The Good Fruit
This sermon comes to you under the qualification: thinking aloud. But it's thinking that I've been thinking for a good wee while now, and thought it was time to share it with you. You may well have been thinking it for longer than me, in which case great, we're on the same page. You might really not think what I'm thinking, nor want to think it, which is fine too. So here we go.
In this passage that I just read out, the writer, Paul, sets up two 'dualisms' - that is, two ideas that are opposite to each other. The first dualism is between the law and freedom. The second is between the flesh and the Spirit.
The first - law and freedom: Paul is distressed that Christian Gentiles (non Jews) have been told that they need to be circumcised in order to be right with God. For him, circumcision represents the law, that is, the whole way of thinking that there are things you can do to measure up to what God wants, and that life is about 'getting it right' and following the rules. No! Paul says. Christ came to set us free from that way of thinking. Grace is about saying 'you're okay already', and 'there is no law you can keep, no standard that you have to reach, in order to be in relationship with Christ.'
'Law' in this instance is the state of mind obsessed by the need to 'do things' or 'not do things' so that we can measure up, and feel like we are achieving the right kind of life, and pleasing God. It's a 'standards based' idea of goodness, all about our own efforts. Paul calls it slavery. In Christ, by contrast, we are free...there is nothing to do or not do that will make any difference to how God loves us, and how acceptable we are to God.
Then, as the passage goes on, Paul is careful to affirm that in our freedom, there is an ethical dimension. Even though we are free from any kind of law-based way of thinking and behaving, we still have an imperative to live by, which is love. It's helpful to remember that the law was there for a reason, which is that left to our own devices, we all have a tendency to live selfishly, and even harmfully, in the pursuit of our own wants, driven by our own compulsions.
Hence the second dualism - the flesh and the Spirit. I need to say very loudly here, that 'flesh' does NOT mean the body. This is not a contrast between the wants of the body and the wants of the 'purer' spiritual self. 'Flesh' as Paul uses it means life lived according to our most negative instincts ...that is, self-oriented, greedy and envy-motivated living. It does not refer to actions done by the body, under the influence of 'evil physicality.'
'Spirit' therefore, as a contrast, is our instincts and will transformed by the inner light and presence of Christ. The Spirit guides and enables us to act according to love.
So, we're free, free from the law, free from the principle of 'measuring up'. And, instead of using our freedom to gratify our baser tendencies, we open ourselves to Christ to be renewed, to live by the Spirit, and be guided by the Spirit.
So far, so good. This is all pretty orthodox. But it leaves me with a question. If Paul here is summarising a shift that is real for us as Christians, why do so many people identify the church with rules? With the idea of 'not measuring up?' Why does the church speak so loudly about issues of morality and behaviour, rather than about freedom and love?
I think that it's very difficult, actually, to embrace freedom. I think that, especially in group settings, we are much more comfortable defining ourselves by external measures, than by vaguer ideas of inner transformation. Especially when it's been important to identify who's in and who's out.
And so, in the church, we have described 'life in the Spirit' in ways that make it just a replacement for the law. We have set down a new list of rules or conventions. We have preached grace and freedom, but because of a fear of what freedom might mean, we have loaded people up with a new law, dressed up as a Christian moral code. When we do this, we undermine the idea that we are genuinely free to be guided by God about how to live. We fail to trust that the Spirit at work in our lives will bear the fruit of love. And we represent ourselves as people who need to squash the 'flesh' by rules and expectations about what is and isn't okay.
I would want to confront this way of being in the church at large, and say it is not our place to tell people what life guided by the Spirit will look like for them. I don't think that the goal or outcome of the Christian life can ever be judged or measured by any form of external morality. To me, a person or group is 'Christian' not to the extent that they are evidently 'moral' by any standard applied by our church or culture, but to the extent that they exhibit in their choices the love that manifests also as 'joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control.'
Therefore, as I see it, moral choices for the Christian are less about absolute commitment to a set of agreed principles - which is to submit once again to the law - and more about the demands of love in a given situation. This is much harder than simply keeping the rules.
I think that this is what Jesus demonstrated to us. He both upheld and confronted the religious and social law of his day depending on the situation, and the demands of love. In some cases he upheld the requirements of the law, teaching in the synagogue, reminding people he had come to fulfil the law, and even making the law more tough by emphasising its internal rather than simply legal external dimension. But where love demanded, he forgave, healed, ate and drank at the wrong times with the wrong people, ignored ritual uncleanness, and even simple good manners when confronted with the money changers in the temple.
Which leads to the question: are there any 'moral absolutes' when it comes to how we live? People within the church often fret that 'Christians should be different' and lament that there doesn't seem to be much difference in the statistics concerning divorce and sexual choices (for example) between people in the church and those outside it. I wonder if we're looking for the wrong kinds of differences. I wonder if it's even possible from the outside of any given situation to make a call about whether an ethical choice was made by the person concerned.
