Sunday 27th May Morning - Fruit of the Spirit
1 Galatians 5: 16 – 26 I came to faith when I started university, just over 37 years ago. I’d had a churchy upbringing, being sent along to Sunday school and attending a church school, but the good news had never really touched my heart or taken root within me. I’d been taught, and had seen around me, a version of Christianity in which people tried their best to be good, to live by the principles taught by Jesus. It didn’t look like a lot of fun, but I could see that it was definitely a decent and “right” way to live. We tried as hard as we could to be good, and when we failed, God forgave us and set us right again. Perhaps once I’d had a bit of fun at Uni, sowed a few wild oats etc, I could settle down to a similarly decent but rather up-tight sort of life. The love of a good woman and being welcomed by a joyfully spirit-filled group of believers changed my life forever. Suddenly I actually knew the God about whom I had been taught so much. All the head knowledge now lined up with what was bursting out of my heart, and life was richer and more meaningful than I had ever known. I was determined to live the life that God wanted me to, and applied all of my considerable willpower and strength of character (or so I liked to think of it, others may well have called it pride and stubbornness) to doing just that. For a while this all worked very nicely. But I did notice that some other people who said they were Christians did not live up to the same high standards as I did. Tut tut! It was also very hard work, constantly suppressing old bad habits and wrong ways of behaving, and making myself do what I knew to be right. Of course, it all ended in tears. No matter how hard I tried I still found my old ways jumping out and ambushing me, and I’m sure that I said and did unkind and judgemental things of and to other believers. The turning point for me was when I discovered that it wasn’t up to me at all, that what I actually needed to do was to realise that I couldn’t do it myself, not even a bit. I had to learn to allow God’s Holy Spirit to provide all the power, all the enabling, all the can do. At one level, this was wonderfully, marvellously easy. At another level, letting go of my pride and learning to “let go, and let God” was oh so difficult. Still is, if I’m being honest. Your story won’t be quite the same as my story, but I’m sure that all of us have experienced these same issues in some way or another. Which of us has never felt sneakily proud at how good we have been, perhaps also comparing 2 ourselves with others who aren’t being quite so good? Which of us has never struggled with old, bad habits, wrong thoughts, sinful behaviours that never quite seem to be tamed? Who hasn’t thought that they were doing well, only to fall in a heap when we slipped up and discovered that our mighty castle was actually a house of cards? Today we’ll be reading a passage that pretty much all of us will know well. One of the reasons why this passage is so well-loved is that it speaks to a struggle about how we should live, a struggle that every one of us is familiar with. This letter was written to the people of the ancient region of Galatia, in what we now call central Turkey. Initial churches, which Paul may have planted, were made up mainly of pagan converts, but after a time a group of new arrivals were pushing the line that the new Christians also needed to obey the requirements of the Jewish law. Having been so delighted at the way that the new believers had understood God’s grace, and had lived it out, Paul was very distressed to learn that they were being pushed backwards into trying to win God’s approval by obeying the law of Moses. The central theme of this letter is that there are 3 ways of living which believers may choose – legalism, licence, or liberty. Legalism refers to the idea that our salvation, our standing with God, relies strictly on our adherence to God’s law. Licence means that there are no laws, anything is allowable. God has forgiven all our sins, so it no longer matters what we actually do. Paul is urging the third option, liberty. In Paul’s thinking, liberty meant the freedom to choose to do what is right, not from law, but because of our love for God and for others. Paul stresses that the power to live a life of liberty does not come from within us, it is not something that we can make ourselves do. Instead, it relies wholly and solely on the power of the Holy Spirit living in each believer, every one of us. This means that in each and every one of us, two different ways of living are in conflict. The Spirit and the law. When we choose to live under the law, we are actually taking control away from the Holy Spirit and trying to put our lives back into our own hands. In effect, we are saying to God, “I can do this. I’m strong enough to be good enough. I’m in control”. It’s actually a very proud way of living, and can easily become a form of idolatry where we elevate ourselves and our own efforts above God. 3 Turning to the passage, I need to define what Paul means by the word “flesh”. It doesn’t mean meat or bodily substance, rather it refers to our sinful human nature. Galatians 5: 16 – 26 So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. Paul sets out 2 lists, which we could even describe as the works or fruit of the flesh vs the fruit of the spirit. I don’t intend to exhaustively define each of these, but to highlight a few points. Sexual immorality refers to sex outside of marriage / Impurity is the opposite of a word which was used to describe a house left clean and in good condition, and came to be used of the cleanliness which enabled a person to come before God / Debauchery refers to being ready for any pleasure, having no barriers and no limits as to what we will do to experience pleasure / Idolatry means placing anyone or anything first, before God. / Witchcraft literally means drug abuse – the word is pharmaki – and you thought that the Bible had nothing to say about drug use! / Hatred, discord, jealousy and fits of rage speak for themselves / Self-seeking refers to doing everything purely for what we can get out of it, not out of any sense of duty or service (it was often used of those seeking public office – see how things have not changed!) / Factions is how we translate the word hairesis, from which we also