5-26-19 “Grace That Bears Fruit”
I want to be the first, and I’m pretty sure I will be, but let me be the very first to wish you all a very Merry Christmas! Because if you look at the calendar, Christmas is now less than seven months away! And even more, those Christmas in July sales are literally just around the corner!
I know you think I’m kidding with you - and maybe I am just a little bit - and I know I touched on this concept no so long ago, but think about what seasons we’re in right now. It’s still Spring, right? Summer doesn’t officially begin until June, but we often say that Memorial Day Weekend - which for this Indiana-born boy means the Indianapolis 500 - kicks off the Summer Season.
Baseball is in full swing, as is golf - the Memorial Tournament is next week (which means it will rain) - but basketball and hockey, both of which began in October are still going and won’t conclude until some time next month. NFL players are in camp right now, getting ready to begin in August. In the winter they talk about people being depressed because of what is called Seasonal Affective Disorder, SAD, from the reduced amount of daylight. But right now, I’m kind of in Seasonal Overload Disorder, SOD, because it seems like everything is happening all at once.
And in the United Methodist Church it’s also appointment season, as we well know. The week after next is Annual Conference, so Bob and I will be heading up to Lakeside for most of the week. The big item on the agenda this year is voting for delegates to send to General Conference and Judicial Conference in 2020. And I’m sure THAT will go smoothly - in a “Kum Bah Yah” atmosphere of love and cooperation between Traditionalists, Centrists, and Progressives!
And then Annual Conference will end, as it always does, with what’s called the Fixing of the Appointments. Here it is announced and read into the Conference Journal, all of the clergy appointment changes within the Conference. During this time, each of the District Superintendents take the stage, along with the Bishop, and read aloud the names of those clergy who are being reappointed and to where, and then those clergy come forward and are given an Episcopal letter from the DS and the Bishop, encouraging them as they go into this next season of ministry. And that’s when the final work of transitioning begins in earnest. And for those of you who are wondering, Kim Brown will announce at the end of worship about who is being appointed to Crossroads.
But until then, stick with me, okay?
So feeding into this Seasonal Overload Disorder, is our liturgical calendar within the church. Our opening hymn today was an Eastertide hymn. Eastertide, the period in the church following Easter and leading to Pentecost is the time during which we remember the work and teachings of the risen Christ after he ascended into heaven and before the people received the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. We often confuse, conflate, or compare the season of Lent, which precedes Easter, with the season of Advent that precedes Christmas, believing that once the “big day” has arrived the season is over, which is actually incorrect in both cases. The Christmas season in the church doesn’t begin until Christmas Day and lasts 12 days until Epiphany. The Easter season in the church begins on Easter Sunday and continues for 50 days until Pentecost, which conveniently, means “50 days.” So all throughout Eastertide we are encouraged to remember and celebrate the resurrection of Christ even as we move toward Pentecost.
In fact, as Fr. Richard Rohr shares, it was Easter and not Christmas that was the big celebration, the big deal for the first twelve centuries of Christianity. Speaking of the followers of St. Francis of Assisi, he writes,
“It was the Franciscans who popularized (and sentimentalized) Christmas. For Francis, if the Incarnation was true, then Easter took care of itself. He taught us to celebrate Jesus’ birth and probably created the custom of the creche or nativity scene…Incarnation was already redemption for him. Once God became a human being, then nothing human or worldly was abhorrent to God. The problem of distance or separation was resolved forever.”
So, he suggests, once God chose to reveal God’s self in flesh in the human Jesus - that is, through Incarnation - once God became human, it was game over. Rohr continues,
“Resurrection is incarnation coming to its logical conclusion. If God is already in everything, then everything is from glory and unto glory. We’re all saved by mercy, without exception. We’re all saved by grace, so there’s no point in distinguishing degrees of worthiness because God alone is good, and everything else participates in that one, universal goodness to varying degrees. There is no absolute dividing line between worthy and unworthy people in the eyes of God, because all of our worthiness is merely participation in God’s.”
Thought of another way, whatever worthiness we have comes not from our works - that is, our service, our belief, our adherence to custom, rule, or law - but it comes from and through God’s freely given grace.
And it’s because this is how we are redeemed, how we are saved - through the grace of God and not through the Law - that Paul is so upset about what these false teachers are telling the people of Galatia and what compelled him to write this letter in response.
So this week we move to chapter five, a critical chapter in the overall message of Galatians. Here Paul reiterates what he has said up to this point and then pushes forward to the inescapable implications of what the gospel accomplishes for us and in us. The chapter begins with Paul’s words that “Christ has set us free for freedom.” And it’s fitting that we talk about freedom on Memorial Day weekend, when we remember those who have fought and died for our country and to preserve our freedoms. And we can think about or understand freedom in different ways. In only days or weeks kids will be out of school for the summer season and in many cases, experience the freedom from responsibility that comes with being a child - a feeling of being carefree, peddling bikes to the playground or to the pool. Others might think of freedom as a choice to live our life however we choose, unburdened by religious morality or authority figures, or even by the constraints of our civil laws. This portrays freedom as a license to do as we please. And then, of course, there is also the liberty to choose among candidates for political office, some of whom might inspire hope in you while others instill fear, so there is a freedom to establish how we are governed. All of these are ways we often think of freedom in the world, and there are likely more.
But we should be clear, the freedom Paul is talking about as “Christian freedom,” is freedom from adherence to, or what he calls slavery to, the Law.
