For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do (Galatians 5:17).
In today’s Epistle, St. Paul courageously does the hardest thing a pastor has to do: he tells us the truth about ourselves. In doing this act of charity, he gives us a long list of sins which mark men and women as the disinherited ones—the ones who war and fight over death and ashes rather than living in the gift of life and everlasting love. Enslaving ourselves to these desires of the flesh pit us against God in a mad, self-destructive contest wherein the children of men become little anti-Christs preaching a false gospel to neighbors and enemies with every self-destructive choice and unfaithful decision. This is the danger the apostle is warning us of when He speaks of being, “against the Spirit,” fighting against God, so that we can try to find meaning and fulfillment in the dying things of this world. There lies the danger of this “lust” or “desire” which rages in our bodies; not that God has created inherently evil things, but that humans tragically take good things and use them for evil.
The unique problem we face is that the 20th century has brought into Christianity the fallen culture’s language of feelings and emotion which makes talking about reality almost impossible. If a 21st century priest says to someone, “Anything which prevents you from daily growing in trust and faithfulness in the Lord, anything which prevents you from walking in the path of holiness, must be attacked with the same intensity with which Christ attacked the sin of this world,” the response to this statement will be something like, “Well, that doesn’t feel right,” or “My gut tells me to do something else.” What do we do when St. Paul looks us firmly in the eyes and reminds us that, when we talk in this way, we sound like a lunatic who thinks his positive thoughts make hurricanes move out to sea.
After all, we are talking about the great war between good and evil. In that context, who cares about our feelings or our gut or whatever nonsensical, metaphysical term people invent in order to justify whatever they wanted to do in the first place? St. Paul is telling us we are not simply individuals navigating the world as we see fit; no, if we are anything, if we are alive, we are the church: we are in-dwelt by the God who rules the universe. We—minute by minute—find ourselves in the presence of our perfect judge and merciful savior calling us to a greater and greater union with the Godhead. The picture we must hold in our minds and nail to our chests is of being, by nature of our baptism and rebirth, people over whom the Spirit of God has come to reside and destroy and renew. We all can agree we need to be changed in some way (unless we’re a raging narcissist); the only question which needs asking is “How much do we need to be changed.” The answer Paul gives is that we have so far to walk we actually can’t get there by ourselves. It isn’t that we don’t have a map; it’s that we don’t have any arms or legs. Humanity trying to save itself through the desires of the flesh, or even the law, is like a quadruple amputee trying to walk to the moon. That scenario is just as preposterous as thinking we will be saved by whatever good thing we worship with our time and treasure and strength rather than the Living God. Here is why it was necessary for Jesus to come and free us from the enslavement of sin; here is why Jesus came to free us from the law.
As St. Paul writes, “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.” Just as Jesus heals the ten lepers in today’s Gospel reading; Jesus has come to heal us, by faith, from the guilt and shame and depression and false happiness living a disordered life brings. It is no accident that St. Paul mentions “impurity” in today’s Epistle as a work of our unredeemed flesh, for to live in sin is to live like a dead piece of meat disconnected from the God who gives us being and life; it is to live like a leper whose rotting flesh marks him as disconnected from the people of God. The law’s terrible but necessary job is to show us this truth about ourselves in grim detail.
In a similar way, the unique pain and suffering of the lepers allows them to know just how much they desperately need to be healed and saved by the Master. It’s much harder to think one is the captain of his fate when pieces of one’s face are falling off. We may even here humbly surmise that this is the reason why God allows us all to grow old and fall apart, so that we too might fall on our knees and say to the God who suffered with us, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” And, incredibly, He does have mercy on us. Israel’s Messiah, the fulfiller of all the law and the prophets, shows the ultimate mercy by taking our suffering and pain seriously. He does so not with words or empty platitudes about “feeling our pain;” no, Jesus joins us in the suffering of this world, showing us that the pain and death of this world isn’t a game or a simulation: it is the actual working out of our salvation; it is the fitting means by which a new and perfect world is being formed. On Good Friday, the healer of the lepers, the healer of the world, allowed Himself to be broken by all the works of the flesh to reveal to us their utter powerlessness. On that day, all the idols of the children of men were exposed for what they truly are: uncaring and pitiless instruments of death totally incapable of destroying the God of "love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance.” In the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the church has become a living witness to the ultimate triumph of good over evil, to live as if this weren’t true is a madness every part of our broken culture encourages us to embrace, but it is nonetheless pure and terrible madness.
And so, the Christian who is led by the Spirit is beyond the fear of the law, beyond the fear of death, beyond the need for works of the flesh, because he is now free for love. We are now free to bear the Holy Spirit’s fruit in the desert of human misery. Because we belong to Christ, every single part of us belongs to God. Not just our brains or our occasional Sunday mornings; no, every part of us belongs to the God who made a wild and dying plant alive in order to bear the fruit of the Spirit. Our every second is no longer our own but a double-gift from the God who created us and is now redeeming us for present and future glory. This reality has immense ramifications for how we live our lives. We no longer get to say, “I will try to make time for prayer or to contribute to Christian love or share the Gospel; no, our entire lives are about being led by the Spirit and belonging to Christ; we work and sleep and eat not for ourselves, not to get more things than we can ever use, not to build our only little slice of heaven, not to worship the idols of our small and unimaginative age; rather, we do all the necessary aspects of life so that we can have time and space to grow the fruit of the Spirit, to grow the fruit which shows Christ’s total and uncontested reign in our hearts as it is in heaven.
As St. Paul says today, those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires (Galatians 5:24). One can be a nice person, one can be a churchgoer, but one cannot be a child of God unless we want—above all else—to be more and more like our Heavenly Father in whose image we are made. We are damned unless our identity is so closely linked with Christ that we can freely give all of our passions and ambitions and desires to the Cross upon which He died. St. Paul makes no distinction between sexual sin, interpersonal sin, financial sin, and substance abuse because there is no place for any of these marks of death in the church, no matter if our country decides, sometimes week to week, that some sins are more sinful than others. Blessedly, none of this is up for a vote; we either surrender and live to fight for truth and beauty and goodness and love, or we continue to rebel and live for ourselves until our minds and bodies betray us on our deathbeds. We can foolishly tell God we don’t need Him, but we can’t say, “God please save me,” and then live as if the fallen world’s lies will save us. They won’t, but God will.
So then, let us be the most joyous and loving people on earth, patient and kind, faithful to the truth. We have no reason to be gloomy or defeatist as the world around us dips further and further into madness and delusion and hysteria. We have been saved by the love of God so that we can go out and love the sick and the dying, love the lepers who can’t even look at themselves in the mirror. There is still time because we still have breath. We have everything we need because we have the Spirit and His Church and His Word and His Sacraments. If we center our lives on these, His fruit will grow and even this fallen world will be nourished by it.