Paul tells us that if we are led by the Spirit, we are not subject to the law because against the fruits of the Spirit, there is no law. Except, there is.
This sermon using Paul's letter to the Galatians 5: 1, 12-25 was delivered at Grace Baptist Church in Richmond, Virginia on 30 June 2019.
(c) 2019 Jayme Reaves. All rights reserved. Please do not copy or use without permission or appropriate citation.
Galatians 5:1, 13-25
5:1 For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.
5:13 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
5:14 For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
5:15 If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.
5:16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.
5:17 For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want.
5:18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.
5:19 Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness,
5:20 idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions,
5:21 envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
5:22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,
5:23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.
5:24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
5:25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.
I’m going to pull the guest preacher’s prerogative here. Does anyone know what that is? Well, it’s the ability to say things that are a bit radical and a bit shocking and most of the time get away with it because you’re going to be leaving town anyway. J Now, I have you intrigued, right?
For anyone who knows me well, they know I’m not a big fan of Paul. I’m guessing I’m not the only one here in this room that feels this way. These days I spend the vast majority of my time in the Hebrew Bible – NOT in the Pauline epistles. And yet, of my own free will, I chose this text from Galatians from all of the lectionary options for this Sunday. At the moment of my decision, I have to say I was shocked….I felt the world might be coming to an end or I had finally gone over the edge. Both, actually, might be possible…..but unusually, this text spoke to me and called me to wrestle with it here with you today. Paul and I may not be friends, but there’s something here that felt true to me, that challenged me, and that made me question…. and maybe it might for you too.
So, here, in this place, in the America we find ourselves in right now, and here in Richmond where the legacy of the Confederacy and the Civil War is literally all around us, we read Paul’s words: “For Christ has set us free…do not submit again to the yoke of slavery.” But in the chapter before, Paul has gone on a riff about Sarah and Hagar and, painfully and unhelpfully for us in these times, casts Hagar’s experience and that of her son Ishmael aside, discounting the promise that God had made to them too. Because here, Paul is talking to people who see themselves as descendants of Sarah, not Hagar.
For those who may be unfamiliar with the story back in Genesis, Sarah was Abraham’s wife and she was unable to have children, so she handed her slave Hagar over to Abraham to have a child in her stead. It’s the way things were done back then, and frightfully similar to what we’re seeing in the TV show The Handmaid’s Tale, which took inspiration from and is a midrash or re-telling of this story. Like in the Handmaid’s Tale, there’s obviously an issue with consent in this story. It’s very problematic.
But Hagar gets pregnant, and Sarah then “deals harshly with her” (meaning Sarah violently abuses her – the same word in Hebrew is used for Israel would be treated as slaves in Egypt). And then Hagar risks her life and that of her unborn child by running away into the desert to escape. Hagar, the runaway slave, the runaway handmaiden. But the story surprises us because God then speaks to her, and she names God – the only woman in the Hebrew Bible to be spoken directly to by God and the only woman who names God – and she’s a slave from Egypt - and she is told that her child will be the father of many nations. She and her son will be given an inheritance, and God tells her to return to the tent of Abraham. To return to her abusers. It’s a very difficult story.
African American womanist theologians read this story as a call to survival because sometimes staying alive is the greatest resistance you can enact, and in this instance, returning to the riches of Abraham and Sarah’s household will ensure her survival and that of her son, if not their freedom at this particular moment. When your life is at stake, you have to start somewhere. Several years later, Sarah will again deal harshly with Hagar and Ishmael by forcing them to leave the household, casting them out into the desert, and as they approach death, God appears and provides water. In the end, they survive and eventually thrive….and Ishmael does, indeed, become the father of nations. In the end, God honoured God’s promise of an inheritance.
But here’s Paul in Galatians denying Hagar and Ishmael, and yet talking about how we – the supposed children of Sarah – are given freedom. He even says in the verse before our text today: “But what does the scripture say? “Drive out the slave and her child [meaning Hagar and Ishmael]; for the child of the slave will not share the inheritance with the child of the free woman.”’
For someone committed to working for social justice, racial equality, and advocating for the rights of ALL women and their children, I have serious issues with how Paul also deals harshly with Hagar and Ishmael. I have issues with how he uses the language and experience of slavery for the Israelites in Egypt later in Exodus against an Egyptian slave in Genesis, exclusively claiming a heritage that is also hers. Personally, I think his biblical scholarship is pretty shocking – not just here but elsewhere too - and because this letter he has written to the church in Galatia has been canonised as holy scripture, he is allowed to get away with things that no other decent biblical scholar would be allowed. There is no amount of acrobatic moves to justify Paul’s assertion here that works satisfactorily for me. Yes, he was speaking to a particular group at a particular time – I get that and we could explore that more here – but…….it’s not enough. This text and his interpretation of the Sarah and Hagar story has been used to justify slavery, to justify racism and white supremacy, and it’s NOT. OK. And I won’t stand here before you today in this place and at this time and come anywhere near justifying it.