This understanding of liberty is not the same as other conceptions of freedom. Paul provides some qualifications of what Christian freedom is and is not.
Christian freedom is not freedom, he says, for self-indulgence (v. 13), and he goes on to provide a litany of things that we are not free to do as Christians.
A pastor I had as a youth once told me that we could “love God and do as we please.” That seemed like freedom as license to the thirteen-year-old me, until I realized that if I truly loved God there are things that I should not do.
Christian freedom is not freedom to take advantage of my neighbor (v. 15). In fact, Paul tells us that the whole of the Law is wrapped up in the command that we must love God, and that we show our love for God by loving our neighbor. No, the freedom Paul talks about is the freedom to live our life in the Holy Spirit so that the Spirit works within us, leading us to a life of grace that bears fruit.
And he talks about three ways that happens:
First, he encourages us to live in the freedom the Spirit gives us, speaking to the tension between living in the Spirit versus living in the Law. Living in the spirit, we realize that we are all created in the image of God as children of God, and that God so loved us that God became one with us by becoming one of us in Jesus Christ. And because God is in all things and all things are in God, in whom we live, and breathe, and have our being, we are no longer held captive to the Law, but have freedom in Christ Jesus.
Writing the statement, “For through the Spirit, by faith, we eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness” (vs. 5) Paul tells us that freedom in the Spirit doesn’t mean a libertine freedom to satisfy our every desire, but rather the freedom to be what and who God created us to be. Freedom in Christ, therefore, is not for our self-indulgence but for the Christ-like self-giving love for others.
Second, he talks about following the path of the Spirit. If we live by the Spirit, in the freedom of the Spirit, then the positive following of the Spirit guides us to refuse those desires foisted upon us by the world. Following the leadings of the Spirit guides us away from the desires for self-indulgence we talked about earlier. Being led by the Spirit and guided by the Spirit as Paul phrases it, seems to speak of specific choices we face, and taking deliberate steps to keep in step with the Spirit. Our transformation, then, come through the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives - the sanctifying grace we talked about last week. In last week’s message about how Grace forms us, I shared with you Rev. Dr. Lawrence E. Carter’s calling the transforming work of the Holy Spirit an “inside job.” In the same vein, Mahatma Gandhi said this regarding how transformation takes place:
“Your beliefs become your thoughts, Your thoughts become your words, Your words become your actions, Your actions become your habits, Your habits become your values, Your values become your destiny.”
This IS Carter’s “inside job” becoming reality - we become what we believe, what we think. The only way to have peace in the world is if we each choose to become more peaceful ourselves. The only way to have more love in our lives and in the world is to become more loving ourselves.
And all of this points to the third thing Paul talks about as a result of and cause for our freedom, and that is to bear the fruits of the Spirit. Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This, he says, is what Christian love looks like; this is the way it behaves. But note that love is listed first. Love is the fruit that gives expression to the other fruits listed. That is, the other fruits flow from the presence of the first fruit, which is love. Many interpreters and commentators on this passage suggest that in fact, there is only one fruit of the Spirit and that is love, and that all the others listed here are not intended to be understood as different fruits, but as the various expressions of the one fruit.
And I can see that. I can see the reasoning behind the idea that love is at the core, the heart of all of those other expressions and that if you do not have love, then you do not truly have joy, or peace, or patience, or kindness, and so forth. One commentator, painting an image from nature or creation to help us think about this idea, suggested that these expressions are like the beautiful petals that surround a flower’s center, thus showing the full-flowering of Christian love.
Paul’s message in this chapter, argued more forcefully here than anywhere else in this letter, is that there is freedom in Christ, given through the Spirit, that is lived out in biblical love for others. Or there is slavery to the flesh that leads to self-indulgent acts or attitudes, and that judges or condemns others. In Christ, there is freedom from condemnation, from slavery to the law, and from slavery to the flesh and the world and its distorted desires; and there is freedom to trust in Christ, live in the Spirit, and love generously.
The Roman Catholic Church’s Second Vatican Council, in their “Declaration on Religious Freedom” (No. 11) states, Christ “bore witness to the truth, but he refused to impose the truth by force on those who spoke against it.” Christ offers us freedom through his example, which draws us to fulfill the Law not out of obligation but out of love of neighbor and God. Paul says that the whole of the Law is fulfilled in love, and loving is a choice we are given through the freedom we have in Christ. Our freedom through Christ is an opportunity to go beyond the demands of the Law in order to love others in the same way Christ loves us.
The contrast, therefore, is not only or simply between freedom and Law, but between the world and the Spirit. It is the license of the “flesh” or the world that Paul warns against, which can only be combated by the Spirit.
Paul says, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the Law.” But if you succumb to part of the Law, rejecting the grace offered in Christ, then you are accountable to all of the Law. If you seek to others accountable to the Law, rather than love them in grace, then you, too, will be held accountable to the Law. How you judge other is how you will be judged. In other words, in for a penny, in for a pound. Yet when we are led by the Spirit—and this is the conundrum here of true freedom—we do not pursue self-indulgence or self-interest, we don’t attempt to skirt the limits of the Law or hold others to a Law that we don’t observe, and we don’t even seek the carefree life of a child, free of responsibility. Instead we attempt to be guided by the Spirit. For when we live in the Spirit, we find freedom in pursuing the good of the neighbor and the truth of God. And it is when we strive for these things, that we bear the fruits of the Spirit found in the Grace of God. Amen.