Sermon Commentary for Sunday, June 26, 2016
Galatians 5:1, 13-25 Commentary
Most of Galatians can be summed up through a subtle reversal of a traditional saying: “Don’t just do something, stand there!” Paul has whacked and whacked away at the false teaching that infiltrated Galatia—the teaching that we can and must add something to the cross of Christ for salvation to be truly effective. Get circumcised, keep laws, observe certain customs and rituals and THEN you are really saved in a way you would not be were it only a matter of trusting in Christ’s work alone.
So Paul has been shouting “Forget about your deeds” over and over. “It’s not about you!” By late in this epistle you are reminded of a part of the courtroom scene in the movie A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson’s tough-bitten Colonel Jessup barks at Tom Cruise’s Lt. Kaffee, “Are we clear?” “Yes, sir.” “Are we CLEAR?” “Crystal.”
“Dear Galatians, when it comes to your works not meaning ONE SINGLE THING in terms of contributing to your salvation, are we clear?” “Yes, Pastor Paul.” “Are we CLEAR?” “Crystal.”
And then . . . then comes Galatians 5 and we take a decisive turn to Paul’s suddenly saying “Don’t just stand there, do something!” Now Paul pivots to saying that God has set us free in Christ but not free to do whatever feels good or whatever we want. No, freedom is to be in service to others and in service to God above all and what that means is that there are a whole lot of things you simply cannot do as a baptized follower of Christ. There is a whole category of things called the works of “the flesh” and these have no place in the Christian life. Sexual immorality, orgies, witchcraft, temper tantrums, getting roaring drunk, envy and pride and other community-ripping stances: all of these must be avoided. Christ did not set you free to be a jerk. Christ did not set you free to be a self-indulgent party person.
Instead of indulging these fleshly acts we are to pursue Spirit-filled acts and then grow what Paul goes on to call the “fruit of the Spirit.” Nine lovely character traits are listed, each flowing out of the prior and all together making up a matched set. Unlike the gifts of the Spirit—that differ person to person—the fruit of the Spirit are to be common to all. You cannot say you are called to the fruit of kindness but that self-control is not something you need. No, each fruit implies the other eight fruit and together they make up Christ-like identity and character in us.
Before considering a couple other ideas on how to preach on this fairly large text, a note first on the larger issue: how can Paul say “Forget about your deeds” and “Ponder well your deeds” in the same letter without this being merely incoherent? Shouldn’t this be one or the other? Does the end of Galatians undercut the prior material?
No, and the reason is because although no one has ever been more forthright and clear about salvation coming only through the grace of Christ’s cross than Paul, no one knew better than Paul that with baptism comes a whole new person and a new creation. For Paul the indicative always precedes the imperative and if Paul’s letters contain a lot of imperatival command statements on Christian living, that is only because Paul saw the grace of Christ as being at once deeply salvific and deeply transformative.
For Paul it was never a matter of saying “Become what you are not by behaving better.” It was always a matter of “Be who in baptism you already are.” It was never “Behave so God will save you.” It was always, “God already saved you so act like it.” There is a tight linkage—even etymologically—between the grace that saves and the gracious lives we lead as a result. Charis leads to eucharis which leads to the profusion of charismata in our lives. Grace makes us thankful and thanksgiving issues in the gifts and fruit of the Spirit and their exercise to God’s glory and to our neighbor’s benefit in the church and in the world.
It’s always something of a tightrope walk for us preachers. We know on the one hand that there are any number of closet legalists in the congregation. They already half believe the heresy that beset Galatia and so any talk from the pulpit about the need for moral living and fruit production just props up their false view that God grades on the curve and they are getting to heaven on the installment plan after all. Finding a way to talk to these people about morality while still leaving the full punch of salvation by grace alone intact requires regular effort to separate these things out.
On the other hand there are any number of overly entitled people in the congregation, including some from the younger generation who don’t seem to have as much difficulty with shame and guilt as they maybe should. Oh they get grace all right but the flipside of moral living, sacrificial giving to the church, and bearing much fruit does not get as much of a hearing from those who lean in the direction of moral therapeutic deism and the out-of-touch, insouciant god of that branch of modern thinking. To talk to them about grace without dismissing the need to respond morally and seriously and in service to God and neighbor also requires regular effort to point out these connections.
What’s a preacher to do? Well, preach grace until it looks like antinomianism is a danger and preach discipleship and bearing much fruit until it looks like legalism is a danger! And do both simultaneously and regularly until the rhythms and connections of all this start to sink in over the longer haul of the preaching life in the congregation. (Hey, nobody ever said preaching was supposed to be easy!)
But one way to preach Galatians 5 is to use the nine fruit of the Spirit to sketch such a lyric portrait of a beautiful, generous life that it flat out looks inviting to all who hear the sermon. We can’t scold people into being loving, peaceful, self-controlled, gentle and all the rest. But we can share vignettes of what such a life-giving life looks like. In an age when everyone seems angry, entitled, hacked off, selfish, and filled with me-first strong arm tactics to get their way, don’t we long for more loving people who are kind, good, peaceable? Don’t we pine to see self-control and patience and a deep-seated joy setting the tone for our interactions with each other, for our politics, for our very church communities? Many of us know people who are already good examples of this. We need to share their stories, hear their testimonies, be inspired by their examples.
“Keep step with the Spirit” Paul writes near the end of this chapter. The Spirit is leading the way and blazing the trail. We are already free from fear and anxiety, knowing God loves us in Christ already and has saved us fully by his cross. What remains is just trotting along after the Holy Spirit to see all the rich, juicy, abundant fruit that Spirit can and will grow on the branches of our lives.
C.S. Lewis regularly looked for ways to keep Christians from confusing the fruit of their salvation with the root of grace that alone makes the Christian life possible. One of his better known such examples involves the 6-year-old little boy who comes to his father and says “Daddy, can I have $5 to buy you a present?” The father obliges the child and pulls a $5 bill out of his pocket. Later the child comes back to the father to give him the gift he bought. The father is, of course, thrilled with the gift and thanks and praises and kisses the child for his thoughtfulness and his generosity.
But, Lewis notes, only a fool would conclude the father came out $5 ahead on the deal.
We don’t bring to God anything he did not already give to us. But he is as thrilled as he can be when we bring to him the gifts of our spiritual fruit. And as loving children, it thrills us to offer these and to receive our Father’s beaming love over and over again.
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