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Monthly Archives: June 2009
Dear Brothers and Sisters of Home Church,
Julie and I want to thank you for the wonderful recognition, gifts, and reception you gave us on my last Sunday as Theologian in Residence. I was almost speechless in church, and I could not properly thank you all. I have never had a “send off” like the one you all prepared. First there was a wonderful breakfast featuring homemade sugar cake and other goodies. Then there was a “roast” that was more like a warm flame of loving kindness. I will treasure the picture of my Sunday School class and the beautiful words inscribed on it. Then there was an envelop that contained a love offering with a surprising number of pictures of my favorite founding father. I had to sit down when I opened it. After such a start to the day, it was hard to believe that there was more to come in worship, beginning with such encouraging words from people I deeply respect and admire. The gift of the album containing dozens of cards and letters was so thoughtful, and I will treasure it through the years. When the going gets tough in the future, I will pull it off the shelf and be reminded of some of the happiest years of my life. The love offering from the Boards was also unexpected and deeply appreciated, especially in light of my oldest daughter’s wedding on June 20. In case you are curious, Julie and I decided to use part of the money to celebrate our twentieth wedding anniversary next year – in Italy. It will be a dream come true and seems like an appropriate use for a “love” offering. The only sad part of the day was saying good-bye to so many people who came through the receiving line. I often remind students who are crying at graduation that they should be grateful they attended a school that you do not want to leave. The same is true of congregations you serve. Thankfully, I am going to be serving in a wonderful divinity school across town. We’ll have to see if I make them more Moravian or if they make me more Baptist, but one thing is sure. I will always know where Home is. Thank you again for the gifts and for a wonderful day. Thank you most of all for granting me the privilege of serving at Home Church these seven years.
Farewell: Galatians 6:11-18
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 14, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. We started class early this morning with a party, so if you hear more laughter than usual it may be because the class is filled with sugar cake and coffee. I want to publicly thank the people responsible. In case you haven’t heard, today is my last broadcast as the teacher of this class. I have been doing this for nearly four years, averaging about 45 lessons a year. All of them are now posted on-line at www.theflamingheretic.wordpress.com. I will leave them up for several months, but I doubt there will be anything new to add to the site. During the past four years, we have examined intently several important books of the Bible: Genesis, the Gospel of John, Ruth, I Samuel, and now Galatians.
I hope you have seen how modern and ancient biblical scholarship helps us understand the meaning of these texts more clearly, and that you have discovered that it is good to think about the Bible. The Bible should be a great resource for people of faith, but it is often treated as something scary and threatening. I’m afraid that it has become one of those “forgotten books of ancient lore” rather than a means of grace. As long as we use the Bible as a weapon against brothers and sisters in the church, we never be able to use it as a balm to heal wounds or as a guide toward building a just society.
Last Lecture: I am finding it hard to say good-bye, but it is not just me. I had written this entire lesson on Tuesday and then on Wednesday night my laptop computer went to sleep and never woke up. Apparently someone thought I should write a different lesson and think longer about my good-bye address. There is a program in American colleges and universities called the “Last Lecture Series.” Professors are asked to prepare a lecture as if it will be the last lecture they will ever give. What is it you want students to know above all else? It’s a tough assignment. Many professors find they have far too much to say. Others are shocked to discover how little they really have to say.
One of my political science professors at Carolina had a tradition of ending his class with a last lecture that dealt with profound themes rather than the syllabus. He told us about his days in the Navy, especially about a young Jewish sailor who tried to keep kosher and observe his religion. He was mocked and humiliated by the other sailors. The cooks went out of their way to violate his dietary laws. He was called all of the names that centuries of human hatred have devised to dehumanize and demoralize those who are different. My professor then told the class what it was like to walk into a room and find this young Jew hanging by the neck. He took his own life rather than face the constant hatred and alienation on the ship. My professor wanted us, a group of bright young men and women to know that words do kill and that what is in your heart is every bit as important as what you stuff into your head. My summer project is preparing the 13th edition of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States, and I am saddened by the fact that I have to discuss violence in churches, mosques, and synagogues as part of the reality of modern religion. Words and attitudes kill.
Farewell: In an hour or so in worship, Bill Leonard will announce that I will start working full-time on the staff of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University. I will also be an adjunct professor teaching whatever courses are needed that year. I’m looking forward to working for Wake Forest, but it will be odd to now longer work for the Moravian Church. Except for a couple of internships in seminary, I have served the Moravian Church my entire adult life. I started as chaplain of Moravian College, began the office of admissions at Moravian Seminary, pastured in Philadelphia, and served for eight years as chaplain and assistant professor of religion at Salem Academy and College. Seven years ago the Joint Boards of Home Church called me here to be Theologian in Residence. It is an unusual position in the Moravian Church, and I am grateful to Pastor Harris for his vision in creating it. He believed that it was important for church members to benefit from modern scholarship and theological reflection.
