‘Flesh and spirit’, commentary on some texts of St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians
Year 2, Week 27, Monday Glenroy 1976
“the knowledge of the mystery is always a revelation”
“For I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that the gospel that was proclaimed by me is not of human origin; for I did not receive it from a human source, nor was I taught it, but I received it through a revelation of Jesus Christ.” Gal 1:11-12
Paul defends his Gospel. ‘I declare and state: my Gospel is not a human fabrication.’ He teaches that what makes a person acceptable to God is faith in Christ crucified. This Gospel, Paul declares, is not a catering to human weakness. He goes on: ‘Nor did he receive it from others’. He is proclaiming his independence. Many traditions he did indeed receive from the Jerusalem Church, but his essential Gospel did not come from them. He goes on: ‘He learnt his message through revelation’. That is, it was on the road to Damascus that he received his overpowering insight into the meaning of Christ. Of course, he knew beforehand many things about Christ and the Church, which is why he persecuted of the followers of the Way. Paul has seen the core of Christianity. The rest he strips away.
As with Paul, so with all Christians. They may have heard the gospel and learnt the doctrines from others, but the knowledge of the mystery is always a revelation. Their insight may repeat that of countless millions before them, but it is always new. Their witness may seem like the witness of many others, but it is original for they have become Christ and reveal the Christ. They have become the Man and proclaim the Man in a way that has never been done before. What counts is not the originality of the doctrine but the originality of the attestation. The newness is not the what but the who. Those who have come to know the Christ provide a new dimension of power and salvation, of encouragement and companionship.
Year 2, Week 27, Tuesday Glenroy 1976
“We are in the age of the Spirit.”
“But when God, who had set me apart before I was born and called me through his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son to me, so that I might proclaim him among the Gentiles, I did not confer with any human being, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to those who were already apostles before me, but I went away at once into Arabia, and afterwards I returned to Damascus.” Gal 1:15-17
Jesus is the eternal Son of God and Paul’s vocation began before his conception. Jesus is acknowledged at the waters of Jordan but Paul receives his calI on the road to Damascus. Jesus immediately goes to the desert to absorb and reflect upon his call; Paul goes off to the region of Arabia for the same purpose. Jesus returns to Galilee and takes up his ministry; Paul goes to Damascus and begins to preach the Christ. There are many parallels between the experience of the Christ and the experience of the Christian Paul.
Many things prepare for the moment of grace. The construction of our bodies, the formation of our character, the upbringing and the society in which we live: these are the predispositions. The moment of grace is dependent on them, and also independent. It is dependent on them because they form the tissue and the colour, the occasion and the circumstance. It is independent from them because they do not explain it. God’s freedom is shown in this independence. His call is proved by his freedom. He decides, here and now, in these circumstances, to call the person of such and such a character. It is the moment of human freedom also, an inspired moment.
We are in the age of the Spirit. Grace will be experienced as a free choice. Human beings will choose independently and freely, because it seems just and good to them and to the Spirit in them. Father and Son will be known and revered, but the first impulse of choice will be the divine Spirit and the human spirit acting as one.
Year 2, Week 27, Wednesday Glenroy 1976
“the balance between equality and authority”
“But when Cephas came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood self-condemned; for until certain people came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But after they came, he drew back and kept himself separate for fear of the circumcision faction. And the other Jews joined him in this hypocrisy, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not acting consistently with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?” Gal. 2.11-14
Ever since his experience upon the rooftop at Joppa when Peter had seen the vision concerning the Gentiles and eating with the unclean, his custom had been to share common table with them. After overcoming the opposition from some in Jerusalem, he had maintained his custom. Barnabas too and Paul especially had taken up the same custom. To eat with the Gentiles was to accept them into fellowship.
Peter had eventually to flee Jerusalem in the wake of Herod’s attack and took the road to Antioch where he continued his custom of eating with the Gentiles. As long as they had faith in the Lord Jesus, he could share the common table with them. Barnabas was there and Paul too. However, from Jerusalem there came those who belonged to the party of James. They claimed that, as the Promises had been made to the Jews, and as Jesus himself had been an ardent upholder of the Law, it was necessary for Gentiles to accept the whole framework of the Law. Their arguments were convincing and still bear weight: for we can only understand the New Law from within the context of the Old Law.
Peter and Barnabas began to avoid eating with the Gentiles. At this, Paul explodes. He publicly upbraids Peter for his inconsistency. Had he not long been eating with Gentiles, leaving them free of the rules of the Law? Must the Gentiles now become Jews?
If there were no equality, Paul could not raise his voice; if there were no authority, Paul would not need to. This situation characterizes the relationship between Christians: the balance between equality and authority. If equality is lacking there is no community; if authority is lacking there is no assembly.
In a healthy Church there will be disputes and reconciliation. Where they are lacking, the Church is dead.
Year 2, Week 27, Thursday Glenroy 1976
“The Spirit is the test of everything.”
