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Spirit Living

Sermon - 6/27/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Galatians 5:13-25

We come at last this morning to the conclusion in our series on Paul's letter to the Galatians. Don't worry if you haven't been here for all of that, there's still plenty to take in this morning.

We have seen in the previous weeks how Paul refutes those who are advocating adherence to the law, or the Torah, and a Jewish way of life in this new Christian fellowship. And, it appears that there are those that are posting 10 commandments in those churches of Galatia, heaven forbid :). Let alone schools or the courtrooms. You know, who could be against God's law? It's kind of like Mom and Apple Pie -- of course, we're all for it. And yet Paul calls such the yoke of slavery from which Christ has set them free. What Paul calls 'from the bondage of the law'.

Once again for the sake of clarity, I must emphasize that whenever we read these texts, please, please, please, do not repeat the mistake of so many of our Christian siblings over the centuries of turning this into a polemical argument against Judaism. Paul intended nothing of the sort. First of all, no practicing Jew today would recognize Paul's portrayal of Judaism (or the law) in this text. Secondly, as I've noted repeatedly in this series, Paul is not in dispute with leaders of the Synagogue, he is in dispute with competing leaders within the church. And third, and this is the critical point, the problem is not the application of the law by Jews for Jews, but by Jewish Christians for Gentile converts into the faith.

And so the question, then, is for us, and for all of Christendom for the next 2000+ plus years: would we, or would we not, be beholden to the law?

And given that it has been Christians, not Jews, which have enforced their understanding of quote "God's law" in a myriad of ways upon masses of people, often in very oppressive ways (ever since the days of Constantine), it would seem that Paul's fundamental message that we are free in Christ -- not only from the bondage of sin but also from the bondage of law -- has been lost somewhere along the way. So whether we're talking about the Crusades of the 11th and 12th centuries, or the Inquisitions beginning in the 15th century, the Salem witch trials in Massachusetts in 1692, the opposition to the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, or women's suffrage in the beginning of the 20th, or the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the gay rights movement in the 1980s, the marriage equality movement today, whatever the case -- "God's law" has been used as a weapon against advocates of freedom, justice, and equality for the last 1000 years.

And the great irony, and tragedy, is that Paul saw it coming. This use of "God's law" to punish and oppress people, and he tried to establish within this new Christian tradition a different way of being in the world, based in the freedom that we have in Christ from such law.

And he describes what that new freedom looks like, with it's ethic of love as the most essential principle in place of the rule of law in the text for this morning from the fifth chapter of Galatians, verses 13 to 25:

For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. [As if this wasn't a long enough list :)] I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.

 

Now, Paul, of course, is not opposed to the 10 commandments, or anything else in the Torah. Rather his point is that if you live by the Spirit of Christ, and the law of love, the rest will come naturally.

And of course, there is a potential problem here that Paul clearly recognized, that some will not be able to handle this this new freedom, and will abuse it. And we see this clearly in his correspondence with the Corinthians. Where folks got a little carried away. Kind of like that story of the prodigal son, leaving home, no longer under those rules of his father's household, runs amok and engages in all kinds of things he should not. And so that happens in Corinth, and probably a few other places. So, Paul elaborates on what life in the Spirit looks like, and tells us first of all that it does not mean you can do whatever you want -- that's not what this new freedom means.

I had a friend in sixth grade who came up with this brilliant philosophy of life. He said, "If it feels good, do it". By the time he got into 10th grade, he was so strung out on drugs, he dropped out of school. You see, Paul is clear: freedom which is self-serving is not from God. Freedom in Christ means, first and foremost, to serve one another in love.

Do you remember that wonderful movie "Pay if Forward"? Kevin Spacey plays a seventh grade teacher, challenges his students to think of something that will change the world, and to put it into action. The character played by Haley Joel Osmond does just that, he comes up with this idea to 'pay it forward'. Instead of doing something nice for a friend or someone in return for a favor, to do it for someone completely different, who you don't owe anything to. And it has to be something hard, that's not easy, but something that really is significant. And then you tell the person "Don't pay it back, pay it forward -- do the same thing for three others".

And it's one of those simultaneously tragic, as well as a feel-good, movies that pulls on your heartstrings. And now there is a whole non-profit foundation called the "Pay if Forward Foundation" that provides grants to schools and youth organizations with their own 'pay it forward' projects. You can look it up at http://www.payitforwardfoundation.org/. Well, Pay it Forward captures the Spirit of Christ-like freedom, to serve others in love.

And Paul also tells us what is freedom doesn't mean: immorality, indecency, jealousy, all of those things that are contrary to this kind of freedom. And such are the results, Paul says, of human desire. And because we belong to Christ, such desires have been crucified with Him.

It's a great concept. It's a good argument. I think Paul probably has just overstated his case just a little. You know what I mean? Making a claim that is easier said than done. For Pete's sake (or Paul's sake), we're human, after all. It's what it means to be a human being, and becoming a Christian doesn't mean that we stop having all of those feelings and desires and temptations. Even Paul confesses, in Romans 7, that the good things that he would prefer to do he does not do, and the evil things that he doesn't want to do, he does! And that's a rather cryptic kind of statement that has led to all kinds of speculation of what is this dark secret that Paul is harboring, but I don't think we need to go there. I think more likely, Paul is speaking of basic human nature and the difficulty we all have of resisting temptations, both small and large.

So if you struggle with temptations, selfish desires, join the club. You know, it's part of being human. And most of the time, I think, hopefully, we're able to resist such. Being a Christian does not mean that we are exempt from that. What it does do is it gives us additional means, an incentive, to face those desires and resist those temptations in the name of the one who had to face his own temptation before he could go about the task of confronting the evil within the world.

