[This was prepared for delivery during worship at Saint Matthew Lutheran Church in Logan, Ohio, this morning.]
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
In one of his helpful books written for laypeople as well as pastors, New Testament scholar N.T. Wright tells the story of a building that houses a library at Oxford University in England. It’s evidently a gorgeous building and people come long distances to admire it, take pictures of it, and even to paint images of it on canvas.
The grassy area around the building used to be enclosed by high railings, railings so high that, unless you were tall, you really couldn’t see the building. During World War 2, the British government commandeered the iron works and melted them down to make armaments. With that, people could take in the beauty of the building.
In the 1950s and 1960s, there were little signs posted near the library, asking people not to walk on the grass surrounding it. For the most part, people obeyed. At least they did until the 1970s and 1980s. It was then that people began ignoring the signs: holding parties on the library lawn, some hanging out to drink and threaten passersby. Things got so bad out on the lawn that people in the library couldn’t get any work done for all the noise. The grass lawn was trampled to dirt. The place began to look messy and unpresentable. In the late 1980s, the university decided to erect new railings, not as high as the old ones that had been there before. “Now,” says Wright, “once again, the grass and building are beautiful.”
That story, Wright points out, is a parable about the use and abuse of freedom. “It is one thing to be set free…[as library visitors became, once the old railings had been taken down]…and quite another to decide what to do with your freedom when you’ve got it.”
Freedom, of course, is the major theme of the New Testament book of Galatians on which we’ve been focused the past few weeks. Galatians, as you’ll remember, is a letter written by the apostle Paul in about 53AD, to the Gentile Christians in a region of Asia Minor known as Galatia. Through their faith in Jesus Christ, Paul reminded them, they had been set free from sin and death, free from the crushing demands the world puts (and that we ourselves, often put) on us: demands that we be perfect, successful, flawless. (If you don’t believe that such demands exist, spend five minutes on an elementary school play ground or watch a session of Congress on CSPAN.) All with faith in Jesus and in what Jesus did for us on the cross are set free from these demands, free, with the power of God’s Holy Spirit, to become the people God made us to be. “For freedom, Christ has set us free,” Paul says at the beginning of today’s lesson. We can breathe easy: God loves and redeems imperfect people like you and me. The cross and empty tomb of Jesus demonstrate that God wants nothing more than to be reconciled and living with us now and in eternity.
But as Paul moves toward the end of his letter to the Galatians, in the verses that make up most of our lesson, he wants to underscore something important about our freedom in Christ. Through Christ and our faith in Christ, you and I aren’t just freed from things—things like sin, death, and an often unforgiving world. Christ also sets us free to start living our lives differently, away from the sinful impulses and orientations we inherit from Adam and Eve at birth, and toward lives marked by the wholeness, forgiveness, joy, and courage God gives to those who dare to trust their lives to Jesus.
In today’s lesson, Paul contrasts two different styles of life, each lived in the orbits of two contrasting realities. Like the visitors to that Oxford University library, we are free to choose which style of life we will live, to choose what reality around which we orbit. The two realities are life in the flesh, on the one hand, or life in the Spirit, on the other.
Now, we have to be careful not to misunderstand Paul when he speaks of life in the flesh. There are two things he emphatically does not mean. First: Paul doesn’t mean that our flesh or anything else that God has made is irretrievably bad. No matter how mired in sin and death this world may be, the whole universe that we know—including you and me—is the creation of the God Who, when He looked on it all, declared it to be very good. And this whole universe—including you and me—is precisely what Jesus came to die for, to rise for, to buy back from its imprisonment to sin, and to make new. So, Paul isn’t saying that sunrises, or intimacy between a husband and a wife, or the touch of a sea breeze on our faces, or the taste of strawberries fresh from the field or any other thing that gives pleasure to our senses are bad things. God made our senses and our love of all the things our senses relish.
Nor in speaking of life in the flesh or the desires of the flesh is Paul saying that all of our human desires are wrong. Desires for roofs over our heads, for love in our families, for satisfying jobs, and countless other things we might name are legitimate, God-given things.
Life in the flesh—what the Bible also calls sin—happens when we crave or take the blessings God gives in the wrong ways, to the wrong extent, at the wrong times, for the wrong purposes. God made the grape, for example, one of the uses of which is to be fermented and turned into wine. There’s nothing wrong with wine; Jesus likely drank it at every meal. But we have no record of Jesus ever becoming drunk. That would have been an abuse of the gift. Such abuse is an example of life in the flesh, the abuse of our freedom as Christians and as human beings.
Paul describes how life in the flesh may look, in verses 19 to 21. I like the way Eugene Peterson translates Paul’s description. Life in the flesh, he says, leads to “repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions.” If we misuse our freedom in Christ in these ways, Paul is telling us, we enslave ourselves to sin all over again.
But the life of faith in Jesus Christ is a call to live life in the Spirit, a life in which the Holy Spirit can empower us to live in the freedom to become the noble, liberated, humble, strong people God made us to be. Paul also describes what this life style looks like in our lesson. (Again, I’m using Peterson’s translation.) Life in the Spirit is characterized by “affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” I don’t know about you, but that sounds like freedom to me.
Don’t suppose, though, that anyone this side of the grave experiences the full freedom of life in the Spirit. The ongoing challenge of the Christian life in this world is to continue being open to living life God’s way, to living in the Spirit. I came face to face with my own sometimes losing battle to stick with life in the Spirit this past Thursday in a medical examination room where a cardiologist told me, “You’ve had a heart attack. There’s been damage to the heart.” Neither my genetics, nor my medical history prepared me for hearing that. But my battle against the life in the flesh should have. You see, the lure of the life in the flesh is that it deludes us with the notion that we’re in charge, that, even if we recoil at such notions as Christians, we’re our own gods. The lure of life in the flesh is what makes some people decide that they’ll have sex when and with whom they like, no matter what God says. For others, life in the flesh may convince them that it’s OK to steal, cheat, fudge, lie, misuse God’s Name, despoil another’s reputation, hold a grudge, or turn away from someone’s need of a helping hand or a listening ear. For me, the temptation to life in the flesh has often gone something like this: I give God control of some decision or problem in my life and just as I’m getting off my knees, I take the decision or problem back. I’m a recovering control freak who finds it hard to let go and let God. I want to be in the Spirit’s orbit, but all too often, with words of surrender to God still on my lips, I start orbiting again around my puny abilities, my ego. The funny thing about life in the flesh is how it can put so much pressure on us that eventually, it harms the very flesh we spend so much time trying to protect. My heart attack is proof of that.
Now, here’s a funny thing about life in the Spirit. When we cede control of our lives to Jesus, the power of God enters us and empowers us to become the people we only pretend to be when we’re following the ways of the flesh. Unconcerned about what the world thinks of us, living in the acceptance and grace of Jesus, we have the confidence to become our best selves. I have known life in the Spirit, too. But, believe me, with God’s help, I intend to know more of the Holy Spirit and less of the flesh in the remainder of my life. Who wants to join me in doing that?