Anglican Church of Canada
June 30th, 2019 Proper 13
So I thought I would spend a little time with our old friend St. Paul this morning, because it has been a while, and because he is in fine form this morning, in the passage we just heard from Galatians.
I think what first caught my attention in this passage is the verses about the fruit of the Spirit. I think I had to memorise them in Sunday School long ago – though I can’t get them all straight today – and I half remember the little ditty we had to sing: Oh, the fruits of the Spirit are love, joy, peace . . . No, I can’t get it.
The fruit of the Spirit are love, joy, peace,
patience, kindness, generosity,
faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Quite a list. It just about sums it up, doesn’t it? Paul is describing his sense of what our true selves as followers of Jesus should look like. It may remind us of other passages: the well known hymn to love in 1 Corinthians 13, for example, or other passages in other letters. There may even be a couple of other words we might like to add to this list: compassion (though perhaps that is the same as kindness), or gratitude, courage and hope. These lists name kind of people we would like to be, they set forth our ideals, even if we don’t live up to them.
There is a particular urgency to the way Paul talks about this in Galatians, because here he contrasts the fruit of the Spirit with another list: the works of the flesh. And what an ugly line-up it is:
fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery,
enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,
drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.
These are the things we are to avoid, the things we have learned to hate.
It all seems pretty straightforward, doesn’t it? We have a good list and a bad list, the things to do and the things to avoid, the sheep and the goats. It reminds me of those pictures of the Last Judgement they carved over the doors of medieval cathedrals, with the saved being led up into heaven – because they practised kindness and generosity and self-control and the rest – and the damned being dragged down to the eternal fires by leering demons of fornication and envy and hatred and drunkenness. The only problem is, one can’t shake the suspicion that the artists had a lot more fun carving the demons than the angels!
So it seems straightforward, this passage, it’s about choosing the good over the evil. And it is my task as preacher to exhort you to make the good choice, by denouncing the works of the flesh, maybe by drawing out their ugliness and the dire consequences of yielding to temptation, and by urging the commandments of God to choose the right path.
The trouble is, it doesn’t work. That isn’t telling you anything new – you already know perfectly well that you should choose love and kindness and peace and self-control, and reject licentiousness and strife and quarrels and carousing. But when we start being honest, when we move from the good Christians we pretend to be and take a closer look at that list of the works of the flesh, I think we will all find ourselves in there somewhere. Not all of us practise all the vices; I’m not suggesting that everyone is into fornication and drunkenness. And I’m guessing that most of us probably have our inclination to sorcery under control, so that’s good. But enmity, strife, quarrels, jealousy, envy. . . Even here in the church, even as we try to be nice to one another, we find ourselves so easily offended, or so easily offending someone else, maybe without meaning to. So it just isn’t working. Maybe I should spend more time in the pulpit berating you for your strife and arguments – but who am I to do that, who knows the same tendencies so well in myself?
These are what Paul calls the works of the flesh. A quick aside: when we hear a phrase like “sins of the flesh” we tend to think he is talking about sex, because that is what the church has been obsessed with in recent centuries. As though Paul was saying that our physical, sexual nature is in itself sinful. He is not. When Paul talks about the flesh, he means something different. He is talking about the basic selfishness at the heart of human nature, the old Adam, if you will. When we act selfishly around sex, looking only to indulge our own needs, then that is a work of the flesh; but so is acting selfishly in any other aspect of our lives: quarrelling, jealousy, envy, behaviour that ignores or belittles other people, these are all works of the flesh.
So why doesn’t it work just to moralize about making the right choices – and if that doesn’t work, to moralize even harder? The problem is, I think, that the works of the flesh come from a place deeper than our conscious decision. When we find ourselves doing or saying something we are ashamed of, it usually isn’t because we have decided to act like a jerk. Usually it just seems to happen; it emerges from our deepest anxieties and self-doubt, from ancient hurts we bear within us, from the fear of being unloved. And so we react when we feel disrespected, we take offence – and having taken offence, we quickly find ourselves giving offence.
