There is no law against such things
| Galatians 5:13-25
||Sun, July 1, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|Paul’s letter to the early Christian community in Galatia is no barrel of fun. Here we are in the midst of the July 1st weekend reading about the dangers of “the desires of the flesh”. No celebration of a national holiday. Not even a good parable or miracle story to enjoy. We come to worship to give thanks … to rejoice … instead we hear: “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. I am warning you, as I warned you before those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God”. Paul recites a long list of behaviour that is unfit for those who seek citizenship in the kingdom of God. We grimace, wishing for something a little more upbeat, something positively inspiring … even uplifting. Instead, Paul delivers a Sunday morning lecture to all Saturday night revellers. Or, so it seems.
The shopping list that Paul calls “the works of the flesh” stands out like a sore thumb. But listen to the joy that infuses Paul’s words to us: “For freedom Christ has set us free … If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law … the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” Freedom. Spirit. Fruit. Love. Joy. Peace. This is more like it. This is the stuff of an uplifting, inspiring, upbeat sermon. This is what we want to celebrate … and to live. And it is Paul’s intention, too.
But Paul knows what we know. It is not as easy as an uplifting sermon here or an inspiring service there. “The whole law”, writes Paul, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbour as yourself’.” Yes. Love your neighbour as yourself. We know this. We teach it to our children. In fact we have said it so often that it has become a cliché. Yet when Paul lists works of the flesh we recognize familiar traits: hostile feelings, divisions, jealousy, temper tantrums, quarrels, dissensions, factions. Loving your neighbour as yourself is no simple equation. Good intentions so quickly give way to troubled relationships. The freedom of life in Christ … the freedom of life in the Spirit … becomes a life shackled by resentments and forced silences and unresolved hurts. “You shall love your neighbour as yourself”, says Paul. He continues, his writing dripping with sarcasm: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” If you insist on snapping at each other, be careful not to destroy yourselves in the process. Somehow the joy of a life free to love inexplicably becomes a life ruled by hurt.
This is the world’s story. Slobodan Milosovic is put on trial, charged with demonic “works of the flesh”. AIDS plagues the earth, revealing global factions which deny neighbour love to those who suffer. Sexuality – the great gift of God’s Spirit – becomes in the hands of our consuming culture a cheap, loveless “work of the flesh”. Relationships are destroyed by envy. Families are ruined by addiction. Churches are chewed up by power struggles. “For freedom Christ has set us free.” Yes. But this freedom does not come easily. The freedom of new life in Christ … the freedom to live a life of love … is challenged at every turn by what Paul calls “the desires of the flesh. 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.” To be clear, Paul does not deny the divine gift and created beauty of physical life. He has no desire to ‘spiritualize’ faith into some non-physical realm. On the contrary. Paul longs for communities in which God’s good earth is populated by a people who find incredible freedom in a life transformed by the Spirit of Jesus Christ. But such communities are challenged at every turn by a competing reality … a reality Paul calls “the works of the flesh”.
I suspect that you already know about this competing reality. You know about it because you have confronted it in that make-believe world that is often described as “the real world”. You know the world I mean. The one known as the “dog eat dog” world … or “the rat race” … or “the survival of the fittest”. That is the world where “the works of the flesh” are the means of survival. There the world’s apprentices are instructed “to do unto others before they do unto you”. There our children learn that the one who outplays, outwits and outsmarts survives to become the millionaire winner … while “the weakest link” is inevitably the shamed loser. There money is the measure of worth. There skin-deep beauty is the icon of self-worth. We recognize this world. It is the ocean in which we are submerged every day of our lives. Yet this is the “real world” that the Gospel of Jesus Christ exposes as a sham. This “real world” no longer holds power over us. In Jesus Christ we have died to its shackles. We are no longer enslaved by its fraudulent vision of the successful life. We have been freed from its “law of the jungle” to break its rules by living in the Spirit of God.
This is the reason that Paul encourages us, saying: “Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Who wants to be enslaved by this insanely competitive, cut-throat mentality ever again? We gather here in this place on this day longing to be guided by the Spirit into a new life … a life far removed from the old life that we have left behind. We gather intending to cultivate a counter-culture to the so-called “real world”. We “who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires”. We know that God intends to harvest fruits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” When these fruits ripen in our midst we tell one and all about these miraculous gifts of God … we are not ashamed to give testimony, to tell others what God is up to here and now.
Paul calls us to a life of freedom. He encourages us to no longer submit to the world’s “yoke of slavery”, to reject its unholy standards of success and failure … to disobey its profane rules about neighbours and strangers. But look at how Paul inverts our newly won freedom: “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.” Through love become slaves to one another. This is our freedom. It is not the lonely freedom of the individual to do as I please with my life. It is, instead, the freedom of life lived together in Christ … bearing one another’s burdens and sharing one another’s joys in a beloved community of forgiven sinners. Here the rich become slaves of the poor. Here oldtimers become slaves of newcomers. Here elders become slaves of infants. Here the ‘succesful’ become slaves of ‘failures’. Here human beings become slaves of God’s creatures threatened with extinction. Here we become slaves of one another … and in so doing we discover the freedom of new life in Christ. Of course, in the so-called “real world” there are all manner of codes of conduct which prevent us from loving one another with the foolish and reckless abandon of God in Christ. But gathered here, around the Table of the Risen Lord, we know otherwise. Standing here, in the kingdom of God, we see that “there is no law against such things”. Eating this bread and drinking this wine we declare our determination to live free. As the Body of Christ we dare to oppose “the works of the flesh” by becoming enslaved to one another in love. May it be so. Amen.