16-18 My counsel is this: 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. Why don’t you choose to be led by the Spirit and so escape the erratic compulsions of a law-dominated existence?
22-23 But what happens when we live God’s way? He brings gifts into our lives, much the same way that fruit appears in an orchard—things like affection for others, exuberance about life, serenity. We develop 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. –Galatians 5:16-23 The Message
A ninety-year-old was asked recently as to the secret of his living so well and for so long. The wise old man smiled at the question and replied, “Clean thoughts.”
Clean or good thoughts might be another way of talking about the “fruits of the Spirit” that have shaped our worship life in these past months as part of our “Year of the Spirit” theme.
“…love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.” Paul suggests; live in God’s Spirit, and these things will flow through our lives. During the month of June we’re on “self-control” and so I briefly thought about focusing upon that, but my preaching professor always urged us to have a mastery of the subject matter of our sermon before preaching on it. Thus I had to go in another direction. So “fruits of the Spirit.”
First of all we must remind ourselves that Paul is giving this beautiful teaching as part of a larger, reasoned argument to those Galatian Christians. Paul speaks about the “works of the flesh” first of all—listing all the bad things that come from that life-stance (I didn’t have that part of the Scripture read—didn’t want to give anyone ideas). Suffice it to say that living in the flesh leads to all kinds of heartbreak and destruction in our lives. Then he contrasts the works of the flesh with the “fruits of the Spirit,” urging the Galatians to center their lives in God’s Spirit. That’s where that whole list comes in…love, joy, patience, kindness and so forth.
I’d like to say that Paul’s metaphor or word choice was…unfortunate. He used the terms flesh and spirit in this dichotomy. The term “flesh” was a unfortunate choice because ever since we’ve taken his metaphor literally, misunderstood it as referring to our physical bodies, and this has led to an unhealthy relationship to our bodies, our sexuality, and by extension, the whole creation—seeing it all as evil or opposed to God’s Spirit. This misreading of Paul has been costly; twisting our sexuality and harming the earth. After all, if the spiritual is the only thing that is good, why not waste the earth’s creatures, resources, and environment and neglect the health of ourselves and poor people?
That was not Paul’s intention; flesh and Spirit are not opposites. Eugene Peterson, in seeking another—better way of putting this teaching, translated it “sinful self-interest.” There is an opposition going on, Paul says, between our destructive selfishness and the operation of God’s Spirit within us.
In each moment of our being, we either operate out of one base-camp or the other. On our better days we can pull it off—we can have “clean thoughts.” When we have our Maslow-ian hierarchy of needs met, we can operate from a higher platform and live generous, peaceful lives. With our cups full it is easier to be gracious, kind, faithful, joyous and patient. We live with a sense of abundance.
But then we stub our toe…feel threatened in some way…experience a loss or crisis…we are confronted with something unfamiliar—skin color, religion, culture or tradition and what happens? We crawl back into our lesser selves. We regress into our reptilian brains that think in binary categories of good and evil, fight or flight, left and right, us and them. We lock up and build walls around our consciousness, our hearts, and the ever narrowing clan or tribe we belong to that we think will protect us. We seek short-term gains that are short-sighted and unsustainable (often at the expense of others). We live with a sense of scarcity—there is only so much to go around and we’ve got to get ours before it is gone. In short…we revert to our “sinful self-interest” selves. This leads, Paul says, to destruction. As Jesus said, “Those who seek to save their lives lose it.” So we’re left with a choice between our sinful self-interest and our better nature—which is rooted in God’s Spirit. It’s the devil self on one shoulder and an angel self on the other, each whispering. Who do we listen to?
Paul urges the Galatian Christians and us to “live by the Spirit” (NRSV). In our text today he says, “My counsel is this: Live freely, animated and motivated by God’s Spirit. Then you won’t feed the compulsions of selfishness.” My question is how? He says in another translation, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh [that is our selfishness] with its desires and passions.” Easier said than done. Once again, how? Where do we find a firm foundation to operate from love and spirit…have clean thoughts?
