Galatians 5:1, 13-25
+In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Look, up in the sky. It’s a bird. It’s a plane. No, it’s Jesus!” Superman’s back, and more than ever he’s looking like Jesus. Hollywood has cooked up a new version of Superman. At long last, Hollywood has realized that there’s a huge, under exploited market for Christian-themed entertainment. I wonder what Jesus makes of it. I understand the promoters of the new Superman flick have even set up a website with sermon notes about the film, and they’ve successfully manipulated me – I’m talking about it even though I’ve not seen it.
Possibly Hollywood is slightly warming to Christianity; management looking for some bucks. In the spring, I saw the movie 42, the story about Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s color barrier, and it surprised me with how positively it portrayed faith and the church, and it also surprised me that it gave the impression that the biggest hero of the story was not Jackie, but Branch Rickey, a white guy, management, the man.
Superman has always had Messiah overtones, a baby sent to save the world, and the new version may be an improvement upon my generation’s, the ‘70s version. Back then I rooted for Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor, the villain, and Ned Beatty, his bumbling henchman; they were far more appealing, far funnier, far more human, than the painfully earnest, two-dimensional, goody two-shoes Superman, whose only charming line was when he used his x-ray vision to tell Lois Lane the color of her underwear.
Moral strength and rectitude is so often portrayed as boring, annoying, and un-heroic. It doesn’t have to be. The bible proves that, and perhaps that’s why the new movie emphasizes Superman’s Messiah associations. One reviewer called it “a Bible study in a cape.”[i]
Many of the similarities between Jesus and Superman are on the surface because when you dig into Jesus there’s flesh and blood like you and me, he’s human, and when you dig into Superman there’s an alien, a Kryptonian. There’s no incarnation, no affirmation of human goodness, human beauty, human truth.
Superman and Jesus offer two much different visions of greatness. A review pointed out:
Superman can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Jesus made the lame walk. Superman can see through people’s skin. Jesus helped the blind to see. Superman saves the world through his muscle and might and derring-do. Jesus, according to Christianity, saved it in the most unexpected way possible. He was no CGI superhero, but a man on a cross.[ii]
And here’s what’s even bigger. The work of Jesus continues in you and me, through you and me, with you and me. The biggest problem with superheroes is that they swoop in and do it by themselves; they mostly have superficial relationships with other people. They don’t have disciples. When there’s trouble, they slip out of their mild-mannered disguise and into their tights and fix the problem.
They create dependency; there’s no mutuality, no giving and receiving – just them acting to rescue us from the consequences of our behavior. They preserve the status quo rather than, like Jesus, help us transform. They don’t help us adopt better behaviors, better attitudes, better values; they don’t help us grow and develop; they don’t help us collaborate and work together; they don’t help us build relationships and find meaning.
It’s the cult of celebrity – where our culture is now, trying to live vicariously through famous people rather than recognizing the opportunity for wholeness and meaning is in the people around you here and now. Superman plays into the great man theory, that history is all about heroes who assert their will and make history. We just wait around for someone to emerge to save us from ourselves, and we look on adoringly. Jesus asked us to value everyone, the poor and neglected perhaps even more than the mighty and esteemed and willful. And Jesus empowers everyone.
Yet there’s something about Superman that appeals to our very best selves, that may blind us from all of his flaws. He has all these amazing powers, but he doesn’t use them to gratify himself – not ever. He’s trustworthy; he’s not a user; he’s as strong morally as physically; he dedicates his gifts for the common good, for truth and justice, not for his self-interest. He told Lois the color of her underwear because she asked, not because he was checking her out. What’s super about Superman is his lack of selfishness.
Paul’s making the same point to the Galatians. He’s writing to them because some Jewish Christian missionaries from Jerusalem are trying to get them to follow the law, to get circumcised. The conflict among the Galatian Christians had become intense: some siding with Paul, others with the circumcisers. Paul’s language “if you bite and devour one another” suggests the fighting had become quite savage, like wild animals.
We see that from the very beginning of Christianity it’s been hard to keep the main thing the main thing. So quickly, so easily, our spiritual lives can start majoring in the minors. For Paul, the main thing is: love God by loving your neighbor. The controversy about circumcision had distracted the Galatians from this.
Paul’s basic message to the Galatians: “You live in the Spirit, not the law. So don’t worry about circumcision. You are free from the law. But your freedom does not mean you do whatever you want to do. Your freedom is not license to self-indulgence. Life in the Spirit, freedom, means you don’t follow your selfish compulsions. Freedom strengthens when you serve each other in love.”
Today Paul goes on about not gratifying the flesh, not following the flesh. Let’s be clear what he means, because Paul is often misunderstood as implying that flesh and the body are bad, wicked, unholy, as somehow opposed to the Spirit and the spiritual life. That’s not Paul’s meaning.
Possibly more than any major religion, Christianity celebrates our bodies, human flesh, and says that we experience God, in them and through them and with them; that our physical and material experiences can nurture our spiritual lives. The Holy Spirit and the spiritual are not opposed to the human body or human flesh; the spiritual and the material form a unity.
When Paul talks about “flesh” and “works of the flesh,” he means any kind of existence not centered in God. Flesh is self-centered living. Spirit is God centered living, living for the benefit of others. For Paul, sins of the flesh are not only fornication, carousing, and drunkenness, but religious sins like idolatry and sorcery and social sins like selfishness, anger, dissension, factionalism, envy, jealousy. Living according to the flesh is living opposed to the Spirit.
The Spirit is what binds us together, promotes life and growth, and builds community. For Paul, the flesh is anything other than Spirit life. The law, accepting circumcision, is relying on something other than Christ; it is a work of the flesh, causing separation and division by retaining hierarchy. Remember from last week Paul’s vision of the church as embodying unity and equality: Jew and Gentile equal, slave and free equal, men and women equal.
Unity and equality, life in the Spirit does allow for conflict and disagreement and pain and disappointment. Those are necessary parts of drawing close to other people, of binding together, of being intimate. It happens whenever we try to become part of something bigger than ourselves. It happens when our relationships deepen and become more honest, more real.
In the section just prior to today’s reading, Paul in a rage against his rival missionaries, the circumcisers, suggested: “Why don’t those troublemakers, obsessed as they are about cutting, go all the way and castrate themselves?”
And then just a few sentences later, as we heard, Paul is talking about the fruits of the Spirit: serenity, love, compassion, joy, peace, gentleness, self-control – that this needs to characterize us. I love it – telling them to cut theirs off and at the same time preaching gentleness and self-control. I find it so human, meaning so much a part of my own experience, of my own inner conflict between flesh and Spirit, between what is opposed to God and what is God. Both parts are in each of us.
Paul knows how difficult it all is, that none of us is Superman – that life in the Spirit doesn’t just happen, that we lose it at times, that we mess up, that we succumb to the way opposed to God, but ultimately we live in the Spirit, that’s what we are, that’s who we are, that’s what guides our lives. That’s why we come to church Sunday by Sunday, to help lead us back to life in the Spirit. That’s Good News. Thanks be to God.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
[i] Paul Asay, “’Man of Steel,’ Man of God?,” The Washington Post, June 18, 2013.