Rev. Jay Rowland
Sunday June 30, 2019,
First Presbyterian Church, Rochester MN
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
In a few days, it will be July 4 again, time to celebrate our nation’s founding and independence and enjoy all the usual trappings: days off of work, cookouts, cabins, swimming, fishing, fireworks, ice cream, etc. Hopefully, as on Memorial Day, we’ll take a moment or two to remember the main reason we all live here: because of every person who sacrificed their own freedom, their life for this nation from the beginning to this very day. The freedom we enjoy wasn’t free. It was paid for in human lives, human blood, human tears. And so as we enjoy this wonderful rite of summer, I hope we’ll think about the cost people paid for this great nation.
In much the same way, our spiritual freedom, our free will, tends to fly under the radar most of the time. Our ancestors in the faith wisely understood how costly free will can be. Personal freedom can be a slippery slope. Just ask Adam and Eve. Both scripture passages today explore the hidden cost of personal freedom.
The most fascinating aspect of God’s character to me is God’s decision from the start to never manipulate or coerce our obedience. God lets us choose whether or not to love and serve God.
An example jumps up in the scene from Luke's gospel today. When the Samaritans do not welcome Jesus on his way to Jerusalem, James & John ask Jesus for permission "to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them".
Jesus rebukes them. Forced obedience is not obedience.
Coercion; revenge; punishment … these are distinctly human characteristics. History tells the tale. Meanwhile, Jesus, the perfect revelation of God-with-us embodies God’s generosity toward humankind; God’s refusal to interfere, coerce or punish us whenever we reject God. Which gets me thinking…. If God were merely a human projection as some have said, then Jesus’ never would have been crucified - he would have defeated any opposition. That is, after all, human history in a nutshell: self-preservation at any cost.
Later in Luke’s gospel (Luke 13:1-5), there’s a moment when people are talking about two incidents that happened in the community. One was an incident of government violence against some sect. The other was the sudden collapse of a building which tragically killed many people. The consensus and the talk is that the people did something to annoy or anger God. Going against conventional wisdom at the time, Jesus says to them, “do you think this happened to those people because they were worse sinners than any others? No, I tell you…”
Retribution and punishment are distinctively human traits. There are consequences for every choice we make and every action we take. So much unnecessary hardship can be traced to human choice or action--not all of it, mind you, but plenty. These consequences tend to show up in ways that some consider to be divine punishment or retribution when, again, it’s our choices or decisions which unleash harm upon self and neighbor.
We all reject God and "do our own thing" from time to time. Sometimes it’s intentional, other times it’s unintentional perhaps. Somewhere along the line and repeatedly so, our decisions & actions contradict our professed love and allegiance to God. If God were in the punishment or retribution business, none of us would be here.
The phenomenon of our nation’s formation and growth has over time cost countless people a great deal, including ultimately their life. Much of it was voluntary, but much of it was not. The emergence and prosperity of our nation is neither pure nor unstained by corruption. Slavery and racism are two noteworthy blemishes upon our foundation of freedom. Our nation’s history is … complicated. In the same way our God-ordained and God-protected free will is also … complicated. Or maybe it’s simple but we complicate it.
That is the spiritual dilemma addressed in both scripture passages today. The freedom we assume, the so-called freedom to do what we please, to have whatever we want, the freedom to follow our impulses and instincts, which God intends for good, has a dark side--its capacity to enslave and imprison us. This is what Paul means when he explains that our “sinful self-interest is at odds with the free spirit God gives to us, just as the free spirit is incompatible with selfishness.” Paul notes that we cannot live both ways at once. And so the biggest daily obstacle to a vibrant life with God is our human impulse to gratify self first. Paul describes the various outcomes of in the flesh rather than the spirit (from The Message Bible translation):
loveless, cheap sex; ... frenzied … grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show religion; … cutthroat competition; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied wants; a brutal temper; … divided homes & divided lives; small-minded -pursuits; addictions; parodies of community; (demonizing) our neighbor or creating unnecessary rivalry.
Those last two are wreaking havoc in our nation right now. People are being demonized and portrayed as rivals rather than as human beings. Our borders have become the scene of the worst outcomes that come whenever human beings ignore or shut down their spiritual identity.
So much of the ongoing suffering, isolation and conflict we see in the world can be traced to freely-made choices driven by our “desires of the flesh”. Though Paul says living in the flesh keeps us from entering God’s kingdom, he’s not saying that God bars our entry as punishment. I understand Paul to say that as a consequence of our own free choices/actions, we place ourselves on a detour away from the Kingdom of God. But it’s not final. God’s invitation is never withdrawn and never expires.
Meanwhile, the fruits of the Spirit “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23) bring about NO suffering nor isolation nor conflict. Thus, Paul comments, there’s no law against actions bearing the fruits of the Spirit. One commentary puts it cleverly: “For Paul it was never a matter of “Become what you are-not by behaving better” it was always a matter of “Be who in baptism you already are.” It was never “Behave or else God will not save you,” it was always, “God already saved you so act like it.” There is a tight linkage between the grace that saves and living a gracious life as a result of God’s generous grace.
God’s grace truly is extravagant. By design. Grace produces gratitude which then provokes the fruit of the Spirit which honors God while also benefitting our neighbor. The Spirit is constantly leading the way and blazing the trail. Paul encourages us to learn how to keep pace with God’s Spirit. Knowing that God already loves us in Christ and saves us as often as needed offers us liberation from debilitating anxiety and fear. As we learn to recognize the Holy Spirit, we learn to dance along with it, drawn and nourished by the fruits of the Spirit which in turn grow with us on the “branches” of our lives.
This is important. Clearly we’re living in a moment in history when political forces are exuding anger, entitlement, and strong-arm tactics to get their way. Meanwhile, I see people longing for self-control, patience and joy to set the tone in politics and our communities which are more diverse than ever before.
We all know people who are already good examples of life in the spirit. People in this very room today, people in this congregation, as well throughout our community in all its wondrous diversity. Their stories, their testimonies, their life in the spirit has the power to move us in the same spiritual direction. The forces of division are destructive and demoralizing. It’s always been that way. But we’re called to a better way. As we open ourselves to God’s spirit leading us and challenging us to come together, we can do so much more good than the ill being wrought by the forces of division.
God forever and faithfully offers us an alternative—a way of life that in turn affirms and upholds life and whole-ness, health and dignity, peace and meaning—even in the midst of death and illness, worldly dissonance and chaos and frenzy—an alternative to the constant barrage of “choices” to put everything else before God. God is forever diligent, forever willing and forever able to assist us in the difficult work of overcoming “self” finding our way home and living in true freedom. God has planted in our spirits a restlessness that lasts until we rest in the One who is our true home, and our true FREEDOM. And so, as we approach another July 4 Day of (National) Independence, God’s freedom rings in our hearts and our spirits unleashing the fruits of the spirit to bring about a future with hope.