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After the Spirit

(a sermon for June 16, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Pentecost, based on Acts 2:42-47, 3:1-10)

“…and they lived happily ever after!”  And… Amen!

Now that’s how the story really ought to end, right (?); at least as it pertains to those first few verses of our text for this morning.  I mean, consider the “narrative arc,” if you will, of this part of the biblical story; think for a moment about everything that brought that group of twelve disciples from where they were – that is, as this rather motley assortment of fishermen, tax-collectors, and other assorted outsiders who’d left everything to follow Jesus – to what they are now, the Spirit-filled and Spirit-led Apostles in whom “many wonders and signs are being done,” and by whose proclamation of good news a new church is growing exponentially, to the point where once there were little more than a handful of believers and now – in a single day, no less (!), the day of Pentecost  – “about three thousand persons were added;” and as Luke goes on to tell us, “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.”

And it’s at this point in this sweeping narrative that Luke began in his gospel and now continues his “Book of Acts” that we’re given this incredible description of Christian community as it was truly lived out in the life of this new church.  We’re told that the believers were all gathered together and that everyone was filled with awe about all the signs and wonders they were witnessing; and along with worship and prayers and “devot[ing] themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship,” they also gave to one another as any had need, and – I love this part – “ate their food with glad and generous hearts.”  It’s worship, it’s fellowship, it’s compassion: from the very beginning these were the marks of the Christian life and to this day remain our model and the ideal of what the church of Jesus Christ is supposed to be.  Or, to put it another way, if I might quote Laura Truman of the Forum for Theological Exploration, “Oh my goodness, it is beautiful.   They are doing theology, they are living together, they are eating together, they are praying together – this is the kind of community that most church leaders would give their left foot for… This story of the beginning of the Church,” she writes, “is just glorious.  This is the Church alive.  This is the Church on the move.”

And so, do you see what I mean when I say that this might well be the place to end the story; that now we’re at the part of the gospel in which we can gaze upon this amazing new church – formed by Jesus Christ himself, crucified and risen, and gathered, led and empowered by his Holy Spirit – and know that from this point on, after everything those apostles had been through and more to the point, through what God had done in the person of the Christ (!) that they could indeed “live happily ever after.”  I mean, if I’m making a movie about this (I guess technically, given it’s about the apostles and their journey after the resurrection, it would be a sequel!), about the time the Spirit has come in all of its power and the believers are “praising God and having the goodwill of all the people,” it would be time to fade out and roll the credits; as I said before, that’s where the story ought to end, right?

Well, if we understand scripture, not to mention the mission of the church, the answer there would be… no.  In fact, it can well be said that “after the Spirit” is when the story begins anew; and in many ways, it’s the place where our story and truly, our mission as believers really comes into focus.

Actually, from a narrative point of view, it’s interesting to note that following this very grand and idealistic view of the beginnings of the Christian church, Luke in his telling of the story sort of pulls back a bit so to tell the story about how “one day Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, about three o’clock.”  So, you see, already there’s a routine developing in the life of the church; and I don’t say that as a negative, nor am I in suggesting that the “wonders and signs” done by the apostles were in any way diminishing, because if you read on in the Book of Acts, you’ll know that this is not the case.  If anything, this “going up to the temple” every afternoon tells us that a discipline of prayer and worship was from the very beginning, as it continues to be, essential to the Christian life.

And so it is on this particular day, we have Peter and John on their way to the temple for afternoon prayer – for “prayer meeting,” The Message calls it – and as they pass through the gate of the temple known as the “Beautiful Gate” they encounter a man “crippled from birth,” [The Message] “asking for alms;” that is, begging passersby for any kind of handout they might we willing to offer him as one poor and needy.  Now, we don’t know much about this man: he’s not given a name nor is there much of a backstory about what’s brought him to this station of life; all we really can glean from the text is that being “lame from birth,” he’d been carried to this gate and placed there for the purpose of begging, and that apparently he’d been doing this for quite some time, because later on we find out that all the people who entered the temple by this so called “Beautiful Gate” had recognized this  man as one of “those people” who were always there on the fringes begging for whatever spare change anybody might give him.  And so likely what he was doing that afternoon was what he always did, which was with eyes to the ground and arms extended crying out… crying out again and again and again for alms… for money… for something, anything that might help.