It must be said that it can’t be done without the grace of God…but our consent, our willingness, our openness or trust (or faith) seem to be key in unlocking this transformation Paul is talking about. As the saints have continually told us, we must rely on God for everything—but work as though it were up to us…and in the end, give thanks to God for it all. But today I’m going to offer two brief avenues to spiritual growth away from our selfish selves, and it may surprise you (at least it does me) to find that one of them is a belief or doctrine, namely, the incarnation. I believe we have to go back to the beginning and remember that God created out of love and pronounced it good. God’s been investing God’s self into creation from the Big Bang onward. The created order is God’s self, outwardly manifested and infused. God is not, as we so often crudely think, a being out there…distant, but as medieval scholar Duns Scotus said, “God is being.” Let me say that again; God is not a being…God is being. And as much as we may like the old song, “From A Distance”, Bette Midler was wrong. The music might be pretty but the theology is atrocious. God is not distant—God is deeply within each molecule of creation forging an evolution into ever deepening consciousness, complexity, diversity, and connection (or communion).
We must let our hearts be transformed by this realization; God is within us, seeking to be expressed in love, justice, grace, life.
The other bit of teaching comes once again from Duns Scotus. One of his most helpful teachings was that we need to seek “a harmony of goodness.” This means that we need to harmonize and balance necessary self-care with the constant expansion of our hearts beyond ourselves. We have to care for and love ourselves—otherwise we will lose what we have to give. But at the same time—in a balanced harmony—we must continually expand the scope of our love to the world. Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves. Perhaps he meant this balancing & blending, but I think he also meant something deeper. If God is being, then we are all connected, united, one. There is diversity—but there is also unity. To love another as yourself is to recognize the other as yourself—or at least something you are part of. First responders on 911 ran toward danger not because they knew those people in need—not because they were family or part of their clan. Deep down they knew a connection—a life connection—they were one.
Somewhere I heard an old Jewish story of a boy playing in the street of his village after a rainfall. The mud and clay of the street were pliable and he began to form figures to play with. From the wet clay, he created two battling armies for his imagination. As he finished the building of these figures and letting the play begin he suddenly realized that the clay that gave one army form and life, was the same—indeed, connected to the very same clay that gave life to the other army. He saw that they were the same substance—being—just a different expression, like leaves upon another branch of the same tree. He no longer could have those “armies” do battle after realizing this.
When we have our hearts transformed by this, we can love our neighbors as ourselves in “love, joy, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control.”
Not long ago I read of an incident that I believe exemplifies this “living in the Spirit” we’re talking about. I borrow these words.
We made a trip to the grocery store to pick up a few items for a small family gathering on Thanksgiving Day. As usual, we divided the list and I took the cart and headed in one direction, my wife, in another. We agreed to meet at the fresh veggies. I found my items and started over to meet my wife. At the head of the aisle I saw two shoppers (I presumed mother and daughter), obviously Muslim, as their dress seemed to indicate…very nice in appearance. I nodded with a smile as I moved toward the end of the aisle, then I stopped. I turned directly toward the woman, and then, a bit hesitatingly, spoke softly but directly to her, “I just want you to know we love you, both my wife and I, and we are glad you are here.” Then, more quietly, I said, “We are so saddened by all of the hatred which is being spewed forth during these months, especially during and after the election. Perhaps you have noticed it, too.” Our eyes connected it, and now there was a subtle smile in that look, as she responded quietly, “Yes, we, too, have sensed that hatred.” I said, “Well, we just want you to know we care”, and our eyes met again and she said, “Thank you.”
I headed toward the fresh veggies. I caught up with my wife and she asked if I’d gotten lost. I told her of the conversation I’d had, and she said, “Good. Good for you.” We picked up the carrots, and found the fresh cranberries. As she put them in the cart, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the woman I had just spoken with coming towards us, carrying a beautiful poinsettia plant. She came directly to us, stopped, gave the plant to me, and with a broad smile said, “Thank you! The sales slip is right here so you won’t have a problem going through the check out.” My wife moved closer to her and said, “You didn’t have to do that.” Her response was to say that they wanted to say thanks in some way. My wife moved closer to her and they embraced—two strangers, somehow joined in an expression of understanding and caring. My wife said, “I hope we will see you again.” She nodded, saying “Yes!” As they walked away, they both turned and looked at us again. We smiled and waved to them; they waved back with broad, happy smiles.
There was no one else around. The two of us stood in silence in that powerful moment and wiped our eyes. We looked at the plant in our cart and then at each other. I said, “So this is what a little love can do.” 1
When they got home, they placed that poinsettia in the place where their Christmas tree normally went and used it as a symbol of God’s Spirit, incarnating into creation once again. So be it. Amen
1-Story by Rev. David Schneider, adapted from the Christmas Greetings publication of retired clergy of the Minnesota Annual Conference, 2016.