July 18, 2010

The fruit of the Spirit

Passage: Galatians 5:16-26, Luke 10:38-42, Galatians 5:22-23

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.


A new study finds that most U.S. high-school students say they have cheated on tests and homework, Psych Central News reports. In some cases, the teens said, they don’t consider certain types of cheating out of line. “Students generally understand what constitutes cheating, but they do it anyway,” said Kenneth Kiewra, professor of educational psychology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, and one of the study’s authors. “The results suggest that students’ attitudes are tied to effort. Cheating that still required students to put forth some effort was viewed as less dishonest than cheating that required little effort,” he said.

So, let me get this straight—certain delinquencies are, supposedly, more palatable if some effort was demanded in the course of the commission of the delinquency?  George Eliot, a short-story writer (1842-1914), wrote: “Errors look so very ugly in persons of small means—one feels they are taking quite a liberty in going astray; whereas people of fortune may naturally indulge in a few delinquencies.” So, a delinquency may be indulged in if you can afford it?

Researcher Mark Bellis of Liverpool John Moores University in England, is the lead academic for the UK Drugs Focal Point and IREFREA - a European Union collaborative examining substance use (alcohol and drugs), sexual risk taking and prevention in young people across Europe.  In one research project he collected statistics concerning 1,064 rock stars from the United States and Europe between the 1950s and the present. His conclusions suggest that there is a high cost to hard living; statistically, rock stars really do die younger than the general population. The average age at death for American rockers was 42; for Europeans, 35.

1. “For freedom Christ has set us free”; wrote the Apostle Paul.  This sentence is the hinge in the letter to the Galatians; what precedes it builds the case for freedom in Christ and what follows is an articulation of what this freedom is for.  “For freedom you were called...; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence”.  Such self-indulgence is a return to slavery.

Last Sunday, Rev. Stephen Williamson concluded his message to us on that text with two very poignant questions. The first was, have you accepted the freedom that is Jesus; the second was, how will you use your freedom?  It is this second question that Paul is answering what he went on to say: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.”

It is important for us to note here what Paul means by the Spirit and the flesh.  Our tendency is to read into this text some sort of dualism; to read it as a distinction between the “spiritual”, on one hand, and the “physical”, on the other.  The Apostle Paul would reject all such dualism; he knew the Greek philosophy of his era that taught dualism; we must be careful not to read their dualism into Paul’s thought.

When Paul speaks of the Spirit that is opposed to the flesh he means the Holy Spirit; when he speaks of the flesh he means the unaided, human disconnected from God.  Both of them operate in the full sphere of human life which includes everything about our physical existence.  In other words, the “flesh” in Paul’s theology is not merely the physical body as if the human problem is physical existence; that is what Gnostics of Paul’s era said and what Christian Science says today.  Paul would never say that there is anything wrong with the human body; it is after all the creation of God.  The problem is not that our human bodies have desires; it is that these desires are disordered.

Our freedom in Christ is so such that this “flesh”, this inner corruption that destroys, no longer has dominion over us.  In the Spirit we are set free to know the real joy of our human existence.

Paul said it is the “flesh” that prevents you from doing what you want”.  The research that shows that high-school students cheat even though they knew the duplicity that constitutes cheating illustrates precisely what Paul is talking of here.  Lest we be too hard on these students consider that moment of decision when the cashier gives you one five dollar bill too many in change; think how easily we rationalize that we are not responsible for the cashier’s mistake; does it not surprise you how easy it is to sell our integrity for such a paltry sum of money?  This thing that prevents you from doing the thing you know is right—that is what Paul means by the flesh, the unaided human disconnected from God.

2. I am not quite sure what to call it; perhaps to romanticize delinquency.  It is an instance of where the “flesh” takes us.  Akin to the way the studious are called derogatory names and the rebellious seen as almost heroic so too there is this sense that it is our peccadilloes that render a person “real” or “human”.  Mark Twain gave expression to it when he said, “I have not a particle of confidence in a man who has no redeeming vices”.

Let me ask you; what is redemptive about a vice?  And yet there remains among humans a notion that vice is actually good for you; an evening of television sit-coms seem constructed on this very premise.  And what about the way we reminisce with fondness about youthful over-indulgence; or what about a group of young men swapping stories where indiscretion is championed; our memory ever seems to  embellish these events out of proportion with reality.  It is almost as if you haven’t really experienced life unless you indulged in a vice or two; without them life would be a colossal bore.

Let us take a moment to put this in the perspective of Jesus’ life.  Do you have the sense that Jesus was an unhappy person?  Was he bored by life?  He was raised to be a carpenter—do you get any sense that he thought his carpentry years a terrible waste of time?  Do get the sense that he thought he was missing out on life because he did not “party hard” nor had stories of a youthful string of female conquests to tell his disciples?  Rather the impression we get of Jesus is that he is the one human being who knew what it was to be fully alive as a human in every sense of the word.

That day when he came to the home of Mary and Martha and Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying”; Jesus said “Mary has chosen the better part”. Do we believe him?  Is there really anything greater than knowing Christ Jesus?  The Psalmist said of God; “Your loving kindness is better than life”.  Is it possible that the reason life feels so disappointing is because we seek its joys in things that were never designed to deliver real joy?  Could it be that the things we commonly consider to put the “life” in human life are mere shadows of the real thing?

