A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
A Sermon for the Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
by William Klock
People don’t like being told what to do. Anyone with a two-year-old or a teenager knows this well and if you’ve never had either of those, all you had to do was pay attention for the last year-and-a-half. People who until now had all their shots and never had a problem remembering to wash their hands now have the government telling them they need to wash their hands, wear a mask, and get a vaccine are screaming, “You can’t tell me what to do! I’ll never wash my hands, wear a mask, or get another vaccination for as long as I live!” We value our liberty. And that’s not a bad thing. We should value our liberty. The problem is that liberty doesn’t work when it’s not exercised in the context of love. Think of our Gospel last week and the lawyer’s summary of the law: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind and your neighbour as yourself. The law restrained. It limited liberty, but it did so to teach Israel what it means to love God and to love neighbour. And it was necessary because this love is what’s missing from fallen human hearts. And yet even with the law Israel struggled. The law was external. It was carved on stone. It could reveal what is wrong with the fallen human heart, it could restrain the wickedness of the fallen human heart, but it could not of itself fix the fallen human heart. Something greater was needed. And so the new covenant rather than giving us law carved on stone, gives us God’s own Spirit who indwells us and writes the law of love on our hearts—love for God and love for neighbour. And in doing that, the Spirit sets us free from the law to live a liberty shaped by love.
This is the heart of St. Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia. Let me read the first words of our Epistle again. This is Galatians 3:16.
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.
How does that work? I think it’ll help if we back up a few verses to get some context. Look at verses 13-15:
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.
You were called to freedom. Think back to the Exodus, when the Lord delivered Israel from Egypt. He liberated the people from Pharaoh’s slavery, he set them free—but he did that because in reality they belonged to him. They were his people. They didn’t belong to Pharaoh. And so in setting them free from Pharaoh, the Lord claimed them as his own—“Israel is my firstborn son”, remember that—and he took them into the wilderness to worship, to serve him. And he gave Israel the law to set them apart from the nations, to mark his people out as holy. As much as we, being gentiles, might rankle at the old covenant law when we read it, for Israel the law was actually a symbol of freedom. It represented their deliverance from Pharaoh and it marked them out as the people of God. The law was a beautiful thing and the Jews loved it dearly.
And so it’s no surprise that we see some of the problems we do in the New Testament. As gentiles heard the good news about Jesus, as they saw in the gospel the faithfulness of the God of Israel, they came to the Messiah just as the old prophets had said they would. Here was a god completely unlike the gods they knew as Greeks and Romans. But what was to be done with them? Remember that those first Jewish believers in Jesus didn’t think of believing in Jesus as having changed religions. At that point there really wasn’t any Judaism versus Christianity thing. Being a Christian was simply a new way of being Jewish. And so as gentiles began entering the church it posed a problem. Some of these Jewish believers didn’t want them at all. They were unclean. Well, the Lord solved that problem for Peter. The gentiles were to be welcomed. But then the assumption was that, well, they first had to become Jews. They had to be circumcised. They had to start observing the law. The first church council was called to address this and they settled the matter, largely thanks to Paul. Gentiles were gentiles and they had no obligation to the torah. But this was still difficult for many. The problem didn’t go away. There were Jews who believed in Jesus but were still putting their confidence “in the flesh” as Paul puts it—in these outward signs that had historically marked out God’s people. And there were gentiles who were being taught that they had to do the same. This was happening in the churches of Galatia, so Paul wrote these words to them: You were called to freedom.
This new exodus in which Jesus had led his people carried the old exodus even further. In the Messiah, the Lord had accomplished something even greater than he had in Moses.
And Paul’s first point here is that in Jesus we have been freed to love. He reminds us of the law, summarized in those familiar words: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and love your neighbour as yourself. In pouring out God’s Spirit on his people, Jesus has set us free from the law written on stone and inscribed this law of love on our hearts. Israel struggled. The law written on stone told her what she was supposed to love, but the fallen human heart has other ideas. But for the Christian, God’s own Spirit indwells the heart, making it new, and turning its desires towards God and then towards neighbour. Here Paul only mentions the love-your-neighbour-as-yourself part, because the specific problem in these churches was what he refers to as biting and devouring each other. We don’t know specifically what he means by that, but it involved some kind of squabbling and fighting. Whatever the specifics, this biting and devouring, instead of witnessing the renewing work of the Spirit, revealed that these folks still had a serious heart problem. It raised the question: Were they really free? Or were they still enslaved to sin? And it also risked the church. If church members are biting and devouring each other, will the church even survive? Some of us have seen the results of this sort of thing first hand as churches implode or split.
