— A Sermon by Gary L. Bagley —
Galatians 5:1, 13-25; Luke 9:51–62
As a child, my daughter, Kelly, loved to sing, “Let there Be Peace on Earth and Let It Begin with Me.” As we look toward our nation’s birthday on Thursday, it will be important for us to remember that if we want to change the world for the better, it will indeed have to begin within each of us. The lectionary reading from Galatians today provides direction for inner peace, which is necessary for promoting world peace.
Willie Nelson said his heroes have always been cowboys. A few of mine were, too, along with athletes, musicians, a family physician, a few U.S. Presidents (Lincoln, Teddy Roosevelt…), and a few notable ministers. All of them had two things in common: to live fully and to serve others.
With ongoing articles in the news each day of world conflict, the lack of balance of adequate resources among countries in the world—like sufficient food and clean water, agricultural and medical education and resources, and education in general—broad immigration issues, cyber attacks on numerous governments and institutions in the world (including on our own nation), the ongoing issues of gun violence in our school systems, and the world’s slow pace of addressing proper care of Mother Earth, our ongoing struggle to define life—what it is, when it begins, when it ends, and better definitions of how we responsibly care for life—our own nation still has a significant challenge to move from “adolescence to mature adulthood,” so to speak.
The importance of the Apostle Paul’s comments about “fruit of the spirit…” is seen in the way he used variations of it in other letters…as we saw from 2 Corinthians 6:1-13 on the first Sunday of June. On the Sunday before our nation’s birthday celebration and this third Sunday after Pentecost, I think they are at the heart of what is needed in our world today and what’s needed for a healthy life.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, fidelity, gentleness, and self-control (vv. 22-23).
They are not fruits of the Spirit, but fruit of the Spirit. All nine characteristics of one’s personality (and perhaps more) come from the Spirit of God dwelling within your hearts and minds.
Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia is a letter about grace—something he learned after being an unsuccessful, fanatical follower of the Law. Paul’s comments are about more than “pie in the sky” spirituality. He speaks of three important facets of everyday life:
- The sometimes unattractive side of being human;
- Trying to control that unattractive side;
- And, freedom that comes through true spirituality.
The reason the letter of Galatians is such a powerful and important letter is due to its autobiographical nature. Paul had studied under the leading Jewish teacher in his day—Gamaliel. He had become a fanatical, law abiding Jewish leader of his day. In the opening chapter of this letter, he describes how zealously he pursued a religious life, persecuting the “para-religious” Jewish followers of the Jewish-Jesus—trying to change the world rather than changing himself only to discover grace, which neutralized his legalism.
What Paul wanted and worked so hard for in his legalistic efforts, came as incidentals or “accessories” with his life in the Spirit. Long before the psychological techniques of “focusing” and “mindfulness” which became employed in sports, the labor room, and self-help philosophies, they existed in the gospels. Jesus knew that negative approaches to eliminating undesirable characteristics had no lasting effect.
He once told a parable about a person who wanted to rid a house of a devil by sweeping it out, only to have more unwanted traits to take its place—seven devils to take the one devil’s place.
In Greek mythology, Orpheus was the greatest of musicians. On one mythic expedition with the Argonauts, as the story goes, they passed by the rocky isle of the Sirens. Many a sailor was lured to his death by the irresistible beauty of the songs and the sirens. When Orpheus heard the sirens, he took out his lyre and played music more beautiful than the Sirens, drowning out their alluring but deadly song.
William Glasser, a noted and controversial psychiatrist and developer of Reality Therapy and Choice Therapy, well understood these principles. In his book, Positive Addiction, he encouraged the same principles as that of Orpheus. Often the characteristics we desire are by-products of other principles or choices. Glasser said that if a person wants to overcome a negative trait or addiction, often the easiest way to do so is by developing a more healthy, positive addiction to take its place. The healthier, stronger “addiction” will over-ride the weaker, negative characteristic or addiction.
