Life in the Spirit vs. The Flesh

Text: Galatians 5:16-24

            Sometimes I pose the question to our Confirmation students and from time to time we tackle it in Bible study, as well, of why it is that we remain in this earthly life as Christians. There are times where we wish that the Lord would just cut through everything and take us right to heaven (and then into the New Creation after the Resurrection). It is the Lord’s will, however, that we remain in the flesh. For most of us, it’s been some time since our Lord called us to faith through our Baptism and by His Word, but we are still waiting for our Lord to return. Why is it that we remain here, though? The initial answer is that there are still more people who need to hear the Good News of the forgiveness of sins through faith in Christ. It is our call as Christians to bear witness in the world through our daily vocations. But it is also part of our call as Christians that we live in fellowship with one another, strengthening and being strengthened in our common faith and witness.

            There is a roadblock to that strengthening and being strengthened, though. It is our sinful flesh, along with the constant temptation to think and act in fleshly ways concerning ourselves and our interactions with each other. St. Paul says, though, that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24 English Standard Version) He means that, through Baptism, we have died and risen with Christ and have so, also, died to our old ways of living and thinking. In place of the Old Adam, the Holy Spirit now produces His fruit in us, so that we might live in God-pleasing fellowship here with each other, and with our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout creation. Today we confess that the Holy Spirit produces His fruit in us through our Baptism, so that we do not gratify the desires of our flesh, but instead live in fellowship with God and with each other.

I.

            The occasion of St. Paul’s writing to the Galatians is that, after Paul’s initial time with them and the founding of their congregation, some men had come to them claiming to be representatives of the church in Jerusalem. They were pleased with the Galatians’ conversion to the faith but insisted that they must be circumcised and observe the laws of Moses, and that their salvation was conditioned upon those things. To put it in terms we’re familiar with, these imposters tried to turn the Galatians away from faith in Christ and toward their own good works. Therefore, St. Paul reminded them throughout the letter and in our text today that they had already been saved, already had received the Holy Spirit through the gift of faith. He pointed them to their Baptism, saying, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

            This should make us think of that familiar passage we heard from the letter to the Romans last week. We are encouraged by the Apostle that, in Baptism, we were united to Christ’s death and resurrection. We gladly confess that He, for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven. Jesus Christ took our sin upon Himself and paid for it all. By His resurrection, He re-opened to us the gates of heaven. In Baptism, He united each of us to Himself so that His death becomes our death to sin, and His resurrection becomes our raising to new life in the Holy Spirit. In Baptism our Old Adam was crucified with Christ, along with all the old fleshly ways of thinking, and we are now led in life not by the flesh, but by the Spirit of our God. St. Paul delivered us this promise, “If you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law.” (v. 18) He means, through Baptism, we are rescued from the condemnation of the Law and now live life by God’s grace through the Holy Spirit.

II.

            But even though we have died and risen with Christ and have received the Holy Spirit, do we always so behave? If we’re honest, no. Neither did the Galatians. When those imposters came it threw them into a death spiral. They lost their focus on Christ and their desire to live in fellowship with each other and reverted into their old ways of living. St. Paul gave a long list of things that were happening among the Galatians: “Sexuality immorality…sensuality, idolatry…enmity, strife, jealousy…rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness…” (vv. 19-21) His list mirrors in part the list our Lord gave of what makes a person unclean. These are things that start within the heart but then develop into outward actions that are disruptive of fellowship. Whether it was sexual immorality, which disrupts the fellowship of husband and wife (at least), or the rivalries and factions that had developed among the congregation, they had fallen back into their fleshly ways of living and out of fellowship with God and each other.

            “I warn you, as I warned you before,” St. Paul said, “that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (v. 21) These words were given to the Galatians, but they have been delivered to us, as well. The list of things going on among the Galatians contains things that are present in our hearts and in our actions. These desires of the flesh have informed our ways of thinking and acting toward each other. Because of the Fall, all sorts of lusts reside in our hearts, and we have entertained them. If it isn’t lust, we also carry within ourselves all sorts of jealous opinions, envy, and rivalries of various kinds. Even within our congregations, we have seen at times the sort of factions we would expect to see in the unbelieving world, but not in God’s holy sanctuary. Perhaps even now there is fighting and quarreling among us, if only in our hearts. These are but evidence of own reliance on the flesh. We forget that we have died with Christ and live as if we hadn’t. The end of our sin, if left unforgiven, is eternal death. Those who hold their sin close and continue in it will suffer the eternal condemnation of hell.

III.

            Paul wrote these things to the Galatians so that they, and we, might hear them and confess our sins. We do confess them and desire God’s grace to begin anew. Really, that is what it means to be baptized. Yes, we were baptized as an event in the past. Baptized is also the word that describes us now. We make use of our Baptism by daily returning to it through confession and absolution. We have here a good list from St. Paul of things that we are guilty of. We have allowed our flesh to hold sway and the Old Adam has produced in us all sorts of sins against God and our neighbor. We confess this and ask the Lord to grant us His forgiveness, knowing that He already has.

            We also make use of our Baptism when we remember that this sacred washing is one way in which the Holy Spirit does His work among us. Through the water and the Word He produces His fruit in us: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” (vv. 22-23) The witness of Scripture is that none of these things reside in us by nature and that they are all produced in us by God. Everything bad in us is our own fault and everything good is God’s work alone. We make use of our Baptism when we make use of these fruits: when we love each other as Christ has first loved us; when we take joy over our neighbor’s happiness; when we seek peace among each other and are patient when others sin against us. We make use of our Baptism when we show the kindness and faithfulness toward each other that Christ first showed us.

            This is all why we don’t just zap to heaven after our Baptism. The Lord leaves us here so that we might bear witness to the world of the Good News of Jesus Christ and so that we might live in fellowship with each other. To that end, the Lord calls us to remember that we have died and risen with Him. Through the same Baptism and by the Word, the Holy Spirit produces His fruit in us, so that we are not wholly given to the works of the flesh. May the Holy Spirit continue to make our hearts good soil, that He continually produce good fruit in us, as we live in fellowship with God and each other.

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