Proper 8, Year C
30 June AD 2019
St Michael’s Episcopal Church, O’Fallon, IL
Here are the readings
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
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We’ve been spending time in Galatians over these first few green Sundays after Pentecost. Galatia was one of Paul’s problem churches, which gave him the opportunity to give the whole Church this really solid teaching on the distinction between law and grace. It’s a subject that came up a couple of decades earlier in the church at Jerusalem, when Peter addressed it in terms similar to Paul’s (Acts 15). Both Peter and Paul speak quite negatively about the law in relation to Christ and his Church.
The law of Moses was burdensome, Paul explains. It’s essentially a huge list of commandments, imposing so many rules and regulations on God’s people that it was impossible for any of them to obey it perfectly, which I think was the point. And what was worse, it pronounced a curse on anybody who broke even the least commandment (Gal 3:10, Dt 28). It was all about sin, and the utter impossibility of humans to deal with it adequately so as restore God’s creation to its original condition. The big problem in the Galatian church was that the Jewish converts there were insisting that the non-Jewish converts needed to submit to the Jewish law before they could become proper Christians. What they failed to understand was that in and through Jesus, God redefined what it is to be in relationship with him. Before Christ, the law had been the foundation of God’s relationship with his people, so that whoever violated the law through sin damaged the relationship. That’s why there were harsh penalties and curses.
So the Jewish teachers of the law described it as a yoke to be embraced out of love for God, while also admitting that it was not an easy one to bear. It was a joyous burden, they taught. That teaching was so familiar that when Jesus said, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me… For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mt 11:29-30), people understood the reference and were drawn to him. His apostles then began to speak of the law as a yoke too difficult to bear (Acts 15:10). And the gloomiest thing about it was that it didn’t offer any provision for forgiveness. It promised the hope of forgiveness, but it didn’t actually offer forgiveness.
The new freedom in Christ comes from the fact that he died for our sin. Because his death on the cross was the perfect sacrifice for all sin, for all time, God’s perfect forgiveness is now available to all people. And repentance is the key that unlocks God’s forgiveness, which implies very clearly that we’re not off the hook with regard to obedience. We still have to obey the bits of God’s law that weren’t fulfilled in Jesus. It’s just that, as Paul says in Romans, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Rom 8:1). And that’s because, as I said last week, all who are baptized into Christ have put on Christ, have been hidden with Christ in God (Gal 3:27Col 3:3), so that God now only looks on us as found in his Son (cf Hymnal 1982, 337).
“Stand firm, therefore,” Paul says, “and don’t submit again to a yoke of slavery,” i.e. don’t go back to that old legalism that can’t save you. Only Christ can save you, and only if you believe in him and his resurrection. It’s faith that saves you, not perfect obedience to the law. But that’s not a licence to sin deliberately. We’re called to freedom, Paul says, “only don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence.” It’s not that kind of freedom. It’s freedom from the curse of the law, from being condemned under the law, and from the hopelessness that goes with that. “But through love become slaves to one another. For the whole law,” Paul continues, “is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” If care as much for your neighbor as yourself, and as God does, then you’re well on your way to satisfying the demands of God’s law, which is all about loving God and neighbor.
The law of Moses was given mainly to protect us from ourselves, to keep us from indulging in our baser human impulses, like hating one another and chasing after things we really ought to stay away from. Those things are ultimately self-destructive. If you bite and devour one another, Paul warns, you’ll consume each other. Therefore, “don’t gratify the desires of the flesh,” because they’re at war with the Spirit of God, and vice versa. Inside each one of us is a battleground where these two opposite sets of desires are continually at war, and they’ll keep us from doing the things we really want to do. Paul goes on to list some of those desires, what he calls “the works of the flesh”:
sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
That can be pretty distressing if we take it as seriously as we ought to, especially since the prevailing culture around us encourages us not only to condone most of those things, but that we should even indulge in them ourselves. Yet Paul warns that “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” So we’re conflicted. On the one hand, the thunderous voice of the sinful world is yelling at us in all sorts of ways to give in to the desires of the flesh. And on the other, the still small voice of the Spirit of God is calling from deep within each of us to avoid those things. And here in today’s reading is the voice of St Paul reminding us that rather than forsaking eternity by pursuing the desires of the flesh, we should be eagerly striving to do those things that will bring forth the fruits of godliness– “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.”
But as nice as all that sounds, we’re still distressed over the desires of the flesh, wondering whether the battle for our souls will finally be lost. And this is where a lot of conscientious Christians are tempted to give up the fight, despairing that it’s just too hard to live a godly life and that, because they feel that way, God wouldn’t really want them in his kingdom anyway. They despair, and they want to give up because they’ve failed to grasp the one really important point in all this. It’s a point that you don’t get from reading just one little passage from just one book of the Bible.
The point is that our salvation doesn’t depend on how hard we’ve tried to live sin-free. It depends instead on whether we cling to the cross of Jesus. Paul doesn’t say that in today’s epistle—you have to read all his epistles in order to get that picture. Taming the desires of the flesh is essential. And so is repentance and seeking God’s forgiveness whenever we do give in to them. But our eternal salvation doesn’t depend on whether we’ve done more good than evil. It depends on whether we confess with our lips, as Paul says, that Jesus is Lord, and believe in our hearts that God raised him from the dead (Rom 10.9). It depends on whether we look to Jesus lifted up on the cross, and allow his blood to wash us and make us clean. God doesn’t keep a score card on each one of us. Instead he gives us his Son.
Fr Larry Richards, a Roman Catholic evangelist puts it this way: If you or I drop dead today and we stand before God the Father, and he says to us, “What have you got to say for yourself? Why should I let you in?” and we say, “Because I went to Mass every Sunday and I tried to be a good person.” Wrong answer! [That doesn’t mean you don’t have to go to Mass as often as you can or that you can ease up on trying to be a good person. You still do.] “I obeyed all the commandments.” Wrong answer! [That doesn’t mean you don’t have to do your best to keep the commandments. You still do.] There’s only one right answer. The day each of us stands before the throne of judgment—and everybody will, for that’s a divine promise—and God says, “Why should I take you into my glory?” the answer we must all give is, Because of Jesus. Because nothing I can do myself can make up for what I’ve done in my life, or for the ways I’ve separated myself from You, my loving Father. Only the perfectly sinless One who came from You to us so that he could be lifted up on the cross, only he can save me by his grace.
There’s a great old evangelical hymn that some of you probably know. It says,
What can wash away my sin? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
What can make me whole again? Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
Nothing can for sin atone… Nothing good that I have done.
Nothing but the blood of Jesus.
So do we still need to fight against the desires of the flesh? Yes we do. Do we still need to strive for the fruits of the Spirit? Absolutely. The difference is that the grace of God which flows down from the cross in the form of water and blood makes us better able to do those things. And where do we find this grace? Primarily in the sacraments of the Church, most especially in Baptism, where we die to sin, and in Holy Communion where we participate in the cross, where Jesus feeds us from his own substance, filling us with his life, nourishing and strengthening us for the battle against all those things that war against our souls.
We recognize the great need we have of those things when we look to the cross, when we allow the death that happened there to cover our sins and to give us entry into the glory of God the Father, who sent his only Son to us in order to bring us back to him. Since he redeemed us in that way, we belong to him, and we are obliged to nail our sinfulness to his cross. As Paul says, “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” In the Name of…