(a sermon for July 1, 2018, the 6th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Galatians 5:1, 13-25)
In a collection of sermons and other writings entitled Flesh and Bone, the Rev. Dr. A.K.M. Adam – Boston born Biblical scholar and theologian currently on the faculty at Oxford University – writes about his own journey of faith, confessing that there was a time in his life when he didn’t want to follow Jesus. In fact, he writes, “I didn’t need Jesus [and] I didn’t have any use for anyone who did need Jesus… I was a skeptic, and I meant business about it.”
But something changed, though Adam freely admits that he isn’t sure what. There was “no blinding light, no voice from heaven,” he says. “I can’t tell you about God appearing to me from heaven and slapping me upside my head, or Elijah coming and tossing a cloak onto me, and me then dropping my plow and following.” This was partly, Adam goes on to say, because he wasn’t aware of what was happening to him even as it was happening, but mostly it was “because God’s way is usually not to do things with spotlights and special effects, but instead to manage the tiny details in such a way that things just happen in the right way.” Adam writes that “the God who bent my will from defiance and skepticism to submission and faith didn’t bludgeon me, didn’t beat me with a stick to change my mind, but just set me up to change my own mind.”
I actually found that to be a pretty good explanation as to how belief comes to be; and I also suspect that truth be told, most of us can relate to Adam’s story! For whereas some of us in this room today might well be able to name the specific time and place where we came to faith, it’s more likely that the majority of us have taken that journey step by step, day by day, experience by experience. The truth of the matter is that a great many of us are, as they say, “born skeptics,” wondering even as we sit in these pews if this religion thing is all it’s cracked up to be! And even if we are aware that there’s someone bigger than you and me at work here, we find ourselves wondering aloud why things in this world aren’t working out better than they are! But then, there are also those among us who are content to be looking for the road signs along the way; delighting in the happenstances and messages that pop up from time to time that not only remind us who and whose we are, but also serve to assure us that we’re headed in just the right direction (albeit with a course correction or two!).
The trouble with this, however, is that these kind of road signs aren’t always that obvious; in fact, oftentimes they’re so small as to be almost indiscernible! I remember once, years ago, having been asked to lead a graveside service at a cemetery way out in the hinterlands of western Maine. This was in the days before cel phones and GPS units, but I’d been given very specific directions from the funeral home that at the bottom of a long hill on the highway, I was to take the first left, and then, after a couple of miles, I’d find the cemetery. And that’s what I did – or that’s what I thought I did (!) – because as I took that left hand turn and drove several miles down that well-paved road that got thinner and rougher as I went, it became increasingly clear that there was no cemetery to be found on this road! It got to the point where – no joke (!) – I stopped at a farm house at the very end of that road, banged on the door and asked the people there in a rather panic-stricken voice, “Do you know where the graveyard is?” To which the farmer calmly replied, “Well, didn’t you take that first left at the bottom of the hill?” Turned out there was a left hand turn at the bottom of the hill, but it was an old, rather non-descript road of dirt and grass that I quickly and easily passed by because I reasoned it could not possibly be the right road… but of course it was!
Well, likewise in the journey of faith sometimes we only recognize the signs of God’s presence and influence once we’ve already gone by them! In the end, what we discover along the way is that we have to be paying attention, staying open to all the little times, places and situations in which God’s Spirit reaches out to us, letting ourselves be led by that Spirit; indeed, to go our way freely in this life, but to always seek to God as we do. In other words, as Paul says it to the Galatians in our reading this morning, “Since we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit,” or, as it’s beautifully translated elsewhere, “let us keep in step with the Spirit.” (NIV)
Our text for this morning from the 5th chapter of Galatians is all about Christian freedom and life in the Spirit; the tension that exists in a life of faith between, on the one hand, freedom from the law (that is, the freedom we have to do anything we want, regardless of what the law says), but on the other hand, the call we all have as Christians to resist the temptations of the flesh and be led instead by God’s Spirit in all things. Yes, says Paul, in Christ we are freed from that which the law addresses, and we are free to do anything we desire; but we are also free to not do anything we desire; we are free to set firm standards for our lives on the basis of what we believe in faith, and then to follow them. Without that at the center of our freedom, you see, we risk becoming as shackled by the flesh as we were by the law.
