You have heard me say a number of times, “Religion can be the best thing in the world, and it can be the worst thing in the world.” And that’s as much true of our own religion, Christianity, as any other religion. Our Christian worship, scriptures, rituals, and practices can be liberating or suffocating. Paul, it seems, wants to get that message across to the Galatian Christians, some of whom, want to shackle themselves with the lesser and unnecessary aspects of the Mosaic law. Paul reminds them that he brought to them the way of true freedom in Christ, but now they want to settle for a yoke of slavery.
In our text Paul contrasts two ways of life. One way leads to life and true freedom; the other way leads to death and bondage. I am speaking of life and death metaphorically. One way is a healthy, redemptive, healing, transformative, and liberating way of life. The other is an unhealthy, non-redemptive, destructive and enslaving way of life. Paul identifies the two different ways of life as life according to the Spirit and life according to the flesh.
A number of spiritual writers have pointed out that Paul’s choice of the word “flesh” in contrast to the word “Spirit” is an unfortunate choice of words at best. Unfortunate because it has been so misunderstand by Christians and used to teach that the body is evil. The flesh as body is not evil or bad. In fact, Paul says the body is the temple of the Holy Spirit. Various explanations have been offered, none of which I find very satisfying, as to why Paul and other ancient Christian writers use this particular word to describe the opposite of life in the Spirit. What Paul calls “flesh” is a way of living rooted in the ego. Now, in one sense the ego is neither bad nor good. In one sense, a strong ego, aware of its boundaries, is vital to healthy functioning. But usually when we reference the ego we are thinking about the egocentric ego. Generally when spiritual writers talk about the ego today they are talking about the self-centered, self-absorbed self. What Paul calls the flesh we could call “the little self.” The self that sees itself separated or all alone and has to protect itself at all costs. This is the egocentric self. Thomas Merton was the first to use the term “false self” to describe this egocentric self, or little self. It’s false because that’s not who we really are or called to be. And the little self has all sorts of ways to defend and protect itself.
Our false selves are inseparably tied into a false culture. Our egocentric selves is part of an egocentric world. Both Paul and John use the word “world” in that negative way. John says in his first letter that the world as a system of egocentric culture is full of selfish ambition, greed, and boastful pride in riches and the status that goes with it. This is why John tells his readers, “love not the world,” because these things are not of God. Paul says in his letter to the Romans, “Do not be conformed to the world.” What he is saying is, “Don’t allow this egocentric system, the egocentric culture to shape you into its mold.” That’s not who we are. So it’s not just the egocentric self that poses a problem, it’s the egocentric culture that gives respectability to the little self and even justifies or vindicates the little self. For example, our culture basically teaches us that greed is good. Our whole economic system is based on it. Wanting what is bigger and better is good. Buying more stuff is good. Beating others to the top is good. Our egocentric culture, our “world,” the system in which we live, constitutes a corporate or collective false self, and it justifies the little self. The system encourages and blesses our individual greed that rises out of the false self. This is why it is so difficult to recognize the blindness of the false self, because the whole culture is blind, the whole world is blind when it comes to greed, for example, so it’s hard for us to see our own greed, when the world encourages our greed and blesses our greed. None of us escape this.
The egocentric self, and the egocentric culture, the little self and the system that supports it is personified in scripture as the devil or Satan. When Jesus is struggling with the Devil in the wilderness he is engaged in a very human struggle. He is struggling with the temptations of the false self and the false culture, which is a struggle not just with actions, but also with motives and the intents of the heart. It’s not just what we do. It’s also about why we do what we do. I might do something very good, and be totally egocentric or selfish in why I do what is good. Now, I would argue it’s always better to do something good rather than evil, but why we do what we do is important too.
The egocentric self is the great deceiver, and can keep us blind for a long time. This is why the serpent in the Genesis 3 story who tempts the human couple is described by the story writer as “the most subtle of all the wild beasts that God had made.” The egocentric self may see something that is evil as a good, and something good may be seen as weakness.
For example, right now in our country there are a number of people who look at our nation’s compassionless, hardline treatment (which is mistreatment) of the undocumented as an expression of strength. They don’t see it as evil or something bad. They see it as a good thing. That’s the blindness and deception of the little self. Something that is hurtful, the little self may see as a victory or an expression of strength – even moral strength. That’s how delusional the little self can be. Another example. Many people think of forgiveness as weakness. Loving one’s enemies is weakness in their eyes, not a moral strength. I look at the way I used to understand atonement and can now see how egocentric it is. I thought that in order for God to forgive sins, someone had to pay, namely, God’s unique Son.
Paul says in the passage that the works of the flesh, the works of the egocentric self are obvious. Well, they might be obvious to someone walking in the Spirit and living in the true self, but for those of us living in the false self they are not obvious at all. We may even think they are good things; that we should be doing these things. On more than one occasion I have thought that my workaholism, and my selfish ambition were good things blessed by God. My workaholism was carefully disguised as sacrifice. And my selfish ambition was cast in the form – well, this is all for the glory of God. In reality they were works of the flesh, they were products of my egocentric, little self.
Now it is God who makes us with an ego, and none of us escape the development of an egocentric self. It’s part of our human development. We would like to blame it on Adam and Eve, and some do, but that story in our Bibles is our story. It’s your story and my story, which by the way, is what makes sacred myth sacred.
In the very process of human development one of the first things that happens to all of us is the birth of self-consciousness or self-awareness. And it happens early. At some point as we move past infancy we become aware that the world is separate from ourselves. At some point we realize that I am different than you. I am someone, you are someone else. As infants, we have no such awareness. As infants the world is just an extension of ourselves. But at some point as we grow and develop as a human being we become aware that we are separate from the world.