But whereas most people going to temple that afternoon sought to ignore the beggar’s cries and probably did everything they could to avoid any encounter with him altogether, we’re told that Peter and John heard the man’s cries and stopped; but even more than merely stopping to hear the request, Luke tells us that “Peter looked intently at him, as did John,” and said to this beggar, “Look here…” “Look at us…”   which, as even you and I in these times, was a pretty radical response!   I remember years ago someone I went to school with describing to me of her experience one summer living and working in New York City.  Now, this girl was not only still pretty young, she was also from Maine; and her first instinct on the streets of Manhattan was to smile and say hello to everyone she passed on the street!  But, she explained, that exuberant spirit was short-lived, as very quickly her more streetwise co-worker informed her that the first rule of walking down along a New York City street was not to make eye contact; this, after all, is not Bangor, Maine!  And we understand that, don’t we; especially as it applies to those in this life and in this world that in all honesty we’d rather avoid: from that person across the aisle at the market who makes us feel uncomfortable to the one who’s standing there with the handwritten cardboard sign on the median of Fort Eddy Road; just keep your head down and keep moving, and there’s no problem.

Sadly, that’s too often our attitude, but not Peter and John; they look this beggar square in the eye and pretty much demand that he look back at them in just the same way; thus treating him and engaging him as a person… as the child of God that is rather than the nameless beggar that the world has always perceived him to be.  And then Peter says something very interesting: he says, in the very poetic language of the old King James Version of scripture, “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I thee: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth rise up and walk.” (Or, if you’d prefer a more contemporary translation, how about this from The Message: “I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have, I give you.”) Either way, Peter then reaches out to this man, this man crippled from birth, pulls him up (!) by his right hand, “and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong.”  So strong, in fact, that the beggar immediately starts leaping and dancing for joy; praising God for all he’s worth and, might I add, totally disrupting any semblance of a serious prayer time that afternoon and astonishing everybody who’d witnessed what happened to this now former beggar there at the Beautiful Gate!

This story from Acts serves to tell us that “after the Spirit” came on the Day of Pentecost and filled them up with its power, the disciples’ story begins anew; with their being called to and given the gift of healing in the name of Jesus.  And moreover, writes Craig Barnes, it’s also a reminder that ultimately, in a multitude of ways – not just physical, mind you, or even financial; but also in the emotional, relational, even spiritual sense – “we’re all beggars, and it’s only in the name of Jesus that we’re going to get back up on our feet again” and we, as believers, have the ability, the call, the power to proclaim that name “that gets people back up on their feet.”  But even beyond all that, friends, what this story proclaims is that all of us – you and me and everyone in this sanctuary, all of us who count ourselves as believers – do have this ministry of healing and of life in Jesus’ name.

After the Spirit, you see, there’s the church of Jesus Christ… and we are the church.

In the end, you see, it’s not about the almsgiving, though in Christian love and creativity, we do do that, and we should; reaching out to those in need, however that may happen, is always to be at the very center of our mission as believers.  But it’s not just about that; likewise, it’s not only about the acts of healing, though I know that there are many of us in this very room, myself included, who can tell the stories of how healing prayers and words and gestures and creative, Spirit-led, actions led to the healing of mind, body and spirit.  It’s not even about the miracle, per se: because, you know what, miracles are not always what they at first seem to be, or not to be; sometimes the miracle with that overwhelming sense of the holy in our midst; in that peace Jesus spoke of that the world can neither give nor take away.  In the end, it’s about this Spirit that all of us have been given and this ministry we share; this calling to be witnesses to all we’ve seen and heard and received, sometimes by what we say, but always by what we do.

And the thing is, we never know exactly how that might unfold until it happens:  we’re having this random conversation with a friends or a co-worker, maybe someone we hardly know, but suddenly they’re pouring out their pain and grief in all its intensity and suddenly the “small talk” has become something much deeper and wholly cathartic.  You’re running an errand or taking care of a long-dreaded chore, and all of a sudden you get this idea that what you’re doing in that moment could be helpful for somebody else whose pride has long prevented them from asking for any kind of assistance.  You’ve been wrestling with some sort of big decision in your life, and trying to weigh how what you’ll do changes things for you; but then you wake up in the dawn of a new day and you’re seeing that choice from a different point of view: maybe that of your children or your family or even how it might affect a hurting world.  Or, could be you’re sitting in this sanctuary this morning, you’ve been singing the songs, you’ve prayed the prayers, you’re wondering if the minister’s ever going to wrap this thing up (!) so you can go to lunch… and in that moment you’re inspired… moved, somehow, to call somebody to go to lunch after worship with you, and maybe then invite them to come to church next Sunday….

…who knows? 

Give alms to the poor; feed the hungry; clothe the naked; visit those in prison; love, cherish and nurture all of God’s children; be kind, for Jesus’ sake!  Just know, beloved, that however it takes shape and form this is our ministry, yours and mine together, and that God’s Spirit comes as we do what we do.  And it is in that ministry that beggars become leapers, and that miracles happen.

I hope and pray that now that Spirit has come, we will be bold to embrace its power to do God’s work in this place and time… always in the healing name of Jesus.

And in that holy name, may our thanks be to God.

Amen and AMEN!

