A sermon on Galatians 5:16-25 preached at Port Charlotte United Methodist Church, October 8, 2017.
16Make it a habit to walk by the Spirit and you will certainly not fulfill what the flesh desires. 17For the flesh yearns against what the Spirit desires, and the Spirit against what the flesh desires, for these stand opposed to one another in order that you may not do whatever you might want. 18But if you are being led by Spirit, you are not under Torah. 19And the works born of the flesh are clearly evident: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, 20idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, 21acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these. Concerning these things I tell you in advance, just as I warned you before: Those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22But the fruit produced by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23forbearance, self-control. Against such things there is no law.24 And those who are Christ’s own crucified the flesh along with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep falling in step with the Spirit. (my translation)
Metrics. Every organization, it seems, has them now. No, I’m not talking about kilometers, kilograms, liters, and degrees centigrade. We tried all that here in America in the late 70’s and it never really caught on. I’m talking about the numbers that fill in the blanks of reports, the numbers that are used to assess performance, effectiveness, profitability, and other indicators of corporate functioning. Even Ashland Theological Seminary, in compliance with the Department of Education, has gone far in the direction of creating metrics. We come up with percentages of students attaining this or that learning outcome, with measurements of student satisfaction, with measurements of graduation and employment rates, all for the sake of giving a snapshot of our performance to accrediting agencies and to prove that we are doing some kind of assessment to ensure the quality and effectiveness of our educational programs.
October is the month in which many United Methodist churches, including our own, hold their “charge conferences,” and those who prepare the reports for these meetings, which are then submitted to the district office and eventually trickle into the annual conference database, know how important metrics are in our denomination. We list average attendances, annual giving, percentages of apportionments met, numbers of new members, numbers of baptisms, average weekly participation in a variety of ministries, and so forth. These measurements, these metrics, provide some hard data for assessing the performance and effectiveness of a given congregation.
But they don’t touch on (in any direct way at least) another set of measurements, of metrics, that seem to matter even more for how God would assess the performance and effectiveness of a congregation and of each of that congregation’s individual disciples. Paul gives us one expression of these divine metrics in the reading we heard this morning:
“The works born of the flesh are immediately obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these.” (Gal 5:19-21)
“The fruit produced by the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance, self-control.” (Gal 5:22-23)
What is of paramount importance to God – so Paul seems to think – is whether our behavior, whether in private or in public, in our homes or congregations or work places, shows that the “flesh” is driving us or that the “Spirit” is driving us, that we are giving mastery of ourselves over to the “flesh” or to the “Spirit.”
I suggest that these metrics are more important than the numerical ones that we will fixate upon in preparation for charge conference, because the United Methodist Book of Discipline announces no penalties or promises for congregations that fall on one or the other side of the conference’s measurements like the ones we hear about from Paul in Galatians: with regard to the outcomes of flesh-driven behavior, “Concerning these things I tell you in advance, just as I warned you before: Those who keep on practicing such things will not inherit the kingdom of God” (Gal 5:21); or, with regard to both flesh-driven and Spirit-driven practice, “The harvest for those who continue to sow to their flesh will be the rottenness of the grave, but for those who continue to sow to the Spirit, the harvest will be eternal life.” (Gal 6:8).
Now, by “flesh” Paul does not mean the meat that clings to our bones. Paul uses this word to name the bundle of self-centered, self-serving impulses and drives that keep us falling short of God’s vision for us as God’s new creation – God’s vision for us as individuals and as a community of faith. The “flesh” is the “old person,” the person we once were, from whom Christ died to save us, reasserting itself, trying to stop the new creation from coming about in us because that new creation means the death of the old creature. It is the Ego with a capital “E,” trying to establish itself again on the throne of our lives, because it doesn’t want to be denied and it doesn’t want to die. And Paul gives us clear metrics here. We know that the “flesh” is driving us – and that we are sowing to the “flesh,” when we see its works in us and among us. And these works are, as Paul says, obvious indeed when they show up: “sexual immorality, impurity, shameless debauchery, idolatry, drug-induced spells, displays of enmity, strife, fanaticism, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions, acts born of envy, drunken bouts, gluttonous parties, and other things like these.”
Now I’ve been a part of this congregation long enough to know that not many of you are “party animals,” such that we tend not to manifest “drunken bouts” or “gluttonous parties.” But we are hardly free from strife, dissension, angry outbursts, trying to get our own way and getting in a tiff when we don’t. We’re not entirely free of sexual immorality and, statistics alone would tell us, of an array of addictions. These – and all such like things – are warning signs to us, whether in our lives individually or in our life together, that we are sowing to the “flesh” – and are making ourselves once again liable to its harvest, the rottenness of the grave. Because if we’re going to keep choosing to live the life of the old person, the unredeemed person, that’s where we will end up and where all that is us will end.
The alternative to dredging up these flesh-driven works is to yield ourselves over to the Spirit, to become soil that is continuously cultivated by the Spirit such that the Spirit can produce its fruit in and among us. By “Spirit,” Paul is not talking about our rational or better self, but the Holy Other who is wholly other – the Spirit of God, the Spirit of God’s Son, who has invaded us in our baptism and seeks to pervade us in every situation, so that we are both driven and empowered by this Spirit to do and to become what is righteous and beautiful in God’s sight.
The Spirit is too often treated as the third wheel in the Trinity. When we say the Apostles’ Creed together, we recite four lines about the Father, nine or ten lines about the Son, and one line about the Spirit. This doesn’t begin to reflect the Holy Spirit’s importance. Let’s just consider what Paul has to say about the Spirit in the one short letter from which today’s reading comes.