So Paul is clear: spirit and flesh are two realities of human nature, and life that is ruled by the flesh is much more apt to get us in trouble than a life ruled by the Spirit. But I think, rather than think of these things as opposites, or opposed to each other, that we might think of them like a 'teeter-totter' -- that has to remain in balance. And you can't neglect the physical, or your body will go to pot, right? And you can't neglect the spiritual, either, or your spirit goes to pot, so to speak. But attending to both, the spiritual and the physical, leads to a healthier life, better choices, keeping things in balance.

So after giving us this list of human vices, Paul then speaks of the virtues of the Spirit. Or, as Paul calls it, the fruit of the Spirit. And it's quite interesting that fruit here is singular. Whereas Paul speaks of "gifts" of the Spirit elsewhere, here it's singular fruit. It's another way of saying there is only one Spirit in which we are united, and here are nine characteristics, or qualities, of that spirit.

And first on that list, not surprisingly, is love. And I think that is quite intentional on Paul's part. He notes earlier in this passage that love is the primary, most important sign of the spirit. And the greatest gift, remember in that great Chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, is love.

Love is the expression of true freedom. Not one virtue among many, but the sum of all. Without love, the other gifts are empty, shallow, even false. The irony of this love, is that we are called in Christ, in freedom, to do what? Paul says to be slaves. Not just servants (we often translate it as 'servants', you know, it's a nicer, softer version of the word) but the word really is to be slaves to one another in love.

But the one big difference of this slavery, from all other forms, is that it is mutual. There's no hierarchy of slave and master. The slavery of love is based on equality, where each is beholden to the other in a relationship of mutual love and respect. Which is why, I think, we should, if we choose to use the language of submission or be subject to (in Ephesians 5, in talking about our relationships), we should only speak of being submissive or being subject to one another or to God, and never solely of wives to husbands, as people often put it. Which I think is one of those bad ideas that John Shelby Spong calls the 'sin of Scripture'. And in fact, does not fairly represent Paul's concept of marriage, where there is this kind of equality in the relationship.

Now, second, and perhaps maybe a little surprising in Paul's list, is joy. The contemporary English version translates it as "happy", which I think is a terrible translation. I like the Contemporary English version in many ways, but I think that one is just terrible. Joy is so much more than happiness. We had a wonderful service for Jim Korth on Thursday. Died way too early at age 71, well-known in the community. The church was packed. There was joy in that service, the joy of what Jim had given to his family and the community. The joy of his faith. But there wasn't happiness. No one was happy about his death, but still we could express that joy. Joy comes from a much deeper place. It's long-lasting, whereas happiness is often temporary and superficial. Joy rises above the human condition, allows us to celebrate the goodness of life even in the midst of grief and pain. That's the kind of joy I think Paul is talking about. It's a gift of the Spirit.

The third characteristic of the Spirit is peace. And like joy, peace also comes from deep within. It has been said we cannot have peace in the world until we have peace within ourselves. And that certainly is true. That's not to say we shouldn't strive for peace in the world until we have peace in ourselves. Because we would never get very far, would we? But the two are deeply connected. And we neglect one for the sake of the other at our own peril.

A psychiatrist, whose name I have forgotten, wrote a book, the title of which I have also forgotten :). Age is a terrible thing, but it's better than the alternative :). In this book, he (may have been a she, I don't remember that either :), whoever it was, this world-renowned psychiatrist with a lot of authority, makes this correlation between child abuse and suicide bombers. Very fascinating. And that's why it stuck in my brain. Only those with deep self-loathing and hatred of their parents are the ones that become candidates for suicide bombers in their attempt to strike out against that childhood, against that abuse they suffered, and end up killing themselves and other innocent people along with them. It's fairly well established that Adolf Hitler suffered from the abusive parenting, an overbearing father. And that partly explains much of his hatred expressed at so many in the world.

Finding peace within ourselves is certainly one of the keys of peace with others. And one of the chief attributes of God's Spirit.

Paul goes on to name 6 more characteristics of the Spirit: patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I'm going to exercise a little of the latter and not go into each of those six. Praise the Lord :).

Some of these come naturally for us, and some are challenging. And we probably each have one or two or three in those lists that we struggle with. Let me suggest a wonderful spiritual discipline: take each of these 9, and on 9 successive days to focus on that quality. Maybe write it in your calendar, do something to lift it up, keep it in front of you, focus on one each of nine days. Make patience, or joy, or generosity, your theme for that day and work on it. Putting into practice each day. Do that for nine days, and if you come to the end of those 9 days and don't feel a greater sense of God's Spirit working within you, proceed directly to the hospital. Do not pass go, and go and check in and make sure you have a pulse, because something is not working.

See, Paul's message to us is because the spirit contains not some of these, but all 9 of these, the spirit by and of itself is sufficient to guide us as followers of Jesus.  And will do much more to insure right-living, than living by the law, any law, will ever do.

That's the spirit of Christ.  That's what it means to live by that spirit.  This spirit is our moral compass.  It's that which enables us to live in a culture with with values perhaps different from those of our faith, and to be able to do that successfully.

And perhaps, just perhaps, if we say it out loud, if we put it into practice, we can be such a spirit-led community in Christ.

So I would invite you this morning to do just that.  I would invite you to put each of those words in your own words and in your body, as you repeat after me:

We are a community of love. 

We are a community of joy.

We are a community of peace.

We are a community of patience.

We are a community of kindness.

We are a community of generosity.

We are a community of faithfulness.

We are a community of gentleness.

We are a community of self-control.

 

May it be.

 


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