And yet……despite this, there is still something here that speaks to me.
Despite Paul’s intentions to distance us from her, his reference still calls Hagar to our imagination, speaks to that story of her and her son Ishmael in the desert, gasping for water, which feels relevant to us right now. And after Paul’s denial of Hagar and Ishmael, he says: “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. For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself."
In this text, Paul quotes Leviticus and calls us to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh….and then he gives a list of what HE thinks the works of the flesh OBVIOUSLY are: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Again, a list and words open to interpretations that have been used over the years to justify abuse and oppression for women, LGBTQ folks, people of other faiths, and anyone else who might be deemed impure or immoral in the eyes of the people doing the judging.
Even if his words have been used to hurt us, deep down we know what he means. While I disagree about including anger in this list – because I certainly think anger can be holy - ultimately we know Paul’s intention here when he lists idolatry, strife, envy, jealousy…and he gives us room to add to the list by saying “and things like these.”
So can I take the liberty to add a few? I’d like to add hatred. Greed. Exploitation. Hostility. Violence. Selfishness. Hard-heartedness. Cruelty. Perpetuation of injustice. Neglect. These are also fruits of the flesh.
And we also understand Paul’s intention when he lists other words – the fruits of the Spirit – and how they are markers of a life of faith: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We know that we as people who are made in God’s image and loved by God are called to be different from what we see in the world around us. We are called to be transformed, to reflect a life dedicated to wellbeing as envisioned in Psalm 85 - speaking truth kissed by mercy, working for justice embraced by peace.
And Paul tells us that if we are led by the Spirit, we are not subject to the law because against these things, there is no law.
Except, there is.
If you’ve been paying attention to the news, you may have heard this story. Scott Warren was arrested and charged by the US government for felony crimes related to leaving water out in the desert for people who are trying to cross the border. Over 3,000 people have died on the Arizona border trying to cross the desert, to escape the abuse and violence they’re experiencing in their homelands, and to seek an inheritance here in the US. A hung jury in early June gave him a reprieve – an 8 for innocent, 4 for guilty split – but the charges have not been dropped. He faces up to 20 years in prison if convicted, and a decision to retry the case is expected this coming week.
And Scott Warren’s not the only one. I live in the UK and we are having similar issues there. In Europe, Italy is prosecuting a ship captain who repeatedly rescued people in a sinking and overcrowded boats on the Mediterranean. A Spanish firefighter is being prosecuted for also saving people from drowning. Or elderly couples in Denmark, France, and Greece who were arrested for giving people a ride in their cars. At least 250 volunteers and aid workers across Europe, UK, and the US have been arrested, charged, or investigated for supporting undocumented immigrants, refugees, and asylum seekers in the past 5 years.
Their crime? Aiding their fellow humans. Loving their neighbours as themselves, against which there is not supposed to be a law, according to Paul. Interestingly, in a book written on worship and prayer, Ralph Waldo Emerson notes that “the highest virtue is always against the law,” recognising that law doesn’t always equate to morality or doing the right thing. I find it interesting that he goes there in the context of talking about worship.
Because we know - sometimes love is illegal.
I spend a lot of time talking about hospitality these days, and I focus specifically on the theology and ethics of the practice of protective hospitality – the work that these people are doing, putting themselves at risk to provide and ensure sanctuary, refuge, or safe spaces for folks to survive and eventually thrive. And we know this work is often against the law. Slavery was once legal, but abolitionists supporting the Underground Railroad? Against the law. Genocide was once legal, but people who hid Jews during the Second World War? Against the law. The Sanctuary Movement here in the US in the 1980s and now? Against the law. And yet each of these illegal acts were driven by a commitment to the fruits of the Spirit either implicitly or explicitly: love, peace, generosity, faithfulness….. When you ask people involved in these acts of hospitality, these acts of moral courage, they’ll say they do it because it’s what any decent human being would have done, they did it out of love, and/or they did it because it was what God calls us to do. They’ll say that our obedience is to God and God’s command to love, and to seek each other’s welfare. That God’s commandment to love our neighbours as ourselves is the highest law, above any law that the Trump administration or anyone else will write and enforce. And so that’s what they do.
They resist. And we must too.
Paul writes: “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.”
Our freedom is not for ourselves. Activists and theologians alike have reminded us over the years: None of us are free until everybody’s free. We are called to not only work for our own needs and interests, but also for each other’s liberation, to ensure each other’s welfare. To love our neighbours as ourselves, against which there should be no law.
And in the words of Paul, “if we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.” A spirit of prophetic resistance. A spirit of collaborative, connected freedom. A spirit of hospitable generosity. A spirit of love.