Sunday, May 15, 2016
Text: Galatians 5:13-25 (The Message)
This is really a post-Pentecost sermon, so I apologize to all of you who came expecting to hear the familiar story of the rush of wind, tongues of flame, and speaking in strange languages. I am assuming that you are familiar enough with this story to move on today. Hopefully we have alluded to the mystery and power of Pentecost in sufficient measure throughout the service to evoke a sense of what it was all about.
My concern this season has been more toward what happens after all the furor has died down, after the excitement of that first Pentecost waned, after the crowds wandered away, after the great experiment in communal living had fallen prey to harsh reality. What then? In a way, it is a concern for today. What about us, 2000 years later? How do we encounter the Living Presence? What meaning does Pentecost have for us? Can we still live by the Spirit?
In focusing this month on peace and going off-lectionary, I looked at a number of biblical texts that refer to peace, suggested by the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America/Bautistas por la Paz, and chose the ones we are using in worship. One of my favorites is Psalm 85. In her paraphrase, Nan Merrill writes in hope of a time when “righteousness and peace will embrace one another.” In the language of more familiar versions, “righteousness and peace will kiss.” This is a really lovely image – righteousness and peace kissing. But what does this vision tell us of the things that make for peace?
It seems to me that it says that there is no peace without righteousness, that this is a relationship born of the Spirit and blessed by God. We’ve spent some time considering peace the past couple of weeks. Drawing on our definition of shalom, we have come to understand it as peace with connotations of harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, tranquility, welfare, and well-being. But what of righteousness? It’s kind of an old-fashioned word, not one we use very often. What do you think of when you hear the word righteousness?
Truthfully, I wrestle with the word’s implications of judgment. It is so strongly connected to notions of right and wrong. And then there is its unfortunate link to self. Who likes the self-righteous? Aren’t these the very folk with whom Jesus was in conflict? The people who were so certain that they knew what was right and had a corner on it? Maybe that’s why we don’t use the term much these days. It carries too much baggage.
But here’s the problem – scripture uses this word a lot. There must be more to it. When the Ancient Word speaks of peace and righteousness embracing and kissing, don’t we need to pay attention? Some of you may have noticed that from time to time I have tried to reframe righteousness as right living. I don’t know if this is helpful for you, but it lets me come at the concept from a more contemporary perspective. It helps me think about what scripture is trying to teach me. It allows me to think about how I live my life without getting bogged down with unhelpful rules and expectations.
Which brings us to today’s text, another of those gifts from the BPFNA resource. Although Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message doesn’t mention it specifically, more familiar translations affirm that peace is one of the fruits of the Spirit. In studying this passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatians, it seemed to me that there is an explication here of the relationship between right living and peace. Here we see the kiss of righteousness and peace on the big screen, in high definition.
“For freedom,” Paul writes, “Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1). Now there’s a gift for you. Who of us has not longed for freedom at some time or another – freedom from rules and regulations, freedom from expectations and obligations, freedom from relationships, family, work, freedom to go where I please and do what I when I please. Who is Peterson trying to kid when he writes, “It is absolutely clear that God has called you to a free life.” Is it clear to you? It’s not to me. Freedom comes tagged with responsibility and rubs up against all sorts of limitations. And, sure enough, in the very next line he writes, “Just make sure that you don’t use this freedom as an excuse to do whatever you want to do and destroy your freedom.” Well, what sort of freedom is that? You mean to say that freedom is tied up with righteousness, that true freedom has some relationship to right living.
Well, here’s the real rub, “…use your freedom to serve one another in love; that’s how freedom grows. For everything we know about God’s Word is summed up in a single sentence: Love others as you love yourself. That’s an act of true freedom.” Maybe it didn’t really connect when I said that freedom is a gift. Gift implies a giver and here’s the reminder that all we have is gift from God, that true freedom is rooted and grounded in love, that real freedom grows as we serve one another and all creation. Yes, we’re free to throw it all away but we destroy ourselves and others and maybe the whole creation in the process.
On the other hand, we are free to live by Spirit and, challenging as that may be, experience the abundance of what God holds for us in the Beloved Community. Now I imagine some of you are wondering about these lists that Paul has produced. They sound a lot like those old judgmental rules and regulations. Again, in traditional translations, you get the old Pauline battle between “Spirit and the flesh.” We talked about this some in Bible study on Tuesday. We’ve tended to personalize and sexualize these challenges because that word “flesh” reeks of bodily decay. So here, I think The Message is helpful in avoiding that loaded term in favor of “selfishness” or “self-interest,” or, as the New Revised Standard Version puts it, “self-indulgence.” Sometimes I think of it in term of “self-absorption.” The mantras are: “It’s all about me” and “I want what I want when I want it.”
As people of faith, as followers of the Jesus’ Way, it’s pretty difficult to adopt this as our life-style. Steadfast love and faithfulness, righteousness and peace, are the mantras of those who choose to live by the Spirit. Yes, we are free to turn our backs on this that we are called to and promised. Yes, we can walk a different direction, but there is no way it will lead to the Beloved Community. “…repetitive, loveless, cheap sex; a stinking accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied and joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; paranoid loneliness; cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; an impotence to love or be loved; divided homes and divided lives; small-minded and lopsided pursuits; the vicious habit of depersonalizing everyone into a rival; uncontrolled and uncontrollable addictions; ugly parodies of community.” Ouch, does any of this make sense? If not, “I could go on.”
The point is not to use these to shore up threats of hell. The point is to bring a loving and compassionate, if you will, a grace-filled word that none of these leads to true freedom, none bring real peace in our lives or in the world, none will usher in God’s Beloved Community laid out from the very foundation of the world. You can’t really live by the Spirit and practice such self-indulgence. Real freedom is to be let loose from any of these burdens and, in the end, they are burdens.
“But what happens when we live God’s way?” Here’s the good news. The fruit of the Spirit, which, by the way, is gift as much as it is anything we accomplish on our own, lives in “things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity…a willingness to stick with things, a sense of compassion in the heart, and a conviction that a basic holiness permeates things and people. We find ourselves involved in loyal commitments, not needing to force our way in life, able to marshal and direct our energies wisely.” Or, put more simply, “…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Maybe it’s my aging body and spirit that draws me to these qualities. I want to say yes to them, not just for my benefit, but for yours and that of the whole creation.
“For freedom Christ has set us free.” As people of faith, we have freely chosen to follow the Jesus’ Way. So, “Since this is the kind of life we have chosen, the life of the Spirit, let us make sure that we do not just hold it as an idea in our heads or a sentiment in our hearts, but work out its implications in every detail of our lives.” Sounds a little like right living. Live by the Spirit. It can only bring us closer to shalom, to the peace and well-being of God’s Beloved Community – home. Amen.