“The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard?” Gal 3:2
The Spirit is the test of everything. Did the Law give the Spirit? No! Therefore, it was waiting for someone who could. Did Jesus give the Spirit? Yes! Therefore, he is the one who was to come into the world. Does the practice of the Law impart the Spirit? No! Therefore, it is useless or at best a predisposition. Does the hearing of the Word impart the Spirit? Yes! Therefore, it is the gift of God. The Spirit is the test of every action, thought and emotion. If the Spirit grows as a result it is true. If the Spirit does not increase, it is idle.
Growth can occur through other means – and all growth is an indication of the Spirit – but full growth in the Spirit is only through the Gospel. There are many ways of hearing the Gospel, not only with the ears but also with the skin, between the lines, in history. All growth in the Spirit is due to entering, in some way, into the death and resurrection of Jesus. Paul realizes that this is the essential religious fact of history. There are also many ways of experiencing Christ’s the death and resurrection. Not his death alone; not his resurrection alone; not side by side, but as one.
Jesus is then known as the centre of history, the Lord of time who leads into eternity.
Year 2, Week 27, Friday Glenroy 1976
“When we have become spirit …”
“And the scripture, foreseeing that God would justify the Gentiles by faith, declared the gospel beforehand to Abraham, saying, “All the Gentiles shall be blessed in you.”… in order that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promise of the Spirit through faith.” Gal 3:8,14
God is first known, in the religious history of Israel, as One who promises. He promises to give Abraham a land, a son, a countless progeny, and to bless all mankind through him. Yet, how vastly different is the fulfilment from the understanding! Abraham was promised land, but he receives the Word in whom all is created. He was promised a son, yet he receives the Man. He was to be a blessing for all mankind, but this is the gift of God’s own Spirit.
The fulfilment seems almost contrary to the promise, for it is those not of his flesh who become his sons; the land becomes irrelevant; it is not in success but in the Crucified that the promise is fulfilled.
We too live in promise: the return of Christ. Yet the fulfilment will surpass the hope. Indeed, it will seemingly contradict the hope. Who would have dared tell Abraham that the sons as numerous as the stars would not be of his body? Who will dare say there is no heaven, ‘up there’, no Second Coming on clouds? Yet, in both cases the fulfilment is the same: the superabundant outpouring of the Spirit. When we have become spirit, then will be Christ be returned, more powerfully than we can imagine.
Year 2, Week 28, Monday Glenroy 1976
“an upwelling of the Spirit”
“So then, friends, we are children, not of the slave but of the free woman.” Gal 4:31
Faith in Christ crucified leads to an upwelling of the Spirit, to a religious experience that occurs at the root of the heart and therefore constitutes the central event for every human being.
For that reason, Paul can plunge back into the Old Testament and find allegories. He could equally have plunged into the Vedas and the Tao-The Ching or into the writings of Aeschylus and Camus and there find other foreshadowings, for all of them communicate, to some extent, the experience of Christ crucified and risen. The.
The Old Testament foreshadows the Christ-event which is normative. It is the paradigm. The greatest religious writings of the greatest religions, and the greatest literary works of mankind disguise the truth even as they reveal it. The Light of Christ reveals the genius of mankind which in turn casts light upon the Light.
Year 2, Week 28, Tuesday Glenroy 1976
“identity with Jesus Christ glorious”
“Listen! I, Paul, am telling you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to you. Once again I testify to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is obliged to obey the entire law. You who want to be justified by the law have cut yourselves off from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness. For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love. Gal 5:2-6
The context of the phrase is the fear of judgment. How could one be saved on that dreadful day? The answer of the Church was belief in Jesus. Those who joined themselves to Christ, the Just One, would be freed from condemnation.
Paul takes this basic teaching and applies it to the Galatians. They had first acknowledged that by placing their faith in Jesus they would be saved. If now they weaken in faith to the extent of feeling the need to take on circumcision and the whole Law of Moses, they are effectively saying that Jesus is not enough. He will be insufficient for them on the day of judgment; they cannot look to him alone for salvation. Circumcision was the sign of the covenant between God and Abraham; for the Jews it was the guarantee of divine favour. It was a challenge to the all-encompassing faith in Jesus.
Paul is adamant on this point. For him, circumcision after faith is equivalent to apostasy; but apostasy is unforgivable; therefore, circumcision brings condemnation. He is not mincing his words.
Faith in Christ is the basis of salvation, faith not so much in Jesus the Jew, not just in Christ the crucified, but identity with Jesus Christ glorious.
Year 2, Week 28, Wednesday Glenroy 1976
“harmony and strength, peace and power”
“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.” Gal 5:16-17
For Paul, those upon whom the Spirit has come are ‘body’, but those whom the Spirit does not inhabit are ‘flesh’. Without Spirit they feel debilitation in every respect, physical, psychological, relational, but those inspired from above experience harmony and strength, peace and power. Their ‘flesh’ has become ‘body’. Indeed, they have become ‘spirit’.
Those who are ‘body’ acquire the solidity of rock and the lightness of wind. But the ‘flesh’, if allowed to run its course, ends up in decomposition of every sort: social, intellectual, volitional, psychological, and spiritual.
For this reason, Paul urges the Galatians to walk by the Spirit. There is no need to do anything different. To live in the Spirit, to be oneself, that is his urging. But not any self: his exhortation is to be ‘body’