For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. Against such things there is no law.” This is arguably one of the best known of Paul’s verses, this list of the fruit of the Spirit found here in the middle of our passage in Galatians this morning. It’s a list that is fun to memorise: it rolls off the tongue, especially for those who spent significant amount of time in Sunday School, as I have.
But what grabs me from our passage from Paul’s letter to the Galatian Church this morning is the context behind the verse: the reason that Paul, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, sat down and penned a list of characteristics of people who were attached to the vine that is Christ, and filled with the Holy Spirit.
And the reason the context grabs me is because I find it eerily reminiscent of our situation today. Paul was writing to a church that was in the middle of fighting huge culture wars. Sound familiar? And when I say fighting, I mean matters of faith-and-doctrine, life-or-death kind of fighting.
Often we have an idyllic view painted for us of the early church: Acts Chapter 2 tells us that “all who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need… And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” People were being healed, the poor were being fed, and the church was growing like crazy.
At least at first. But then the Apostle Peter had a fantastic vision that showed him that Gentiles – as well as Jews – were actually invited into the glorious grace of God. Peter was the first to understand that the work of Jesus on the cross had paved the way for all people to come to God, not just God’s covenant people, the Jews. This was groundbreaking! But also news that made for some pretty uncomfortable soul-searching for the Jewish Christians.
You see, the Jewish people knew who they were. They’d always known, even if they forgotten it occasionally. They were a “covenant people,” the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – a people who belonged to the God of Israel. God had called them apart, to be his very own special people, and as a sign of that covenant, all Jewish males were circumcised.
Way back at the beginning of the Bible in Genesis 17, when Abraham was first set apart by God and promised a multitude of descendants, God said to him:
“This is my covenant, which you shall keep, between me and you and your descendants after you: every male among you shall be circumcised… and it shall be the sign of the covenant between me and you.” (Gen 17:10-11)
Circumcision was a physical sign that the Israelites were God’s people. And from that point on every male eight days old went through the ritual, right down through the ages and up to the first generation of the church.
But that begged a very big question, and the question was this.
Did Gentiles need to be circumcised in order to be included as God’s covenant people? Some said yes, some said no. And it became an explosive issue, with factions and divisions and sides teaming up against each other and speaking down about each other.
Jewish Christians began separating themselves from Gentile Christians. Even the Apostle Peter, one of the eleven disciples and a founding leader of the early Church was drawn into it, and started keeping his distance from the uncircumcised Gentile Christians that he had first welcomed so eagerly.
Enter Paul. Good old Apostle Paul, who started off as a murderer and was so blown away by the grace of God that his life did a complete 180, and he ended up not only planting churches all over Asia Minor but writing a third of the New Testament. Paul, who knows the absolute depths of grace and justification by faith alone, because he has staked his entire life on it.
And Paul is furious. He’s already addressed this Jew-Gentile conflict in Jerusalem, and heard that it’s now spread to the Galatian church, with infighting and side-taking, and he is spitting mad. “You foolish Galatians,” he writes, “who has bewitched you?”
“We are justified by faith,” he says. The Law – all the legal requirements, including circumcision – all of those were like a tutor to lead us to Christ, and once we have found him, we no longer need that tutor.
“For you are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus,” he says in chapter 3, “all who were baptised into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. So your new identity is not a Jew or a Gentile, a slave or a free man, a male or a female, your governing identity is a child of God.”
This was ground-breaking news in Paul’s day, where women were secondary citizens and slavery was completely legal. And I think that it’s just as ground-breaking for us too, and news that we need to hear over and over again in our own church that is torn with culture wars and uncertainty and infighting and factions.
Because here is the good news: Christ has set us free. Free from being trapped by sin, free from the fear of not belonging and the fear of not meeting expectations and the fear of not being loved. Our primary identity is given to us in baptism, and will never be taken away, and that is a beloved child of God. We have the DNA of the Holy Spirit running through us, and we are family in a way that transcends all other identities. Black or white, Jamaican or Trinidadian or Canadian or American, woman or man or transgender, straight or gay. First and foremost, we are children of God, brothers and sisters, and beloved.
Does that mean those other identities don’t matter? Not at all! You know and I know that they absolutely matter. They shape us profoundly, and they teach us to understand the world in a very particular way, and they add beauty and diversity. But our identity as children of God means something even more profound. It means that everyone who belongs to Christ is in this together, and that our primary identity is stronger than what separates us.
“The church is composed of people of all stripes and sins and persuasions and ethnicities and races and strengths and weaknesses,” but the goal for the Church, the desire of the Holy Spirit is that it is a beautiful, diverse, colourful family united by the Holy Spirit. We belong to the most awe-inspiring, unique, incredible family on earth.
But we don’t always act like it, do we? And so Paul doesn’t stop at just saying that we’ve been set free as children of God. No, he says something completely counter-intuitive. He says we’ve been set free into this new identity precisely so that we can step back into slavery.
“For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters; only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love become slaves to one another.” This is strong language.
Paul isn’t saying be nice to those you find on the same side of the fence with you. He isn’t even saying be nice to those you don’t agree with. He says that you are to use your freedom as an opportunity to step back into a different kind of slavery, one that pours itself out in love on behalf of its brothers and sisters in Christ, no matter who they are, where they come from, or what side of any issue they stand on. And this kind of world-altering unity, Paul continues, is only possible through the work of the Holy Spirit.
And so we come back to where we started: with the fruit of the Spirit. Because the whole of Chapter 5 – our passage today – is written to a Christian community tearing itself apart. The community is letting the “works of the flesh” – Paul’s term for anything that does not build up the body of Christ – destroy them and their identity as brothers and sisters in Christ.
And so he pleads with them to actively root out and destroy those things in us which would eat away at unity. To crucify all of the things that pull us away from each other, including our need to be right. And to let ourselves be guided by the Holy Spirit, and to let the fruit of the Spirit grow in our lives.
The good news is that we don’t have to work to grow this beautiful fruit. That is God’s job. Our only job is simply to abide. To abide as closely to the vine that is Jesus as we can, to turn our backs on anything that seeks to break down the body of Christ, and to be guided by the Holy Spirit. And in doing so, we will see the Spirit’s fruit blossoming in our lives, providing the nourishment with which we can nourish those around us.
Friends, Christ has set us free and given us an identity that transcends all others: children of God, with the fruit of the Holy Spirit blossoming in our lives. My prayer for you this week, and in the weeks to come, is that you would rest in your identity as a child of God, and allow that freedom to inspire you to serve each other the beautiful fruits of the Spirit.
May it be so.