Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity
September 6, 2015
Trinity Lutheran Church—New Haven, MO
In the name of + Jesus.
But I say, walk by the Spirit and it will be impossible for you to complete the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, so that you would not do that which you will. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law (vv 16-18).
The Christian life is called a walk because Jesus calls Himself the Way. “I AM the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” said Jesus. “No one comes to the Father except through Me” (John 14:6). And so the earliest Christians called themselves The Way. Literally the Road. But this Christian Way is not a road that you just happen upon like Robert Frost’s road less traveled. It’s not a road that any government built and it’s certainly not a road of your own construction.
Walk by the Spirit. That is to say, walk by means of the Spirit. In the Lutheran Church we confess, That we may obtain this faith, the Ministry of Teaching the Gospel and administering the Sacraments was instituted. For through the Word and Sacraments, as through instruments, the Holy Ghost is given, who works faith; where and when it pleases God, in them that hear the Gospel, to wit, that God, not for our own merits, but for Christ’s sake, justifies those who believe that they are received into grace for Christ’s sake (AC V). To walk by means of the Spirit is to live by the Spirit’s means. The Christian life is a Trinitarian walk.
If your life passes through these means of the Spirit, then St. Paul writes, the desires of your flesh will not be complete. It’s very important to discern what Paul says and doesn’t say here. He doesn’t say sin will disappear in your life. He doesn’t suggest that you can reach a state of perfection in this life being empowered by the Spirit. The sin that is original to you, the desires of the flesh still remain. As St. Augustine so helpfully observes, sin is not eradicated in the baptized, but it’s not counted against them for the sake of Christ. You have sins, but if you also have the Spirit they cannot harm you. This is what it means that the desires of the flesh will not come to completion. The desires remain, and even by weakness of the flesh will manifest themselves from time to time. But their end—your eternal death and destruction—will by no means overtake you.
This leads to a sort of dual personality in the Christian. The spirit and the flesh. That which is born of flesh is flesh, Jesus says, and that which is born of Spirit is spirit (John 3:6). You are born of the flesh because you were born in the natural way. But you are also born from above with a new birth by the Spirit. That’s your baptism. You are both flesh and spirit. And the desires of the two realities are against each other.
It’s not as if you can find a surgeon to dissect you and remove the spirit, or as St. Paul calls it elsewhere, the inner man or the new man. You are not partially flesh and partially spirit. The old theological phrase simul justus et peccator—at the same time justified and sinner—is a way to explain that you are both fully sinner (with respect to your sinful flesh) and completely a saint (with respect to the work of the Spirit in you). Like the twilight before dawn, which is neither night nor day, but at the same time both night and day, the Christian is flesh and spirit.
The war of the Spirit against the flesh captivates your will. Sure, you are able to exercise your will freely in some respects—in matters “below”—but with respect to the “higher” things, your will is bound. Before you can even exercise your will, the desires of your flesh already incline you to sin. But the Spirit restrains the flesh and produces new desires contrary to those of the flesh.
This means that the Law is no longer a slave driver, to make you do the things that you hate to do, but the Spirit drives you, step by step, along the Way that leads to the Father and to life.
The works of the flesh are evident, which are fornication, uncleanness, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, wrath, selfish ambition, dissention, party spirit, heresies, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I say to you beforehand, just as I said to you beforehand, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God (vv 19-21).
Fornication in the ancient world was always linked to prostitution and slavery, particularly cultic prostitution. Uncleanness and license walk the way of idolatry, the “divine service” of false gods. Sorcery rounds out this first batch of fleshly works. Sorcery in this case is potions and poisons, perhaps a reference to ancient methods of abortion.
The next set deals with relationships in the Christian congregation. Enmity, which is hatred and hostility, strife, jealousy, wrath, selfish ambitions, dissention, party spirit, which is replacing theology with personality, heresies, and envy.
And at the end is drunkenness and carousing. This is excessive drinking and excessive feasting in the way of the pagan cults.
St. Paul concludes with an et cetera to show that this list is not definitive, but representative of fleshly desires. The number isn’t significant, and in fact some of these may have even been scribal notes brought into Paul’s original text.
But two observations: first, nearly to a vice, these works of the flesh are the works of false, pagan worship. The Christian congregation and it’s worship—and thus the Christian God—is distinguished from the multitude of false gods. And second, the desires of the flesh are all turned inward. Like a black hole, the flesh satisfies self at the expense of others.