This church has blessed me in countless ways, tangible and intangible. Julie and I joined here shortly after we moved to Winston-Salem in 1994. I remember the first service we attended was an Aug. 13 lovefeast that was so crowded we had to squeeze into one of the front pews. I was amazed as how hot the coffee was. Before joining the staff Julie and I both volunteered in Sunday School and youth fellowship. I even served on the Board as a member rather than a pastor, and I have loved the many opportunities I have had to serve communion here. The original plan was for me to serve as Theo in Residence for two years, but the church found ways to stretch out to seven.
They have been very happy years for me. Thanks to your generosity I was able to complete work on a book about Moravian theology in the 18th century and write a book on the theology of the ancient Unity. I also was able to write several articles and various types of educational materials, such as a study guide for the Ground of the Unity. I edited the Hinge and was a resource person for the province. I even served as a tour guide on a couple of adventures through the Moravian heartland. And, of course, I became the teacher for this class, which is the most significant outreach ministry of Home Church. It saddens me to give all that up.
A group of dedicated people worked very hard to try to establish a permanent position shared between the Divinity School and Home Church, but the sea was so wide and our boat was so small. We fell short of our goal, but I am deeply grateful to the three dozen individuals who generously contributed to the Comenius Scholar program that provided my income for the past three years, especially to Gene and Carol Ann Adcock who chaired the fund-raising effort. I am also grateful to the work of Kathy Barnes who wrote the checks, balanced the books, and kept me supplied with hot coffee. I am going to miss her, Jane, Bonnie, and Carol who keep our offices running..
I have a special reason to love Home Church. The week I began my duties here, doctors discovered that I had a severely defective aortic valve. I thought I was depressed about Salem College, but I was simply not getting enough blood to my brain. Eight days after starting as Theologian in Residence I was lying at Baptist Hospital having my chest cut open. As many of you know, it takes a while to recover from heart surgery, and I am grateful that I was given time to heal. I did not waste my time at home. I was editing a book on Moravian history the night before my surgery, and I finished editing it while recuperating. The Women’s Fellowship was very generous in bringing us food, especially chicken pies. I want you to know that the first place I went after my surgery, other than a doctor’s office, was worship here at Home Church. I barely made it, but I wanted to be here. This is a remarkable congregation, and I think any pastor would feel blessed to have the privilege of serving here.
It would be much harder to leave if I was not going to another remarkable community of faith at Wake Forest University. I am grateful that the Divinity School has a position for me and I look forward to devoting myself to the tasks that lie ahead. It is a wonderful Divinity School and a great asset to this community. Personally, I think it has become an even better place now that the students learn something about the Moravians! We’ve had a couple of converts already.
I know that you did not tune in this morning to hear me talk about myself, and I apologize for taking so much time this morning to say what is in my heart. I was afraid that I would cry if I tried to say these things in worship, plus I want the whole city to know what a special congregation this is. I hope that you will continue listening to this broadcast. The church has a variety of speakers lined up for the summer.
Paul’s Farewell: It is appropriate that our lesson today comes from the end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. As far as we know, these are the last words that Paul wrote to his brothers and sisters in Galatians. He probably knew that this was his farewell or “last lecture,” and he took the opportunity to speak very personally to the Galatians. He even wrote the final instructions with his own hand instead of relying on a secretary. Literacy was a rare gift in the ancient world, and most people had to employ professional scribes to write letters and contracts. It was kind of like the days when only secretaries could type and executives had to dictate to them. The secretary would have been expected to polish up the grammar and spelling, so any errors in the Greek manuscript are the fault of Paul’s amanuensis.
There is another reason why people like Paul dictated instead of writing. The idea of composing while writing is fairly recent. Words were meant to be spoken out loud, not read silently. Orators were accustomed to thinking while talking, just the opposite of our practice today. One of the reasons for the lively and contradictory style of Paul’s letters is that he was probably thinking out loud while dictating. It was not unusual for an author to add a conclusion to a letter in his own hand to verify that he was really the author and had approved what had been written. It was like a signature or seal. Paul may have done this with all of his letters, but he highlights it in the letter to the Galatians. He draws attention to the fact that he is writing in a very large hand so that the Galatians will not doubt that it was Paul who wrote this.
For centuries there has been speculation about this statement that Paul is writing in large letters. Folks have argued that this is evidence that Paul continued to suffer from poor eyesight after his blinding vision on the road to Damascus. Others have thought he offer health problems that would make it difficult to write. I think Paul was like John Hancock signing the declaration in large enough letters for King George to read it without is glasses. Paul wants to make sure everyone knows that he is serious about what he has written. This is his last will and testament for the Galatian Church. He uses the remaining parchment to summarize the argument of his letter.
