Delivered by Ruling Elder James Parks,
June 25, 2017
Text: Galatians 5:16-26
When I was growing up in the mountains of western North Carolina I loved to go exploring in the woods near our house. I particularly enjoyed picking and eating wild strawberries, wild blueberries and blackberries and honeysuckle that I found as I walked. Those were the days when you could eat fruit off the tree or vine without worrying about pesticides and pollutants in the food.
I still love those fruits, but what you buy in the stores these days does not taste nearly as good as what I picked as a boy. So whenever Laurice and I are traveling down a rural road we like to stop and get fresh-picked fruit from the farmers’ stands along the way. There’s just nothing like the real thing. As Marvin Gaye and Elton John sang:
“I’ve got your picture hangin’ on the wall
“But it can’t see or come to me when I call your name
“I realize it’s just a picture in a frame
“Don’t you know
“Ain’t nothing like the real thing.”
That’s what Paul was trying to tell the folks in the churches in Galatia.
Paul had established these churches on one of his missionary journeys to what is now the country of Turkey. Most, if not all, the converts were Gentiles, meaning they were not Jews. Because Paul was bringing in all these people of different cultures and races—creating a multicultural church—he ran into trouble with what he calls the “circumcision faction,” led by the apostle James. They demanded that the Gentile converts become Jews, obey the law of Moses, be circumcised and not eat Gentile food. They didn’t want to give up their control and power to the new reality that God’s love was universal, not just reserved for the children of Israel.
The same thing is going on in the church and nation today. I’m reading a book by Robert P. Jones entitled “The End of White Christian America” in which he says churches must face the reality that white Christians make up less than half the country even if you include Catholics. The power that white Protestants had politically and culturally is waning, he says. Their churches are dying. Young white people don’t think church is important. Demographics ensure that whites will be a minority in America in about 20-30 years. And although his book was written just before the 2016 vote, he foresees the Trump election as one of the last gasps of whites afraid of inevitable change.
But he offers hope and sees this change as an opportunity. Like Paul, Jones says the model for the church to grow and to be a reconciling force lies in multicultural churches like Hunting Ridge which can bridge our racial and economic differences. We can be a model for the rest of the Presbyterian Church, which is more than 90 percent white, and I challenge us to really work together on being a healing force in our world.
But now back to Galatia. This “circumcision faction” had infiltrated the Galatian church and folks didn’t know what to do. So as Pastor Deborah pointed out last week, Paul tells the Galatians and us that the law is simply a tool to rely on until the real thing—the Christ—comes along and gives us the freedom to become what God intended for each of us to be.
But just because you are free from the law doesn’t mean you’re free to do whatever you want. Paul says the Kingdom of God is already here and now, right where you are. Paul says Jesus is the one who illustrates that God-way of acting in his very being, his words, interactions, prioritizing of tasks, his refusal to stick to the status quo. In this human being they were looking directly at God’s reign.
When you accept that God’s kingdom is here, now and in you, you are transformed. You realize that you are loved and you are loveable and you become loving. You become a new person. You are born again.
Things that used to matter to you don’t phase you at all. And you suddenly become aware of things that you never paid attention to before. Because you know you are loved by the creator of Love with a capital L then you are free to love yourself and love others.
Everybody wants to be loved, but we spend so much time doing things that make us unlovable. From childhood we’re taught that the world outside the love cocoon of our family is a dangerous place—dog eat dog, everything is a competition and your worth is determined by how much you own or how many people you can boss.
That has led to a truly dysfunctional world. His Holiness the Dalai Lama puts it this way:
There is a big contradiction. There are seven billion human beings and nobody wants to have problems or suffering, but there are many problems and much suffering, most of our creation. Something is lacking. As one of the seven billion human beings, I believe everyone has the responsibility to develop a happier world. We need, ultimately, to have a greater concern for others’ well- being. (The Book of Joy, P. 30)
But what does being a new person look like? Paul says you can tell it in the way you relate to God, and to others.
First, Paul tells us what the law says you shouldn’t do—fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, hatreds, strife, jealousy, anger, selfish ambitions, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and anything similar.
- Most decent people don’t do those things. Atheists could be on board with not having wild sex with any and everybody, not hating, not fighting, not being drunk, not letting ambition control your life.
So what makes a Christian different? Paul says those who have been transformed by the Spirit of God in their daily lives display the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
If you live by the Spirit, then you should be guided by the Spirit. Your values have changed. You are not conceited because you know God loves everybody the same. You are not competitive because you are focused on helping others not beating them in a race for status or money. You are not envious because you know everything comes from God and to paraphrase Mohatma Ghandi God has provided enough for our need, but not our greed.
You can’t pick and choose this fruit. It is called the “fruit” of the Spirit – not “fruits.” The fruit of the Spirit is produced in us by the Holy Spirit and it is not “nine different fruits”, but one singular “fruit” manifested in nine distinct qualities.
