Galatians 5:1, 13-25
This morning our text takes us to 1st century Galatia where Christians then, not completely unlike Christians today, are debating. I’m starting to get the impression that maybe debating is just part of our DNA – but that’s for another time. During this time in Galatia there were what you could call two sects of Christianity, the Jewish Christians, those who were both ethnically and religiously Jewish, who came to believe in Jesus as the Messiah, and then there were the Gentile Christians who followed the ways and teachings of Jesus apart from Judaism.
Whenever you read about circumcision in the New Testament, there is a pretty good chance that this is the debate that is being hashed out, but there is more to be found at the heart of this debate than just a conversation about circumcision. As we know Jesus was a Jew, he was a Jewish man, he was a Jewish man that practiced Judaism (with some of his own interpretation of the law), he was born a Jewish man and he also DIED a Jewish man – his first followers were also Jewish women and men who practiced Judaism. This meant for men, they were circumcised shortly after birth, and for both men and women, they followed the Mosaic Laws – all the laws that were received during the time when the Israelites were wandering in the wilderness after the exodus from Egypt, all those rules in the Old Testament that we skip over about mixing meat and milk, or eating animals with cleft hooves or keeping the Sabbath, because they seem so foreign to us – those laws.
These laws were sacred to Jews then – and are sacred to Jews now – they are understood to come from God – to be guidelines for how to live as God’s chosen people. In Leviticus 19:2, speaking to Moses, God says, “Speak to all the congregation of the people of Israel and say to them: You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy.” The gentiles who followed Jesus, didn’t have this Jewish up bringing – they didn’t practice the laws of Moses, they didn’t have Israelite ancestors – they practiced the religion of their ancestors or culture what we would call today “paganism”. So as Christianity began to grow – a religion rooted in Judaism – and welcome in gentiles, the Jewish Christians believed that the gentile Christians should take on Jewish practices – more or less – Jewish Christians, the first Christians believed that the gentile Christians should become Jews first in order to be part of the Christian community.
Like I said, this is more than a conversation about circumcision – it is even more than an conversation about what Christians should and should not do – it’s a conversation about WHO Christians ought to be as individuals and as a community. It is in this context that we find Paul’s letter to the Galatians, let us turn now to Chapter 5.
When I first started preparing for this sermon, I picked this text because I wanted to focus on the abundance of the fruit of the Spirit that I experience here at Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church. I wanted to hand each of you a piece of fruit as you entered this sanctuary and focus my sermon almost entirely on how there is so much love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control in this congregation, but I can’t, or at least I can’t start there, not because it’s not true, but because to read this scripture aloud in this space with all of you, to then focus only on the fruit, only on the “best” parts of who we are would be in authentic.
Here’s why, see the list of the fruit of the Spirit is not the only list Paul provides us with in this text, he also provides us with a list of desires of the flesh: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, envy, drunkenness, carousing and I’m willing to bet, that in the same way we can affirm that we have evidence of some of those (or maybe all of those) fruit of the Spirit in our lives, we probably also experience some of those desires of the flesh. Maybe you are looking at this list and thinking, NAH – not me, … but what if I told you this. The Greek word Paul uses for flesh is, sarx, and scholars claim that this word is “Paul’s shorthand for self-centered living as opposed to God-centered living” So I ask you this, have you ever been more concerned with your own needs than the needs of others? Have you ever gone about your day without once thinking about who God calls you to be?
Does this mean you can’t also be filled with the Spirit? Does this mean that your life can’t also be filled with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? NO – it just means that we can’t ONLY focus on that.
Both of these list are here for a reason, if living in the Spirit was done with a simple snap of the fingers then Paul wouldn’t have needed to acknowledge the desires that come from self-centered living. If I came up here today and only focused on how well we are living as Christians, only talked about the fruit of the Spirit, we may all be tempted to leave this sanctuary today unchanged. If I focused only on the fruit of the Spirit we could all have patted each other on the back and said “Good Job, just keep doing what you’re doing.” But the life of faith is a life that calls us to transformation, to spiritual growth. So what do we do when we acknowledge that we are both filled with the Spirit and also tempted to live self-center lives? We don’t shy away, we don’t announce defeat, we don’t say oh well, it is what it is. No, we dive in. We go deep. We engage.