Read: Galatians 6:11-18
Avoiding Persecution: Paul makes the surprising claim that his opponents are encouraging circumcision as a way to avoid the kind of persecution Paul has endured. Circumcision would not keep the Romans from persecuting Christians since Greeks and Romans found the practice offensive. It seems likely that the ones who were persecuting uncircumcised Christians were zealous Jews like Paul had been. It is quite likely that synagogue officials would have been most hostile to Jewish Christians who mingled with the uncircumcised. Those who wanted to avoid trouble in the synagogue and in their neighbors might have encouraged Gentiles in the church to have a little surgical procedure. But in Paul’s mind, it was cowardly to adopt circumcision simply to please others, especially since this was creating sinful divisions and barriers in the church.
Boasting: Paul accuses his rivals of boasting about the number of people they convinced to get circumcised. He makes them sound like David bringing back Philistine foreskins to King Saul. Although we no longer brag about numbers of circumcisions, we do like to brag about our ability to win people to our side. In the 1980s and 90s the Southern Baptist Convention regularly bragged about the number of baptisms it had each year. This was evidence that their theology and practice was correct. They didn’t have as much to say when more than two million members left that denomination after it adopted a new statement of faith at the turn of the century.
Many churches claim to be “the fastest growing church.” Such claims are impossible to verify, and statistics can be deceiving. A church that grows from a dozen members to a hundred and fifty in a year would have a 1000% growth rate, which would make it the fastest growing church. It is interesting that church want to brag about growth at all. They do it to justify the theology and practice of the church, but Paul tells us that it is nothing more than boasting. It is no different from what his rivals were doing.
Christ: Paul tells the Galatians that the only thing a preacher should boast about is the cross of Christ. Redemption in Christ is one of the six essentials in Moravian theology. We did not create ourselves and we did not save ourselves and we do not make ourselves holy. That is the work of God, and we should rejoice and be glad in it. Rather than creating controversies over rites and observances, Paul says, pastors should preach Christ and let the people respond in faith, love, and hope. It is all so simple, but it is perhaps too simple for many of us.
New Creation: It comes as a bit of a surprise when Paul tells the Galatians that circumcision doesn’t really matter after all. For several chapters he has been making an impassioned plea begging them not to submit to persecution, and now he says it doesn’t matter. Such an outward ritual will not change your soul or make you more pleasing to God. What does matter is that you become a new creature through Christ. This is Paul’s last lecture: the whole point of our religion is the transformation of human beings into new creatures.
In his sermon on the New Creation, theologian Paul Tillich argued that everything in the life of the church must have this as its goal: preaching, sacraments, music, education, and fellowship must focus on the primary purpose of the church. That mission is to turn selfish, frightened, nasty, brutish, angry, bitter, resentful, greedy, lecherous creatures into new creations, into genuinely human beings, into people of faith. Paul wrote passionately to the Galatians because he feared they were ceasing to be a church by losing sight of what is most important. When denominations and congregations think that they exist to employ professional staff or to maintain a building or provide beautiful music or make any secondary thing primary, they cease to be churches.
Conclusion: A church is where the good new of Jesus Christ is proclaimed in such a way that people become a new creation. It is a place where the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ is present and where strangers become brothers and sisters. A church is where everyone can be a dearly beloved child of God. Paul’s final word is my final word, too. “May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.”
Bear One Another’s Burdens: Galatians 6:1-10
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast June 7, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, NC. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love most dearly. The staff at Home Church is eagerly awaiting tomorrow morning when the new air conditioning system becomes fully operational. This is the last week of school for children in the public system, and I know that a lot of little folks are looking forward to different activities in the summer. Every year my daughter Madeleine likes to do the Five Yesterdays program in Old Salem. The boys and girls get to learn all sorts of old crafts and games. Sometimes they even get to shingle a house. In July we will have Vacation Bible School here at Home Church, led by Tamara Thomas and Mallie Graham, both of whom taught for years in the public schools. I taught one of Mallie’s former students at Salem Academy who then went on to Harvard. Latonya returned to Winston-Salem and still tells everyone that she is my fifth daughter. I can’t guarantee that a week of VBS will get you into an Ivy League College, but I think it will be a week well spent. In today’s lesson, we’ll see that Paul valued teachers.
It’s been a rough couple of weeks for Christians in America. First there was all of the uproar over a popular Catholic priest in Miami who decided to convert to the Episcopal Church so that he could marry the woman he has loved for many years. His case is a good example of what Paul is discussing in Galatians. The church should not impose unnecessary laws and burdens on people. We know from Scripture that even Peter had a wife. Although Paul encouraged his followers to remain celibate, he never made it a requirement for church leaders. The other story is far more tragic. A doctor named George Tiller in Kansas was murdered in the foyer of the Lutheran Church where he was serving as an usher. His family was present when he died. His death is a grim reminder that religiously inspired violence is not confined to the Middle East. The bullets that were fired in that house of worship in Kansas were preceded by many years of verbal assault in many houses of worship throughout the United States. It is sad that we have two such dramatic stories illustrating the themes we have been discussing in Paul’s letter to the Galatians.