“Thou shalt not” just isn’t a very effective strategy against those kind of reactions. Tell someone they aren’t allowed to do something, it as often as not has the effect of making them want to do it. There is a part of our souls that just wants to rebel against rules. Which is why rules and commandments, “thou shalt nots”, just aren’t a very effective way of changing the way we live.
Paul knew this. One of the main thrusts of his theology was to attack the idea that we can be saved by the Law, that we can be saved by just trying hard to follow the commandments. That is what he is arguing in Galatians: the whole letter is a rather furious response to other missionaries who have come and convinced the very Gentile Galatians that in order to be save they must pretend to be Jews and adopt Jewish religious laws. It doesn’t work, he tells them. This coming from a former Pharisee who was quite successful at following all the commandments, until he got a wake-up call one day on the road to Damascus and realized that all that righteousness had turned him into a cold, hateful fanatic.
Christ has come to set us free from all that works righteousness, that vain attempt to justify ourselves by following the rules. It is faith that changes us and makes us holy: we fall in love with Jesus, and it is through loving him, through loving God, that we slowly become more like him. We are transformed not from the outside, by the authority of rules, but from the inside out. That is the core of the gospel that Paul preaches.
It is a gospel of freedom, and that is the great theme of Galatians. “For freedom Christ has set us free” is how our passage begins; and what a great slogan that is. There is so much packed into it.
We live in a world that is downright obsessed with freedom. It is our highest aspiration: everybody wants to be free, that is the goal of human life. Free to do whatever we want, on our own terms. Since the Sixties at least our society has been working feverishly to cast off all the traditional authorities that would hinder our freedom.
The problem is that we don’t really ever ask what freedom is for. Freedom is an absolute good in itself, we don’t ask any other questions about it. Without any other purpose, freedom becomes about ourselves; it is about defending my right to do and say whatever I want, on my own terms. And so we end up not really free, but the slaves of our every whim. When we find ourselves, as Paul calls it, caught up in the works of the flesh, of gratifying our desires, we quickly find it to be a narrow, oppressive, tawdry little world we are trapped in.
Paul suggests that freedom has a purpose: for freedom Christ has set us free. Until we discover that purpose, we are not really free. That purpose is to live fully as the free people we were created to be: as people called into community, as people made to love, as people who are only truly free when we are serving and caring for one another.
We don’t get there by obeying the rules. We don’t get there on our own power, just by willing ourselves to be better people. We aren’t strong enough to get there by willpower alone, a truth that every AA member knows too well. We get there by opening ourselves to the Spirit, by allowing the Spirit of Christ to work inside of us and change us. And this Spirit comes to us through faith, through living out a relationship of love with Jesus and with God. It comes by seeking Jesus out, in prayer, by reading Scripture, by seeking God in the beautiful things of life, by gathering here to meet Christ in Scriptures and in the sacrament, by looking to encounter Christ in one another, and especially in caring for the poor and vulnerable.
The more time we spend with Christ, with his gentleness and love and truthfulness, his generosity and compassion and self-giving, the more his Spirit will settle inside of us and slowly begin to remake us in his image.
That’s the thing about fruit: no one can make a peach or a raspberry in a lab. They have to grow. We can help them grow, we can cultivate them and tend them. But we can’t make them grow. The same with the fruits of the Spirit: we can only tend and water our souls, and then let the fruit come naturally.
I think you know all this. I think that those of us who gather here Sunday for Sunday, those of us who are left, are here because we have been touched by Jesus, and we have had some experience of how spending time with him, inviting the Holy Spirit in, can begin to change us. It is just that we forget, don’t we, and the weeds, the works of the flesh, the quarrels and enmity and jealousy start to spring up. And so we have to come back to remember our love of Jesus, to let his Spirit burn in our hearts, to tend that Spirit so that it will bear fruit in our outward lives.