“Christ redeemed us from the curse pronounced by the Law by becoming accursed on our behalf … in order that the promise God made to Abraham might come to the nations in Christ Jesus, that is, in order that we might receive the promised Spirit by faith.” (3:13-14)
“Because you are sons and daughters, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying ‘Abba, Father!’ The result is that you’re no longer a slave, but a child.” (4:6-7)
“By means of the Spirit and on the basis of trusting, we are eagerly looking for the righteousness for which we hope.” (5:5)
Paul seems to think that Christ died, among other goals, specifically to secure for us this promised gift – the Holy Spirit – to dwell within and among us. Paul seems to think that, if we have any sense at all that God has loved us and taken us into God’s own family, this is the work of that same Spirit within us, assuring us and allowing us to call upon God as Father. Paul also seems to think that this gift of the Spirit is intended to get us from where we started out in our self-centered, self-serving unirghteousness to that place of being righteous, that place in which we hope to be found at the end of this journey when we stand before the God and Judge of all. And if I have one prayer for this congregation and each person in it, it is this: that each one of us, and all of us together, will grow in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit – the sensitivity to being aware of the Spirit’s presence, the ability to know the Spirit’s restraint and the Spirit’s incitement, the discipline to get in step with the Spirit more and more.
Paul introduces today’s reading with a marvelous promise: “Keep walking in line with and in the power of the Spirit, and there’s no way that you’ll bring what the flesh craves into being” (Gal 5:16). Christ did not die on our behalf to leave us caught between two opposite but equal powers, to be torn and vacillating between the two. Christ died on our behalf to gain for us that divine power that could break the hold of the flesh over us and over our interactions together. God has put it within our grasp to live out there – and to live with one another in here, even in our committee meetings! – in such a manner as consistently manifests the fruit of the Spirit, such that we continue to allow God to clothe us with love, joy, peaceful relationships, patience, generosity towards others, goodness, steadfast reliability, forbearance, and self-control. If we all together seek the leading of the Holy Spirit for whatever ministry, committee, or group of which we are a part here – the leading of the Holy Spirit, not the leading of our own inner sense of what needs to happen and our frustration, then impatience, then anger with the other people here who get in our way – the outcome must be that we will proceed in all things together harmoniously.
What is required of us to attain this? First, I suppose, we have to buy into Paul’s metrics and into his claim that God cares, perhaps first and foremost, whether we are taking hold of the new life his Spirit makes possible or continuing to indulge our old person in spite of Christ’s death to save us from that person and its destiny. Second, we need to commit ourselves – daily, even hourly – to “keep walking in line with the Spirit,” to maintain vigilance over our own impulses so that, when we recognize the impulses of the “flesh,” we can turn immediately to the Spirit for timely help and power to squelch those impulses and fall in step instead with the Spirit’s better direction. In this manner, it requires diligent and disciplined dying – identifying, denying, and dying to those self-centered drives, those self-protective impulses, those flesh-feeding urges that keep churning up the mucky works of the flesh. Conversely, it requires regularly re-orienting ourselves so that we seek the Spirit’s leading in situation after situation until the Spirit-born impulses become our first impulses.
Epictetus was born around the same time that Paul wrote Galatians. He was born a slave but became one of the most influential Stoic philosophers of the Roman period. He taught those who wanted to attain the Stoic ideal for themselves – that inner freedom from external stimuli that allowed them to remain in control of themselves, possessed of virtue, and unperturbed in mind – that this was possible if they would just train themselves to keep that goal ever before them.
“When you go into the market, don’t think only that you want to get the good fish or vegetables before they’re gone, but also that you want to remain possessed of virtue. When you go into the council chamber, don’t think only that you want to persuade the council to vote one way or another, but also that you want to maintain your self-control. When you go to the public baths, don’t think only that you want to enjoy a restful time and get a good massage, but also that you want to remain unperturbed in mind. That way, when you get to the market and rude people push in ahead of you or grab the choice fish out from under you, you will not be dragged into becoming rude yourself, but will remember – ‘I didn’t just come here to get fish or vegetables, but to keep my virtue intact.’ When you get into the council chamber and angry men oppose your proposal and call you foolish, you won’t get riled up to respond in kind, but will remember – ‘I didn’t just come here to win a debate, but also to maintain my self-control.’ When you get to the bathhouse and a more rowdy bunch spoils your rest with splashing and raucous banter, you will remember, ‘I didn’t just come here for a restful massage, but also to remain unperturbed in mind.’ The first of each pair of goals is always vulnerable to being foiled; the second goal of each pair, is in no one’s power to foil but your own.”
We can learn a lot from Epictetus’s advice, with this important change: our second goal, really our underlying and indispensable goal, in every situation is this – that we will keep in step with the Spirit in every situation, and not give ourselves over to what the “flesh” might impel us to do. I would urge us to be especially attentive to this in our work, our activities, our ministries together as a congregation. The ugly stereotype of a church these days is that it is a place marked by “displays of enmity, strife, angry outbursts, self-promoting acts, dissensions, factions” – all flesh-driven works. Let’s be vigilant to banish all of these from every corner of our church by giving none of them so much as a corner within ourselves. The beauty of the alternative is irresistible – a community characterized by “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, forbearance, self-control” – a Spirit-shaped culture. These are God’s metrics, and he has supplied us, in his Spirit, with all that we need to measure up.