This fruit doesn’t grow overnight, but grows over time though a process that takes longer than we would like. An apple tree can take up to six years to grow fully and produce fruit. But like that apple tree we must first allow our faith to take root, to grow, to gain strength to survive the harsh winter experiences of life that are sure to come before we can bear fruit.
The fruit of the Spirit may seem like a random list of qualities; but in reality, they are in very logical divisions. The first three qualities have to do with our relationship with God: “love, joy, peace”. The second three have to do with our relationships and interactions with other people: “patience”, kindness, goodness”. And the final three have to do with our own inner state of being: “faithfulness, gentleness, self-control”. In other words, the fruit that the Holy Spirit produces in us will impact every relationship we could ever have.
I want to focus on the first three qualities: love, joy and peace, because they are at the root of all the other qualities.
The love that Paul speaks of here isn’t the romantic love we associate with movies and popular songs. The word he uses is the Greek word “agape” which describes the kind of love that can only begin in God. It describes the kind of love that gives itself over to love someone else as much, if not more, than you love yourself.
We can’t know anything about love apart from God. John says, “He who does not know love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:8). In fact, John asserts that, if we love at all, it’s because God first loved us. When we have truly tasted of God’s love for us, then we cannot help but love others as She has loved us.
Here’s the thing: When you let God’s love come in to your life, you want to share it. But you have no control over who you love. All of a sudden you have this desire to and capacity to love everybody: new people, people you already know and even some people you’ve never met. You love the beggar on the street, the person who cuts you off in traffic, the gang banger drug dealer, the soldier on the other side of the battlefield.
It’s easy to see that this kind of love could lead you to act with kindness, patience and generosity toward others. It is this kind of love that allows you to care about what happens to other human beings whether you know them or not. You may not know the mother or father of the latest shooting victim on the streets of Baltimore. But you know they are grieving and you care. You may not know the shooter, but you know he or she needs someone to care about them. You may not know the beggar on the corner, but you know he or she has some kind of problem that would drive them to stand in traffic in all kinds of weather begging and you care.
But Paul says it’s not enough just to care. You have to act, That’s where the patience, kindness and goodness come in. The late German theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer says:
It is no use to us to confess our faith in Christ if we have not gone out and reconciled ourselves to our brothers and sisters, even to the godless, racially different, ostracized and outcast.
The irony is that by reaching out to others you bring joy to yourself. First off, joy isn’t the same thing as “happiness”. Happiness depends upon our circumstances; but joy comes even in difficult and “unhappy” circumstances. It, too, comes from a relationship with God.
We all seek happiness, joyfulness. But we’re always looking outside—from money, from a big car, from a fancy house, from power, from being different from “those people” whoever “they” may be. All those things go away in time and you have to get more money, a bigger car—you get the drift. Be honest, having a lot of stuff doesn’t really make you happy.
When I travel to Cuba I am always impressed by how much joy people there have. They are poor. They have lived under a Communist dictatorship most or all their lives but they are joyful. I asked several people why they are so joyful and they told me that it beats the alternative of always being sad. One day, they say, it will get better.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu says joy is not something that just comes and goes. It is much more profound. Ultimately, he says our greatest joy is when we do good for others. He explains by citing the African concept of Ubuntu.
“Ubuntu says if you have a small piece of bread, it is for my benefit to share it with you. Because after all, none of us came into the world on our own. We needed two people to bring us into the world….I could not speak as I’m speaking without having learned it from other human beings. I could not walk as a human being…We belong to a delicate network. “
We are social animals. We need each other to reach our goals, to fulfill our dreams and to grow and learn. This joy comes to Christians when we recognize through love that God is everywhere and in everybody. We see the face of Christ in everyone and we remember that God is at the helm and no matter what happens, in the end it will be alright.
We will have hardships—everybody does. That’s life. But if we view everything that happens as a negative, it will be a negative. God through Jesus teaches us to see problems as opportunities to do good, to serve, to reconcile.
Joy is the result of our belief that God actually loves us! God wants to hear from us and that He can talk to me personally. It comes from faith about the future. Peter expresses it this way:
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9)
A world where problems become opportunities, where joy replaces hate and anxiety is a world at peace.
Paul uses the Greek word for peace eirēnē, which means “national tranquility” and “harmony in personal relationships.” The Holy Spirit brings inner peace, which can exist in the midst of outward conflict. This peace flows from our faith, a trust in God, that She will handle all the problems. And this faith itself is augmented by the Holy Spirit, who introduces us to more and more of the depths of God.
The Holy Spirit also assures us of peace with God, that is, a right relationship with God, where God is seen no longer as something to fear because He will punish us, but one who loves us.
It all begins with love and that’s what the world needs now. I leave you with the words of Marvin Gaye:
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today,
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today.