Scripture - Galatians 5:1, 13-25 - NRSV
For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
13For 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. 14For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. 16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. 17For 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. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. 22By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
A friend and colleague of mine this week posed a question on her Facebook status, and I was so intrigued by it, I asked if I could borrow her question and ask it of my own Facebook friends. (By the way -- Facebook is a great source for sermon research).
The question was this: What is the first thing you think of when you hear the phrase “Christian Values”?
-- what are some of your responses?
What I saw on Facebook to be honest, the results weren’t pretty.
To be sure, there was some of what was shared here -- things like faith, hope, charity, acceptance, treating others as you want to be treated, love and kindness and sacrificing for the needs of others.
But almost twice as many people had a negative reaction to the phrase, saying that they first thought of hate, judgement of anything different, discrimination, closed, mean, conservative, sexist, and homophobic -- and it wasn’t just non-Christians who had these reactions.
Even my own reaction to hearing the phrase “Christian Values” was similar - that it was a phrase used by people when they wanted to discriminate against others or express hatred or disapproval of people or practices.
Isn’t it unfortunate that for so many people - even for so many Christians - the phrase “Christian Values” garnered such a negative reaction and that the assumption is almost automatically that it’s being used by a group of people for their own self-interested gain?
Many people were aware that this shouldn’t be the reaction they have - and instead expressed that instead of thinking these negative thoughts they hoped that values like loving your neighbor, justice, kindness, embracing all people, being like Jesus, or living humbly would come to mind first.
I think about this contrast a lot -- the difference between Christian values as we hope they should be and how they are most often experienced, and I read Paul in our passage from this morning in some ways trying to get at some of the underlying causes of these differences.
Paul starts by reminding them of the freedom they have in Christ - that Christ has set them free for the sake of this life in the Spirit. But he warns them that this freedom isn’t so that they can now do whatever they want to -- but this freedom is for a purpose -- this freedom in the spirit is so that they might love each other better. It’s not for self-indulgent purposes, it’s not for self-interest, or to live however they want to live or say whatever they want to say without thinking about the impact of other people.
Paul iterates that the law of Christ is summed up in one single commandment: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.”
But he continues and says, If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
“Bite and devour one another.” Isn’t that a great image? It brings to mind animals locked in a struggle to the death -- or I picture a bunch of ants or carrion birds swarming around roadkill on the highway. It’s a bit grotesque, to be sure, but isn’t that a great description of what we oftentimes do to one another with our words and actions? Pick apart one another piece by piece through what we say about other people behind their backs, or to their faces, or in our plotting and scheming. So and so did this to me, so now I’m going to do such and such back?
I don’t think I have to go too far in naming examples of where we’ve seen this play out in our nation’s politics, in our state government, or even in our own community.
Paul pretty starkly contrasts this kind of behavior - these “works of the flesh” with what he later calls “fruits of the spirit” - saying that you can’t live both ways at the same time. The Message version of this passage puts it a bit more clearly than what we read earlier. It says, “Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness. For there is a root of sinful self-interest in us that is at odds with a free spirit, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness. These two ways of life are antithetical, so that you cannot live at times one way and at times another way according to how you feel on any given day.”
Paul is clear -- we have been freed so that we can love one another more fully. We don’t need the full set of laws and rules anymore to tell us how we are to love God and how we are to love our neighbor, because Christ summed it all up for us -- love your neighbor as you love yourself. And so it’s this spirit of freedom that guides us in our interactions with others as opposed to self-interest.
When it comes to self-interest, Paul has this pretty extensive list of behaviors that fall under this category -- and it’s not even exhaustive: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. These “desires of the flesh” aren’t necessarily about our bodies and its desires - though certainly some of these fit that category. But they are all practices that affect our relationship with God -- and with one another. They are matters of the heart, of our minds, and of our speech that lead to broken relationships, with God or with others, broken communities, and a broken world. They happen when we put our own selves ahead of God and others, rather than thinking about the consequences of our actions or our words. Paul’s words here serve as a warning that a lack of mindful and intentional relational living leads to practices that actively work against the unfolding of the kingdom of God.
And yet the fruit of the Spirit - love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control -- that’s a hard list to live up to all the time. I know that I don’t feel loving all the time -- even to the people I like and enjoy spending time with. I’m certainly not always patient or generous or joyful.
