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by the Spirit"
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
Many of us were born into the church. We have always known Christianity. Others of us probably at one time had no particular religious inclination before we were baptized and joined a church.
But the folks for whom the Bible was originally written were hearing and reading the words in an entirely different context. Jesus was a Jew, his disciples were Jews, and almost everyone to whom he spoke was a Jew.
Even when Paul wrote to the Gentiles, he was often writing within a Jewish context. For example, there were Jews who believed that the only way Gentiles could become Christians was for them to become Jews first.
So the context for much of the writings in the gospels and Paul’s letters is a context of transition, a movement from the Jewish faith to a faith in Jesus Christ.
In the opening to the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, Paul writes, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
And the yoke of slavery that Paul is talking about is specifically circumcision. It was a Jewish practice buried deep within the Jewish law. And some Jews thought that Gentiles should follow that practice before they could become Christian.
But for Paul, the whole point of Christ’s message was that we are no longer subject to the law and all of its trappings. And the Jews who would have Gentiles circumcised have missed the point. They are still trapped in the law.
For Paul, the law to which the Jews submitted was slavery, and Christ had set them free from such law.
Now, since most of us have never been subject to Jewish law, we may find this difficult to identify with. But Paul makes a strong statement regarding what freedom in Christ is all about.
“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.”
And we may wonder, “So what’s the point? How can I be freed to be a slave?”
Well, ultimately, there is no such thing as absolute freedom. We impose limits on ourselves. We take upon ourselves responsibilities and obligations. And I think that Paul might be saying that if we have the ability to select our own guidelines for how we use our freedom, let us use it in love for one another.
If we do that, we are not chained to the demands of others, but we are voluntarily responding to the needs of others.
Paul continues, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
By the way, that’s Leviticus 19:18. It sums up the whole Jewish law. I think it sums up Jesus’ teachings as well. There are a lot of so-called Christians who think that we should have the ten commandments posted in all school classrooms and in public places.
I think that this seven-word commandment would be even better. And I can’t think of any religious group that would refute it. Most human non-religious groups would find it a good idea.
The only opposition you might find would be from those for whom money is more important than people. Yes, there are such people. Paul knew that there were such people. Which caused him to caution his readers:
“If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”
But this is not just theoretical speculation. Paul was writing to a specific audience, and the Galatian churches were having problems at that time. There was internal rivalry and dissension, competitiveness and envy.
One scholar has interpreted the words “bite and devour” as conveying the image of a vicious dogfight, in which the dogs are snapping at one another with bared fangs.
And consider the contrast between these two verses that Paul writes. Paul makes no promises for loving your neighbor, although he could have. Jesus’ parables suggest that loving our neighbor carries rewards for us. But Paul does suggest that if you set out to do evil to your neighbor, you may succeed in destroying yourself.
So what is Paul’s advice?
“Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”
Now, it would appear that he is giving us two pieces of advice here, that he is telling us what to do, and that he is telling us what NOT to do. But different translations and different Biblical scholars take different slants on this. Another interpretation is that instead of being given two instructions, we are being given only one: to live by the Spirit. And if we do that, in our resulting behavior we will not be gratifying our desires.
In other words, if we live by the Spirit, sin will take care of itself. If we can become consumed with loving our neighbor, we won’t have the time and space in our lives for fear and hatred.
The next verse is explanatory:
“For 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.”
And I suppose that what this all boils down to is the battle between good and evil, between right and wrong. The Spirit seeks to prevent us from doing what is evil; the flesh seeks to prevent us from doing what is good.
Somewhere in here we’re going to wonder where conscience fits it. You’re all familiar with that old saw, “Let your conscience be your guide.” Does that work? What IS our conscience? Or others speak of intuition. Is that the same thing? Do we let our intuition lead us in our decision-making?
Now, I don’t know if your parents raised you the way my parents raised me, but have you ever heard, or used, the reprimand: “You know better than that!”
So how do we deal with this Spirit-flesh controversy? Paul tells us,
“But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”
Again, remember, he’s aiming this message at the Jews and those who may somehow feel responsible to the Jewish law. And he’s telling them, there is a new system. You are no longer accountable to the old system.
If you keep up with national and international events, you should know that there was an idea that evolved during the nineties called “the new economy.” And some folks came to believe that with the new economy, they could throw out everything they knew about the old economy and make up their rules as they went along.
Unfortunately for many, they threw out some--maybe many--of the wrong rules. The result was that an enormous number of businesses failed and tens of thousands of people lost their jobs.
Does this mean that there is no “new” economy? No. Many aspects of our socio-economic lives HAVE changed significantly. But, on the other hand, the deep truths change hardly at all.
So what are they? Well, Paul tries to set up a catalogue for us.
“Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
Don’t you feel uncomfortable just HEARING those words? Hasn’t Paul catalogued a list of the ugliness of life? But when Paul adds “and things like these,” how do you interpret it? What are “things like these”?
Personally, I think that at least half of the items on Paul’s list are those things which detract from positive human relationships. “Things like these” are things that get in the way of our loving our neighbors.
I think that we could all make up our own lists of “things like these.” And indeed, it would probably be a good idea if we did. And beyond that, I think it would be good if we could identify the principles in our lives that determine what these things are.
I suppose that each of us has his or her own interpretation of what original sin is. I have argued that it is greed. I have heard another clergyperson suggest that it is idolatry. Still another sees self-centeredness as the original sin.
But whatever our label, our category, for original sin, it is likely to involve what Paul refers to as “things like these.” It is likely to involve the works of the flesh.
And then Paul says, “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Now, Paul never heard Jesus’ teaching or his parables. And this letter was written before the gospels were written. So he did not have the benefit of knowing what Jesus had to say about inheriting the kingdom.
But we are more fortunate. We DO have his teachings. And from what we know of them, it makes perfect sense for Paul to say to us, “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
For it was Jesus who told us, in the fifteenth chapter of the gospel according to Matthew, that “out of the heart come evil intentions, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person....”
But Paul continues.
“By contrast, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
Do you remember, with respect to that other list, that I asked you, “Don’t you feel uncomfortable just hearing those words?” Well, with respect to this list, doesn’t it make you feel really good just to hear these words? They should put a smile on your face!
Or at least, contentment in your heart.
The works of the flesh and the fruit of the spirit: what a contrast.
Now, Paul offers different lists of gifts and workings of the Spirit in his letter to the Romans and in his first letter to the Corinthians; but here in his letter to the Galatians, his emphasis is on the peaceful and community-building character of the Spirit’s work.
He is not giving them a to-do list for the development of specific qualities, but is rather providing a description, painting a picture, of the harvest of the fruit of the Spirit.
“And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
Here, Paul is likely referring to baptism. By choosing to be baptized, believers willingly put to death their old identity. They actively identify with Christ’s crucifixion and death. In this way they crucify the Flesh, putting its desires behind them.
“If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
And we hear an echo of the sixteenth verse; except that in this case we hear a call to action. Paul is assuming that he and his readers share in the experience of new life brought by the Spirit, that the Spirit is the power that gives life. And in the New International Version we read, “let us keep in step with the Spirit.”
But there is another dimension to this verse for the contemporary Christian. It is easy to affirm that we live by the Spirit. Indeed we do it whenever we affirm the Trinity in the Apostles Creed. Implicitly, we do it whenever we affirm that we are Christians.
But what does it mean to move beyond that plane? What does it mean to actively be guided by the Spirit in our lives?
Is our response to the Spirit a passive recognition of its presence in our lives, or is it an active commitment to bring the fruit of the Spirit into the lives of all we touch?
“Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
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