Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating ,redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

St Paul, in his letter to the people of Galatia, wrote the following:

Live by the Spirit …And do not gratify the desires of the flesh. …The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:16,22,23)

On this Sunday evening, when we celebrate the Feast of Pentecost, we will remind ourselves of the circumstances that prompted Paul to write his letter to the Galatians, and then we will spend a little time noticing that, contained within the portion of the letter we heard read tonight, are two lists. Paul is encouraging us to move from one list – the list of the desires of the flesh as he calls it – towards another list – this list of the fruit of the spirit. And we will ponder the nature of the spirit, the Holy Spirit, who will support our movement from one list to another, a movement that is, effectively, one of conversion.

But, firstly, what prompted Paul to write this letter? Paul has an issue with the people of the church in Galatia and he is not backward in letting his views be known.

You foolish Galatians! he writes, “Who has bewitched you? It was before your eyes that Jesus Christ was publicly exhibited as crucified! The only thing I want to learn from you is this: Did you receive the Spirit by doing the works of the law or by believing what you heard? Are you so foolish? Having started with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh? (Galatians 3:1-3)

This issue is this: should those Gentiles in Galatia, who are newly converted, also abide by the Jewish law – in particular, should these Gentile men be circumcised? Paul is horrified that these new Christians have failed to understand the key of their fledgling faith.

We know, Paul states, that a person is justified* not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ.* And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ,* and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law. (Galatians 2:16)

It is faith that matters, and faith is the only thing that matters. And it is the spirit, the Holy Spirit whose coming we remember in our churches today, that nurtures our faith.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God. (Galatians 4:4-7)

This spirit nurtures us in the life of children of God. No longer, are we slaves to the law. The spirit nurtures our faith in God, that through that faith we might live as those who exhibit the fruit of the spirit that was referred to in the second list from our reading tonight.

Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. (5:16) Paul exhorts the Galatians.

We need to spend a little time trying to understand what Paul means by living by the flesh. We need to be clear that Paul is not saying that all the things of this physical world are wrong, that all aspects of being a physical human being are wrong. Far from it. In the Book Genesis, we hear in the story of creation that God made the things of the world and God said over and over of God’s creation “it is good” and when God made humankind, “God saw everything he had made and indeed it was very good.” (Genesis 1:31) In the incarnation, when, in Jesus of Nazareth, “the Word became flesh and lived among us,” (John 1:14) God further affirms the value of the created world. So what does Paul mean? When Paul speaks of the flesh he says this:

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. (5:17)

When Paul writes of “the flesh” he is talking about, not all physical things, but anything that is opposed to the spirit, the spirit of Christ, the spirit of love and forgiveness. The “things of the flesh” are those things that are not about love and forgiveness.

The first list that Paul writes about, in the Fifth Chapter of his letter to the Galatians that we heard read tonight, are the sins of the flesh – fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. (5:20-21) Put simply, this long list encompasses physical, spiritual and emotional actions that are manipulative and exploitative of another person, or even of ourselves.

The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (5:22-23) This fruit blesses the one in whom the fruit is nurtured, and anyone with whom that person relates.

What Paul desires is a process of conversion from his first list to his second. “Do you turn to Christ?” we are asked at baptism and confirmation. “Do you turn away from your sins?” This turning towards Christ and this turning away from sin, this conversion, is rarely an instant thing but is more a way of living. This turning to Christ is imaged, I think, by a plant, placed on a windowsill, growing gradually towards the sun. What nurtures that turning towards Christ and this turning away from sin? God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our* hearts, crying, ‘Abba!* Father!’ Paul writes to the people of Galatia. It is the Holy Spirit that makes its home in our hearts and helps us to know we are children of God. Live by the Spirit, Paul goes on.

What is this spirit like, this Holy Spirit that helps us know we are children of God, this spirit whose coming we remember today? Over the past months we have remembered Christ’s death and resurrection, and we have remembered his ascension into heaven. When he left the disciples in this strange but profound way, Jesus told the disciples to wait for the coming of the Holy Spirit.

The American Catholic theologian, James Alison, writes about the essence of this spirit.

The Holy Spirit is not some vague numinous force that is somehow bigger and less exclusive that the crucified and risen Jesus – and rather nicer, perhaps, having to do with peace and joy and so on, rather than murder and violence. The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of the crucified and risen Jesus, and any joy, peace and so on that is genuinely of the Holy Spirit is essentially linked to the presence of the crucified and risen one.[1]

The Holy Spirit that is given at Pentecost is Jesus’ spirit, the spirit of the one who died loving and caring for those who stood at the foot of his cross, the one who forgave those who nailed him to that cross. Love and forgiveness, the essence of the heart of God is, of course, the essence of the Holy Spirit. It is this spirit that will nurture our conversion, our turning to Christ, our gradually being able to live by the Spirit, to be guided by the Spirit, and to show forth in our lives that Spirit’s fruit.

Do you turn to Christ? Yes, God, we turn to Christ. Do you repent of your sins? Yes, God, we do repent of our sins. May the Holy Spirit bless us as we, not unlike a plant on a windowsill that gradually grows towards the sun, grow in the likeness of Christ, who made us and redeems us and gives us life.

[1] James Alison Knowing God