Scripture: Psalm 16, Galatians 5:1,13-25
Title: Alive in the Spirit
*Sermons are meant to be heard, so listen along here**
If you were here last week, you heard me speak about all the ways we seek to divide ourselves in this culture. That we take every opportunity given to us to make sure that we know just where we stand in reference to some category that has been placed upon us or someone else.
And if you were here last week, you know that I pressed back on this idea quite forcefully.
We are not meant to be divided anymore.
We are meant to be one.
It is in our baptisms we have been clothed with Christ, and we no longer see the things that divide us but instead we see Jesus.
We see brother and sister, we see beloved children of God, instead of a label or a category.
And this is important to keep in our minds as we come back to Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia today.
As I said last week, Paul is writing this letter to the struggling church in Galatia, and some of the things he says help us get an idea of what was happening in that new church community and why they needed Paul’s advice.
Verse 15: If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
Oh this little verse tells us so much. It feels out of place because we don’t have the letter Paul is responding to – we don’t know what was said first – but we can make some pretty good guesses based on this one verse.
Paul says that when we fight among ourselves, the end result can be the end of the church. When we take bites out of each other, when we nitpick and infight, and decide who is in and out and raise ourselves higher than another, the church will not survive. It will devour itself and there will be nothing left.
So we know what’s happening in this little church in Galatia.
And we know Paul is going to talk about it more.
But Paul knows that he cannot begin to talk about this infighting and the things that are ruining this community of believers without first reminding them of who they are and who made them that way.
The text in front of us today begins with the following:
Verse 1: For freedom Christ has set us free.
There it is.
The Good News.
You have been set free.
You are forgiven.
You are no longer under the law that weighs you down, but instead you are under Christ – you are free.
We Lutherans like to call this grace.
It’s freedom from having to take an active role in making ourselves right or good.
Nothing changes the promises we are given in baptism.
And we could stop here, and it’s tempting to stop here, because comes next is so often interpreted as law. As rules. As a set of “if you do these things, you are good, and in, if you do these things, you are bad, and out.
Paul is aware of the risk he takes in saying what he says. It’s why he begins with this clear statement of grace. You are free.
I am aware of this same risk as I made the choice to continue to preach on this letter to the Galatians.
Anytime there is a list given of virtues and vices, people in the church are going to take it as another way to divide. To categorize as in or out.
So I’m going to ask you to hear this text differently today.
If you have always and forever heard this text as good people do this, bad people do this, then I’m asking you to try to set that aside.
Put a pin in it. If you want to pick it back up after I’m done, then it will still be there.
Today Paul is talking about a life in community and what happens after we are baptised and brought into the community of faith.
Baptism is the bearer of this grace for us.
And after our baptisms, after we are named and claimed and been set free, what happens next?
So let’s be very clear here that nothing that follows this first verse reminding us that we are free will change the fact that we are free.
But Paul wants us to know that our freedom (the grace we’ve been given) cannot simply be used for ourselves.
Verse 13: 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.
Paul is talking about community. Everything that follows this verse 13 is about community and how we love each other.
How we live together.
Which we already know the church in Galatia is struggling with.
Not that WE in the church now know what they are talking about.
We never struggle with how to live in community together.
We never have a hard time loving each other.
Am I Right?
Martin Luther read this verse in Galatians and it inspired his thinking on grace and works – which he wrote on in his work, Freedom of a Christian.
In this work he wrote:
“A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant, subject to all.”
Christian freedom is different than personal freedom.
And yet it’s the part that we have the hardest time with – because we want Christian freedom to be like personal freedom.
We want to be free to do what we want, to say what we want, to believe what we believe.
These are our rights! Right?
Paul isn’t talking about personal freedom, but freedom in Christ.
And Freedom in Christ means exactly what Paul and Luther both understood – we are now slaves to one another.
So then Paul produces these two lists of vices and virtues.
And yes, despite only two chapters earlier reminding us that there are no divisions anymore, Paul reminds us how difficult it is to live this way when our culture and the world around us make a clear distinction between life in the flesh and life in the Spirit.
So the life in the flesh, the Greek word there is sarx, meaning the most human basic focus on self and survival – are things that are “obvious” as Paul says.
But if you look at this list – which I’m going to have Nikk put up on the screen – these are all things that do one thing, in Paul’s definition – and that is destroy community.
They are all about self-indulgence, all things that come at the expense of others.
In verse 21, Paul warns the community of faith in Galatia – about this list.
The translation says “those who do these things” but it’s not what the original language says at all.
It really means those whose life is characterized by these things.
It’s not that you do this one thing one time and you’re out.
And thank goodness, because who can look at this list and say they’ve never done any of it?