Fruit of the Spirit: Last week we ran out of time while discussing Paul’s concept of the fruit of the spirit. A member of the class made the very good observation that Paul is not only contrasting flesh and Spirit here; he is also contrasting work and fruit. We live in a work-oriented society; Americans work longer hours on average than any other people in the industrialized world. We take fewer vacations, and even though we are less healthy than most nations, we take fewer sick days. This, of course, only applies to those Americans who have jobs. Our society is one of the few that believes that the reward for hard work is more work. Even our leisure activities take the form of work. We go to the gym to “work-out”. We take work home. School kids have about two hours of homework each night. I was struck by this statement of a CEO in an interview in the Times recently: “I get up at 4:30 every morning. I like the quiet time. It’s a time I can recharge my batteries a bit. I exercise and I clear my head and I catch up on the world. I read papers. I look at e-mail. I surf the Web. I watch a little TV, all at the same time. I call it my quiet time, but I’m already multitasking. I love listening to music, so I’ll do that in the morning, too, when I’m exercising and watching the news.” That explains a lot about business.
Few of us know what is like to lie on a hillside and try to find shapes in the clouds or see how many stars you can count in the night sky. We assume that hard work leads to success, and much of the time it does, but we may have forgotten there are good things that do not come through work. One of the hardest things to learn in sports is the need to relax rather than trying so hard to do it right. Whether it is baseball or tennis or judo, you have to learn when to stop trying and just do. This is what Yoda taught Luke Skywalker.
Paul urges us to live in such a way that we produce Spiritual fruit. Nearly every morning I look at our tomato vines to see how the fruit is growing. I worked all of five minutes planting the tomatoes and another ten staking them. I haven’t even watered them much this year thanks to all of the rain. I am simply taking care of them and waiting for the fruit that I will enjoy. This is often hard for Americans. We like to work hard to increase the yield or make things ripen faster, but Paul understood how organic processes work. Things take time to develop, and they will blossom on their own if you let them. This is how he describes the working of the Spirit of Christ in us. It is foolishness to force yourself to become more gentle or patient or generous or kind. You have to gradually become a patient person.
Paul is urging the Galatians to relax and let the Spirit work with in them; to guide them to a more wholesome way of living. This is one of the things worship should help us with, but many churches simply ratchet up the tension and guilt and shame that infects our daily lives. What would happen if Moravian leaders followed this list of Spiritual fruit for the triennial review. Ask yourself: is your congregation full of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control or is it full of enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissension, factions, and envy? In our lesson for this week, Paul builds on this theme with some practical advice for all churches.
Read: Galatians 6:1-10
Restoration: Paul talks so much about the power of the Spirit of Christ to transform lives that he sometimes gives the impression that baptism alone turns a person around. This has been the source of a lot of contention in the history of Christianity, and all I can say this morning is that Moravians have never believed that baptism is the same as spiritual rebirth. Baptism is outward sign, but it does magically re-order a person’s psychology. Someone recently told me that she thought churches should do psychological screening of members. Pastors quickly learn that things do not work in the real world of the church the way that theologians say they should work. Theoretically, salvation should be a simple process of having faith in Jesus, being baptized, and receiving the Holy Spirit. After that people should live in the Spirit and not satisfy the desires of the flesh, just like Paul said. Theologians argue about which comes first, regeneration or baptism, but that’s one of those chicken and the egg questions. The real problem is that theory rarely matches experience. Therefore it is gratifying that Paul acknowledges to the Galatians that brothers and sisters in the church transgress. Paul was a pastor who understood that humans are fallible creatures. He knows that the believers in Galatia were not perfect. Some of the situations Paul writes about in his letters could be on Jerry Springer. He does not address any specific type of transgression in the letter to the Galatians but merely tells them how to restore a brother or sister has committed a transgression.
Paul’s words are a little hard for us to make sense of today. We live in a society that has taken the concept of personal freedom to the point that we believe that we are autonomous individuals who have no responsibility to others for our actions. Even if we choose to join an organization, we tend to believe that our lives are our own and no one can judge us or hold us accountable. We are taught from an early age to ignore people’s private lives unless they do something so scandalous they have to be fired from their job or arrested. When someone is guilty of such an offense, we then cast them into the outer darkness and forget them. For the most part, we ignore or tolerate offensive behavior until we are forced to cut the individual off completely. I’m sure you can think of examples from the news or your personal experience. As a wise person pointed out to me last week, we do not forgive or forget in our society.
