Below is the manuscript for my June 30, 2019 sermon – based on Galatians 5:1, 13-25.
We sometimes allow ourselves to hold on to the false notion that the “early church” was pristine and that all its theology was settled. The impulse this false notion leads to, especially among low-church folks like us Baptists, is that if we could only get back to the early church all of our problems would go away. But it’s a lie. The early church was messy, it kept expanding the comfortable boundaries of the post-resurrection community, and that led to a frequent “grinding of the gears” as Jesus’ disciples tried to match the reality they were living with what their master had taught and their own assumptions. The letter to the Galatians is, in fact, one long grinding gear between Paul and another popular party in the early church – the folks we call the Judaizers. These folks insisted that whoever really wanted to be Jesus’ disciple needed to become Jewish – that meant males needed to be circumcised. Paul would have none of it – if Jesus called people as Gentiles, then they should be allowed to remain Gentiles. We don’t think of it, because the Church ended up going another direction 1, but there was a time when the Church really could have remained a fully Jewish sect, and all new believers would have to become Jewish to belong. And if you read this and wonder at why this segment of disciples was so terrible, ponder all the things we present-day Christians like to elevate to “line in the sand” aspects of faith. We’re no different, which is kind of the point of this sermon.
In the opening twelve verses of Galatians 5 Paul explains why submitting to the assertion that Gentile converts needed to become Jewish in order to be in Christ was a bad thing. To Paul, this desire to compel people toward outward holiness ends up having the same impact as “the world’s” immorality – it ends up feeding the desires of the flesh. It doesn’t matter if the flesh’s desire is for inclusion, as in the case of those who submitted to the circumcision group in Galatia, or for the pursuit of personal pleasure. The desire of the “flesh,” to grasp what we want for ourselves by our own power. Paul rejected this pursuit out of hand, summarizing the “entirely of the Law” with one commandment in verse 14, “Love your neighbor as yourself 2.”
Now, even when we are striving to love our neighbor as ourselves, disagreements do happen. Paul even uses visceral language to describe this inevitability in verse 15 – biting and devouring, literally exhorting the Galatians to not commit metaphorical 3 cannibalism. So it’s not like loving our neighbor is a magical cure all for the divides we experience as believers. We’re still people, after all, and people are messy.
At the same time loving one’s neighbor is a call which highlights the opposition between the spirit’s desires and the desires of the flesh. The flesh is concerned with the things like power, pleasure, and gatekeeping. The spirit is concerned with lifting up “the other” and seeing them made whole. These two desires, Paul argues in verse 17, cannot be blended. While binary thinking is not something I’m typically pleased with, in Paul’s context it made sense – you could not be a disciple of Jesus Christ and succumb to the very things Jesus came to overcome. That just doesn’t work. If Jesus came to free people from the powers of sin and death, “the flesh,” we can’t be his disciples and do “fleshy” things. But how do we know we’re following Jesus, the way of the spirit, and not the “flesh?”
Paul points out in verses 19 – 21 that the “works of the flesh” are “evident.” And, while it would be easy to say this list simply calls out the excesses of the Roman world, it’s telling that many of the listed behaviors would have fit perfectly well in a Jewish context – things like enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, rivalries, divisions, and dissensions were were not limited to the Romans. In fact, they list things Saul had done in defense of his own Jewish tradition before Jesus met him on the road to Damascus. The point of the list doesn’t seem to be about highlighting who “they” are, which is how it’s often used. Rather, it’s set up in a way so that everyone who reads it will recognize themselves. Something in this list is meant to stick out to us as recognizable when we look in the mirror. Why? So that we’ll be encouraged to submit to the guidance of the Spirit and go another direction. And that pivot isn’t instantaneous. We’re more like toddlers 4. It takes us a few shuffling steps to change direction, and more often than not we often stop mid-turn and shuffle back a few steps in the way we were going. Being “fleshy,” for both moral and immoral purposes, is shiny – it draws our attention. So how do we know we’ve made a good turn?
In verses 22 – 23a Paul gives a counter list of “fruit” which comes from the Spirit. These are not “works,” because works is the realm of the flesh – again, that’s what we can grasp by our own power. Rather they are displayed as a natural out-growth of a life lived in opposition to the pursuits of power, pleasure, and gate-keeping. Letting those desires go opens one up to genuine love of the other. No longer bound by selfish concerns and tribal idiosyncrasies, people develop fruit which undermines the flesh not through aggressive pursuit of victory, but through embrace and genuine compassion. If people are demonstrating this fruit 5 in their lives, what could the Law possibly add or detract from them?
This is why submitting to the desires of the Flesh, even when it’s claimed that doing so is in the name of pursuing holiness, cannot work. As soon as we gratify the flesh we aren’t really free – and when we’re not free we end up locking ourselves off from others, instead of opening us up to them.
In a time when we are watching nations, religious institutions, and individual churches balkanized into endless – to use Paul’s words – “biting and devouring” what a wonderful gift could it be for people to see Jesus’ disciples live out the fruit of the spirit. Yes, we’ll trip and fall like toddlers as we learn to bow to the Spirit’s calling. But if people saw a mass of Christians really striving to be like Jesus, and not just another group of “fleshy” people, that could change a great deal.
- We would say it was by the Spirit’s guidance. ↩
- Though, interestingly enough, he leaves out Jesus’ other summary command of the Law – love the LORD your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength – out of his discussion. There are two things which might have caused this omission. First, it’s accepted as settled, so therefor Paul feels no need to bring it up. Second, Even Jesus’ own teaching on the matter in Matthew 22:39 and Mark 12:13 lumps the two greatest commandments together. ↩
- Specifically, a metaphor of one’s spiritual fellowship. ↩
- I’m not sure where I got that analogy from. It couldn’t spring from the presence of a toddler in my house, could it? ↩
- And it is a whole, not a list of “fruits.” ↩