Monday, July 01, 2013

Flesh and spirit: the war within

Galatians 5:1: 13-25
Luke 9:51-62

"Conflict is the beginning of consciousness."  M. Esther Harding

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychotherapist who developed what became known as "analytical psychology" and is also credited with developing the concepts of the extroverted and introverted personalities.  In addition to his work in psychotherapy, his findings and concepts have also been incorporated into religion as well.  Jung was clear, however, that his analytical psychology was not to be mistaken for a new religion, nor did he care to be considered a "guru" of any kind.  He once wrote, "Psychology is concerned with the act of seeing and not with the construction of new religious truths"; he recognizing that religion and faith are more attuned to the things we "cannot see". 

In order to "see" what we "cannot see", however, we probably need to know a little more about ourselves.

St. Paul admonishes the Galatians: "Do not submit again to a yoke of slavery ..." That's very good advice but like the "just say no" campaign of thirty years ago, it does not realistically address the substance of what it means to be truly human.  And it is unfortunate that in order to be truly human, we cannot avoid dealing with the internal conflicts between our "flesh" (who we think we are) and our "spirit" (the essence of what we really are).  We should not be afraid of these conflicts, however, but should instead seek to understand them and how we relate them, as Harding states, as "the beginning of [our own] consciousness" of self; what we desire, what tempts us, what frightens us, what makes us tick. 

"[Jung] did not believe that authentic [religion] was expressed in [purely emotional worship] experiences (emotional responses) [and, incidentally, neither do I nor did St. James: "Pure and undefiled religion is ... to visit orphans and widows in their trouble, and to keep oneself unspotted from the world"]. Rather Jung advised people to turn towards their fears ...This shadow[of fear] is experienced as an [enemy], but it is really a friend because it contains clues as to what the individual lacks, rejects and distrusts" (

Could it be, then, that "religion", the expression within us just aching for a way to make itself known and which also deeply desires to touch something greater, includes not only turning toward the Almighty but would also include intentionally facing that which potentially binds us or tempts us, recognizing our weaknesses and dealing with them rather than succumbing to them - or worse: mistaking our fleshly impulses with "divine will"?  We might like to believe these things would be those which compel us to act against our own will but we cannot deny that as strong as our "fleshly" impulses can sometimes be, we do ultimately have control over what we do and when we do it - all directly connected to why we would choose to do it (whatever "it" may be).

It is no secret that many have a hard time dealing with St. Paul and his seeming disdain for the Law especially in his conflicting statements in our being "freed" from the Law, not "subject" to the Law, or not "under" the Law - but he nevertheless shamelessly quoting the Law; "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Gal 5:14; Lev 19:18).  The New Testament never suggests we are told "eh, never mind that old law".  "By no means!", St. Paul states often in his writings and responses.  Rather, we are called to understand the difference between how we act (or react) according to the "flesh", and how we are called to act according to the "Spirit".

St. Paul writes, "If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the Law" (Gal 5:18).  This cannot mean the people of the Lord are excused from obedience to the Law (Deut 8:11-17) since the Law defines the Covenant's terms and defines the faith community's boundaries, nor can we say the Law of the Lord no longer applies to us; what was sinful then is still as sinful now, and what was helpful to our neighbor then is as helpful to our neighbor now.  St. Paul is quite clear in this point: "those who do such things [fornication, idolatry, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, envy, drunkenness, etc] (those things prohibited by the Law) will not inherit the Kingdom of God" (Gal 5:21)

St. Paul is rather observing that love, those acts borne of the Spirit of the Lord, cannot be commanded by a strict legal definition but are rather joyful expressions of a spiritual reality.  What we choose to do according to our free will defines "why" we do what we do.  There are those "works of the flesh" St. Paul defines for the people of Galatia which he then "contrasts" with the "fruit of the Spirit": "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; there is no law against such things" (Gal 5:22, 23).  By that statement that "there is no law against" these things, St. Paul affirms there is still a Law prohibiting those other things.  To say, then, that we are not "subject" to the Law should not be confused with suggesting we are "excused" from the foundational and community principles of the Law.

Jesus states very clearly that evidence of our love for Him is in our obedience to His commandments; and if Jesus is the Holy and Almighty God in the flesh, then His commandments are not strictly those attributed only to the New Testament.  Just as Jesus reiterates the "greatest commandments" in quoting from Deuteronomy and Leviticus, then, Jesus affirms the Law and its positive impact on the life of the Faith Community.  St. Paul expresses an act of love in willful and joyful obedience rather than a strictly legal obligation to do so.

Do we consider it burdensome to refrain from stealing?  Do we find it problematic to refrain from bearing false witness (gossip) against one another?  Do we find it impossible not to "bear a grudge against the children of your people" (Lev 19:18)?  If so - and I think we all face difficulties to one degree or another - the problem is not that the Law of the Lord prohibits these things; the problem is the internal conflict between what we want for ourselves and what the community of faith, the Lord's Church, the "ecclesia" needs from us.  This means self-gratification must take a back seat - and therein lies the challenge we face, the "war within" ourselves.

This "war within" is the greatest challenge of discipleship, and this difficulty is not unique to our 21st-century setting.  When would-be followers expressed their desire to follow Jesus, Jesus warned them of the cost of discipleship against their stated "priorities" especially as He "set His face to go to Jerusalem"; that is, to do what needs to be done.  The discomforts and the sacrifices and the total reordering of priorities are what discipleship is about. 

"The call of discipleship is not set against weak and flimsy excuses, but is set against primary personal and family obligations, those obligations WE establish: attending to creature needs and comforts, family duty, and family love" [according to our own priorities] (HarperCollins Bible Commentary, pg 941).  Discipleship is the ultimate battle between "flesh" and "spirit" because Jesus very clearly states that "He who loves father and mother more than Me is not worthy of Me, and he who loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me.  And he who does not take his cross and follow after me is not worthy of Me.  He who finds his life [in his own desires] will lose it; and he who loses his life for My sake will find it"(Matthew 10:37-39)!

The one thing we are compelled to do in this life is truthfully and completely face those things that tempt us, those things that haunt us.  The Good News - that is, the Gospel of our Lord - promises we will not face these things alone, that the Lord of the Church saw fit to come to us to show us the way THROUGH these fears and anxieties, not to ignore them but to learn to overcome them!  The Spirit of the Living and Eternal God sees fit to continue to show us the Way - if we will but listen; for we must always be mindful that even though the War has been won by the Mighty Hand of our Holy Father, we must continue to fight these battles as long as we live in this world.

If we still feel as though we are fighting these battles alone, then it is time to reconnect to the Church.  It is our community; it is the very Body of our Risen Lord, the Life we are called into not only in this hour of worship, praise, and prayer - but in every single hour we are awake!  Just as an army does not send out only one soldier to face the enemy, just as an army always keeps someone on watch, neither are we expected to face our enemies alone nor are we to fail to keep watch.  Stand together, and stand strong!  This is the Church, the Body of Christ!

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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