Preacher Revd Alan Sykes
Sometimes, in an idle moment, I speculate on what makes human beings different from other animals. After all, you have to do something with your spare time. But that speculation does beg the question whether human beings are indeed different from animals.
After all, we have many similarities. We share a lot of DNA. I’ve read that we share 99.8% of our DNA with chimpanzees and possibly as much as 50%, believe it or not, with fruit flies.
Human beings are very much part of the family of living things on this planet and yet I would still venture to suggest that there is a quantum leap of difference between a chimpanzee and a human being.
There are no doubt many differences – we clothe ourselves, we create and harness fire, we blush – but the one I’d like to highlight is language.
Other animals seem to have a rudimentary form of language but it is as nothing – as far we can tell – compared to what humans have become capable of.
Take, for instance, vocabulary. Apparently, the second edition of the Oxford English Dictionary – I mean the massive multi-volume edition – contains 171,476 words in current use as well as over 47,000 obsolete words. That’s a lot of words!
Combine that number of words with the subtleties of grammar and you’d think you’d have a tool of unparalleled power and precision. And so you have. And yet it isn’t perfect. Even a language as rich as English isn’t as precise as it might be.
In some ways we are even the prisoners of language. We can only think what our language allows us to think.
I can hardly credit it but allegedly Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language, had 96 words for love. More modestly ancient Greek had 3 words for love. English only has one and many people think that that is the source of much confusion.
I’m not just throwing stones at English. I would surmise that all languages have their limitations. Languages are never perfect and neither are the people who use them.
Which brings me to the letter of Paul to the Galatians, our second reading this evening. Paul’s use of language isn’t always as unambiguous as it might be. Even Paul, a very bright person, wasn’t immune to being ambiguous in his writings.
In this particular passage he sets up a contrast between the Spirit and the flesh; what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.
And this has led some Christians to conclude that the body and matter in general are evil. Only the Spirit is good. The aim, therefore, of the Christian life is to escape the body and dwell entirely in the realm of the Spirit.
So, over the centuries, some Christians came to the view that they must beat their bodies into submission and live their lives in such a way that they never allow themselves the enjoyment of any bodily pleasure.
But that isn’t real Christianity. Both the body and the Spirit are essential, for that is what makes us human.
I’ve got a commentary on Galatians that translates the word ‘flesh’ as ‘our lower nature’. So the translation runs: if you are guided by the Spirit, you will not fulfil the desires of your lower nature.
One of my favourite spiritual writers, Richard Rohr, says this:
‘Just substitute the word ego every time you hear Paul use the word flesh. It will get you out of this dead-end, false, and dualistic ping-pong game between body and spirit. The problem is not that you have a body; the problem is that you think you are separate from others—and from God. And you are not!’
So, according to Richard Rohr it’s the ego separating us from God and from each other that is the problem. Whatever separates us from God and from others is our lower nature – the flesh, as Paul puts it.
This more positive attitude to the body and to matter is actually the teaching of the whole Bible. Let’s take a look at our first reading – from the prophet Ezekiel. God says to the house of Israel:
A new heart I will give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.
The opposite of the Spirit isn’t flesh, it’s stone-heartedness, hard-heartedness. In short, the opposite of the Spirit is the absence of love, it’s separation.
In the Old Testament there is no fundamental split between body and spirit. And read truly there is no such split in the New Testament.
Today we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit. And I’d like to end by posing a question. How do we know, as Christians, that we have received the Holy Spirit, the Spirit who enables us to transcend our lower nature, our ego?
Perhaps we talk in tongues. Well, talking in tongues is by no means to be despised, but neither is it the heart of the matter.
The heart of the matter lies in what Paul calls the fruits of the Spirit – love, joy, peace patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
It doesn’t come amiss occasionally to take an honest inventory of our inner selves. I’m not suggesting we become obsessively introspective but just occasionally we may ask ourselves how loving, joyful, peaceful, patient and so on we are.
That’s an indicator, if we allow ourselves to be honest in our introsopection, of the extent to which our being has been permeated by the Holy Spirit.
Perhaps we won’t be too happy with what we find. But that’s no cause for despair. The simple fact of being honest with ourselves is a sign that the Spirit is at work within us.
And we should never forget that the Spirit too is loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle.
The Spirit cannot be less than that to which we are called to be.
So the Spirit always and forever – gently yet firmly – urges us on and leads us on, always enticing us forward wherever we find ourselves.