Sunday 30 June 2019

The works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit

Address given at St Mary's Nenagh on Sunday 30th June 2019, the 2nd after Trinity.

‘For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ So says St Paul in today’s reading from his epistle to the Galatians 5:1,13-25.
But am I truly free? Are you truly free? I’m pretty sure I have never really been free to do exactly what I want.

I remember an evening at this time of year playing with my brother, when I must have been around 6 and Tom 2 years younger. My mother called us into the house to go to bed – but I didn’t want to. I was enjoying myself, and it was still light. I ran away across the fields with Tom in tow, and she hitched up her skirts and chased after us. Tom suffered a nasty wound when he snagged himself on a barbed wire fence as we went through a gap. When she caught up with us, she slapped me roundly on the leg for being such a naughty boy and causing my brother to be hurt - the only time I ever remember her doing so. And she was right – I needed to learn the lesson that there would be consequences if I did exactly what I wanted, regardless of others.

And even now, as an old man, I am still not totally free. If I break the criminal law of the land - if I drive dangerously - and I’m caught, I will be tried and punished for it.

Today I want to explore what Paul’s talk of freedom and slavery is all about.

It was Paul’s theological conviction that Christ by God’s grace sets us free from the Jewish Law to follow a more important law, the law of love, which is to love God and to love our neighbour as ourself.
The Jewish Law is called the ‘halakah’ in Hebrew, meaning ‘the way to behave’. Jesus famously summarised it as ‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind; and you shall love your neighbour as yourself’ (Matthew 22:35-40) – though he was not the first to do so.

Since the time of Moses, the Jewish Law had become a vast compendium of commands and prohibitions, drawn from the Torah, the first 5 books of our OT. It went far beyond the 10 commandments – it prescribed how to apply 613 ‘mitzvot’ or commandments to different circumstances. Pious Jews of the time, especially the Pharisees of whom Paul was one, did their very best to follow every jot and tittle, since they believed this is what God required of them.

Much of this was good - it encouraged people to good, ethical behaviour. But attempts to follow it slavishly resulted in behaviour which was perversely damaging – contrary to the law of love. Remember how Jewish religious leaders attacked Jesus for healing on the Sabbath, when work was prohibited. This attitude led Jesus to declare ‘The Sabbath is made for man, not man for the Sabbath’ (Mark 2:28). Jesus respected the spirit of the Jewish Law, and he said he came to fulfil it, but he tempered it with the law of love.

Paul reminds the Galatians that even if Christ calls them to freedom, they must not think that they are free to do absolutely anything. They are still bound by Christ’s law of love. ‘Do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence’, he says, ‘but through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”.’

Paul continues, ‘If … you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another’. Here he is restating that ancient ethical maxim, the Golden Rule, “Do as you would be done by”. This is not a specifically Christian idea, but one found in almost all religions and secular philosophies, in ancient times as much as today. It is after all the basis for peaceable coexistence and human flourishing in any society.

But Paul goes further than this: ‘Live by the Spirit’, he says, ‘do not gratify the desires of the flesh’.
For Paul it is the Spirit, sent by God at Jesus’s request, which enables us as Christians to live up to the law of love. He understands the tensions in our human nature between our baser instincts – this is what he means by ‘the flesh’ – and our better natures which strive for all that is right and good and true.

The works of the flesh are the consequences of giving in to our baser instincts. Paul gives us a long list, including not only sexual unfaithfulness, but also hatred and jealousy, anger and envy - all of them behaviours which damage relationships with other people. They are behaviours contrary to the law of love. They cut people off from God’s kingdom.

I fear we see such behaviours all too often from fundamentalist religious leaders, and populist political leaders – and their bad examples spread like an epidemic among their followers. We must resist infection by them.

Paul contrasts these behaviours with the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace – patience, kindness, generosity – faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These are the qualities that the Spirit calls us to display as Christians who follow Christ’s law of love.

Each one of us is like the soldier in the trenches in Woodbine Willie’s 1st World War poem.
I'm a man, and man's a mixture,
Right up from 'is very birth,
There's part of 'im comes from 'eaven,
And part of 'im comes from earth.
There's summat as draws 'im upwards,
And summat as drags 'im duhn,
And the consekence is that 'e wobbles
Twixt muck and a golden crown.

We wobble. We wobble because all too often our baser instincts overcome our best intentions. But God offers us forgiveness if we respond to Christ, repent and try to do better.

And by God’s grace we have received the Spirit which Christ asked the Father to send us. If we live by that Spirit, if we allow ourselves to be guided by that Spirit, we will not be slaves to our baser instincts, we will not be down in the muck. We will be free, free to live by Christ’s law of love, free to enjoy the fruits of the Spirit, and free to inherit a golden crown in the kingdom of God.

I shall finish in prayer with a Collect of the Word
O God, the light of the minds that know you,
the life of the souls that love you,
the strength of the thoughts that see you:
help us to know you that we may truly love you,
and so to love you that we may fully serve you,
whose service is perfect freedom,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

Sunday 9 June 2019

The living church

Address given in St Mary's, Nenagh and Killodiernan churches on Sunday 9th June 2019, the Feast of Pentecost

We’re moving into Summer and Spring is already behind us!
We all love the sense of unfolding new life at this time of year. And it is right for us to rejoice in the changing of the seasons. It is the creative power of the Spirit of God at work: as today’s Psalm 104 puts it, When you send forth your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the earth.