Paul isn’t saying people who do these things are bad, Paul is instead warning against people whose entire life is characterized by these things.
Paul is asking – is your life characterized by things that are all about you at the expense of others?
Or is your life characterized by things that uphold and build up the community?
Do you love your neighbor or hurt them?
Because the other part – Paul says, in contrast to a life lived for your own best interest – is a life alive in the Spirit.
The Spirit has been given to us and a life in the spirit does something – it produces fruit.
Now this is another list that people have misunderstood to mean if I do this, I’m good.
So this list of fruits of the Spirit becomes it’s own law. A TO DO list of being in the Spirit.
And you know how much we like our to do lists.
If I’m generous and gentle and kind then I’m in.
I can act a certain way and then say I’m in the Spirit.
That is not what Paul is saying here.
Because then wouldn’t we all just do our best to be these things?
I want to be closer to God, so I’ll be gentle.
I want to have a better faith or be a better Christian so I’m going to be more patient.
Doesn’t that just seem like more stuff to do?
We’ve been set free from that right? Isn’t that what Paul said?
Paul is not freeing us from one law to give us another.
Instead, Paul says that fruit is what happens when you live a life in the Spirit.
A Spirit led life on the inside shows on the outside like this list of positive virtues.
These attributes are not things you can work to make happen, but happen when you are are living by the Spirit.
Theologian Paul Hiebert came up with this way to understand this distinction between life in the spirit and life in the flesh that is not the way we’ve been taught. He came up with this idea of Centered Set versus Bounded Set.
When we take these two lists and place them upon people as requirements or touchstones for which side we fall on, we are in a bounded set. (picture) You’re in or out. You’re on one side or another.
This is how we roll around here.
This is how we have often heard this text in Galatians… we hear those two lists and we try to figure out which side we’re on.
If we do these things – we must be good.
If we do these other bad things – we must be bad.
We live our lives stuck here in the Bounded Set.
And it is brutal. It is heavy.
It is NOT freedom.
Hiebert believed that the life of faith is Centered Set. And I think this is where Paul was going as well. Where instead of being in or out, on the inside or outside, we are somewhere in relation to the center. (picture)
So we’re not in or out, but somewhere on a continuum of sorts.
And a spirit filled life is one where we’re focused toward Christ. We are fully engaged in following Christ and being a disciple, and when we do that – then what happens is fruit. Those things that are so obviously God. Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Generosity, Faithfulness, Gentleness, and Self-Control.
But, as Heibert points out, we’re still human. We’re not perfect.
Sometimes we’re focused in on Christ and living within the promises of our baptisms and loving those around us as Christ loved us.
And sometimes we’re not.
And sometimes we do both in the same minute.
Both exist in our world. Spirit and flesh.
Both exist within us – right now.
We can’t pretend they don’t both influence us.
One of my favorite Lutheran pastors Nadia Bolz Weber talked about this freedom and forgiveness and making mistakes and here she is to tell you about it:
Nadia clip: http://www.theworkofthepeople.com/loved-back-to-life (from 48 seconds to 3:20)
When we get things wrong, that isn’t what defines us.
That is the freedom that Paul is talking about today.
You are free. You are a child of God.
You have been forgiven, already, for the ways in which you fall short.
Today Paul wants us to be fully aware of who we are, that we are named and claimed and beloved, but then when we inevitably fall short, Paul wants to be VERY clear about who that affects.
Because it doesn’t affect us.
We’ve been freed from that.
If affects the people around us.
We are constantly surrounded by the ways of flesh. The things that we do to make sure we take care of number one.
To make sure we survive.
We are human.
And sometimes we forget that in our freedom from ourselves we are still slaves to one another.
Sometimes we forget that we are called to love others as God loves us.
We get stuck in this world of flesh.
We’re not alone.
And we’re not unique in this either – That’s where the church was when Paul wrote them this letter.
And he said –
Verse 16: Live by the Spirit, I say, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
It’s a matter of focus.
Where do you focus your freedom?
On yourself? On the flesh?
Or on others? By the Spirit?
When you focus on Christ – then the other stuff, the flesh – they lose their ability to have a say.
You have been made free. You.
You are God’s beloved child.
You are Gods. God is yours and You are free.
Christ died and rose to give you freedom from the law, freedom from the things that weigh you down,and freedom from the ways in which you have lost focus on Christ and put the focus back on yourself at the expense of others.
You are free.
And today we ask how we can use our freedom for the sake of the other.
How we are freed from working out our own bumps and darkness and instead focus on Christ. And when we do that – when we live in the Spirit, when we focus on Christ – then we will see fruit.
And Fruit is always, always about building community. Always about each other.
About taking care of each other, loving each other, and as I said last week, it is this kind of love that changes the world.