You might not understand Clover’s opening words in the audio recording if you didn’t hear our Youth Director Keon Abner teaching our kids “how to preach it” during the Family Meditation. Listen and learn!
We are five chapters into our study of the book of Galatians. 70 people have been studying Paul’s letter in small groups on Sunday mornings. For five weeks, you have been hearing this letter preached. At this point, we hope you’re starting to like and appreciate Paul!
But we still have questions for Paul that we should ask and unpack some of them. Here we go.
What was Paul’s key message in the letter to the Galatians?
Chapter 5:1: “For freedom Christ has set us free.” That truth was Paul’s passion. That was his Word to his beloved Galatians, and freedom continues to be his message to us today.
We are freed by God through Jesus Christ and his crucifixion; we are justified by faith through his life and death; we are set free from oppressive powers through his resurrection. Good behavior will not make us more acceptable in God’s sight. Paul argued vehemently that not even circumcision would earn the newly converted Gentiles righteousness; he made clear that they were freed from the law.
Freedom for WHAT, Paul?
Here it is: God’s people are free to live a new Law. The Law of Love. The law summed up in familiar words: ”Love your neighbor as yourself.” We are set free to love others because Jesus is our model of what it is to Love. He went to the depths of suffering on a cross so that we could be free to become people who practice neighborly love. Even love for ourselves. Love for others. Love for God with whole hearts, minds, and strength.
How can we Love the way Jesus loved?
We are able to love through the presence of the Spirit of Jesus in our lives. Paul was clear that we are being formed slowly into the image of God’s son. The transformation doesn’t happen from the outside in—not by what we are or aren’t doing. Our transformation and growth takes place from the inside out.
Our hearts are being molded into hearts tender toward God. There’s nothing we can DO to make this happen. We can’t muster up enough will power. Our transformations will come from the deep wellspring of the Spirit.
What we can do is open ourselves up more and more to the Spirit, and in so doing our actions, our thoughts, our impulses will keep aligning themselves with things of God.
As we open ourselves steadily to God’s grace, as we lean more and more into the ways of Love over self-destruction, we will see change in ourselves. We need to put ourselves in the way of the Spirit. We come to worship each week so that we put ourselves in the way of the Spirit.
Will we be free from struggling with the selfish desires and the temptations Paul listed?
Clearly, we will not stop being human as long as we live on this earth. This is a pretty hefty list of vices. It’s daunting, really, if we see this as a list of Don’ts. As humans, we will always be tempted to put ourselves in the center of our own world. The “works of the flesh” also translate as self-indulgence or selfish desires. Our culture’s religion is about concern for “me, myself and I.”
Paul claims that the manifestations of self-indulgences are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, and enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
These actions and manifestations are signs and symptoms of brokenness—within an individual or in a community.
Unhealthy behaviors reveal our soul’s clamor to fill St. Augustine’s God shaped void. We respond to those who are exhibiting these symptoms not with judgment but with gentleness, Paul says in chapter six.
Paul’s list of vices is exhaustive enough to include everybody.
I think that was his intent. Maybe you don’t struggle with sorcery or licentiousness, but Anger? Quarreling? Envy? No one can claim that he or she is righteous. We might be tempted to play, “Let’s see who is holier” game. That game becomes a competition to feel better about oneself–at least my sin is not as bad as yours. Of course, we get to decide which behaviors are more sinful. Where does that lead? To what end?
It leads to moral superiority or to feeling that you’re never good enough in God’s eyes. I’ve known discouraged people who thought that being Christian was all about trying to be good enough. They eventually threw in the spiritual towel.
When Christianity is reduced to a few formulaic professions of faith and a list of moral imperatives, a living and growing faith will not take root in human heart.
It’s when we can trust that our “righteousness” is not about us, that it’s not about what we do or don’t do, we can exhale and allow the spirit to do Her work in us.
Paul was not saying that the desires of the flesh are bad in and of themselves. God created desire and healthy desires are what give us life and vitality.
It’s when desires become disordered; when they begin to control us that we find ourselves out of step with the Spirit of Jesus.
A few examples:
A perfectly natural human desire is for meaningful relationships. But left unchecked true intimacy gets substituted with shallow, self centered encounters.
A natural desire is for enjoyment and contentment. But if unfulfilled, that desire might devolve into excessive use of pain-numbing substances like alcohol, drugs or food.
Most of us desire a safe home and enough material possessions that bring comfort; but left unchecked, our wealth and our “things” begin to control us. We become stingy, ungenerous, or greedy.
A natural desire is for community; left to our human tendencies, our desire can easily become disgruntled feelings toward people who grate on us like sand paper. We want to exchange true community with all its textured diversity for a homogenous one in which we are only with those who are like us.
Our church becomes like us. Our friends are like us. Our political party is filled with those who see the world like us. At its worse, our moral issues become God’s issues.
As we walk with the Spirit, the destructive behaviors toward self and community will gradually subside. When we walk in the Spirit, the actions that keep us from entering the kingdom of God in the present will be disempowered.
Christ did not die so that in the afterlife we would finally be free or be saved. He died so that we might experience freedom and salvation in the kingdom of God today, in this moment, in this life.
Said another way, we know we are walking with the spirit when our desire to know God becomes deeper and more expansive.
How will we know that the Spirit is actually doing Her work in us?
You’ll know a tree by its fruit, Jesus said.
Paul lists nine fruit of the spirit. The list begins at one bookend with Love and the other bookend is Self-discipline. In between love and self-discipline are joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness. Love wedded with self-discipline produces good character. There is no need for a law against such things.
The spiritual life is not about us. It’s all about grace. The spiritual life is about unfurling our fingers to receive what Jesus has done for us in his own suffering that revealed God’s deep love for us.
The spiritual life based in freedom is a life measured by a love that is see in responsibility toward neighbor.
The great 20th-century religious thinker Reinhold Niebuhr put it this way: “Basically love means . . .being responsible, responsible to our family, toward our civilization, and now by the pressures of history, toward the universe of humankind.”
To be free means we are not bound by the rules nor the walls erected by the world’s values. Paul made clear that in the church there is no division. We become a community of flesh and blood where old barriers of nation, class, race, gender and sexual orientation are overcome in the Communion at one Table.
The Table and meal today brings us all together in perfect freedom, in God’s community of imperfect people. And with us we bring the saints who live in our hearts where the spirit of Jesus dwells. Saints, I imagine, knew well that it’s all about grace, and not about us.
Hallelujah . . . It’s not about us!