In this case, Paul’s diagnosis of the problem is that these men and women have forgotten that what marks out the new covenant people of God is faith in Jesus. Clearly they’d known this at some point in the past, but they’d allowed these “Judaisers”, these false teachers to lead them astray and they were back to emphasizing the marks they once bore in their flesh—things like what they ate or observing the Sabbath and, especially, being circumcised. And so Paul rebukes them: Is it any wonder you’re devouring each other? After all, you’ve been putting your confidence in the flesh when you should have been putting it in God’s Spirit.
Look at verses 16-22. Here’s what Paul writes:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
The flesh—that’s the human heart that hasn’t been renewed by God’s Spirit—the flesh is all about self. The flesh needs the law to remind it constantly what its values and loves and desires are supposed to be. The flesh needs the restraint provided by the law. Even then, as Israel illustrates so dramatically over her long history, the law isn’t enough. But the Spirit changes everything. Jesus pours God’s Spirit into his people and the desires of our hearts are transformed. The Spirit sets us free from the burden of the law. And yet, what do Spirit-filled people do? They do the law anyway. They love God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength. And they love their neighbours as themselves. That transformation is what takes place when we place our confidence in Jesus.
If you place your confidence in the flesh, well you’ll get what a fleshly heart desires—even if you do have the law, because it’s just not enough. You get the biting and devouring that was taking place in these churches. Paul lists a string of truly awful sins and I don’t think he intends to say that all these things were actually happening in the Galatian churches. He’s trying to get their attention. After all, they were mostly Jewish people who knew the law and many of the things Paul lists here are things that would have appalled an observant Jew. But he works that biting and devouring into the list of really bad stuff: things like rivalry, dissensions, jealousy, enmity—the more mundane sins that often break up Christian fellowship and churches—right along with sorcery and orgies. His point is that even these more mundane sins come from the same place as sorcery and orgies and they’re what you get when you put your confidence in the flesh instead of Jesus and the Spirit.
It’s a remarkable thing that Paul gets at here. It’s important to think about what we believe marks us out as God’s people. Get this wrong and the whole thing falls apart. God’s law was a good thing. Circumcision and Sabbath were good things. But if that’s where you put your confidence you’re going to be in a world of hurt. And it isn’t just a matter of Judaising as it was in Galatia. Christians today can put their confidence in all sorts of good things as well: our charity or our church attendance, our Bible reading and prayer, and even our holiness and our spiritual giftings. But none of those things is Jesus any more than circumcision or Sabbath is. What marks out the people of God is faith in Jesus. And if you remember from our study of Romans, Paul stresses there that even in the old covenant, even though the law and things like circumcision did mark out the people as belonging to the Lord, what was really important was the faith behind them—even in the days of the law, faith was the real mark of God’s people. It always has been and always will be.
In contrast to the works of the flesh, Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit. I think it’s worth noting that he describes these characteristics as fruit. You can’t force fruit to happen. You can’t just glue apples on a tree or grapes on a vine. Fruit is cultivated and it comes naturally when a plant is healthy. And just so these are the things that grow naturally out of a true and living faith in Jesus and a heart indwelt by God’s Spirit. Look at verses 22 to 24:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
Not only is love there at the head of the list, but the rest of the list: joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are all things that flow from and reinforce love. The works of the flesh destroy, but in the fruit of the Spirit we see the life of the God at work in his people. And here’s what’s really interesting. Remember that Paul was dealing with Jewish people who were stuck on the law. Not only did they insist that they had to obey it, but they were insisting that gentile believers had to as well. And Paul writes here that against these things there is no law. In other words, if your life—and if the collective life of the Church—is characterized by the fruit of the Spirit, we will have fulfilled the law. It will have no condemnation for us. Because the fruit of the Spirit is the epitome of love for God and love for neighbour.
In verse 24 Paul stresses this transformation. Those who belong to Jesus the Messiah, those who are part of his family, part of the renewed people of God, he writes, they have crucified the flesh and everything that goes along with it. Our broken, selfish, sin-filled hearts have been put to death with Jesus. Like the Israelites leaving behind Pharaoh’s slavery as they passed through the waters of the Red Sea to new life with the Lord on the other side, so we have left our fallen hearts—sometimes Paul writes about our “old man”—we’ve left that behind when we passed through the waters of baptism. As we rise from our baptism, we are raised to a new kind of life with Jesus and the gift of the Spirit is the earnest, the down payment on his promise of resurrection, that day when Jesus finally makes everything new and evil and death are finally wiped from creation completely. Until then the Spirit keeps our hearts focused on God and grows his fruit.
