Monday, July 02, 2007

Freedom, Flesh, and Fruit. July 1 Sermon

Leviticus 19: 17-18
Galatians 5: 1, 13-25

This week we celebrate the 231st anniversary of our declaration of freedom from British rule. We celebrate our independence as a nation and as a people. We think of our freedom in many ways—we have freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom to vote, freedom for the ultimate aim of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” We probably do not associate freedom with slavery. Indeed, they are thought of as polar opposites. Yet in today’s reading from Galatians Paul breathes in freedom in one sentence, and then breathes out slavery with a smile.
We have spent the past couple weeks reflecting on Paul’s letter to the Galatians. In this letter, arguably the first letter of Paul’s and thus the oldest book in the New Testament, Paul confronts opponents in the mission field to the Gentiles who want to subscribe Gentile converts to Judaism before becoming Christians. Paul rejects this effort because he sees it undermining the power of the witness, death, and resurrection of Christ. In today’s lesson, he concludes previous chapters of argument with the dramatic words, “For freedom Christ has set you free! Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.”
Paul equates submission to the law code and the cultural practices of Judaism with slavery to a system that has been abolished by the power of Christ. He insists that the Greek Galatians are claimed and adopted by God simply and perfectly by the sacrificial faith of Jesus Christ.
Paul focuses on the freedom of Christians throughout the book of Galatians, and in this passage speaks specifically about freedom as a pathway, one that we “walk” and “keep in step with” the Spirit, or one which we diverge from if we find ourselves living in self centered or divisive ways.
It is as if the freedom road on which he guides the recipients of this letter has some very dangerous offshoots, and Paul is assuring us that while the rival missionaries believe that the Law is the only map for humans to stay on course, Paul believes that the Holy Spirit is the uniquely adequate and essential guide along the path of freedom.
Paul’s antidote to slavery is freedom found in Christ. And Paul’s antidote to excessive behavior that he fears would result from this freedom is slavery to one another. It is as if Thomas Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence, “and if any of these freedoms that we find self evident in humanity should infringe on the good of all, then we declare that we have strayed from the hallowed path of freedom and should seek the binds that draw us again to one another as a society.”
Rev. Timothy Downs writes in a sermon called “Jesus Means Freedom, “Now, in Galatia, Paul makes it clear-by God's grace we are free, but it's an interesting kind of freedom, a freedom that is not just, "Okay I can do anything I please." It is a freedom that leads to more questions. Here is another easy answer to what it means to be saved. St. Augustine once said, "Love God and do as you please." Is that easy or is it complex? Our freedom in faith is framed by a covenant, by a love of God. Freedom is not license.”
He continues, “It is freedom to act within the context of a relationship with God, a relationship of love. Paul reminds the people of Galatia that we are called to respond to a loving and graceful God by loving our neighbor as ourselves. That means that we are to show esteem for our neighbors and ourselves.
We are to desire to help our neighbor. We are free not simply to be at liberty, but we are free to be more freely loving; and if we are more freely loving, we will be a people who seek a more just and supportive society in which people, to use Paul's words, "no longer bite and devour one another."

The message of v. 13, then, is, “Do not allow freedom to become a base of operations for the hostile power of the Flesh.” How? By becoming “slaves to one another.” If the way to keep Flesh from gaining a base of operations is through loving, mutual service, this suggests that the power of Flesh will try to manifest itself through pride, rivalry, and autonomy.
The Spirit, on the other hand, manifests itself in community in what Paul refers to as fruit. Fruit cannot be humanly manufactured; it can grow only organically, as God gives the growth—in this case, through the life-giving energy of the Spirit
"The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control." These are not laws for behavior, but these are the characteristics of those who in their freedom are open and responsive to the creative spirit of God. There is no law but freedom. But that freedom is framed by a context, by a covenant of mutuality and of love.
When we find our community of faith bearing these fruit, we can be assured that we are living lives in accord with the Spirit. If we instead find other things coming out of our community, we have perhaps become a fortress of the Flesh.
God strengthens us in the fruit of the Spirit through this meal that we come together to celebrate this morning. Through the fruit of the vine and the wheat of the fields, God imparts the Holy Spirit unto our existence. We pray that the Spirit brings us unity to be “one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”
John Wesley mentions in his notes on these verses that “Works are mentioned in the plural because they are distinct from, and often inconsistent with, each other.”
I would add to Wesley’s observation that the Works of the flesh are not only sometimes inconsistent with each other, but they also tear us apart from one another. We shouldn’t hear the word “flesh” and think that Paul is referring solely to sexual sins. His concentration is instead more on the particular works of the flesh that cause division in the community: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy. Wesley pictures for us these works of the Flesh nailed upon the cross in reference to Paul’s words in v. 24 “Nailed it, as it were, to a cross whence it has no power to break loose, but is continually weaker and weaker.” All of these poisons inhibit us from the greatest law, which both Paul and Jesus locate for us in Leviticus: “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.”
In this, the “higher law,” the “temple” of our faith, we are drawn closer together, we are bound as one. Wesley also notes that "the fruit of the Spirit" is mentioned in the singular, ver. 22, as being all consistent and connected together.” Likewise, these gifts and virtues are not only interconnected and flow out of one another, but they usher in unity and harmony among those whom they come to fruition.
So, may we walk by the Spirit. May we be guided along the path of love and righteousness. May our lives bear fruit for the kingdom of God. May we offer tangible and nourishing expression of the Spirit’s activity in our lives by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, and our service. And by the Holy Spirit’s power through this meal we are about to share, may we be one with Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.

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