Sunday, June 26, 2016

Pentecost 6C

Galatians 5:1, 13-25




Pastor and noted author Walt Wangerin tells the story of his struggles to get his grade school son Matthew to stop stealing comic books. Three times Wangerin used the Law to put an end to this behavior.


One night as he was doing bedtime prayers with Matthew, and he looked down and saw that his son’s bottom dresser drawer was filled with comic books. He discovered they had all been checked out from the Evansville library and not checked back in. He made Matthew return them and had the tall, stern, well-respected librarian explain the law of the library to Matthew. Wangerin and his wife thought that was the end of it. But the following summer Wangerin served as a guest lecturer at a distant seminary, and his family went with him. That summer Matthew managed to steal many comic books from a local drug store and smuggle them back home to Evansville. Since this seminary was a long way from Evansville, it was not practical to return the comic books. Matthew had no money to pay for them, and the store could not have sold them as new even if they had been returned. So Wangerin started a fire in the fireplace, began “preaching” to Matthew on the 7th commandment (“You shall not steal”), and then started tossing the comic books into the fire one by one.


This dramatic presentation of the law and its consequences did not stop Matthew from stealing either. Not too long after that, Wangerin discovered for a third time that his son was stealing comic books. Shaken by his inability to get through to Matthew, he resorted to desperate measures. He took Matthew into his room, explained the gravity of what he had done, and then spanked him. Matthew did not cry or show any remorse. Wangerin left the room and cried.


Years later Matthew and his mother were reminiscing while traveling in a car. Matthew brought up the comic books. He asked his mother, “Do you know why I stopped stealing them?” His mother responded, “Because Dad spanked you.” “No,” he said, “it was because Dad cried.”[1]


Wangerin’s tears were a sign of his deep love for his son. That expression of love freed his son not to steal. For the Apostle Paul, Christ’s death on the cross is the most profound sign of God’s deep love for us. In one of the congregations I served, the choir sang the song “And God Cried.” I cannot recall if it was part of a Holy Week Cantata or a Tenebrae service on Good Friday. The composer of this song imagines God crying as human beings created by God put to death God’s son Jesus. Although scripture does not confirm that God cried, we believe that Jesus reveals the heart of God to us. According to the Gospel of Luke, just after Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem, Jesus wept over the city, saying, “If you, even you, had only recognized the things that make for peace!” These tears were a sign of Jesus’ and God’s deep love for us.


Paul is convinced that this deep love, so powerfully revealed on the cross, frees us to live the life of freedom God intends for us. “For freedom Christ has set us free,” asserts Paul in Galatians 5:1. In The Freedom of a Christian, inspired by Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, Martin Luther rejoices in the freedom given to us by God in Christ: “Although I am an unworthy and condemned man, my God has given me in Christ all the riches of righteousness and salvation without any merit on my part, out of pure, free mercy . . . Why should I not therefore freely, joyfully, with all my heart, and with an eager will do all the things which I know are pleasing and acceptable to such a Father who has overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches? . . . Behold, from faith thus flow love and joy in the Lord, and from love a joyful, willing, and free mind that serves one’s neighbor willingly and takes no account of gratitude or ingratitude, of praise or blame, of gain or loss.”[2]


In Galatians 5 Paul seeks to describe the life of freedom given to us by God through faith in Christ. For Paul freedom is living by the Spirit of God. He contrasts the freedom of living by the Spirit with the bondage of living a life focused on obeying all the requirements of the law or, on the other extreme, the bondage of living a life devoted to satisfying all our selfish desires. In Paul’s view we are free when, inspired by the Spirit of God, we are loving God and our neighbor. We are not free when we are zealously seeking to obey the law’s prescriptions. Nor are free if we ignore the law, but then use our freedom from the law as an opportunity for self-indulgence.


As observed last Sunday, freedom is a core value in our culture. But too often in our over consumptive culture, we have used our freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence. Many health issues afflicting us, much violent conflict at home and abroad, and the threat of climate change are, at least to a significant extent, consequences of our self-indulgent approach to life. In Paul’s view we have misused our freedom and thus become slaves to selfish desires.