As we grow we internalize all kinds of “messages” about who we are – from our parents, our peers, our teachers, the media, there are many people and influences that contribute to our formation. We form images of ourselves and others at a very young age before we even know how to think for ourselves. We worry about how we look and how we appear to others. We form an opinion about ourselves based on all these messages from our culture that we have internalized. Richard Rohr says that the false self is who we think we are based on these messages. We become very attached to this image we have about ourselves. We have a tendency to go in two different directions. On the one hand, we might develop an inflated ego and think too highly of ourselves. We might feel that we are better than others and develop a sense of entitlement or superiority. On the other hand, we might think too little of ourselves where the ego becomes deflated. We might feel like we are completely unworthy, even undeserving of love. Both ways of thinking are egocentric because we make it all about us. If you look at families today it’s hard to find a good balance. Some kids grow up thinking everything is about them. Other kids grow up never knowing what it is like to be loved.
This is what makes it so difficult for us to discover who we really are. Nevertheless, who we really are is already in our hearts, because we are created in the image of God. As Paul says in his talk to the Athenians in Acts 17, in God we live, move, and have our existence. But the true self gets buried in this avalanche of messaging that comes from our culture. So we have to discover our true self, the Christ self.
I like the story about the little girl who was three or four, when her parents brought home a new baby. Within a few hours of bringing the new baby home, the little girl made a rather strange request. She wanted to be alone with her new baby brother in his room. This made the parents a bit uneasy, but they had a good intercom system, so they gave her permission. They listened carefully as they heard their daughter’s footsteps moving across the baby’s room. They could imagine her tiptoeing looking in the baby’s crib. Then they heard her say to her three-day-old baby brother, “Tell me about God – I’ve almost forgotten.” That’s what the system, the egocentric system does to us. I believe in our better moments we all intuit that there is more to us and about us than what others think or have told us, but we have to discover that for ourselves.
So what Paul calls life in the flesh can be thought of as life in the little self or false self. And what Paul calls life in the Spirit can be thought of as life in the Christ self, or the true self or the larger self. This is who we really are. This is what Paul calls the new humanity and living in the Spirit. The true self is what Paul calls Christ living in me. It’s the Christ self. This is the treasure in the field that we need to find for ourselves. The true self is who we are in God and who God is in us. It’s our birthright, but needs to be claimed. It’s pure gift, but needs to be unwrapped and put into practice.
So how do we discover our true self, our larger self, the Christ self? You might expect me to say, through faith, because that is what most of us were taught. But that’s not how we do it. Faith comes later and is part of the process. However, the one indispensable thing is love. Paul said to the Corinthians, “Now abide faith, hope, and love, but the greatest of these is love.” In this passage in Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the works of the little self with the fruit of the Spirit. And the first thing he mentions is love. Then he goes on to mention other qualities – joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. But the primary quality is love and all the others flow from it. We have to experience and express love to discover our true self, the Christ self. God is love, says the Apostle John, and wherever love is God is. When we feel love and act in love, when we receive and give love, when we experience and express love we are living out of the true self.
Love is the way into the Christ self and out of the little self. I like the story of the mountaineer who was a hard, tough character. He was known for his quarreling and fighting. One week his brother asked him to care for his young son, because he and his wife had to be out on a work related trip. Part of his responsibility was getting the boy to his first grade class. On that first day, he met the boy’s teacher, who was single, and fell in love at first sight. It took him a long time to ask her out because he figured that someone educated and refined like her would never go out with him. But she did. And when he asked her to marry him, she said yes. One of his friends noticed the change in him and said, “You never want to fight any more. What happened?” He just said, “I ain’t got nothing against nobody.” What made the difference? Love opened him up to a new way of being. He discovered his true self, even though he wouldn’t know to call it that.
We Christians call this larger self the Christ self. But it really doesn’t matter what religious symbols or language we use. It’s the self living in the reality of Divine Love regardless of what we call it. As Christians our primary entry point is Jesus. When we learn about the compassion of Jesus and the inclusiveness of Jesus, and the way he confronted injustice and how he loved all people, even those set against him, we are learning how to live in our larger self. But regardless of how we discover it, when we experience and express selfless, inclusive, magnanimous love we are living in the true self, even if we call it something else.
I will conclude with this. Living in the true self is living in true freedom. Now, we are never completely free. Certainly not in this life. We don’t love perfectly. Even when we are at our best, there’s always some ego invested. So there is always the need to be continually growing in love. We never arrive. The more we are able to love like Jesus, who is our model of what the Christ self looks like, the more free we are. Paul says that when we are led by the Spirit, when we are living in the Christ self, we are not subject to the law. We don’t need lots of rules and regulations, when love rules and reigns in our lives. We know what to do. We know to do the loving thing and we do the loving thing, sometimes at great personal cost. Paul says basically what Jesus says, that the whole intent of the law can be summed up in a single commandment, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” That, sisters and brothers, is what we are called to do, because the true self, the Christ self, is the self pervaded by love.
Our good God, forgive us for the many times we have made far lesser things – like religious doctrine, and church traditions and rules, the most important thing. Help us to see that it ultimately doesn’t matter what we call this ultimate reality as long as we experience this ultimate reality by becoming channels of your love. In a few days many in our country will be celebrating freedom who don’t have the faintest notion what true freedom really is. Help us all to discover it and live it by learning how to love the way you love. Amen.