Gentleness: Paul asks the church to do something quite different. When someone is known to be doing something wrong or harmful, the community of faith should work to restore them rather than simply condemning them. Their transgression created a rift in the relationship and the goal of church discipline should be to restore the relationship. Keep in mind that Paul believed that sin is harmful to people and the community, and that the loving thing to do is help someone turn away from sin. What Paul is describing is similar to the modern practice of having an “intervention” with someone whose addictions are harming themselves and others. The goal of such an intervention is not to punish offenders or shame them; it is to help them. It can be unpleasant, but it is done out of love and should be done with a spirit of gentleness.
Paul gives an interesting warning here, instructing that the ones who restore a transgressor should take care not to be tempted. It is not clear what Paul means here. He might be acknowledging that we are often tempted to join in the sin we are supposed to be helping another person overcome. Paul could be warning people not to get dragged down by someone you are trying to save. Of he could be referring to the temptation of self-righteousness that is always there when you judge another person’s behavior. We have to admit that we sometimes make ourselves look good by condemning others, which is why some children are tattle-tales. In condemning others, we are often seeking praise for ourselves.
I suspect, though, that Paul was warning against the temptation of being too severe in dealing with transgression. One of the dangers of corporeal punishment, for instance, is that the one wielding the paddle or switch grows too fond of inflicting pain. Comenius warned teachers never to punish students while they are still angry. It often happens that attempts to correct or punish offenders lead us to do worse things. The history of Christianity is filled with overzealous defenders of morality and orthodoxy, and it is illuminating that Paul includes this warning in his harshest letter. He may have been reminding himself that the goal of his letter was restoration, not punishment.
The Law of Christ: It is in the context of restoring an erring brother or sister that Paul gives one of the best verses of Scripture: “Bear one another’s burden and in this way fulfill the law of Christ.” Bear one another’s burdens. The church is not just a social institution or a means of personal salvation; it is the community where we learn to help each other. Christianity is not just about what you can do as an individual; it is about your willingness to share the burdens of others. There was a time in the church, including the Moravian Church, when people could speak honestly about their struggles with temptation and seek forgiveness when they had failed. Many people today tell me that the last place on earth that they would admit their sins and problems is in the church. We have learned to keep our real problems secret in church. We don’t want anyone to know how we are tempted and how we falter. This may be the real reason that churches are dying these days; we are no longer bearing one another’s real burdens or letting others help us when we are troubled.
This is not an incidental matter. Paul says that we fulfill the Law of Christ when we share our burdens in love. This verse has often bothered interpreters. For five chapters Paul has been critical of those who try to live by the Law, and here he is saying that there is a Law of Christ. He doesn’t tell us what he means by the Law of Christ, but he does say that we fulfill it by helping those who are struggling, by restoring those who have committed transgression. Clearly this Law of Christ includes redemption and forgiveness; compassion and charity. Bear one another’s burdens rather than condemning them and excluding them. The Law of Christ is not a law of fear and punishment; it is gentle and joyful and redemption. Perhaps most importantly in our modern society; it is not individualistic.
Carry Your Own Load: In typical Pauline fashion, as soon as Paul tells us to bear one another’s burdens, he tells us that each of us must carry our own loads. This is one of the problems with trying to write general instructions. I was always confused by adages and proverbs as a child. Should you look before you leap or is the one who hesitates lost? A fool and his money are soon parted, but you should still cast your bread upon the water. Wisdom requires more than memorizing proverbs and Bible verses. We musst understood the context and purpose of these instructions. Everyone must carry their own pack on a long hike, but if someone gets injured, others take up the burden. That is what Paul is saying. You should bear one another’s burdens in the church, but you should not force someone to carry your burden because you are lazy.
Paul is also instructing the brothers and sisters in Galatia to resist the temptation to pry too deeply into each other’s lives. I bet that Paul had in mind Jesus’ teaching about the temptation to remove the mote in another person’s eye while ignoring the timber in your own eye. It is remarkably easy for people to ignore their own faults and failings while gossiping and criticizing others. The first step in church discipline is not an inquisition; it is rigorous self-examination. Test your own work, Paul says, rather than criticizing the work of others. The food critic in the movie Rattatoulie confesses that the work of a critic is easy. Others do the hard work of preparing food, and the critic simply uses wit to condemn. Churches today are filled with critics, but Paul tells us that we should focus on what we are called to do rather than obsessing about the failures of others.
Teachers: In the midst of all this advice, Paul throws out an apparently random comment that those who are taught God’s word should share in all good things with their teachers. Once again, Paul does not clarify what he means. It is likely that he simply saying that students should provide for their teachers instead of being ungrateful for their instruction. Keep in mind that there were no professional clergy in the first century; no pension plans; health insurance; no housing allowances. Those who taught in the church did so because they believed in what they were teaching and wanted to instruct others in a better way of living. They were more like yoga instructors at the Y or literacy volunteers than like modern professional clergy. Rather than working to advance their economic prospects, they chose to spend time instructing converts in the Scripture and the teachings of Jesus.