But this is the picture that Paul paints of what a life looks like where the Holy Spirit is at work. It brings to mind Jesus’ saying “you shall know them by their fruits” -- the hallmark of a disciple of Jesus being one that bears good fruit. Just like you know an apple tree because it produces apples, Paul remarks that you can tell one who follows in the way of Jesus because of the presence of these characteristics.
There’s good news in that having a life marked by these fruits doesn’t mean we feel them all the time. I think about the time I was in Guatemala a few years ago with Linda -- Eldon was on this trip, and Mike and Ariette -- and we were working at Salud y Paz improving their facility, and one of the projects that we were working on was digging a trench for them to lay down some pipe. They marked out the line and told us it had to be however deep and wide, and so we spent all afternoon in the sun, fighting the heat and dehydration, digging this trench...only to be told that they had changed their minds about the layout, and so it had to be redone. And we did it -- but you can better believe we weren’t necessarily filled with feelings of love as we were doing it -- and yet I think you would all agree that through our actions, we were loving our neighbors from this part of the world.
These fruits of the Spirit - the hallmarks of a life of freedom in Christ - are seen again in the quality of our relationships, not necessarily in our emotions. They come about as a result of Christ working in us, and are a sign that we are guided by God’s spirit.
Now to be sure, we will not always exhibit these in our lives -- Thanks be to God that we have forgiveness in Christ and that we always have the opportunity for second chances! We’re always learning and growing - that’s part of what a journey in faith is all about. But a life in Christ gives us the ability to shift our mindset towards intentionality and mindfulness in our relationships with others so that in all things we are glorifying God and being like Christ to others as we go along the way.
Which brings me to our church...and to our community...and to our opening discussion of Christian values.
Each and every one of us is a representative of the church and a representative of Christ on this island. We’re blessed to live in a community that by and large supports and cares for one another in hard times, that reaches out to love our neighbors and sometimes our enemies, and where there is this strong sense of togetherness that knits us together. There’s the understanding that we need each other to survive as a town and as a community.
But we all know that sometimes, we don’t treat each other very well. Some of the time it’s not intentional, though often it is. There are times we look to tear each other down for what we think of as the sake of the community. And a lot of the time we don’t talk about it because it’s not in our self-interest to have the hard conversations, and so we sweep it under the rug until the next time we all get embroiled in the next crisis...and so the biting and devouring continues on and on, sometimes for generations.
We, as a church, are called to be different. We are called to be a witness of what it looks like to be together differently, of what doing business together looks like, of what having hard conversations in love looks like, of what forgiveness and reconciliation looks like, and what it means to carry love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control into all of our relationships -- especially those times when we aren’t necessarily feeling very loving or kind.
What would it look like if people’s experience of us as a congregation could help change the way they thought of Christians and Christian values? What would it look like if the next time there was a conflict, the church could serve as a reminder of a different way to work through divisive issues? What would it look like to be a model and to lead by example of creating a truly loving and inclusive community? Where self-interest wasn’t the primary motivating factor in our life together, but the question “how can I love my neighbor” guided the process by which we made every single decision?
As we look toward our visioning process and think about who we are and who God calls us to be...and as we think about who our community is and what it needs - sometimes those needs aren’t physical needs. Sometimes those needs are spiritual needs. And for all the wonderful things about this place, I think there are places where the church can help teach and guide our community to be the best expression of itself - a welcoming, loving, joy-filled place.
It takes practice, and it takes work. But I believe that we as individuals and as a community can commit together to undertake this task that is before us -- that we as people, guided by the spirit, can joyfully respond to God’s work all around us - and see the opportunities for these fruits of the spirit to be made real in our relationships and in our community. The same is true for our congregation -- that we as a church look toward loving and serving this community so that God’s kingdom might be made real - that this might be a place of justice and peace, of love and equality, of welcome and hospitality.
Let us continue to work together to love our neighbors, to have the mind and heart of Christ, and to bear fruit in our lives and in our relationships. Amen.
Pastor Melissa Yosua-Davis has been serving the Chebeague Island United Methodist Church since July 2015. She currently lives on the island with her husband and two dogs, and soon will expect a new addition to her family. Read here recent sermon excerpts, thoughts on life and faith, and current announcements for the chuch community. She also blogs at Going on to Perfection.