john davies
notes from a small vicar
from a parish
in Liverpool, UK

    Galatians 5, Luke 9: Family misfortunes -
    the difficulties of desire

    Good Shepherd Holy Communion, 27/6/2010 [1]

    Galatians 5.1,13-25 , Luke 9.51-end

    For these first few weeks in the Trinity season, we are reading through St. Paul's letter to the Galatians. It's a very important book of the Bible, but also a difficult one to understand. Let's take a few minutes this morning to see if we can understand it better. St. Paul was trying to teach us something very important ourselves in this letter. Let's see if we can learn it.

    I want to begin with the verse which isn't there - the verse which those  who assigned the readings for today left out. Galatians chapter 5 contains 26 verses, and our reading today, for some reason, stops at verse 25. The people who plan the lectionary left out the last verse of the chapter. Now, you may be thinking, so what? Does it matter? But for me it's important because I think it is verse 26 which really takes us to the crux of the whole matter.

    What is this all-important verse, you ask? Well, here it is, verse 26: "Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another."

    Now, I know, you might be saying to yourself, "That's it?! A little warning about conceit and competing and envying?! You're making a big deal about leaving out that little verse? 

    But, you see, this gets right to the crux of the matter that I've shared with you before. St. Paul is trying to teach us something about ourselves, which he understands perfectly, so he intentionally ends this chapter with a warning against conceit and competing with one another and envying one another. Here in this chapter, he has talked about it as the flesh, the desires of this world. 

    The word "flesh" can be misleading to us, I think, because we most often start thinking about something having to do with sex. But Paul is talking about something much more than that. He's talking about the 'desires of the flesh'. And the key word is desire

    What does Paul mean by desire? Maybe he's thinking of the young girl watching all the TV commercials for beauty products, fashionable clothes, etc. When her mother turns the telly off, the girl turns round and says, "Now how will I know what I want?". 

    The girl's story reminds us that we get our desires by imitating one another. The adverts make her want to copy the glamourous women she sees on screen. What they want - the hair conditioner, the face cream - she wants. We copy each other's desires, or we wouldn't really know what to desire. Faced with a large supermarket shelf full of hair conditioners, how do we know what we want to buy? We buy the one we know from the telly, the one which Cheryl Cole likes to use. 

    Now, that's the way we are made, so it's not bad in itself. God created good. In fact, we are created in God's image. In other words, we have the ability to copy, to imitate, to image God's desires. The problem is that instead of imaging God's desires, we image each other's desires. 

    And when we do that we end up desiring many of the same things. I want what my brother's got. I want what my sister's got. And when we end up desiring the same things, what happens to us? We compete with one another, we envy one another, and we get caught in the conceit of thinking that we deserve what we desire more than the next person. 

    It's that old story about two children in a room full of lovely toys and which toy does the one child want? The one toy which the other one is playing with. 

    It's that old story about the man who has known a particular woman as a friend for a very long time, and not thought about her as anything else than a friend, until his best - male - friend starts a relationship with her, and then that first man starts to desire her: a classic love triangle like you see in the soaps all the time, and in real life.

    So that's why verse 26 is important. St. Paul ends this chapter about freedom and love by telling us to watch out for competing and envying and, above all, conceit. He is telling us to watch out for desire, the desires of the flesh, the works of the flesh.

    Paul tells us that these desires enslave us to a life of 'fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.' He tells us that Christ has set us free from all that into a life whose fruit is 'love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.' 

    'Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,' Paul writes. 'If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.'

    It all boils down to the crucial choice that Paul lays out for us: either we desire God's desire, which is what he calls living in the Spirit, living by the commandment to love another as we love ourselves. Or we can live by the desires of other people, which Paul calls living by the flesh. That's it. There are no more choices. And so Paul ends this chapter by saying: 'Either we live by and are guided by the Spirit. Or we fall into competing and envying and the conceit of thinking we deserve what we envy.'

    Now that sounds like a simple choice for us to make. The life of the Spirit or the life of the world. The desires of God or the desires of the flesh. Freedom in Christ or competing and envy and conceit. But unfortunately it's not a simple choice for us to make. Because this choice is never obvious to us. We don't usually see that we are slaves to competing and envying and conceit. Look at the makers of the lectionary. They left the last verse out. It wasn't obvious to them that it was important to keep it in. 

    And this is the greatest conceit of all. The ultimate conceit for us is to think that we are not conceited. The ultimate wrong is for us to think that we are right and other groups of people over there, are wrong - whatever that group of people is for us: our family, our neighbors, our workmates, our fellow church members, other women, other men, etc. We tell ourselves that we can't be completely embroiled in competition and envy or we be at each other's throats. We're fine. It's those other people over there that have the problem

    But St. Paul knows us. He knows himself. He had been a great Pharisee, an upstanding citizen, fighting on the side of right. But then Christ came along, knocked him off his horse, blinded him for a few days, and then helped him to see how conceited he really was. It wasn't just a problem with those other people over there, it was a problem with himself, with his desperate sense of being right, his conceitedness, right at the heart of things.

    The bible is full of stories of people like Paul, who couldn't see how wrapped up in a world of envy, competition and conceit they were, because they wanted what someone else had. Often this comes out in sibling rivalry. Think of the brothers Cain and Abel: how Cain wanted what Abel had - the approval of their father - and when their father disapproved of Cain, Cain responded by killing his brother. Think of the story of the Prodigal Son: how the older brother wanted what the younger brother had - their father's attention and lavish gesture of love - and when the father welcomed back the prodigal younger brother, the older brother who had stayed faithfully at home, complained bitterly about the party which his father threw, conceited enough to think that it was he who deserved a party, conceited enough to miss out on the freedom which his father's grace brought into their home. 

    Jesus also understood the way that people were driven by the desires of the flesh, the desires of the world. Jesus knew the truth in these stories from scripture about sibling rivalries. I think that is the reason why he was so critical of those people who were reluctant to follow him, in today's gospel reading: 

    To [a man he met on the road] he said, 'Follow me.' But he said, 'Lord, first let me go and bury my father.' But Jesus said to him, 'Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.' Another said, 'I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.' Jesus said to him, 'No one who puts a hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.' [Luke 9.57-62]

    These are hard sayings of Jesus, because we instinctively think that the two men had good reasons to ask him to wait before they came along with him - family reasons: the first wanted to bury his father, the second wanted to say goodbye to those at home. Why would Jesus criticise them?

    Maybe because he could see what was behind their motives. And maybe what was behind them was envy, competition, conceit - sibling rivalry, perhaps.

    The man who wanted to bury his father: why did he want to be the one to do that? Why did he desire to be the one person in the family who would make the funeral arrangements? Could he not leave it to one of his brothers to take the central role at this family funeral? Was there rivalry involved? 

    The man who wanted to say goodbye to those at home: why did he feel the need to do that? Why couldn't he just leave with Jesus and leave off telling the family the news for another day? Again, perhaps Jesus sensed, the reason may have been this man's desire for attention in the family - the desire to be noticed above the others. The desire of the world, the flesh.

    There is so much in all of this for us. 'If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another'. Something which we need to take on board in our own lives, our family lives, our church lives.

    We need to begin, every day, over and over again, at the foot of the cross, where we see that the only one who ever lived completely without these sins of envy and conceit was the one who ended up crucified for it, and for us. It is only when we are baptized and rooted in him that we can finally become one with another, that we can finally have a Christlike love for one another. And enjoy the freedom of life in the Spirit, which Jesus brings.

    [1] Substantially based on Paul J. Nuechterlein's sermon, Thinking We're Right: the Ultimate Conceit. [Words in Times font are his, adapted, words in other font are mine]