Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
There’s a classic storyline, you see it in literature and in film, that involves a small band of ragtag and unlikely heroes fighting back against a much larger, darker, more nefarious force at work in the world. Can you think of an example?
Star Wars, of course, and the struggle of the Rebel Alliance to free the galaxy from the clutches of the Galactic Empire. Or how about The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe? The sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve—Peter, Susan, Edmund, and Lucy—stumbling into Narnia while it is under the sway of the White Witch. Then there’s one of my favourites, The Lord of the Rings. A motley crew, led by a few Hobbits, out to save Middle Earth from the dark Lord Sauron.
These stories capture our imaginations because they show us what is possible when even a few people band together and resist the much larger forces at work in the world. These small communities, be it the Rebel Alliance, or the Pevensies, or Frodo Baggins and Company, they are like a small flame burning in the midst of the darkness. A small flame that the darkness cannot extinguish or overcome. A small flame that burns larger and brighter until there is no darkness left at all.
In our first lesson this morning from Saint Paul’s Epistle to the Galatians we hear about an ongoing war, occurring on a cosmic scale. “What the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit,” he says, “and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh.”
Before we get to the crux of Paul’s argument it’s important to understand what he means by “the flesh.” You see, he does not mean our physical bodies. He is not saying that our material body is bad and our immaterial spirit or soul is good. That’s a popular idea in some circles even today. That my body is just a container for my soul which is who I really am. That’s not what Paul is saying here.
When Paul says “the flesh” he basically means humankind in subjection to sin, apart from the grace and power of God. These are the two powers at work in the world says Paul—the power of sin and the power of grace—and they are in opposition to one another, though not equal. Grace is the greater of the two.
The force of Paul’s argument is this. Human beings are being formed, one way or another, whether we realise it or not. The power of sin at work in the world is instructing us, teaching us, forming us, and our children and grandchildren as well.
And Paul lists some of these “works of the flesh”: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” The forces at work in our culture—mainstream media, big business, big tech, sports and entertainment, and sadly many of our institutions of higher learning—are all invested in making these works look normal.
In contrast to these works Paul mentions what he calls the “fruit of the Spirit”: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” Lives where God’s Spirit has taken root come to resemble this more and more over time.
In Paul’s mind we all start off in this condition that he calls “the flesh” and we discover within ourselves all sorts of desires that, if given control, will produce the “works” listed. But, when the gospel, the good news about Jesus, is announced God goes to work and people are renewed.
The first sign of this renewal is faith, trust, in Jesus Christ that is evidenced in the sacrament of holy baptism. Then flowing out from the grace of baptism comes a whole life whereby we begin to learn what it means to live by the Spirit and to produce the fruit of the Spirit not by our own effort but by the grace of God that is at work in us. That is to say, through baptism we become a member of that small, ragtag group that is learning to follow Jesus in the midst of other, darker, forces at work in the world.
This week the Resistance lost a member, at least on earth. Like many of you I was saddened to hear of the death of our Queen. Her steadfast loyalty, service, humility, and above all her quiet and devout faith was an extraordinary example to us all. One writer said that among the ruling classes of the earth the Queen “stood out as reflecting a better, more civilized philosophy of public life,” (Carl Trueman).
It wasn’t simply her sense of “duty” or “selflessness” that set the Queen apart from other heads of state, it was her faith in the risen and living Jesus Christ as evident in her very first Christmas broadcast in 1952. Then the newly enthroned queen asked, “Pray for me…that God may give me wisdom and strength to carry out the solemn promises I shall be making, and that I may faithfully serve Him and you, all the days of my life.” And we did pray for her, every week.
To borrow St. Paul’s language, we might say that in a world saturate in the “works of the flesh” by the grace of God the Queen’s life more nearly resembled the “fruit of the Spirit.” That’s what makes her such an example for us all. From the beginning, her life as Queen was marked by a dependence on the grace of God. Would that all our lives were so marked, and more so with each passing day.
This morning Paul would have us remember that we are part of that same flame of the Spirit, shining in the darkness. That we too belong to Christ. We too have said ‘no’ to the power of sin and ‘yes’ to the Spirit. All because of the grace of Jesus at work in us. Let us then live by the Spirit.+