I strongly suspect that Paul was talking about more than paying teachers here. Nothing makes true teachers happier than the success of their students. A paycheck is necessary, but seeing someone learn is the greatest reward. One of my students at Wake recently told me how proud he was to finally get an A on one of my papers. He was a senior and that had been one of his goals in school. He was happy, not because of an A in a grade book, but because he had earned an A. I nearly cried when he shared his pride with me. That is sharing in all good things with your teachers. This is what we need more of in church.
Sowing and Reaping: Paul ends this section of Galatians with a familiar admonition. We will reap what we sow. I know parents who struggle with teen-age children but fail to recognize that they are reaping what they sowed when they spoiled those children when they were young. Paul takes this truth about reaping what we sow and applies it specifically to the issue of the flesh and spirit. Remember what we learned last week. The flesh is not the same as bodily desires or the “lower nature,” it is selfishness and corruption. If we spent our time and our money and our energy gratifying our selfishness, then that will be our reward. If we spend our time sowing discord and strife in church, then that is the kind of church we will have. But if we direct our energy toward Christ and his Spirit, then our churches will not be places where blood is shed and hatred is allowed to take hold.
Walk in the Spirit: Galatians 5:16-26
The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast May 31, 2009
Introduction: Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible class of Home Church on this beautiful Pentecost Sunday. It was a stormy week, and I’m afraid that I lost part of the lesson during a power outage. Unfortunately it was the most profound and eloquent thing I’ve ever written, but it is lost forever. Sorry about that; we’ll have to make do with what we’ve got. According to the good folks at WSJS, our radio audience is at least 40 times larger than our audience here at the church, and we thank you for tuning in. Many members of Home Church are up at Laurel Ridge celebrating Pentecost in the midst of nature and so our numbers are smaller here today. Pentecost is one of the oldest festival days in the church year, and it used to be the day when congregations pulled out all of the stops on the organ. Unlike many Christian festivals where joy is tempered by the sobering reality of Jesus’ death, Pentecost is unalloyed celebration. Pentecost is the Greek word for the Jewish festival of Shauvot, and it is the only Christian festival mentioned by name in the New Testament. The traditional reading for Pentecost Sunday is from the Book of Acts, which tells about the disciples preaching to a large gathering of people who had come to the Temple for Shauvot. In vivid language, the story says that the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples like tongues of fire, and they could be understood by people from many nations. It is a story that combines Jewish understandings of the prophetic gift of God’s Spirit with the eschatology vision of a world united in God. The miracle in Acts was not that the disciples preached in unknown tongues but that the listeners heard the good news of Jesus in their own language. From the very beginning, the church has been a multi-cultural, multi-linguistic community where diversity of customs does not undermine unity of Spirit. Our lesson for today fits perfectly with this theme of Pentecost since Paul is instructing the Galatians about the Spirit of Christ.
Faith Fulfilled in Love Last week we discussed Paul’s insistence that the law of God is fulfilled when we love our neighbors in the same way that we love ourselves. In verse 5:6, Paul says that the only thing that truly counts is faith made effective through love. This is sometimes translated as “faith completed in love,” and it is one of the core concepts of Moravian theology. This is one place where I think that Martin Luther let his struggles with the Catholic Church cloud his reading of Galatians. Luther’s great spiritual breakthrough was that we are justified by faith not by works of the law, and he used this idea to dismantle the structure of medieval Catholicism. Pilgrimages, penances, self-mortification, indulgences, relics, holy water, incense, and canon law were swept away by Luther and his followers in an attempt to return to the simple message of Paul. But Luther was so afraid that the Protestants would impose new works that are a burden to the conscience that he objected to all attempts to put faith and works together.
By the time Luther nailed up his famous 95 theses , the Moravian Church had been in existence for half-a-century. The Moravians had already abolished many of the trappings of medieval religion, such as treating baptismal fonts as sacred vessels filled with holy water. In many ways, the Moravians were more Protestant the Lutherans, but they disagreed profoundly with Luther on the interpretation of Galatians 5:6. The Moravians never endorsed the idea that we are justified only by our belief in Christ. Faith must be completed through active love in the world. Incidentally, John Calvin and John Wesley also disagreed with Luther on this point, and I think Paul makes it clear that faith and love cannot be separated. Love is faith in action. The old Moravians claimed that there are three essentials in the church: faith, love, and hope. All of the things we normally think of as essential, such as baptism, Holy Communion, preaching, and even Scripture are not essential in themselves. They direct us to the essentials; they help us live in faith, love, and hope. Without love, theological precision and liturgical correctness are mere vanity. If you have faith in Christ and trust that you have been saved through Christ, then you will live in love just as he lived. Paul spells this principle out in more detail in our lesson for today.