Verse 24 reads, “And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” Scholars point out that the Greek word for crucified here, is in the active form of the verb, this means that is is not something that is done TO us, but that we as “believers are responsible for our own participation in actively crucifying the ‘flesh’ with its self-interested passions and desires.”  We as believers are responsible for actively crucifying that which keeps us from living God-centered lives. It’s intense, not just because “crucifying” is a means of killing, but because this means we have to acknowledge that there are things that keep us from living God-centered lives. (off script)
It’s scary to us because this engagement, this active participation calls us to be vulnerable and vulnerability is scary. I can’t think about vulnerability without thinking about Brené Brown, she is a professor in Social Work who studies shame and vulnerability, in her book Daring Greatly, she opens with this: read from book. One of the questions she seeks to unpack in this book is, “How do we own and engage with vulnerability so we can start transforming the way we live?”
In that same vein the question we have before us today is, “How do we engage with the reality that we have both self-centered desires and desires to live God centered lives so we can start transforming the way we live so that we can be who WE ought to be as Christians? We do it through the freedom we have in Christ– the first verse we read today from Galatians says this: “For freedom, Christ has set us free…. Christ has set us free, not so that we can free ourselves of the shame of our self-centered desires and thus just #liveourbestlife, but so that we can truly “love our neighbors as ourselves.” Mark Douglas, a Christian Ethics professor at Columbia Theological Seminary said this about this verse, he says is “not only [is it] a gospel claim – that Christ has set us free – but a missional cause: that our lives and actions are to reveal that freedom. What does freedom look like?” he continues, “After all, Paul is soon issuing imperatives and suggesting that those who are free should make themselves slaves to one another. Apparently, Christian freedom does not look like living an unencumbered life.”
Living a life that reveals that freedom, does not look like acknowledging self-centered living and staying there. Living a life that reveals that freedom, does not look like focusing only on the good and saying it is enough. Living a life that reveals that freedom, looks like being vulnerable and asking our selves the hard questions about what keeps us from truly letting the Spirit lead us. Then our lives will reveal that freedom, then we can say with confidence that we are fruit-FULL, not because we have reached a point of perfection, but because we are present and actively engaging in the freedom we have in Christ to be all that we are called to be.
Are you willing to go there? Are you willing to do what is required to live a life that reveals the freedom we have in Christ? To embrace the transforming power of Christ in your own life and to allow yourself to be lead by the Spirit to fulfill that which we are called to do, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
In the same way that we as individuals are on this faith journey, we as the church are called to journey, as well. Churches, too, are called to transformation. Churches, too, can become inwardly focused. Churches, too, can do so much that it seems like good, is good enough. But how many times since these doors of this sanctuary opened in 1866 has this church done the work of going deep and diving in in order to better reveal the freedom that is offered in Christ to the world around it? I can imagine a countless number of times, because that is what the church is called to do. To evaluate who it has been, who it presently is and who it is called to be in the future. We as the church, have to practice vulnerability acknowledging the places where we have become inwardly focused, be open and willing to evaluate why we do what we do, and then be brave enough to make the changes that are needed in order to continue to love our neighbors well. It is then that we will discovery how truly fruit-FULL we are.
We are not perfect, we can be self-focused, but we are also fruit-FULL, when we embrace the freedom and engage with the transformation that is offered in Christ. Robert Bryan writes, “ As believers participate in the ongoing work of putting to death those powers pitted against God’s will for their lives, they become empowered with new life and live increasingly in the realm of the Spirit” this is my hope for each of us as individual and as the church. That we will become empowered with new life and live increasingly in the realm of the Spirit discovering and embracing WHO we ought to be as a Christian community, called to love our neighbors as ourselves. AMEN The People’s Bible, p. 1621.  Feasting on the word, Year c, Volume 1, Proper 3-16, p.187  pg 189