What Paul knew, however, was that this “Fruit of the Spirit” thing was not just a psychological “move” to get what one really wanted. It was the key to a truly happy, peaceful life. It was the reason Jesus told a group of anxious, followers:
Seek first the kingdom of God, and then things like food, clothing, friends, happiness, self-fulfillment… shall come on their own…”
Marsha Sinetar’s thirty-year-old book on careers follows the same mentality: Do What You Love, The Money Will Follow. Paul’s understanding of character is such a powerful message…for individuals, families, communities, churches, and nations. What if everyone followed the Way of God, as Jesus and a few others understood and taught it?
The burning issue before the Galatians was the issue of Jewish-required circumcision for spiritual purity. Paul knew that if one discarded God’s grace and started relying solely on following rules to be good enough, there would always be an unfulfilled hunger of the soul.
There are limits to what laws and rules can provide. You can’t make someone love you. Love happens on its own. You can’t force people to be patriotic; patriotism must come from within. Governments have tried forcing nationalism on its people, only to see such destroy the character of a nation. When we see how profoundly fortunate and blessed we are to be given the many advantages of a democratic society—free education, incentives to learn, the freedom to question, the principle of equal opportunity—and how so many who have gone before us have contributed these blessings, then patriotism, not nationalism, follows.
Some years ago in my late twenties, a stray cat showed up at our house. This young cat stayed in the shadows, darting back through a vent-opening under the house when someone appeared. I left food for the cat on several consecutive mornings. Sometimes from the window I could see it come out to feed. I kept thinking that if I could just pet the cat long enough, even by a little force, I could prove my intentions to bring no harm but be helpful. On the nearby 4th of July holiday, I was alone with our collie in the backyard grilling hamburgers on one of those popular hibachis of the time, when what should appear but the stray cat, being lured by the smell of fresh hamburger cooking on the grill, sitting near the ground. I placed a small amount of the cooked meat on the ground with the other cooked patties on a plate, also on the ground. I sat quietly watching the young cat ease closer and closer to the hibachi and me. Our gentle collie sat quietly and watched. Finally, when this stray kitten was literally at my feet eating a small piece of the hamburger patty, I quickly reached down and picked it up. Rather than accepting my friendly but naively frightening intentions, the cat turned on my arm with all four paws—sixteen claws—plus its teeth. At the same moment the cat was attacking my arm, the collie chose to go for the rest of the hamburger patties she had watched so closely being cook. My good intentions of peace-making, making a friend of the stray cat quickly ended…as well as did the family’s 4th of July meal. The truth that “you can’t make someone love you” was dramatized right before my very eyes…and on my very arm. There I stood, trying to shake the cat off my arm while trying to verbally back the dog away from our meal. It was a 4th of July cookout gone awry.
When we choose to be guided by the Spirit—seek first God’s Spirit with no preconceived notions or agenda—then the true essentials for living a healthy and successful life mysteriously become our own. Things like love, happiness, inner peace, patience, self-control, goodness, kindness, and loyalty comes incidentally with life in the Spirit.
“It is for freedom that Christ set us free,” Paul wrote in his letter to the church in Galatia. On the one hand, that makes about as much sense as some of the other sayings in the Bible—”you find yourself when you lose yourself”… “if you try to save yourself, you will be lost”…”the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” “For freedom’s sake you have been made free,” said Paul in his letter to the Galatians. Want to see this great nation of ours continue to grow into maturity, then seek first the way of God, and all else will be added.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery…
13 For 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.’15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
16 Live 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.
22 By 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.
Gospel Luke 9:51-62
51When the days drew near for him to be taken up, he set his face to go to Jerusalem. 52And he sent messengers ahead of him. On their way they entered a village of the Samaritans to make ready for him; 53but they did not receive him, because his face was set toward Jerusalem. 54When his disciples James and John saw it, they said, “Lord, do you want us to command fire to come down from heaven and consume them?” 55But he turned and rebuked them. 56Then they went on to another village.
57As they were going along the road, someone said to him, “I will follow you wherever you go.” 58And Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” 59To another he said, “Follow me.” But [this one] said, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” 60But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” 61Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” 62Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.”