© 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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Made to Worship: You There, Sitting in the Pew

(a sermon for October 14, 2018, the 21st Sunday after Pentecost; fifth in a series, based on John 4:20-24 and Hebrews 10:19-25)

Maybe you’ve heard the story about the family who, after having gone to church one Sunday morning, were in the car driving home and were, shall we say, evaluating the worship service that day.  And they weren’t exactly being kind:  there were complaints about how the minister’s sermon was boring and way too long, that the choir anthem was horrible, and the hymns unsingable; and then there was a whole lot of talk about all the emphasis placed on money and “the collection!”  “Honestly, I don’t even know why we go to that church,” said the father as he was driving.  And to this, his little boy, who’d been sitting in the back seat listening to all this, said, “Oh, I don’t know; seems to me it was a pretty good show for a dollar!”

Now, let me just say here first that I sincerely hope that that’s not the kind of conversation you have as you’re headed home after worship (!), but also that – one extreme or the other – we never lose sight of what we’re supposed to be doing here!

I say this because as we’ve been working through this sermon series on worship, it’s occurred to me that mostly what we’ve been talking about, at least indirectly, is what I do up here on a Sunday morning as your pastor and as a preacher of the Word of God; and by extension, it’s what the others who help to lead worship in this place do every Sunday morning: it’s Myron and the other Deacons of our church who each week call us to worship and who read scripture; it’s Susan who plays the organ and leads us in song; and it’s the choir and the soloists who offer up a ministry of music to enhance this time we have together with God.  For lack of a better description, friends, we’re the ones who are “up front” leading worship; and while that’s not exactly a performance (nor should it be!), it does suggest kind of a “one way” offering.  In other words, what it might seem like is that morning worship involves all of us up here doing the speaking and the singing and the praying, and you… you’re sitting there in the pew and quietly taking it all in!

And let’s be honest; maybe there are Sunday mornings when our time of worship comes off like that: we lead, you listen, we all go out to have cookies and punch and then go home!  And that’s what concerns me, because our worshiping together is never meant to be one-sided; what we do here is not intended in any way to be a “show,” any more than it ought to be an ecclesiastical lecture on all things biblical and theological!  And understand me when I say this, it shouldn’t ever lead to indifference on the part of anybody involved: the ministers, the worship leaders and most especially the members of the congregation!  This is worship, friends – our time of praise and adoration of the Lord our God made manifest in the person of Jesus Christ – and as such, all of you are as much a part of what’s going on here as we are!  Our Christian worship is in fact one of the most interactive experiences we have as people of faith: as you and I worship together, we pray and we sing and we speak to one another; even as together we speak to God, and as persons and as a community we listen for God speaking to us!

We have been saying this again and again throughout this sermon series: we are “made to worship.”  But what we need to remember is that worship is not merely about our receiving (though it is that!) it is about our giving as well; it’s about our gathering together, yes, in praise and thanksgiving, but it’s also and ultimately about opening ourselves to be sent forth into the world in love and service.  There’s nothing “one way” about this time we spend together; you’re not being “speechified” or preached “at” here.  You’re here to encounter the Spirit of God; perchance to be moved in ways you’re not even expecting at this point.  You’re here to be strengthened and inspired for the living of these days; but then to be empowered and consecrated to be Christ’s disciples in this time and place!

That’s what worship is supposed to be about!  So I suppose that the question this morning is this:  “You there, sitting in the pew… yes, you!  What’s happening with you today as we worship? How are you engaged in this experience?”

What’s interesting, you know, is that Jesus always understood that the “act and attitude” of worship was much more than merely the physical act of coming to church, or even the sacred ritual of hearing scripture read and proclaimed.  For Jesus, worship was and is an issue of the heart of the one who’s worshiping.

Our gospel reading for this morning illustrates this beautifully: it’s actually one small part of a larger story; that of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well.  As you might remember, in this dialogue between Jesus and this woman there’s a lot of talk about living water, and about her life with the five husbands and one to spare (!); but then the subject changes to religion, specifically about the necessity and place of worship.  Pointing to the mountain named Garazim, the Samaritan woman says to Jesus, “Our ancestors worshiped on this mountain, but you say that the place where people must worship is in Jerusalem.”  Understand that this a question not only about location but also tradition; in essence, the Samaritan woman is asking whether the mountain is an appropriate place to worship, or if it has to happen – as the Jewish leaders of the time required – at the Temple in Jerusalem.  But Jesus, you see, makes it clear that it’s not the location that matters but the motivation.  “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem… the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father seeks such as these to worship him.”  Or, as The Message beautifully puts it, “Those who worship him must do it out of their very being, their spirits, their true selves, in adoration.”

See what I mean?  Worship is never meant to be a one-sided, self-serving endeavor or any sort of spiritual spectator sport but requires the full participation of those who worship; it is for “those who are simply and honestly themselves before [God] in their worship.”