Read: Galatians 5:16-26
Walk by the Spirit: For some reason the most popular modern English translations of the NT give a paraphrase of Galatians 5:16 instead of a literal translation. They say that we should “live by the Spirit,” but Paul uses the more colorful expression “walk by the Spirit.” I don’t know if this is because modern church leaders are convinced that people cannot make sense of metaphor or because they want to make a statement about being inclusive of those who cannot walk, but the effect is to reduce the vividness of Scripture. We do the same thing when we rewrite old hymns and liturgies, and I think it contributes to the strange literalism that grips modern Americans. It is likely that Paul intentionally chose the word “walk” here to connect with the Jewish verb halak, which means “walk” and is the root of the word halaka, which is the term for the ethical teachings of the Torah. In Jewish biblical interpretation, halaka deals with the practical instructions of the Scriptures. Paul is continuing his argument that Christians will fulfill the true meaning of the Torah if they live in love. He is not rejecting the spirit of the law of Moses, just the imposition of the external rules of the Torah. He tells the Galatians that they should walk by the Spirit.
Unlike the word “live”, which can refer to a passive state of existence, “walk” is an active verb. We walk with our bodies, minds, and senses. I am one of the millions of Americans who walk simply for exercise every morning. Having destroyed all of the cartilage in my knee, jogging is verboten, so each morning I do a circuit around the neighborhood walking. In many ways it is a pointless walk that takes me back where I started, but it is still active. It strains the muscles and takes me out of my house into the neighborhood. As I walk I greet neighbors, growl at dogs, look out for snakes, pick up trash, enjoy flowers, avoid school buses, and think about my day. Often I pray. I once stared into the eyes of a hawk that was standing on the road. In Paul’s day, walking was the main form of transportation, and almost everyone walked several miles a day. Today we shut ourselves up into private cars, with air conditioning and music, and drive past our neighbors without speaking. In Paul’s day, you walked everywhere and had the opportunity to love your neighbors on a daily basis. When Paulsays that we should walk in the Spirit; he meant that every aspect of our lives should be conducted in the Spirit of Christ and we should take that Spirit into the world.
Desires of the Flesh: Paul contrasts walking in the Spirit with gratifying desires of the flesh. In our day the word “flesh” generally has a sexual connotation. Back when we used the King James Bible, I remember how teen-agers would snicker when Moses warned the Israelites about longing for the “flesh pots” of Egypt. It never occurred to us that he was actually talking about stewed beef and chicken soup. There is just something about that word “flesh.” When I was chaplain at Moravian College, I read one of the lessons for the Christmas service. It said “and all flesh shall see it together,” but there was something about my inflection on the word “flesh” that really tickled the seminary students. Rev. Neil Routh still teases me about “flesh.” In our society the phrase “fleshly desires” or “carnal desires” means sex and nothing more, but that is not what Paul meant.
There is a long debate in the history of biblical interpretation over Paul’s use of the words “spirit” and “flesh.” Early theologians, influenced by Greek philosophy, assumed that Paul was contrasting the body and soul. This view is often called dualism, and it proposes that humans must subjugate bodily needs in order to pursue intellectual, spiritual, and artistic pursuits. According to this view, our bodily nature is an animal nature, but in our spirit or mind we are like angels. This dualism contributed to the long, and often destructive, history of Christian asceticism and “mortification of the flesh.” Christian monks and nuns often went to extremes trying to kill bodily desires, especially sexual desire. During the colonial era Christians were often appalled where they came upon tribal peoples who were perfectly at ease with their bodies and gratified natural desires without guilt or shame. In the movie African Queen the missionary tells the boat captain: “Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put on this earth to overcome.”
However, it is not clear that Paul is using the words “flesh” and “spirit” in this way. When we look at his list of carnal desires, most of them have nothing to do with our bodily natures. Many of the carnal things he condemns are mental rather than physical things. Paul appears to be using the word “flesh” to refer to selfishness and self-gratification at the expense of others. When Paul is talking about satisfying the desires of the flesh, he is talking about most of the things that advertisers try to convince us to do with our money. I’m afraid “flesh” also refers to some of the things that promoted in colleges and universities: ambition, pride, and competitiveness. Flesh is not simply the meat on our bones; it is an undisciplined hunger or craving for power and status. Flesh, in other words, represents the distorted motivations of our unredeemed nature.
The Spirit: When Paul talks about the Spirit here in chapter five, he is not talking about a part of the human being, what the philosophers used to call a “faculty.” He is talking specifically about the Spirit of Christ that dwells within a believer. The body is not the prison for the soul, as some of the ancient philosophers believed; the body can be the living Temple of the Spirit of Christ according to Paul. So, in urging the Galatians to walk in the Spirit of Christ instead of satisfying their fleshly desires, Paul is saying that both our minds and bodies should be filled with Christ’s Spirit.
