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Bible readings:


Proper 13 Year C (June 26, 2016)                                   St James', Peace River

I'm finding that as the Sundays are winding down for me to be preaching here at St James', my mental camera angle has been widening, to grasp some of the “big ideas” that are evoked by the Bible passages we are reading. So today, while it would be fun to spend some time on the ascension of Elijah, or on the disciples James and John wanting to call fire down from heaven, to deal with a Samaritan village that didn't welcome Jesus warmly enough... instead I find myself drawn to the message St Paul is trying to communicate to the Galatians. It's one of the big ideas.

And the big idea here is, “life in the spirit”. It's an idea that looms very large in the way Paul learned and experienced Christian faith, and tried to teach it to others. Sometimes I think we get the wrong idea about St Paul. He's certainly had some bad press – people making out that he's all about telling us what we should believe, how we should understand who Jesus really is, and of course laying down the law about our behaviour. But on that last point in particular, today's reading points in exactly the opposite direction. “If you are led by the Spirit,” he says, “You are not subject to the law.” Then there follows a couple of long lists, one of bad behaviours and the other of good. And Paul's point is not that there are laws against one set and for the other, or that you better make the right choice if you don't want to be punished.

On the contrary, what Paul is saying is that people who live by the spirit don't need laws, threats or rewards to do the right thing – they do it, practically without thinking about it. Just as Jesus also taught – behaviour comes from the heart of who you are, and it demonstrates what your relationship with God is really like, regardless of whether you know how to say the right words or think the right thoughts. But this is where it starts to get tricky. St Augustine – someone else who thought deeply about these things – famously said, “Love God and do as you please,” which sounds like it doesn't really matter what you do, as long as your heart is in the right place. What he was really saying, though, was the same as St Paul: if your love for God controls you, then you won't have any trouble desiring and choosing to do the right thing. It's getting to that point which is the real challenge!

Most of us, if we asked ourselves, would like to be the kind of person Paul and Augustine described. Some-one who is, to use a different analogy, all grown up spiritually – no longer needing rules or instructions or the advice or discipline of parents to show us the right way, but taking care of our own responsibilities and health by ourselves, naturally. But whereas physical growing up and launching our own journey in life is a process generally completed by early adulthood, spiritual growing up is more likely to take our whole life, and then some. To say we would like to be that person is to say that, for almost all of us, we aren't. And maybe the clearest sign of a lack of spiritual maturity would actually be to claim for ourselves that we have got it all sorted out, and don't need anybody else's help thank you very much. (If you go back and read St Paul's letter to the Corinthians, you'll see how that's basically the problem he had to face with them.)

So the most we can look for within ourselves is to continue growing in that direction. And the problem with that is, we are always bumping up against places in our lives where we still want to be in charge of our own choices, untouched by the direction God's Spirit would lead us in. St Augustine's example from his own life was when he heard himself praying, “God, please make me chaste – but not just yet.”

Neither does there seem to be any way to program or mold or shape ourselves for this kind of growth. That in itself would be another method of keeping ourselves in charge, and letting our own pride rule. Look at those fruits of the spirit which Paul described – is there any way that you can make yourself experience or exhibit those qualities in a genuine way? Is there a self-improvement plan which produces love, or patience, or generosity? You might learn to mimic those qualities – now I'm thinking of a PT Barnum quote, when he said, “Sincerity is everything, if you can fake that, you've got it made!” But the qualities we mimic will always be limited by our own understanding of what generosity, or kindness, or peace, might mean. And life in the spirit has so much more than that to offer – always exceeding our limited notions of what it looks like to really be a good person.

So, how do we do it? How do we become the kind of people Paul, and Augustine, and Jesus, were all talking about? The kind that lives by the spirit, that naturally chooses the best action, that forgets self in order to love others, and yet somehow becomes more, not less, in the process? If you can't just wish yourself into that way of being, and you can't even train yourself, how do you do it? Looked at from a certain point of view, that is the question of Christian discipleship. How do we become the kind of people that followers of Jesus are supposed to be?

Recognizing it as an issue of discipleship, though, may give us the beginning of an answer, at least the kind of answer that St Paul tried to offer, both in his writing and in his living. Our freedom in the Spirit is the gift Christ has given us, he says (“for freedom Christ has set us free”), and the way to receive that gift is to accept it: to allow that liberating relationship with Christ to percolate into every nook and cranny of your life, every desire, every action, every motivation. We can be pretty facile about the way we describe our relationship with God or with Jesus, as though it is one among many directions in which our life can face, one among many commitments, one among many principles to live by. But if we are (or if we want to be) disciples, then that has to be the focus of our life, the lens through which everything else is understood. If we want to be people who live by the spirit, then, says Paul, we need to be people “who belong to Christ Jesus”.

That sounds hard, and maybe because it sounds like it would be less than liberating – to belong to someone else is to be less than free. But that's the paradox which Paul is trying to draw our attention to, and it's based on the character of Jesus which he knew and which the Galatians knew and which we know, based both on the gospel descriptions of him and of our own experience. The Jesus whom we know does not control or manipulate or enslave or dictate to the people who want to belong to him; instead, he dies for us, he loves us beyond anything we could imagine, and he dedicates and even sacrifices his life, to set us free from the things that really hold us down.

To allow that to be the focus of who you are, takes a couple of different steps. First, in some way you have to allow it to overwhelm you. It is overwhelming. When we let ourselves truly appreciate who Jesus is, what he has done, and what that means for us, we know we are out of our depth. But we need that, in order to know that we are part of something bigger than ourselves – just as, to extend the image, you need to get out of your depth, your feet off the sand, in order to be free to swim. So, whatever way it is that you feel the love of God coming at you, keep looking him in the face, don't turn away, don't flinch, don't duck, don't rationalize or minimize or use any of the other countless self-defences that we human beings have. Let God love you. That is the one thing you can never do for yourself, all you can do is let it in.

The other side of that coin, though, is that even when you have experienced the total reorientation of your life that comes with belonging to Jesus, the story isn't over. The world is full of Christians who have embraced discipleship but haven't fully realized the consequences of that yet – perhaps like James and John, or the other would-be disciples we heard about, in the gospel reading today. Every day of our life we are waking up to the realization that when Jesus invited you or me to follow him, he meant this piece of my life too, or that piece: this hidden ambition, that ingrained assumption, this troubling habit, pride in achievement, sense of inadequacy, whatever it might be. No exemptions, no exceptions. And that's not because “those are the rules disciples have to follow”, it's because Jesus loves you that completely, and wants you to experience the freedom of life in the spirit in absolutely every way.

So the only way forward is to keep following, conscious that every step you take, every day, at home, at work, alone, with friends, Jesus is always leading you if you let him. Some days that will seem more profound than others, but every day it will be a serious and deep reality about who you are, if you want it to be. Centuries of Christian experience tell us that this habit does grow with practice, but also that it never stops growing – there are always more steps to take. But if you look at the people ahead of you on the journey, you will only be reminded that life in the spirit is a beautiful goal that is worth pursuing and that it requires this kind of depth in your relationship with God. And if you look at the people walking behind you, children, new Christians, people who haven't yet even caught a glimpse of the life they are capable of, you will realize that Jesus is walking ahead of you not just for your own sake but for theirs too – because in our stopping and stumbling, as well as when our stride is confident, we encourage one another and show each other the way. And that way is the spirit of freedom, the spirit of Jesus, ahead of us, behind us, and within us.