It’s worth noting here that the word that’s used here by Jesus for “worship” is translated from the Greek word proskuneo, which is actually not only the word used most often in the New Testament for worship, but which also the Greek translation of an Old Testament Hebrew word hishtahvah, both of which can basically be translated in English as “bow down,”  as in bowing down in reverence before the Lord, or (as we will sometimes read in the gospels) bowing down worshipfully before Jesus.  In other words, once again we find that worship is less about the building or the accoutrements or even the liturgy or tradition that we follow, as much as it is the humility and adoration that we bring to the act of worship itself!  Or to put it still another way, there must ever and always be an inner component devoted to what we do here on a Sunday morning, or else the outward aspects of it all mean nothing.  In the words of John Piper, “When the heart is far from God, worship is vain, empty, non-existent.  The experience of the heart is the defining, vital, indispensable essence of worship.”

So… let me just ask again:  “You there, sitting in the pew… yes, you!  What’s happening with you today as we worship?  Where’s your heart at right about now?”

It’s also interesting to point out that by and large in the New Testament (especially in the Epistles) there isn’t a whole lot of talk about worship in the sense of what we’re doing here; there isn’t a whole lot of detail as to how the early church ordered their morning worship.  Rather what we hear about believers gathering together, “as they spent much time together in the temple,” breaking bread together “with glad and generous hearts.” (Acts 2:46)  It’s less about the requirement to worship and more about the opportunity to worship, and what could come of that experience.  Not that being present in that gathering isn’t of vital importance; in the words of our Epistle reading today from Hebrews, “not neglecting to meet together, as it the habit of some, but encouraging one another.”   And did you notice in that passage that part of the very reason we’re to worship involves “consider[ing] how to provoke one another to love and good deeds?”  Another reminder that worship is a two-way experience!  I may well be the one called to stand at this pulpit, leading the service, preaching the sermon and directing the course of things between the call to worship and benediction, but the fact remains that you are the ones who make this worship real by your hearts open to God’s Spirit becoming alive in you so that you – and the world that surrounds us – might be transformed for the sake of Jesus Christ and his kingdom.

And if you want the name for what that is, friends?  It’s worshiping God “in Spirit and truth.”  And it’s what God seeks from us in our worship; yours and mine, here and now.

And when you think about it, that’s the kind of worship that doesn’t need a sanctuary to be real or to be transformative; indeed when the name of the Lord is invoked and the heart’s all in, every bit of life can become an act of worship.  That’s definitely not to say that this sacred place in which we gather is not the appropriate and glorious place for us to worship, for indeed this is a place where we do gather with the communion of saints past and present.  But my point is that are “made to worship,” and our worship encompasses the whole of who we are before God.

So… “you there, sitting in the pew… who are you today as we gather here in worship before God?”

I must confess that I adapted the title of this morning’s sermon from a beautiful reading written by the late Ann Weems, “You – Sitting in the Pew Next to Me.”  Her piece was written as inner dialogue between two people sitting next to each other in church and who are realizing that despite the fact that they’re part of the same congregation and see each other every Sunday at worship they really don’t know each other well on anything other than a surface level; certainly not in a deeply spiritual sense.  And that matters; because toward the end of this reading, it’s the question of one another’s faith that resonates the most:

“You – sitting in the pew next to me – What are you really doing here?  Do you believe in Christ Jesus?  How much?  Enough to risk? How much of a risk?  Risk your reputation?  Risk your family?  Your money?  Do you?  Do you believe in Christ?  Or is Christianity a convenience?  Something to fill in on consensus forms, something one just goes along with, something undemanding, something nice… Do you believe?  Do you know what you believe? Will you share it with me?  Or are you just another person in the pew I’ll never know?”  (Ann Weems, from Reaching for Rainbows)

You know, the fact is that I believe in my heart of hearts – and I hope that by now you know this about me (!) – that our morning worship together does not need to be so formalized, so cut and dry that it ceases to be both joyous and enjoyable.  I do believe, very strongly, in following a liturgy of Word and Sacrament; but let me also say that whatever the liturgy and however the style of worship, it also needs to come alive!  And for that, it needs singing, shouting, laughter and above all, Spirit! It can be – and at times, I believe – ought to be… fun!   Even the tears we share as God’s people in this place – and there have been a few as of late – need to be awash with the joy of the Lord.

But at the end of the day and at the benediction, what makes what we’ve shared here truly the act and attitude of worship comes down to the ways our hearts will be moved to speak and to walk and to live in true adoration of God.  I hope and pray that what you take with you this morning, and from every time we gather together in worship, will be a faithful and loving heart; for that is what will make all the difference.

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 

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In Step With the Spirit

(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

 

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