Translators sometimes inadvertently obscure Paul’s thought here by making it sound like he is commanding the Galatians to stop gratifying their fleshly desires as an act of the will. What he says literally is that if the Galatians walk in the Spirit of Christ, then they will not gratify their desires. In other words, those who are in Christ live differently than other people because they have been transformed by faith. They do not need to mortify their flesh in order to discipline their desires; their desires are different because they are filled with the Spirit of Christ. This is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, by the way. Good deeds come from a good heart.
Paul’s List of Carnal Things: Being a good preacher and church administrator, Paul provides a list of carnal desires to illustrate this theological point. There is a principle in psychology that we remember the first and last things in a list best. This is called primacy and recency, and I’m afraid it affects our reading of Paul. He starts his list of fleshly desires with sex to get the attention of his audience. Paul probably figured the Galatians were getting a little bored and so he starts off with Fornication and Licentiousness, which sound better with a Southern accent. You probably perked up a little as well. Paul doesn’t go into the kind of detail we expect in our day, but he assumed his audience had some familiarity with these concepts. Unfortunately many of us think this is all that Paul was talking about and we don’t go past verse 19. If we do read further, we tend jump to the last items on the list: drunkenness and carousing. It sounds like Paul was writing to a college fraternity rather than a church. Especially here in the Bible Belt, preaching often focuses on the condemnation of sex and alcohol, especially in combination, but we’ve learned through hard experience that prohibition does not curb desire; it may increase it. It is probably not accidental that Bible Belt has the highest teen-age pregnancy rate, divorce rate, violent crime rate, and rate of alcoholism and drug abuse in America, but that’s a topic for another day.
We should note that Paul does not focus just on sex, drugs, and rock and roll. His list of the “works of the flesh” includes idolatry and sorcery, which are forms of religious abuse. Idolatry is worshiping what we’ve made rather than worshiping the God who has made us. Sorcery, on the other hand, is the attempt to use spiritual or religious things to harm other people. It does not have to be voodoo or witchcraft; it can be the use religious symbols to manipulate and control others. Our idolatry and sorcery today are more subtle than in Paul’s day, but I think we can say that whenever we use the name of God to enrich ourselves or harm others we are gratifying carnal desires rather living in the Spirit of Christ.
Modern Christians should pay particular attention to the middle of Paul’s list of works of the flesh: enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissentions, factions, and envy. It sounds like Paul is writing to a political party, but remember he is addressing the church. This gets personal. You may have resisted sexual temptation and never been drunk, but think about the times you tried to get your own way in church out of pride. Think about the way you’ve stirred up anger and dissent. Think of how many sermons you’ve heard that seemed designed to stir up dissension and create factions. I hate to say it, but clergy are among the worst offenders when it comes to envy and jealousy, present company excluded of course. This summer I’m working on the 13th edition of the Handbook of Denominations, and it is always a little depressing to read the history of church divisions in America. Some the divisions were over matters of great importance, such as slavery, but many were not.
Paul was writing to a church split by religious controversy. He had brought together Jew and Gentile, but someone came along and tried to convince the Galatians that only the circumcised were truly acceptable to God. The Galatians Christians could no longer even eat together because of divisions in the church. Paul tells them that these divisions are not the result of a sincere desire to live according to the Spirit of Christ; they are works of the flesh. He is calling for the Galatians to repent rather than being selfish and factious. Paul warns the Galatians that those who live according to their selfish desires will not inherit the blessings of the Kingdom of God. In Jesus’ words, they already have their reward. I wonder how many self-righteous, angry, defenders of orthodoxy will be surprised to learn that they really did not know the Christ they preached with such gusto.
Fruit of the Spirit: In order to make his point clear, Paul gives a contrasting list of the fruit of the Spirit. This list has guided Moravian theology for centuries and it should provide all Christians with a yardstick for measuring our churches. People often think that fanaticism, blind devotion, and zeal are signs that people, but Paul says something quite different. The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. He teases the legalists in Galatia by pointing out that there is no law against these things. These are things that cannot be legislated; they must be learned.
This list of the fruit of the Spirit should be the yardstick by which we examine ourselves and our churches. If the Spirit of Christ is present, there will be joy rather than anger. If the Spirit of Christ is present there will be gentleness and kindness rather than cruelty and fear. If the Spirit of Christ is present, there will be no need for stewardship campaigns because people will be generous with time and money. Those who have experienced the grace of Christ will be persons of peace who seek to do good in the world. That is all the time we have for this week. We’ll pick up next week with the fruit of the Spirit and church discipline.