This Sunday is Pentecost – what we used to call Whitsunday. For Christians it ranks alongside Christmas and Easter as one of the great festivals. It celebrates the day when the Holy Spirit filled Jesus’s followers, empowering them to begin the great task of making disciples of all nations. The first Pentecost was the spring-time of the Church, the day when the first green sprouts burst into the light of day, the day the Church was born.

The Lectionary readings are of course all about the Spirit. Let’s have a closer look at them.

In today’s Gospel (John 14:8-17,25-27), Jesus tells his disciples that he will ask the Father to send them the Holy Spirit.
For what we know as the Holy Spirit, the 3rd person of the Trinity, John uses a Greek word translated as ‘advocate’. On the night he was betrayed Jesus tells the disciples, ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments. And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, to be with you for ever. This is the Spirit of truth... You know him, because he abides with you, and he will be in you… The Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you’.

These are very important words. Jesus tells his first disciples that through loving him they will know the Spirit of truth who comes from the Father, which will stay with them and be in them. And he tells them that the Spirit of truth will teach them, as well as remind them of Jesus’s teaching.

Surely the same applies to his disciples in every age, including ours. Jesus teaches us our faith must be open to the prompting of the Holy Spirit – it must be a living faith, open to development.

In the 2nd reading (Romans 8:14-17), St Paul tells the Roman church that this Holy Spirit is a spirit of adoption.
‘When we cry, ‘Abba! Father!’ it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ.’

When we pray, when we seek God’s forgiveness, it is the Holy Spirit - the Advocate whom Jesus asked his Father to send to those who love him - the Spirit of truth which abides within us - who reminds us that we are children of God - and so joint inheritors with Christ of all that is good and true and beautiful in God. What a simply stunning thought that is.

In today’s 1st reading (Acts 2:1-21), Luke describes the events of that very first Pentecost.
7 weeks after Christ’s resurrection, 10 days after his ascension, something happened among his followers. Something that caught the attention of the crowd – citizens of Jerusalem and visitors from all over the Roman Empire, alike. Something that caused the crowd to stop and look and listen. What was it that happened?

The disciples suddenly experienced the presence of God’s Holy Spirit, in them and in their lives, as Jesus had promised them. The OT uses wind and fire as symbols of the presence of God. So it wasAct natural for them to describe their extraordinary experience in terms of a rushing mighty wind and tongues of fire. And they were changed, changed utterly by it.

They began to speak in tongues – this is what first attracts the attention of the crowd – some people even thought they were drunk! Did they really speak in all manner of foreign languages? Or is Luke using this as a device to signify the Gospel message is universal, for every person, from every nation? Or was it just the disciples’ obvious enthusiasm and joy, bubbling forth, that impressed the crowd?

Then Peter comes forward. Peter the simple fisherman from Galilee, who just seven weeks before had been afraid to admit he knew Jesus. Peter as spokesman for the others starts to speak confidently to the crowd, quoting from the prophet Joel; and Peter goes on to declare his faith in the risen Christ, with such eloquence that we are told he convinced 3000 people that day to believe and be baptised. What a change in the man! And Christ’s Church is born.

No doubt in principle we could explain what happened with, say, the science of psychology. But I think it’s enough to use the same words Luke did – ‘All of them - the disciples - were filled with the Holy Spirit’, and they were changed by it. And this sense of receiving and being changed by the Holy Spirit has marked out and empowered Christians in every generation ever since.

Notice that the disciples were all together in one place when they received the Spirit.
It was a gift to the whole community who followed Jesus. I think that if Christians of different traditions were more often gathered together in one place, we would receive more of the Spirit.

I can be a Christian without going to Church, people sometimes say. Well, yes – a taste for singing hymns and listening to sermons is perhaps optional. But nobody can be a Christian alone – for as Christians we are those to whom God has given his Spirit, and the Spirit is a community Spirit. We are not given it for our individual salvation; we are given it to empower us to be the Church, the community of believers, so that we may pass on the good news to others, not necessarily by words but in our lives.

I believe that the Holy Spirit has inspired people since time immemorial. Long before Jesus’s patient sowing of the seed with the disciples, the Spirit was no doubt planting seeds in the minds of the ancient prophets of Israel as they, like us, struggled to understand their relationship with God. And who can say that the Spirit has not also inspired what is good in other religions?

But we are Christians - let us rejoice in Christ’s Church, guided by the Holy Spirit, a living organism, sprouting from the seed Jesus sowed, and constantly growing in new ways.

So to conclude:
As we rejoice in the glorious growth in nature around us, let us also rejoice in the gift of the Holy Spirit which abides in us, and reminds us we are children of God by adoption, and let us also rejoice in the Church as a living, developing organism, inspired and guided by that Holy Spirit.

And let us pray that in this part of Christ’s Church, in the churches of our parish union, in the Church of Ireland, God’s Holy Spirit will guide us to be a living church, changing and developing as God wants us to:
God the Holy Spirit,
come in power and bring new life to the Church;
renew us in love and service,
and enable us to be faithful
to our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen
(BCP p149)