Text: Galatians 5:16-25
When my Abuelita died ten years ago, my parents moved a peach tree from her property to theirs. Truth be told, it hardly qualified to be called a tree! It was maybe two feet high, had no branches, no leaves, and certainly no peaches. It really looked more like my parents were transplanting a stick than a tree. Well, when Heather, Leah, and I were staying with my folks last month, I recalled that little stick and was astounded at the tree it had become. It is now almost 10 feet high, has enough branches to partially block their driveway, and is absolutely full of peaches, some of which are the size of softballs. What a difference some good gardening and a bit of time makes! Clearly, my parents knew what they were doing. By contrast, I am a terrible gardener. Every time I try to plant or transplant flowers, fruits, or vegetables I end up with lifeless sticks and empty pots.
In today’s epistle, St. Paul contrasts the works of the flesh with the fruit of the Spirit. If we want to see the fruit of the Spirit, we cannot live by the flesh. If we want our faith, our Christian walk, to grow and flourish, our lives cannot be characterized by the works of the flesh.
Open in your bibles to Galatians 5, beginning at verse 16. This is found on page 209 of your Prayer Books:
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
From the outset, we see that St. Paul is setting up a dichotomy, a contrast: the Spirit versus the flesh. We need to be clear that in the context of Galatians, “flesh” doesn’t mean our physical bodies, but rather our fallen nature, the corruption of our humanity. He means the sinfulness with which we all struggle. St. John Chrysostom points out that the body is not an agent in this passage, but is acted upon, because desire springs up from our souls, from our wills. Commenting on this passage he writes, “This is not a condemnation of the body but a reproach of the apathetic soul.”
In Latin, the “desires of the flesh” is called “concupiscence.” Our Articles of Religion devote a full Article to driving home this issue. Article IX, on page 604 of your Prayer Book says:
Original sin standeth not in the following of Adam, (as the Pelagians do vainly talk); but it is the fault and corruption of the Nature of every man, that naturally is engendered of the offspring of Adam; whereby man is very far gone from original righteousness, and is of his own nature inclined to evil, so that the flesh lusteth always contraray to the Spirit; and therefore in every person born into this world it deserveth God’s wrath and damnation. And this infection of nature doth remain, yea in them that are regenerated; whereby the lust of the flesh, called in Greek φρόνημα σαρκός, (which some do expound the wisdom, some the sensuality, some the affection, some the desire, of the flesh,) is not subject to the Law of God. And although there is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized; yet the Apostle doth confess, that concupiscence and lust hath of itself the nature of sin.
In other words, original sin isn’t just following bad examples, but is rather a corruption of our nature. And sin is still a problem for Baptized Christians, even though we can be assured that we’ve been redeemed. Despite biblical assurance of our salvation, we are still drawn toward the works of the flesh, even after coming to Christ and walking with him for years and years. And that desire for the flesh, that concupiscence, has the nature of sin itself. This is a fight we all must deal with. This is why the church here on earth has traditionally been called “the Church militant.” The Reformer Martin Luther writes:
It’s clear from this [passage] that the Christian life is a trial, a warfare, and a struggle. It is also clear how those who are doing battle must be trained, so that they do not despair if they are not entirely free from the temptation to sin.
The training Luther is talking about is what St. Paul refers to as walking in the Spirit. True spiritual warfare is resisting the desires of the flesh, resisting temptation, and rather loving the Lord and loving our neighbor. Chrysostom writes:
See how [St Paul] also shows us a better way. It makes virtue uncomplicated and rightly accomplishes what he has previously said – a way that brings forth love and is sustained by love. For nothing, nothing makes people so loveable as to be formed by the Spirit. And nothing so causes the Spirit to abide in us as the strength of love… After having stated the cause of the illness he also shows the remedy that bestows health.
St. Paul continues in our Epistle by telling us about the works of the flesh. Verse 19:
Now the works of the flesh are evident: 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 warn you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
This is a frightening set of verses! Who isn’t guilty of at least something no that list? Who isn’t guilty of several somethings on that list? And then there’s that final clause: “and things like these.” Let your conscience fill in the blank from your own lives. When we read something like this, we can easily be tempted to fall into two errors. The first is to attempt to self-justify, to find excuses or extenuating circumstances, to try to escape the sting of our conscience. After all, who doesn’t cohabitate before marriage these days? Was it really enmity or strife if I was just trying to look out for myself? Who doesn’t have a bit too much to drink from time to time? That sort of reasoning is extremely dangerous. When God’s law confronts you with your sin, don’t make excuses; humble yourself and go to God! That’s the heart of repentance, that’s the core of the Christian life.
The other temptation is to despair, to be in constant fear of losing your salvation, to worry that you have sinned your way out of the Kingdom of God. That is also dangerous reasoning because it equally takes your eyes off God and onto your own performance (or lack thereof). Again, the solution is to repent. Don’t despair, repent, and remember the promise of your baptism, so eloquently summarized in our earlier passage from the Articles of Religion: “There is no condemnation for them that believe and are baptized.” This issue of sin after baptism is also addressed in the Articles. Article XVI, on page 605 in your Prayer Book:
Not every deadly sin willingly committed after Baptism is sin against the Holy Ghost, and unpardonable. Wherefore the grant of repentance is not to be denied to such as fall into sin after Baptism. After we have received the Holy Ghost, we may depart from grace given, and fall into sin, and by the grace of God we may arise again, and amend our lives.
Repentance is always an option. And if you’re afraid that you may have committed the “unpardonable sin” of Blasphemy against the Holy Ghost, don’t worry so much. The very fact that you’re thinking about it is proof that you haven’t done it. The reason Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit is unpardonable is that its nature is that it seers your conscience so that you will never repent. It’s loving the works of the flesh so much that you walk away from the Table and refuse to ever come back.
Let’s look at the other side of the coin, the Fruits of the Spirit. Verse 22 in our Epistle:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit.
Notice that St. Paul doesn’t speak of works of the Spirit, but of fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control always grow from the inside out. This is the result of the Lord implanting and nurturing the faith that justifies us. Article XII says:
Albeit that Good Works, which are the fruits of Faith, and follow after Justification, cannot put away our sins, and endure the severity of God’s judgement; yet are they pleasing and acceptable to God in Christ, and do spring out necessarily of a true and lively [i.e. living] Faith; insomuch that by them a lively Faith may be as evidently known as a tree discerned by the fruit.
When my parents got that sapling from my grandmother, they didn’t go buy some peaches and glue them to the tree. Fruit doesn’t work like that. No, they planted it in the ground, gave it good soil, watered and nurtured it. It took a long time. In fact, my father told me that he followed the pattern in the Old Testament of not harvesting it for several years and giving the initial harvest away. Our good works are like that: they’re ultimately for our neighbors. The works of the flesh, on the other hand, are essentially selfish, and don’t water the little tree of our faith. If you don’t see the fruit of the Spirit in your life, even as a little bud that promises a peach, chances are you have been working in the flesh rather than walking in the Spirit. If you’ve been baptized, you belong to Christ and have been empowered by the Holy Spirit to walk with him. If you’re not walking with him, repent, turn from your sin, and come back to Jesus by faith. It may take a long time, but eventually you will see fruit, even bigger than my folks’ softball-sized peaches.
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.