derive the word heresy. People who form factions are unable to disagree without being disagreeable / In Paul’s thinking, the envious person not only 4 wanted to have what someone else also had, he or she also became bitter in their spirit because of it / Drunkenness and orgies also have just the same meaning now as they did then. And just when you think “I’m OK, I don’t do any of those things”, Paul adds the catch-all phrase “and things like these”. There’s no escape. Here we see Paul describing a life outside of Jesus, the works of a godless society. Or do we? Let’s stop and think. To whom was he writing this letter? To churches in Galatia. The other clue that Paul is actually describing what will become of the church if we try to live without the power of the Holy Spirit is at the end of verse 24 – he is clearly writing to people who might have expected that they would inherit the kingdom of God. That would be believers. Us. You and me. The scary truth is that all of the things that Paul describes as the works of the flesh are traps that believers can and will fall into unless they live lives empowered by the spirit of God. A moment or two spent thinking about things that we have read about the behaviour of churches and believers in modern times will help us to realise that, as usual, Paul is still right on the money. Thankfully Paul doesn’t end there. Although we often just read “the nice bit”, this part begins with a “but” which tells us that we must read what comes before in order to understand it all properly. Having shown us where legalism and reliance on our own strength will lead us, Paul now goes on to show how the Spirit gives us the power to change. In this well-known passage he describes the fruit of the spirit. Unconquered, selfless love. Deep, unshakable joy. A peace founded on wholeness and God’s grace. Patience which chooses not to jump in and act even when it could rightly do so. Kindness which is both sweet and strong. Goodness which always seeks the best for others. Faithfulness which can be relied on in every circumstance. Gentleness and self-control which tame our strong emotions and impulses and channel them in ways which build up and enrich others. I don’t know about you, but I know which sort of community I’d rather be part of! It struck me as I thought about this that we can see the fruit of the spirit clearly in some people here today. I’m sure you know the kind of person that I am thinking of. I think of godly, older people like Rosa Gallas, people whose characters have been cultivated by the Holy Spirit over many years so that Jesus own character is seen clearly in them. Because that’s what the fruit of the spirit 5 is all about. It is nothing less than the character of Jesus himself gradually appearing in our lives. It also struck me that the works fruit of flesh happen instantly, but the fruit of spirit takes time So, how do I encourage the growth of the fruit of the spirit in my life? 1. Realise that trying to be good just doesn’t work. It leads to guilt and shame. It’s just too hard. Give up trying in your own strength. It’s not that it isn’t important to be good, to act the right way. It’s critical. How it is achieved is even more important though. Give up trying, and allow the Holy Spirit to do his gracious work in you. (speak about my own anger) 2. Acknowledging that you cannot be truly good in your own strength, actively ask God to change you. Ask him to fill you and go on filling you with the Holy Spirit. If there are areas of your life or your character which trouble you, pray repeatedly for the spirit to be at work in those areas, growing his wonderful fruit in place of the bitter fruit of our own works. Maybe ask others to pray with you – it’s a wonderful antidote to pride and self-sufficiency. 3. Don’t expect instant results. It’s a work in progress which will never quite be complete. Don’t be discouraged – our God forgives our sins, removes them from us, and no longer remembers them (Jeremiah 31). “I did it again…”. “Did what??”. Be patient and persistent, Fruit takes time to grow and ripen. It also takes the flesh, the old nature, a while to die. You might have noticed that Paul says that we “have crucified the flesh with its old passions and desires”. Very true, but remember that crucifixion is a slow form of death. It takes a while. So it is that our old nature doesn’t just drop dead the moment we turn to Jesus. 4. If specific behaviours or problems keep on cropping up, ask for God’s perspective. Why do I do this? How does it affect others? This shifts my perspective, and allows me to understand and let go. Remember that a good farmer helps his tree to grow and bear much fruit by pruning it. So it is with our heavenly father. He will prune us, and it will hurt, but it is for our good and we should allow him to do his work without grumbling and 6 complaining. 5. Allow others to speak into your life. See them as role models. Don’t get defensive if they have something to say about our attitudes and actions. They may well be exercising their gifts….knowledge, discernment, prophecy, exhortation. Be humble and teachable. Don’t be stubborn and proud, or your progress will be slow, just like the children of Israel wandering in the wilderness. In particular, break free of these lies a. I am the way that I am and I can’t change (God wants to something extraordinary and truly new in your life, not so much to give you a new start in life as to give you a new life to start with! Things that are impossible for us in our own strength are possible for our God. He is bigger!) b. I will change myself, I can do it myself The result – transformed people, who are part of a transformed community, where we stop competing, stop fighting, stop struggling and walk in lock step with the Spirit of God. Why wouldn’t you want to have a life and a church like that? Heart of flesh versus heart of stone: Ezekiel 36 I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean; I will cleanse you from all your impurities and from all your idols. 26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws. 28 Then you will live in the land I gave your ancestors; you will be my people, and I will be your God. 22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop a willingness to stick with 7 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. Speak these words prophetically.