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.