13th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Some reflections I gave last night at church, focusing primarily upon the reading from Paul's Letter to the Galatians:

At every Mass we stand for the proclamation of the Gospel, because it’s the Gospel, the “good news” of who Jesus Christ proclaimed by Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, that is the source and the root of our faith. But on the weekend after the Feast of Sts. Peter and Paul, I think it’s legitimate, for a change, to spend some time reflecting on the good news as proclaimed by the apostle Paul to the church in Galatia, as proclaimed in our second reading tonight.

And what a reading it is: there’s nothing like a Saturday night in the middle of the summer to talk about the opposition of the Spirit and the flesh. Now, when we hear Paul talking about “the flesh” and “the Spirit,” the scripture scholars warn us to avoid understanding “the flesh” as “the body,” as anything “material”; rather, they explain, the flesh refers to our ways of living in opposition to God, in opposition to the Spirit Christ gives to us. But even those of us who might have read that before tend to carry around a lot of baggage around the idea of “the flesh,” myself included.

For many of us, when we hear Paul talking about not living according to the flesh, the synapses in our brains hear “the flesh” = sex. Or anything to do with sex. And ironically that shortcircuits our ability to hear Paul as good news, in a couple of ways. One way is to focus on all of our past or current errors that involve our sexuality, our mistakes, our anxieties, our failures to love, which for a variety of reasons resonate with a lot of our particular hang-ups as Christians in a historically Irish, quasi-Jansenist part of New England. Hearing Paul telling us not to live according to the flesh pushes us directly into that slightly neurotic, self-loathing place in which we secretly might wish that we weren’t sexual beings at all, that we didn’t have bodies that had desires, and in which living according to the Spirit might mean freedom as “leaving behind” all of that stuff.

A second place we tend to go, however – and most of us go in both of these directions at different times – is to take a look at ourselves and, by thinking of flesh only as sexual, let ourselves off the hook. After all, we’re good people who are here at church on a Saturday night, not on our way to a brothel or an orgy – most of us, at least. So we can smugly sit back and ignore Paul’s message to those people, you know, those other people.

In both cases, the result is the same: once we make the equation “the flesh” = sex, we zone out and miss what, I think, Paul is really trying to tell us about Christian life, about the journey Christ talks about in the Gospel. We miss his words about life in the Spirit as being, for us, not a place for condemnation and self-loathing, but a recipe for a different kind of living. And I’d like to spend the rest of our time exploring a way that might help us imagine that kind of life in the Spirit.

One of my partner Nathan and my favorite places to go out for dinner for a treat is Redbones Barbecue in Davis Square. If you haven’t been there, and you’re not a vegetarian, I would recommend it as one of the 5 best restaurants in the city. Our dog likes it too, because he usually gets some beef ribs out of the bargain. But you have to be willing to get a little dirty, and get a little animal, in order to really enjoy the food. Eating barbecue ribs is not like eating chicken mcnuggets; there’s no way to ignore the fact that a formerly living, breathing creature has become the source of your nourishment in such a meal. And there’s no delicate way of actually eating it; you need to get in touch with your inner carnivore, and tear the meat off the bone, rip some beef off a rib or some pork off a chop. Vegetarians, you’ll have to try imagine a really, really good ear of corn at this point.

But paying attention to something as mundane as how we eat barbecued ribs might be a way of breaking out of the flesh = sex shortcircuit. Paul warns the Galatians that “if you go on biting and devouring one another, beware that you are not consumed by one another.” Life “according to the flesh” isn’t only or even primarily life in bodies – we don’t have any way of imagining another kind of living. It’s a life in which we treat each other, in varied and numerous ways, as though we were just flesh to each other. When we bite each other, we tear each other, we devour each other – that in my opinion is what Paul is getting at when he warns against life according to the flesh.

In the lines following tonight’s passage, Paul writes that “the works of the flesh are obvious: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, outbursts of fury, acts of selfishness, dissensions, factions, occasions of envy, drinking bouts, orgies, and the like.” The beginning and the end of the list sound a lot like what we first think of as “the flesh” and there’s a good reason, namely that our sexuality is a particular place where we’re often tempted to devour each other. But think of the middle of the list: hatreds, rivalry, jealousy, fury, selfishness, dissensions, envy – these ways in which we devour each other, tear each other, consume each other – and ourselves – are far more subtle, and often have little to do with sex. But this, says Paul, is life “in the flesh” or “according to the flesh.”

So, given that Paul seems to be pointing out so many different kinds of ways in which we can treat each other according to the flesh, how can this word be good news for us? Well, the only reason Paul can talk about life according to the flesh is because he also knows, and we also know, what a life not according to the flesh can be like, what the life according to the Spirit to which we are called looks and feels like. The fruit of the Spirit, Paul writes, is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” It’s learning to treat each other as children of God, as temples of Christ’s Spirit, and not simply as flesh.

And if you think that my gastronomic comparison is entirely off base, then we might think about the fact that every week we enter more fully into that life in the Spirit by coming here, not to a cooking school, but an eating school. The fact that we are “liturgical vegetarians” – that we eat Christ’s flesh as bread and drink Christ’s blood as wine – is not accidental to learning how to eat with each other without eating each other. The fact that the bread we share is freely given and freely broken, that we line up to receive it, and not to take it – each time we return to this table, we are not only learning how Christ made himself food for others without devouring them, we are also learning how we can be food for others, without devouring them. In Paul’s words, we are practicing life together in the Spirit, and not in the flesh, so that, at the end of Mass, we can go back out into our world as bread for a hungry world.

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