Text: Galatians 1, 13-25.
The famous “fruit of the Spirit” passage is included in this reading. Is that (and the corresponding “works of the flesh” list) Paul’s message and focus?
Manuscript of sermon preached at the Presbyterian Church.
Whether we admit it or not, most of us love lists. We make task lists, packing lists, shopping lists, bucket lists… And when we’re not making lists, we consume lists made by others: 22 Insane Sales to Shop This Weekend; 12 Sad Snacks That People Actually Made for Themselves; 24 Refreshing Ways to Drink Your Tea This Summer. (These were headlines I found at BuzzFeed, a popular site that posts listicles.) One of the most influential management and personal development lists is found in Steven Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Lists simplify many things in life, often help get us motivated, and allow us to be efficient with our time and effort.
Which brings us to Galatians chapter 5. If BuzzFeed had existed in the first century, we might have seen headlines such as “Paul Says Beware These 15 Signs of Fleshly Behavior” or “8 Habits of Highly Effective Christians by the Apostle Paul.”
Yet, by focusing on these lists we might be missing the more important messages of Galatians.
I’d like to read today’s reading again, but omitting the two lists. You’ll see that the natural flow is uninterrupted.
5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…
13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another. 14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law… 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
Paul’s point is not about the lists of virtues and vices that he includes, but rather about themes that occur at a broader level:
- Freedom vs. slavery
- Freedom vs. self-indulgence
- Love vs. self-indulgence
- Life in the Spirit vs. fleshly desires
- Live in the Spirit vs. life by law
Freedom, love, and life in the Spirit come as a unit. On the other hand, slavery, self-indulgence, fleshly desires, and law come as an opposing unit. Verse 17 makes this clear that the two cannot coexist: “For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.” This section of Galatians is telling us that our focus need not be on lists of virtues and vices, on making efforts at behavior modification, but that our focus is to be on living by the Spirit. The result will be that the items on the lists will naturally take care of themselves.
So what is the problem with lists? What is the problem with laws? For some possible responses to these questions, we need to step back and look at some of the reasons Paul wrote this particular epistle.
At this point in history, there is no separate “Christianity.” There are individuals and groups that follow Jesus and his teachings, but they are considered a sect of Judaism. Torah observance is a critical identifier of Judaism. Up to this point, for a non-Jew to become a Jew meant conforming to the Torah, and for males, undergoing circumcision. But in the emerging Jesus-sect of Judaism, not only are they not observing feast days and disregarding food laws, they are not requiring circumcision. This new sect is going directly against the boundary markers of what identifies and separates a Jew from everyone else. This boundary marker is important because it is considered the sign of the covenant. The failure to strictly adhere to the Torah, in many Jewish minds, was the reason for God rejecting them and sending them to Babylonian exile. There is perceived safety in conformity; in clearly identifying who is in and who is out. Laws and lists have allowed humanity to define divisions since the beginning of tribes up to and including this present age. Our brains are wired to categorize and group, to identify insiders vs. outsiders. But that is not how the Christian community is to operate.
The heart of this letter to the Galatians is found in 3:27-29:
27 As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28 There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to the promise.
Paul vigorously and adamantly rejects any boundaries relating to nations, race, gender, or social standing when it comes to the value and worth of any human person. At the same time by reading his other letters, we know that Paul does not automatically reject cultural customs and tradition; he does not say that Jews must cease being Jews and Greeks cease being Greeks in order to belong to Christ. Rather, he writes that these distinctions don’t define who is in and who is out of Christ. But Paul is advocating ideas that go directly against centuries of Jewish tradition and expectations of piety and belonging.
Now I’d like to return to our reading starting with chapter five, verses 1 and 13:
5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery… 13 For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
Freedom is a key concept here. Freedom is often seen as an absence of constraints, but that is not what Paul has in mind here. In verse 13 Paul tells his audience that self-indulgence is not an appropriate use of freedom, but that becoming slaves to one another through love is the proper use of freedom. Clearly then, there are different types of “slavery” that Paul brings into his discussion. One type is a yoke that believers must avoid, while slavery to one another is one that we must enter into.
