The Rev. Sara Cosca-Warfield
Scripture: Galatians 5:1, 13-25
I want to talk about our bodies today. Because when we talk about a person's right to autonomy, about people’s rights to love who they love and, yes, have sex with who they have sex with, we’re really talking about bodies—from a theological standpoint.
I don’t know whether it’s an irony or a coincidence or an act of God that today’s scriptures from Paul’s letter to the Galatians were in the lectionary this week. Because the ways Christians have interpreted these words have defined the Church’s approach to pleasure since the very beginning. Paul names what he calls the desires of the flesh, and he’s actually pretty specific: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
But what Christian theologians throughout the ages have tended to do with Paul’s words is, well, use a sledgehammer to crack a nut. Instead of seeing the nuance in what Paul wrote, they’ve homed in on the word flesh to stand for sin, with the Spirit standing for goodness and faith. Our bodies, they’ve said, are irredeemable. The feelings and sensations we experience through our bodies are sinful. The best we can do in this material life is resist the desires and feelings of our bodies.
It started with the martyrs, those earliest Christians who craved death so that they could be free from this sinful bodily existence. And they were celebrated as practicing the highest form of faith. The Rule of Life given by St. Francis of Assisi asks followers to “hate their bodies with their vices and sins.”
Some Protestants have also taken this theology and run. They prohibit dancing, consuming alcohol, caffeine, or sugar, or wearing certain clothes—especially women. Some even ban music.
The theological idea that anchors these behaviors is that the body is inherently sinful, and the pleasure that we derive from our body is proof of that sinfulness.
But how can that be?
After all, God made this material world and called it good. God didn't have to give us beautiful sunsets or majestic mountains or infinite oceans. But God did because God wanted us to experience the sheer pleasure that beauty gives us.
God made our bodies and called them good. God didn't have to make our bodies feel pleasure—through the taste of delicious food or the scent of rain or the feeling of another person's skin against ours. But God did because God wanted us to experience the sheer pleasure that having a body gives us.
Why am I talking about this? Well, because the way we believe shapes the world we are part of.
When we narrowly interpret the FLESH as any bodily desire or craving, when we oversimplify those desires and cravings as inherently sinful, the only recourse is to deny any pleasure for pleasure's sake. For Christians, we have ESPECIALLY applied this to sexual desire or craving, which makes procreative sex the only "acceptable" way to act on those desires and cravings.
This makes any heterosexual sex that is not procreative sinful, which then makes abortion unthinkable.
This makes any homosexual sex sinful.
This makes us ashamed of our sexual desires.
The Supreme Court ruling this week is deeply informed by this theology which has embedded itself deeply in American culture. We see this not only in our preciousness around sex—some of you might be shocked that I’m even saying the word sex in a sermon—but also in its opposite reaction: careless portrayals and shallow celebrations of sex wherever we look. Sex is either utterly controlled or utterly out of control. Neither approach honors these bodies God gave us.
Experiencing bodily pleasure is not sinful. And it’s not just pleasure, it’s also those other things Paul named that we experience with our body: jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness.
We feel jealous sometimes. That’s not inherently sinful. We feel anger sometimes and get into fights. That’s not inherently sinful. Sometimes conflict is what we need to get things out in the open. We even drink too much from time to time. That’s not inherently sinful.
Paul writes, “For you were called to freedom; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
There it is again. Even Paul used Jesus’ words, the Torah’s words, as the lens through which he interpreted his faith. And he’s calling us to do the same.
What’s sinful, he says, is self-indulgence over loving our neighbor. Letting our pleasures, our cravings, our fleeting feelings—the good ones and the hard ones—dictate our decisions and the direction of our lives rather than loving our neighbors. Controlling others rather than loving others.
And what we’re seeing right now is a group of people more committed to controlling how people use their bodies than they are to loving their neighbor. They are more committed to condemning the "flesh" than embodying the fruit of the Spirit.
“The fruit of the Spirit,” Paul writes, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” What do all these things have in common? They require a body to experience. They require relationship with this material world to experience. We can’t love without a person or object to love. We can’t experience joy without interacting with someone or something in this world. Patience, kindness, generosity—they all require relationship.
Our bodies are good because God made them. Our bodies are powerful because only through them can we love our neighbors as ourselves.
Our bodies matter. Where we put our bodies matters. How we use the gifts and skills and cravings of our bodies matters. Always, but especially now.
And therein lies the hope. Every interaction we have with other people is an opportunity to build the kind of world we want. Every way we emBODY the fruit of the Spirit creates the Kingdom of God right here, at least for a moment. And the more moments we string together, the more we come together to create those moments, the more present God’s kingdom is right here and right now. Let’s remember that today and in the days to come.