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Reading from Galatians 5:13-26

The most recent issue of The Christian Chronicle reports on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The article recalls that there were amazing opportunities that God’s people responded to in the aftermath of Category 5 storm. In the first year following the storm Christians and churches bonded together to help strangers. I was also on the phone this week with a friend who spent a good amount of time in New Orleans during that first year working with the relief efforts. He recalls seeing a banner on the a neighborhood church from a different denomination that read “Thank you Churches of Christ.” He told me that the reputation of God’s people to help and serve was well known.

But returning to the article, even though some efforts continue, there is the unfortunate reality that many of the congregations that responded quickly have split. The leader of one relief effort is quoted: “I am aware of several churches that experienced [church] splits and more because of differences of ministry and direction.” How does it happen that churches that give themselves to Christ-like sacrifice in the name of love, suddenly divide and disintegrate over problems like mattresses and canned goods stored in the worship center? The stress and pressure of relief certainly intensified disagreements and tensions that were already present. And then there’s the work of the enemy – Satan’s role is not to be underestimated.

Unfortunately, stories like these are not unique to the national tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.

[Second Illustration – Failed Outreach Ministry]

[Third Illustration – Bus Ministry Conflict]

I do not mention these stories to shame the sincere Christians who have been so wounded, rather to engage us to consider how such things happen and how do we guard against it. Once again, the ancient wisdom of God’s word speaks to us as powerfully as it did thousands of years in the past.

13You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love. 14The entire law is summed up in a single command: "Love your neighbor as yourself." 15If you keep on biting and devouring each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.

This is Paul’s first statement about loving one another. We are free and the proper exercise of that freedom is to love one another and not to demand privilege. Furthermore, there is a sort of danger of “spiritual cannibalism” that results in the sort of spiritual death and wounding described in the recent examples.

Paul is doing what the best teachers and philosophers of his day did – comparing bad behavior to the behavior of animals. Here wild beasts are biting each other and they end up killing themselves in the frenzy. The Galatian church was dangerously close to tearing itself apart because of their turmoil over rules, external religion, and the expectations of others. Of course they thought that they were just trying to be especially righteous and please God.

This is the sad truth of legalism – a slavish obedience not to God but to what we assume are his rules – instead of developing a character and spirit of holiness, it actually breeds jealousy, arrogance and judgment. It may look very disciplined on the outside, but inside there’s no love and no control against sins that work in the heart and the attitude. This is why Paul makes his second statement about the way we treat each other: Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.

Could that happen to us? Could it happen to me and you? Why would that happen? It would happen if we fail to live by the spirit and keep in step with the spirit.

Between these two statements that Paul mentions is a description of two ways of life. Two sets of attitudes, actions, virtues and vices. One way is the acts of the sinful nature – a religion of law/rules is not able to overcome these acts. It just hides them behind ritual, piety, the right language, and even good works. But beneath the surface these vices can multiply.

Notice how toxic they are to one another fellowship and worship:

Legalism and “hard religion” is powerless against this sinful nature. It is just “will worship.” What is needed to cultivate love is a different Spirit. That’s the Spirit of Christ that God has placed in our hearts.
22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
Imagine what those virtues put into action would do among us.
What would happen to “hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy” if we had more of the fruit of the Spirit?
What would happen to immorality of every sort if we had more of the fruit of the spirit?
What would happen to biting and devouring? What would happen to conceit, envy and provoking one another if we had more of the fruit of the spirit?

We cannot legalistically try to acquire the fruit of the spirit. Turning these into a list by which we judge others and ourselves based on a quotient for patience or joy or self-control is not going to work. That’s just a twist on legalism that turns the fruit of the spirit into the law of the spirit. Paul says there’s no law in regard to these. They are fruit. Fruit means that they are the result of something.

Chris Benjamin

West-Ark Church of Christ, Fort Smith, AR
Morning Sermon, 29 August 2010

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