It is ironic that many of our modern conveniences were intended to free us to have greater leisure time, but in order to pay for them we have had to work longer hours. In Affluenza, the authors cite a study in 1992 showing that the average American worker worked 160 hours more than in 1969.[3] That is about one month more of work. That increased work pattern has continued since 1992.


In Paul’s assessment the self-indulgent works of the flesh are obvious: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” By contrast the fruits of the Spirit are “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Wherever these fruits are witnessed, they are signs of the Spirit of freedom at work.


Love is agape love, love inspired by God’s freely given love for us. It is unilateral loving, seeking the highest good of the other no matter what. It is exemplified by Christ, who, while we were yet sinners, died for us (Romans 5:8).


Joy is grounded in God’s grace. Joy and grace come from the same root word in Greek. “The joy of the Lord is our strength” (Neh 8:10). Knowing of God’s love and presence with him in Christ, Paul learned to rejoice in all circumstances (Philippians 4:9–13).


Peace is far more than freedom from violence and conflict. Peace is confidence in where God is leading. It refers to well-being in heart, mind, soul, and body. It refers to right relationships with God and neighbor and with all God’s creatures.


Patience describes God’s attitude toward wayward human beings. God has chosen not to wipe us out. Thus far, God has put up with our human weaknesses. Those who live by the Spirit in freedom imitate this patient, forbearing attitude of God.


The Greek word translated “kindness” is a lovely word. Jesus showed such kindness to the woman caught in adultery who was being threatened with stoning. He also demonstrated kindness by welcoming sinners and eating with them.


The Greek word translated as “generosity” has often been translated as “goodness.” We are equipped to do good things for others, and we gladly do so on an daily basis.


“Faithfulness” refers to confidence in God’s faithfulness. A faithful person is loyal to God and eagerly seeks to do the will of God. Such a person is reliable, truthful, sincere.


“Gentleness” refers to meekness. A gentle soul is submissive to God’s will, teachable, and considerate to all. Gentle souls are not haughty or boastful, do not overstep God’s limits, and do not use unscrupulous means to make themselves rich.


“Self-control” entails self-mastery, especially over selfish desires. It does refer to mastery of sexual desires, but it is not limited to them. One masters the self so that one can serve others.


Against such fruits of the Spirit, asserts Paul, there is no law. Wherever such fruits are present the Spirit of God is at work. As Jesus writes in the Sermon on the Mount, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:15). Those who live by the Spirit of God will bear such fruit. Those who bear such fruit are free. True freedom is never about doing our own thing. Freedom is about doing a good thing for God and neighbor. In our time we also need to stress it is about doing a good thing for other creatures, especially those suffering the consequences of our self-indulgent behavior. In Paul’s view those who live by the Spirit and exercise their freedom build up the community of Christ. Those who gratify their selfish desires tear down the community of Christ. Again in our time we need to stress that those who live by the Spirit build up the whole Earth community. Those who use their freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence will finally destroy the whole Earth community.


One final point: Christians are not the only people who manifest the fruits of the Spirit of God. In fact, others may at times manifest these fruits in a more visible way than professed followers of Jesus. We could be embarrassed by this. But a key part of living by the Spirit and exercising our freedom is not only to produce the fruits of the Spirit, but also to name them wherever we see them being produced. Last Sunday, for example, I shared how blessed the Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon Board was by the people of the Muslim Educational Trust. The fruits of the Spirit of God were readily apparent in them. Whether a fruit of the Spirit is produced by a Christian, a Jew, a Muslim, a Hindu, a Buddhist, an agnostic, or whoever, it is a fruit of the Spirit and a sign of the glorious freedom that is ours in Christ. We can imagine that when God sees God’s children living in this glorious freedom, God’s tears of sorrow become tears of joy.

In Jesus’ name, AMEN.







[1] This is a more concise version of Paul Neuchterlein’s version of the story in http://girardian See Wangerin’s account in chapter 17 of The Manger Is Empty.

[2] Luther’s Works 31:367.

[3] John De Graaf et al., Affluenza, 42.