(Sermon prepared in case it was needed, 4/3/18)
Reminder of last week: Christ has set us free, free from the law, free to live with him. This week, we learn how to live with Jesus.
Live by the Spirit. Literally, walk by the Spirit.
Imagine going on a walk in a wild part of the world, with a guide who knew that area intimately. As you walked along, the guide would tell you, take the left-hand path, go straight ahead here, or whatever. But the guide would not only tell you where to go. The guide would know what today’s weather was likely to be, and where to go to make the most of it. As you walked, the guide would point out all the interesting sights, or stop to look at an unusual flower, or tell you that here was the most likely place to see wild animals. You may want to get off the path to look at something that has caught your eye, but the guide would say don’t go there, the ground is treacherous. And if you did get into difficulties, the guide would be at hand to help you. You might have been tempted not to go with a guide, but to trust in your handy guide book. But you realise that the guide book, though accurate, had its limitations, and would be no help if you made a mistake and took the wrong path; there was nothing like having the guide with you. And that’s the difference between walking by the Spirit and walking by the law.
In a sense, it is all about choices. If we choose to follow the guide book, then at each stage we have to choose which path is the right one. We rely on our own intelligence to understand what the book is saying and to make the right choices. If we have a guide with us, our choice is always whether or not to do what the guide says; we choose to rely not on ourselves but on the guide. If we are not very good at understanding the directions of the guide book, then it would be a mistake to dispense with a guide. And that’s the problem with living by the law in the Christian life: we do not have the ability to do what the law says, because of what Paul calls ‘the flesh’, translated ‘sinful nature’ in the version in the pews.
Our Christian lives began when we chose to trust Jesus and follow him. Before then we were living according to the ‘flesh’, doing what came naturally, which wasn’t always right or good. Our natural human nature is fallen, not what God intended it to be; it is focussed on our selves – what we want, what we decide to do, not what the God who made us wants. But when we believed in Jesus several things happened: we were born again, and given a share of the new life that started when Jesus rose again; we were forgiven and accepted by God as members of his family; and the Holy Spirit came to live in us. However, we are still living in the same bodies as before, and the fallen human nature is very much part of us alongside the new nature Christ has given us. This means we are constantly faced with a choice: to live the in the old style, or the new style – according to the flesh, or according to the Spirit. As Paul says, there is a conflict; and although we always want to follow the Spirit, we often find that our old desires get the upper hand. And the other side of the coin is also true: if we decide to go our own way in this or that issue, the Spirit within us makes us uncomfortable. As v17 says, we do not do what we want. But when we are led by the Spirit, v 18, even though we don’t follow perfectly, we are free from the law and its condemnation. God still accepts us as if we were perfect!
The trouble with choices is that they have consequences. Our own way is always a flawed way, and choosing to go our own way has the sort of consequences Paul lists in verse 19-21. Some are the natural results of our basic desires for sex and other pleasures. Others result from desires for spiritual power – the attraction of idolatry and witchcraft is the promise of getting your own way. The middle group is more common in churches: hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy. All these things arise from choosing to go along with our old sinful nature. Now remember, Jesus said we’ll recognise people by their fruit. What are the consequences or our choices? Do our desires to do the right thing stir up discord, factions? Those things come from the flesh, not the Spirit. God’s requirements can only be fulfilled when we do not live according to the flesh, but affording to the Spirit, as Romans 8 tells us.
The other day I made a comment in the home group which I thought was quite humorous, but the reaction of the group made me realise I shouldn’t have said it, as it was more demeaning than constructive. Later I defended by comment to Frances, arguing that it was a true statement. Later still I realised that actually I had spoken from the flesh, not the Spirit – and also that my self defence had been from the flesh, not the Spirit, as I tried to build up myself rather than please the Lord. It is all too easy to live according to the flesh, not the Spirit.
What a contrast when we choose to be led by the Spirit! Love, joy, peace, patience etc. People often point out that the word ‘fruit’ is singular – there is only one fruit, like a raspberry with many parts to it which grow and ripen together. We cannot pick and choose which bits we want to grow – if we want more peace and joy, we will also need more patience and self control! Notice that this is the fruit of the Spirit, not our own efforts. True, Peter tells us in his second letter to make every effort to add to our faith goodness, knowledge, self control, perseverance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. But that effort is itself inspired and empowered by the Spirit, as we do our best to keep in step with him. As Paul tells the Philippians, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. Notice also that this fruit is simply Christ-likeness – as we walk by the Spirit we become more like Jesus. For the Holy Spirit is also the Spirit of Christ – Jesus is living in us by his Spirit. The Holy Spirit points us to him, leads us into all truth, reminds us that we are children and heirs of God. As we keep in step with him, he grows us!
How do we walk with him in practice? First, Remember. We have been crucified with Christ, and our old human nature no longer has the power to control us – we have a new nature, and are being transformed by God’s grace. Our heavenly Father is the gardener, and he prunes the branches of the vine, taking out all that stops the fruit from growing properly. So don’t listen to your old passions and desires! Take up your cross and follow me, says Jesus. Remember also that it is the Spirit who has given us new birth, and keeps us alive to God in Jesus. We live by him! Second, Notice. Notice what the Spirit is doing and saying. Keep in step with the Spirit (word used is that of a marching army, or dancing in a line). The Spirit is alive in us, communicating to us through his word, and through thoughts and intuitions that come to us. Listen to him, and take the risk of doing what he says! Then his fruit will grow – little by little, at times imperceptibly; but grow it will.
Do we see this fruit in our lives? Are we as individuals, and as a church, exhibiting love? Joy? Peace? Patience? Kindness? Goodness? Faithfulness? Self-control? These are what God is aiming for. That’s his vision for us! And that’s what the Holy Spirit will most certainly produce in us, if we walk with him, enjoying his company, learning from him, heeding his warnings, following his directions.