3. When Paul speaks about “living by the Spirit” and “gratifying the desires of the flesh” he is speaking about two opposing ways of living.  The word translated “to gratify” denotes “end” or “goal” implying that the fulfilling of our desires and passions were life’s purpose.  Narcissism, the love of one’s own body, was alive in Paul’s day as well.  I recall a Woody Allen cartoon that showed him on a park bench; in the first frame he thinks “life has no meaning”; in the second frame he thinks, “We don’t know why we are here”; in the third frame an attractive female walks by and he gets up and follows her now thinking, “though, sometimes we think we know why”.  Clearly, self-absorption is a dominant feature of “gratifying the desires of the flesh”.

Paul said: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”  It is clear that the Apostle Paul will not be offered a job directing movies or television shows any time soon—do you not find it interesting that this list pretty much describes a lot of what moderns call entertainment?

Paul was not trying to give an exhaustive list of where the “flesh” leads us; he does say enough to make clear its direction and sufficient indication of what other things are like these.  Paul very much parallels a saying of Jesus: “For it is from within, from the human heart, that evil intentions come: fornication, theft, murder, 22adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. 23All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.” (Mark 7:21-23)

Time for this message does not permit close examination of Paul’s list; I do think that focus on what to do rather than what to avoid is the more productive approach.  Still, some attention on what to steer clear of remains helpful.  I do want to make a brief comment on this list in light of our culture that is obsessed with human sexuality; where freedom is thought to include the right to indulge our desires as we see fit.

C.S. Lewis illustrated our cultural obsession with a very insightful comparison. He wrote: “You can get a large audience together for a striptease act, that is to watch a girl undress on the stage. Now, suppose you went to a country where you could fill a theater simply by bringing a covered plate onto the stage and then slowly lifting the cover so that everyone could see just before the lights went out that it contained a lamb chop or a bit of bacon. Would you not think that something had gone wrong in that country and their appetite for food?”

I know that Paul’s language (and Jesus’ for that matter) sounds so stark in our era of an easy-going narcissism; many today would read Paul’s list and shrug it off with the indifferent rely of “whatever”.  The deafness and indifference of our world should not dull our attention to what Jesus and Paul said is at stake; Jesus said these things “defile a person”, Paul said “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”

4. “By contrast,” writes Paul, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control.” Of these two lists—the works of flesh and the fruit of the Spirit—it is this latter one you would do well to memorize.  The check list of the character that the Spirit promotes in us is the one to have handy; it is almost axiomatic that seeking this fruit will never lead us to the works of the flesh.  Take love, the first of these fruits, as an example; if we treat one another with love it is always to promote what is best for the other person. Love of another would, for example, never compromise the sexual integrity of another human being created in the image of God.

When you think of this list—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control—is this not a description of the friend we are longing for?  This is exactly who Jesus Christ is as his followers down through the ages have found.  When you read the gospel stories it is clear that people loved to be around him; there was something about him that attracted people to him.  It is interesting to note that we have no physical description of Jesus’ appearance but a detailed description of his love for people.  Perhaps we place too much emphasis on our outer appearance and not enough on our character.

Each fruit from this list is worthy of detailed examination.  Think of generosity for a moment.  We typically equate this with wealth and that is part of what it means to be generous; when you do to the restaurant you appreciate friends who reach for the bill.  But generosity with yourself is another aspect to consider.  From my consulting days I recall helping people with job search counselling them to target a field of work and seeking out people in that work to interview; their goal was to book 20 minutes and ask them how they came to be in the work they are doing and what advice they would give someone who sought similar work.  It is not a surprise to find out that people would often give more than 20 minutes and priceless insights.  Be generous, it comes back to bless you at unimagined moments.

Loving the neighbour is not always easy; it is, nonetheless, what Christ has freed us for.  Jonathan Acuff writes about the Christian faith on his website www.stuffchristianslike.net.  He wrote a piece that CNN posted on their website about the sometimes less than loving online behaviour of Christians.  What caught my attention was what he called “Room Cleaning Christianity”.

“Why do Christians argue about drinking beer or why the tankini is the least slutty of all bathing garments? I think it’s because we sometimes practice "Room Cleaning Christianity." Think of it like college. When you’ve got a final paper due Monday, you will be amazed at how energetic your desire is to clean your room. You will scrub tile with a slow toothbrush if it means avoiding the bigger, more difficult work of writing your paper. The same thing happens with Christianity. Loving your neighbour might be simple, but it’s not easy. Maybe my neighbour is a jerk too. Maybe they hate God. Maybe they are actively and violently opposed to everything I believe. And showing them grace feels impossible. So instead of dealing with that, we get online and police people. We find small things to focus on that will distract us. ... we practice room cleaning Christianity at the exclusion of love. And we tend to become jerks.”

One final thought.  Paul concludes this section with a warning against conceit, competing against one another, envying on another; this may indicate that these were of particular problem in the Galatian church.  I point out to you that the fruit of the Spirit has the effect of bringing people together; the desires of the flesh divide and separate.

By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.