Of course, we all know—and it’s why Paul had to write this to the Galatians—we all know that none of this just happens. There will come a day when sin and temptation and selfishness are gone forever, but until then the flesh wars with the Spirit and so he writes in verse 25:
If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
It’s not good enough to just say that we live by the Spirit. Every Christian is indwelt by the Spirit. You can’t be a Christians without him. But we need to actively “keep in step” with the Spirit, as the ESV puts it. It’s sort of a military image of soldiers marching in step with their drill sergeant or their commander. The battle with the flesh will never be won if we aren’t diligent in pursuing the life that Jesus has given us. Put things into neutral, do what comes naturally and the flesh inevitably reasserts itself. And it’s important to remember that the battle won’t be won by our own moral effort. That’s just putting our confidence in the flesh. We’ve got to keep our eyes on Jesus, we’ve got to put our faith in him, and we’ve got to put our confidence in the Spirit who breathes life into our hearts and causes us to bear fruit.
And, again, Paul’s point here within the context of Galatians, is that if they would do this—if they would maintain this gospel-centred, this Jesus-centred life rather than putting their confidence in things like circumcision, they wouldn’t have to worry about the law anymore, because love for God and love for neighbour come naturally from such a life centered on Jesus and in step with the Spirit.
Now, the Galatians’ problem isn’t really our problem—although there are parts of the modern church where something very similar crops up—but we need to hear this as much as they did. Paul steers us down this path—the way of Jesus and the Spirit—and we have our own tendency to fall into the ditches on the side of the road. There are a lot of Christians who stress the fruit of the Spirit, who emphasise love and peace and kindness, but who end up neglecting the Jesus part of the equation. Often they’re troubled by the exclusivity of the gospel. Sometimes it’s the gospel’s call to a kind of holiness that is increasingly at odds with the world around us. Brothers and Sisters, without faith in Jesus and an uncompromising commitment to the gospel, the fruit of the Spirit part of the equation will fall apart. And once we compromise Jesus and the gospel, not only does the fruit of the Spirit part fall apart, but we end up losing the church as well. That sort of Christianty degrades into do-gooderism and since it’s ultimately rooted in the flesh, you eventually lose even the do-gooderism.
If we don’t fall into that ditch, we can easily fall into the ditch on the other side of the road. That’s the ditch where we stress the importance of Jesus and the gospel, remembering just how vital they are and knowing we can never compromise them, but we fail to keep in step with the Spirit. We have truth, but the fruit of the Spirit has withered on the vine and we end up trying to defend the truth of Jesus and the gospel with the very fits of anger Paul lists amongst the works of the flesh. We defend Jesus and the gospel in ways that cause strife and division within our own ranks, with other real Christians.
Brothers and Sisters, it’s vital to maintain a balance. The truth of Jesus and the gospel is just as vital as the fruit of the Spirit. And, vice versa, the fruit of the Spirit are just as vital as the truth of Jesus and the Gospel. I think this is how Paul could write those words we read a couple of weeks ago to the Corinthians. Remember that. He was writing to a church that had rejected him, that told him not to come around or to write anymore. They were worldly, there was serious sin being tolerated in their church. Their worship was messed up and they were abusing the Lord’s Supper. And yet when they demanded his credentials, he pointed back at them. Those messed up, infuriating people were his credentials, because despite their failures and shortcomings, despite their failure to fully live into the gospel and walk in step with the Spirit, they did have Jesus and the Spirit and that was because Paul had brought the gospel to them. And so he could write to them and stress the truth of Jesus and the gospel without compromise, he could rebuke them of their sins, but he could do it all out of a loving heart that throughout displayed the fruit of the Spirit. Brothers and Sisters, let us walk by the Spirit. Let us find our confidence in Jesus rather than the flesh, so that the fruit of the Spirit will grow in abundance, so that our love for God and love for neighbour are on full display. Let us live in such a way that the law cannot condemn us.
Let us pray: Almighty and everlasting God, increase in us the gifts of faith, hope, and love; and, that we may obtain what you promise, make us love what you command; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.