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

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