I remember many years ago a young woman I worked with who, while we were all employed together, turned 21 and was free now to go out and buy and drink alcoholic beverages legally. And of course, a lot of her friends were trying very hard to get her to go out with them and celebrate this milestone, to go and party at some of the local clubs. But she wasn’t interested in this at all; she was actually quite a conservative young woman that way, as I recall. I remember her saying that she didn’t want to go out drinking before, and she didn’t want to go now; and moreover, that this was not what she wanted for her life, not the road she wanted to go down. And then she said this, which is something I still remember: why should something like a birthday change what she truly believed?
That’s basically what Paul was getting at in his epistle to the Galatians: the point that ultimately laws don’t matter, and that by Christ, we are set free to live a truly free life, free from all those things in life that would shackle us! So “stand firm, therefore” says Paul, “and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Of course, these new Christians at Galatia were not understanding this at all! In fact, as we pick up the reading today, it’s apparent that their new found freedom had not so much liberated them as had created more problems and divisions amongst them. In fact, this attitude that now all things were legal and thus good had gotten so out of hand, that it had come close to literally destroying them as a people and as a church. And to this, Paul says to them, “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… if, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” And, as The Message concludes, “where will your precious freedom be then?” In their freedom from the law, you see, the Galatians ended up losing the essence of the law, which of course, was love! And without love, well, the church isn’t the church at all!
Seems to me that’s pretty relevant for those of us in our own time who would seek to follow Christ Jesus and to gather as the church. There’s no question that we live in a very pluralistic society in which the prevailing winds of the culture are constantly shifting; and as Christians and as the church we continually being asked to discern between that which represents changing times and new ideas, or on the other hand, that which pulls us away from God’s intent for our lives or for his church. And when you combine this with the fact that just about everyone inside and outside the church has an opinion on such matters, it gets harder and harder to properly read the signs, because as we’ve noted, they’re not always so that obvious to find in such a free-styled world as ours. That’s why Paul says to the Galatians, and to us, we need to “live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit” [The Message, again] and not by “the desires of the sinful nature.”
It’s at this point of his Epistle that Paul lists down the “obvious” sins of the flesh: “sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealously, fits of rage, selfish ambition,” [NIV] and on and on it goes, right up to and including “drunkenness and carousing!” [NRSV] “I am warning you,” Paul says, “as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” So don’t go down roads such as these; rather, led by the Spirit, be looking out for signs of the Spirit’s presence in your life, that which Paul refers to as the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” This is the way of true faith, and it comes to us by the Spirit of God! And if we are led by the Spirit, friends, we are in step with the Spirit… and very close to the Kingdom of God!
So what should we be looking for as we all head back out on the journey this week? Remember, just as signs are not always that obvious to us, the fruit of the Spirit might not always appear to us as low-hanging! The truth is that God’s Spirit does indeed move in mysterious, wonderful, and might I add, often very subtle ways; and even amongst unlikely and surprising people! To quote A.K.M Adams again, sometimes “these ideals seep into our lives when we see other folks whom we respect living by their ideals. We think of self-control… [when we witness] admirable, grace-filled women and men… inclined to exercise self-control; we honor peace and gentleness when we see the [triumph] of patient dignity [over] violent hatred through the example of a truly great person. When we open our hearts to this message of faith and hope,” we find ourselves seeking out and letting ourselves be led by the Spirit of Holiness, and that’s the beginning of a whole new life indeed.
Who knows where the Spirit will be found in our lives this week, and who knows where that Spirit will seek to lead us? Perhaps in holiday gatherings and in the opportunities before us as families and friends to “beat the heat” amidst this sultry summer weather? Perhaps in small but significant “random acts of kindness” both given and received? Perhaps in and through a new insight for living in the middle of these troubled times? Or perhaps even in sharing this morning’s sacred meal of bread and wine at the table of blessing? All I know is that God’s Spirit does move in ways we can never wholly expect; but if we’re paying attention will always serve to remind us that we are bound together by the God who sends us forth in Christ’s name. And rest assured, if we seek out and live unto that Spirit, we always be walking in step with it wherever life happens to take us.
May it always be so for you and me, beloved.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2018 Rev. Michael W. Lowry