The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity (September 18, 2022)
“Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.”
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be alway acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our Strength and our Redeemer. In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.
I want to take a survey. Raise your hand if you’re a Christian, by which I mean if you’ve been baptized in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. Great. Now keep your hand up if, at some point, you have sinned since your baptism; if you have sinned since baptism, please put your hand down. So what we can deduce from this survey is that people received the grace of Baptism, a grace that remits both actual sin (those sins committed prior to baptism) and original sin (the defects in our nature present in us from the moment of our birth as a result of the sin of Adam and Eve). In Baptism, we become clean, like the lepers were cleansed of their leprosy in the Gospel reading from Luke this morning. And yet each of us who have been baptized can identify a struggle within ourselves, a struggle where we often know that a thing is wrong but we want to do it anyways. This fleshly lust that we have for things that are wrong is called concupiscence and, unfortunately, it stays with us throughout our lives. So while the stain of sin is removed, the effects of sin are not (we still suffer, get sick, feel tempted, and die).
Concupiscence was familiar to St. Paul. The infamous chapter 7 in his Epistle to the Romans is, among some other things, a grappling with the fact of his own affliction with concupiscence. “for what I would, that do I not; but what I hate, that do I.” Perhaps with this awareness of his own struggle in the back of his mind, St. Paul universalizes his experience in our reading this morning: "The flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh: and these are contrary the one to the other: so that ye cannot do the things that ye would.” This is a stark dichotomy: within you, the flesh is always pulling you one direction and the Spirit is pulling you a different direction; the two are constantly at war with each other. This conflict is a zero sum game: you either feed one or the other; you can gratify the flesh or you can gratify the Spirit. It’s another thing we learn from experience: it’s why we feel guilty when we sin. We should feel guilty because we chose something temporal over obedience to God.
To this end, St. Paul gives us two lists in our readings this morning: the works of the flesh and the Fruit of the Spirit. The latter is certainly more well-known but if you’ve ever read Paul, you can probably anticipate many entries in the works of the flesh list: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, perversion, idolatry, strife, jealousy, anger, witchcraft, hatred, selfish rivalries, dissension, partisanship, envy, murder, drunknness, and revelling. These belong in this list because they are actions that bend the knee to concupiscence rather than obey God. Meanwhile, St. Paul gives us the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, longsuffering (patience), gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, and temperance. Each of these qualities require us to deny those impulses that we have which belong to concupiscence. For example, let’s say you’re working an office job and you’re up for promotion. After your boss goes through the process, they decide to pass you over and promote one of your co-workers instead. It would be common, and not really sinful, to be moderately disappointed in this sequence of events. But in this example, let’s say the more you think about it, the angrier you get and finally you get to a point where you wish they had just left the position empty or hired from the outside instead of hiring your co-worker. You aren’t jealous of him (jealousy is wanting what something else has); you are envious (sorrowful over the good of another). This is a fleshly impulse because it takes the natural disappointment you feel at being passed over and unjustly projects it onto someone else, directly contradicting your obligation to love them and desire the best for them. So if you react this way, then it’s a sign that you are giving into concupiscence rather than controlling your passions. However, the proper Christian response in this instance would emphasize goodness, love, and longsuffering. You should try to be happy for the success of your co-worker because you want their best and you can embrace a posture of longsuffering knowing that God is probably trying to teach you something and that he may eventually open up a better door that you would be less able to take had you received the promotion.
These two lists, then, represent two paths before us: a way of life and a way of death. It’s a zero sum game, it’s one or the other. There is no neutral, as Dcn. David has said. For Christians, there is no real choice about what we should do: “Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh.” This is intricately tied to who we are: “they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” This has happened to us at baptism and the Christian life is about living out this reality: it’s about becoming who we were made to be. It’s important, I think that we avoid two extremes here. The first extreme is laxness. There are some Christians who say “once saved always saved.” If you’ve been brought into the Church, you can’t leave it no matter what you do. As nice as this might sound, it contradicts the Scriptures: “Take heed, brethren, lest there be in any of you an evil heart of unbelief, in departing from the living God” (Heb 3:12). We want to avoid presuming on grace, using our perceived security as a license to sin or be lazy in pursuing holiness. The second extreme we have to avoid is Pelagianism: the idea that we can pursue holy virtues all by ourselves. This is really just another form of pride: we think we can pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps. We have to be enabled by grace; but those of us who have been baptized have received the grace we need to be enabled to live holy lives. Our collect is a good model of how to avoid these extremes: “Almighty and everlasting God, give unto us the increase of faith, hope, and charity.” We cannot have faith, hope, and charity without God implanting them in our hearts. “That we may obtain that which thou dost promise, make us to love that which thou dost command.” On the basis of our dependence on God, we are called to obtain what he promises us; there is a kind of striving here, a kind of work but its done on the basis of the fact that we are in Christ.
We raised our hand to symbolize that we are baptized and we put our hands down to acknowledge that we aren’t yet what we should be. Our primary vocation, the most important job we have, is to work with the grace God imparts to us through sacraments and prayer to make that gap between who we are in Christ and how we act smaller and smaller, and ultimately not existent. We don’t have to sin; we choose to sin. If we’re in Christ, we must become like Christ.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.