Now as I read through this list, you probably made some mental highlights of the things that most disgust you. That’s another property of the flesh: it never wants to recognize its own works as contrary to God’s Law, because the flesh is always looking to justify itself before God, the universe, and everything. The Spirit, who fights against these works, inspired Paul to write these down not so that you can identify the people that disgust you, but so that you can identify the things within your own self that are contrary to the Spirit. It’s so that you recognize that dissention and jealousy are not the Spirit’s work in you, but the desire of your corrupt nature.
St. Paul warns that practitioners of these things will not inherit the kingdom of God. First, it’s not the commission of these works of the flesh—for who is without sin?—it’s the continual practice of these things. It’s giving yourself over to your desires, not just in moments of weakness, but defining yourself and your life by them. It’s the one who gives up on the battle of the Spirit, who rejects the gifts of the Spirit.
But we can’t leave the Spirit at the condemnation of sin. He also has another Word to say. But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faith, humility, self-control; against such things there is no law (vv 22-23).
The first contrast is that these are not called works, but fruits. The flesh works it’s own evil from its base desires, but that which is contrary to the works of the flesh are not your works at all. The are fruits. They’re works of another, borne like a branch bears the fruit of the whole tree. As Jesus says on multiple occasions, good fruit must come from good trees. And so the Spirit’s work is to make you good. That is, the Spirit begins a good work in you that is contrary to the works of your flesh.
The works of the flesh are all inwardly focused, but the fruits of the Spirit are outwardly focused. Love is self-sacrificial. Joy is found outside of self. Peace is the absence of hostility and enmity with others. Patience suffers the faults of others, kindness does good in spite of those faults. Goodness is what God calls good in spite of appearances to the contrary. Faith rests on the character of the one trusted. Humility counts the self as nothing and controls the self.
Your flesh, though, wages war back toward the Spirit, and when you hear these fruits, you immediately want to make them about yourself, the things that you must do for others. But the outward focus begins on another axis. The first place to find these fruits is on the True Vine, into whom you have been grafted. The fruits of the Spirit are God the Father’s disposition to you in Christ. In Him is God’s self-sacrificial love. In Him is joy of the victory of life over death. By His death you have peace and reconciliation with God, the enmity is put to death with Christ’s death. He is patient and suffers your sin, not counting it against you. And thus He is kind. Good is what He calls suffering and the cross because His cross is your greatest good. He produces your faith because a man who says He will rise from the dead—and does—is someone who can be trusted. In Jesus, the King of creation humbles Himself as a servant and is obedient unto death on a cross.
The fruits of the Spirit are the works of Christ, which the Spirit delivers to you to regenerate and renew you. And these in turn produce in you new desires, desires to the good of your neighbor. Without first finding these things in Christ, even your best works would be no better than plastic fruit tied onto a dead tree.
We confess in the Nicene Creed that the Holy Spirit is the Lord and giver of life. But the life He gives is much more than biological functions—breathing, a heartbeat, brainwaves—it’s a whole life. It’s health. It’s a renewed will. It’s desire to do good for God and neighbor. At the same time that your flesh and it’s natural desires are turned in on itself, the Spirit is at work to combat the natural lusts with His good gifts.
Finally, as the works of the flesh are all related in some way to ancient pagan worship, so the fruits of the Spirit constitute the true worship of God. The faith and divine service of the Gospel is the desire to receive gifts from God. That’s where your new life begins. Walk by means of the Spirit, by means of Baptism, Confession, Word, and Supper, and the desire of your flesh will not be completed. That’s what St. Paul means when He writes, Those who are of Christ crucify the flesh with the passions and lusts (v. 24).
The solution to the works of the flesh isn’t a little bit of discipline. The solution is the cross. Christ has died, and so the one who is joined to Him and His death in Holy Baptism has also died to sin. This is also the work of the Spirit. He more and more puts the works of the flesh to death in order to reveal the new creation, the Inner You, that He has begun. The Supper feeds you with Christ’s own life for a fruitful life of service. Do you want to do good works this week? Then go to the Sacrament.
Walk by means of the Spirit. He battles the desires of your flesh. And the fruits of His work are new life, against such things there is no Law. And if there is no Law, then there is no condemnation.
In the name of + Jesus.
Jacob W Ehrhard
Featured image courtesy of flickr user ruby fenn