Sermon: What the Spirit Desires

06.26.2016     Preaching Text: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16)

Two weeks ago our nation suffered from yet another heinous act, the murder of 49 innocent people in Orlando – with about as many wounded.

My personal sadness was compounded by the reaction to it. Several days after, I came across an article that pretty much summed up my frustration. Written by Russell Moore, it was entitled, Can We Still Weep Together after Orlando?

In the aftermath of what was the worst mass shooting in American history, Moore begins by celebrating the best aspects of our nation, such as people lining up to give blood.

But he then goes on to identify the worst also: specifically, using the occasion “for social media wars over everything from gun-control to presidential politics.”

“I wonder,” he asks, poignantly, “…whether the country still has the capacity to grieve, together, in moments of national crisis?”

“When we’re accustomed to seeing news in real time on our television screens and on our phones,” he continues, “it is sometimes easy to forget that the news we are viewing is real. At least 50 people – created in the image of God – were slaughtered in cold blood. Families who were waiting to see their loved ones are finding out that they will never see them again in this life. That ought to drive us to mourn.”

He then cited occasions in our history when the nation shared moments of crisis and tragedy together: Pearl Harbor, WWII, and J.F.K.’s assassination. In the latter case the entire nation, including Kennedy’s political enemies, seemed to grieve together.

I remember well the moving service at the National Cathedral in Washington in the days following 9/11. We all mourned together.

“It seems, now, though,” writes Moore, “that there’s rarely a time of grieving together. The time of lament morphs almost immediately into arguments over what the president should have said or whether this validates or annihilates someone’s views on guns or immigration or whatever.”

“Some of that,” he explains, “is just the speed of social media. People are able to discuss, rather publicly, issues much quicker than they could before. But,” he adds, “there seems to be more than that.”

“Our national divisions increasingly make it difficult for us not just to work together, but even to pause and weep together. We become more concerned about protecting ourselves from one another’s political pronouncements than we do with mourning with those who mourn.”

There is, of course, a time and place to debate the politics surrounding any given situation. It’s just that we don’t seem to be able, as a culture, to put aside politics for even a moment to reflect on our common humanity. And when it happens in the church it’s doubly tragic.

It was back in the 80’s when I first noticed the now all-too-common incidences of church conflict. Forests were being felled (and still are) to accommodate all the literature being written about it.

While it’s true that church conflict is hardly new (just read Paul’s letters to the church in Corinth!), there’s been a significant increase in the number of churches affected over the last 30 years or so.

I remember talking about this at the time with my brother-in-law, a now-retired U.C.C. pastor. Commenting on all the church infighting, he said he was glad he wasn’t just starting out in the ministry. He even offered, half tongue-in-cheek, “Pretty soon we’ll have nothing but interim pastors!” It was true enough to be funny.

But why should this be so? Why do we see more conflict in our churches?

The reason, I believe, is that as the culture has grown ever more contentious and fractured, we in the church have not provided a sufficient counterforce.

I had a friend years ago who joined an African-American church in New London, CT. He told me how much he enjoyed it, particularly the men’s Bible Study on Tuesday nights.

What amazed him was how these men got along. When they arrived to class, they hugged each other, laughing and joking. But as soon as the class started, they were at each other’s throats!

They argued about politics, about biblical interpretation, about everything it seemed. But, and this is the amazing part, after the class they all went back to hugging each other, laughing and joking!

The moral? They understood themselves to be, first and foremost, brothers in Christ. Their political, social, and theological differences were secondary, if not tertiary. The most important thing was their love for each other in the Spirit of Christ.

“Live by the Spirit,” writes Paul in Galatians 5, “and do not gratify the desires of the flesh. For what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh…”

And what are the “works” of the flesh? Among them Paul identifies “enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, [and] factions.”

“By contrast,” he says, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

“[Those] who belong to Christ Jesus,” he adds, “have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”

“Let us not become conceited,” he concludes, “competing with one another, envying one another.”

The church’s main task, then, to state the obvious, is to pursue the things of the Spirit. And in a world where the “flesh” seems to grow stronger day-by-day, it is especially incumbent upon the church to recommit to its task.

Which is perhaps another way of saying that the church is “in the world but not of it.” While we must make political choices and decide what social approaches best approximate Christ’s call to effect the good, we must be on guard not to import the ways of the world, of the flesh.

The problem with the mainline churches over the last 30 years or so is that we’ve put too much emphasis on fixing the culture while deemphasizing the church’s central task: to make disciples of Christ.

Thus, when faced with debating social and political issues, which is a necessary part of living in this world, we too often import the style of discourse found in our culture, a culture, as I say, increasingly fractured and downright inhospitable.

Without a countervailing atmosphere that gives preeminence to the things of the Spirit, the church will necessarily devolve into the same reckless squabbling found increasingly throughout our culture.

“‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” Paul warns, quoting Deuteronomy. “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.”

In moments such as the Orlando massacre, we in the church are called to express love for our fellow men and women in the unifying Spirit of Christ, and from this grow ever more resolute in defying evil in and through the Resurrected One who foreshadows its defeat. Amen.