes slaves - they are to serve each other as slaves. As Hays notes, "If the way to keep the Flesh from gaining a base of operations is through loving, mutual service, this suggests that the power of the Flesh will try to manifest itself through pride, rivalry, and autonomy. Thus Paul's prescription has sifted the conversation into the realm of relationships within the community" (NIBC, 321). As they give themselves to each other in loving service they will embody the meaning of love and they will find that the Spirit renders the Impulsive Desire of the Flesh inoperative. They are free to grow in love and service to Christ and each other.

When Paul talks about the obvious "works of the flesh" (v. 19-21) and makes a list that is representative of them, he concentrates on community-destroying behaviours that cause dissension and offenses against the unity of the community.

However, "In contrast to the multiple and varied works ' of the flesh, the Spirit produces the singular 'fruit' of a community characterized by the gracious qualities [of love, joy, peace, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control]. ...Paul is primarily concerned with the way in which the Spirit's work is made manifest in the community" (NIBC, 327).

"The central point of vv. 16-18, then, is that the Spirit provides strong leadership and direction in a world that is described as an eschatological war zone." Hays, 327.

"The coming the of the Spirit involves a warfare, and humans become the battlefield on which the contest rages (5:17). The two powers [the Flesh and the Spirit] are 'opposed to each other.' ...What is at stake [for humans] is their own freedom, assured by the Spirit yet challenged by the flesh. ...To walk by the Spirit involves a genuine decision, but not a decision involving a strong effort of the will to overcome enormous obstacles in order to get something accomplished. Rather, Christians are called to entrust themselves to the Spirit, to God's activity, and simply to follow his guidance. ...The Spirit is, as it were, eager to function with power in the church and in individuals to produce his 'fruit' only needs to be allowed the opportunity." Cousar, 138.