What is the “yoke of slavery” that must be avoided? In this letter Paul has been railing against conforming to the Torah. He has likened it to the “slave woman” Hagar. Yet originally the Gentiles did not have the Torah. But Paul is now writing that conforming to the Torah will be submitting again to a yoke of slavery. So this yoke must be broader than the Torah. Paul has already told his readers how Gentiles were formerly enslaved in 4:8-9,
4:8 Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. 9 Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits? How can you want to be enslaved to them again?
We must not miss the highly charged accusation of equivalence that Paul is making here: That there is something about conforming to the Torah, which was given by God, that in practice is equivalent to serving pagan objects of worship.
Religion nearly always develops a power play of some kind. Because God or some powerful being is at the top, it is easy for human worshippers to think that paying sufficient homage secures blessings or avoids disaster. Then power hierarchies develop with some people becoming mediators of the power based on level of religious knowledge and expressions of piety. Even if such hierarchies aren’t formalized, an informal hierarchy often exists and adherents judge and measure themselves and one another according to written and unwritten lists and laws.
This is one the primary reasons why Paul is so harsh toward the law in this epistle. It too often becomes basis for judgment, condemnation, shame, divisions, and exclusions. They are used to consolidate power in a few, and keep the masses in place by enforcing conformity and uniformity in a community. A threat of exclusion from a community that teaches that belonging is required to be with God, is a powerful deterrent against nonconformity. A list that shows how well you are or aren’t doing in your spiritual walk with God can become a point of pride, if you’re doing well, but a source of terrible shame, if you aren’t. Paul’s solution to this universal corruption of power is his command to focus one’s efforts on serving one another in love.
He continues in chapter 5, verse 14,
5:14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
Notice that he writes “the whole law.” Not just those that involve human to human relationships. The whole law, including the ones that involve human-divine relationships. What I think Paul is trying to say to his audience is that contrary to what all former religions have valued, piety and what we think is faithfulness to God is not what God primarily wants from his worshippers. True devotion, piety, and faithfulness to God in the newly formed Jesus community is found in service to one another. We worship God through our love for one another. It isn’t about access to, or the acquisition of power. Rather, it’s about what we can do to empower every person around us.
But also note that self-care is part of the process of loving. When any of us neglect appropriate self-care we fall into one of two ditches: resentment or self-righteous pride, and sometimes both. When we take care of those around us as we do with ourselves, there is an appropriate balance. Everyone’s needs are met, the community flourishes, and God is glorified.
So why does Paul include those pesky lists? It almost seems like he has exchanged these new vice and virtue lists for the Torah. Couldn’t these lists be used the same way that the law was earlier? (And we know that they have been used to measure, judge, and shame; both self and others, in the millennia since they were penned.)
First, their intent is illustrative. Paul has been writing somewhat abstractly. In the middle he gives a “for example…” He’s saying, “If you see a cluster of these things together in a community, here’s what it’s signifying.”
Secondly, Paul wrote to a community that was assumed to already be walking by the Spirit. Our individualistic culture often assumes an individual application for his community-directed writings. The lists are not meant to be used to evaluate yourself or others.
Thirdly, items in these lists are not intended to be taken in isolation. They are to be seen as ongoing and regular practices of whole communities that signifies whether a community is obviously walking or not walking by the Spirit. An occasional failure is not an ongoing practice.
In the end, Paul’s focus isn’t on either of these lists. It’s about how the entire community has an ethos that works to build one another up, to meet the needs of one another, to break down partitions and walls that divide, yet at the same time to honor and respect unique contributions that differences bring to the community, to continue to grow a vision that sees beyond codified lists and laws and sees the imago dei in every person.
Good news! Lists don’t define who you are. You need not be a slave to lists to gain and maintain some kind of a fictional spiritual standing. You are free to love, lift up, and empower every person within your sphere of contact. No more putting people into boxes and drawing boundaries! This is the worship God desires. This is the worship that God wants from his family community.
Let us pledge to live and love beyond lists. As Paul wrote, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” Not lists.