I do believe in ethics. I believe in social legislation that encodes what our society has decided is life giving or life harming behaviour. I believe in the kind of personal discipline that says 'no' to the passing wants of the self, in favour of the good of others, or a commitment to an ethical principle. But increasingly, I don't believe that this has much to do with conventional morality. There are very few things that I think are 'always wrong' or 'always right'. I think there are patterns of behaviour that cause harm, and are evidence of people living according to 'the flesh': envying and abusing and competing and hating and so on. But I also believe that someone can act like this and still appear to be living what seems to be an exemplary moral life.
And I believe the opposite is true - that the fruit of the Spirit can be evident in the lives of those who don't measure up to what the church has traditionally decided is moral living. To put it more plainly...as I see it, a person can be 'in Christ' and get divorced. A person can be 'in Christ' and live in a non-married sexual relationship whether gay or straight. A person can be 'in Christ' and drink, smoke and use recreational drugs. A person can be 'in Christ' and break the law of the land. And in doing these things, depending on how they do them, they are not necessarily stepping outside God's good intentions for their life.
So, does that mean 'anything goes?' No, that's not the end of the story. Because there is a different call on those of us who follow Christ, which is to crucify in ourselves the impulse to do whatever suits us, acting according to whim or our own negative habits. Instead, we are to be increasingly transformed into people who live by the Spirit and are guided by the Spirit. Which means that in our marriages, and in our singleness, in our relationships, in our lifestyles, in all our choices, we are to use our freedom...not as an opportunity to pursue the wants of the self but in service to one another and in keeping with the great command to love.
Yes, there is a huge amount of room here for sentimentality, self-deceit, and indulgent delusions about what constitutes love...which is why we need to be constantly formed and renewed in Christ, and why we do externalise some basic ethical principles for social and community guidance. And, I would want to say that there are ways of nurturing our life in the Spirit, and ways of discerning whether we are in fact in a process of transformation - or not. Hence my continued emphasis on the need for us to actively practice our faith rather than just believe in it.
In our community, and in our society, we may well want to say 'it is usual for love to look like this, or that'. We might still want to say that there are some ways of living in the world that are better than others - more loving, healthy and just. And I don't mean to reinvent the wheel here - the wisdom of the Christian tradition is often a good starting place for these claims. For example, I would still want to say, that marriage is ideally practised as a lifetime commitment. And I cannot see, for example, how it could ever be loving for someone to deceive another person, or abuse them in any way, or to take sexual advantage of someone significantly younger or more vulnerable than themselves. It is good to question one another about the choices we have made, and lovingly challenge someone if we feel that they are fooling themselves about their actions.
This is one reason why I believe it's important to develop communal patterns of Christian lifestyle and practice - so that we have good contexts for the choices we make, and people to reflect with us on how we are interpreting God's call to love. I think it's a reasonable question when someone claims that their actions are loving or spiritual, to ask what practices that person has to ensure that their will and their life are attuned to God. On what basis do they feel they can claim spiritual wisdom in their decision making? How robust has their decision making process been...who have they sought guidance from? And I think it is also true that children, and those adults who for one reason or another lack decision making skills, or an awareness of what love means, will need more external prompts - rules, if you like - than those who have had longer to learn the ways of the Spirit.
But all of these things are ways of helping to shape our maturity in the light of a wider context of freedom and grace. We are not re-establishing absolutes, or setting out new norms to be always followed, but learning together what practices best help us to discern the Spirit's guidance.
It might seem to some like the easy way, to live with the freedom of Christ. I don't think it's easy. It means we have to think harder, to be more self-aware, and to hold closer to God, as this whole approach relies on the transforming life of the Spirit in us. It means we can't use a simple 'one size fits all' approach to making good choices, nor when we evaluate for ourselves the choices of others.
And, it becomes our ethical task to identify the impediments to love in ourselves. We have a weekly prayer of confession here at Cityside. This isn't about listing our sins, so much as doing the work of noticing where we have decided to follow our own whim, rather than the way of the Spirit. It's about noticing those things that habitually derail us from the path, blocking the flow of love in our lives.
The Apostle Paul is very binary in his thinking. It's either 'all flesh' or 'all Spirit'. We've either been crucified with Christ or we haven't. On one level, this is true...it's about a shift of basic orientation. But at the same time, the actual practice of the Christian life is an experience of oscillating between one and the other, and learning what it takes for us to be gradually formed and transformed into people who respond more often than not, out of the Spirit, rather than our habits and compulsions. Which is why God's forgiveness, and the forgiveness of others, remains an ongoing need, as we go on.
So, instead of encouraging one another to keep the rules, what might it look like for us to encourage one another to go deeper into Christ? What are the ways we identify the difference between the Spirit's voice in us, and the voice of our compulsions? How do we sensitise ourselves to learn what love asks of us in a given choice? What are the issues that love calls us to speak out about in public, as a counterpoint to the voice of Christian moralising that usually finds its way into public debate? How can we live the message of Christ as a message of freedom, in a way that is attractive and compelling in the world?
I'll leave you with these questions, and hope that we might have some ongoing discussion on these issues in the weeks and months ahead.