St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 14th Sunday after Trinity, September 5, 2021
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.”
CALIFORNIA is truly a state rich in natural and cultivated resources. The state water projects of the 50s and 60s gave us harnessed hydroelectric power, canals that run several hundred miles, irrigating vast acreage of rich earth, a state where seaports and airports make accessible our entire world for trade. And besides its famous entertainment and computer industries, the state’s first and greatest economic gyro is agriculture.
Butte County itself brings to the world a bounty of rice, almonds, walnuts, prunes, timber products, cattle and dairy, peaches, olives, pistachios, citrus and kiwi fruit: all grown in soil that is among the very richest in the world. These things grow every year and find their markets across the nation and around the globe. Another top exporter in Butte County is, of course, Sierra Nevada Brewery, among the top beer and ale producers in the country.
The university next door instructs some 17,000 students each year in anthropology, art, biology, business, chemistry, education, communication, religion, computer sciences, construction, economics, engineering, English, geography, geology, history, foreign languages, journalism, kinesiology, math, media, culture, music, nursing, nutrition, philosophy, physics, political science, criminology, psychology, health, recreation, robotics, and social sciences.
None of this would happen, none of the produced fruits of the fields or the school rooms, unless someone opened the way and set about to do something. And even then, nothing would happen but for the goodness and grace of our God. Where did the fertile field come from? Where did this abundant life-force arrive for us that we may cultivate and grow it? Whence come these studies that we may learn and teach them? Announce a class, but if students don’t come, you’re talking to yourself.
With the exception of food production and a few other essential industries, we’ve just experienced a large-scale experiment in how it looks when much of our economy shuts down. This being Labor Day weekend, it’s appropriate to mention how many businesses, once they’ve finally been allowed to open up again, haven’t found enough workers for vital jobs, no laborers ready to come off unemployment and be reemployed. We assume things always work. Sometimes they simply don’t. The dry bed of Lake Oroville speaks of a sweeping drought, the worst in many years. Fires sweeping across the Sierra foothills and mountain passes have denied camp trips and burned-out homes. Things don’t just work because we want them to. Except for the grace of God, quite unthinkable and more horrific ends might be facing us.
Still, we are living reasonably well on our reserves. The wealth of our state has allowed us to store up vital things while we get our system moving forward. The schools and the university are again full of students after 16 months of remote teaching that no one thought adequate. Gas prices are high, but we can still find it without the gas lines of the 70s, and can still drive our cars. We’ve had a taste of disaster, but far worse disasters have been averted, and we thank God.
Covid has taken its toll, 210 deaths in our county, but not 2,000 or 20,000: thank God. 2/3 of a million dead in the country, but not the 2 or 3 million first predicted. Enloe is busy, but has not been overrun. The grace of God looks different when we’re under a siege of sorts, but grace it is nonetheless. It could have been so much worse.
The ancient world knew abundance at times, and fierce and terrible dearth when crops failed or enemy armies invaded and stole everything, including their children, their family members. Oppression was often the way of life. Within the context of a new world emerging out of such cruel realities, St. Paul wrote Galatia that “God has called us to live a life of freedom.” Gal 5:13 Freedom: isn’t that a precious fruit given by God, but won by those who will grasp it, value it, and hold on to it? It isn’t automatic. It can be lost as well, if we’re not willing to fight for it.
Our life in Christ is, at once, an active pursuit and an act of abandonment. This is hard to explain. Paul continues: “As you yield to the dynamic life and power of the Holy Spirit, you will abandon the cravings of your self-life, your flesh. When your flesh craves the things that offend the Holy Spirit, you hinder him from living free within you! And the Holy Spirit’s desires also hinder your flesh from dominating you! So then, the two incompatible and conflicting forces within you are the self-life of the flesh and the new life of the Spirit.” v16-18 There are two wills at work in us, and both must exist in us, and both have to agree. We don’t lose our will, but need to redirect it to comply with the Spirit’s will. If we allow our sinful flesh to rule, the Spirit can’t rule us, and our fruits are going to be damaged, empty like the lake, spoiled like a crop with a blight.
St. Paul is making a point about Jewish Law, that the Gentile Christians are not required to adopt the religious customs of Hebrews, like circumcision or Yom Kippur, in order to be acceptable to God. The new life is freedom from those rigors. But freedom is not lawless or libertine. Freedom grows under the dominion of the Holy Spirit, who shapes us into new creatures. The new creatures bear fruit, and the goodness of that fruit attests to us truly being in Christ. Fruit, in this case, means character, how we live, the way we act, the value of our lives in society.
As such, Paul says that “when you yield to the life of the Spirit, you will no longer be living under the law, but soaring above it! The behavior of the flesh is obvious: Sexual immorality, lustful thoughts, pornography, chasing after things instead of God, manipulating others, hatred of those who get in your way, senseless arguments, resentment when others are favored, temper tantrums, angry quarrels, only thinking of yourself, being in love with your own opinions, being envious of the blessings of others, murder, uncontrolled addictions, wild parties, and all other similar behavior. Haven’t I already warned you that those who use their “freedom” for these things will not inherit the kingdom of God?”
So, there are rules, of a kind, but they’re not arbitrary or rigorous limitations. They are about living a life that bears good will and harmony to other people. That kind of life is filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit indwelling us and bringing out abilities and habits we never knew we had. Paul lists these as “divine love in all its varied expressions: joy that overflows, peace that subdues, patience that endures, kindness in action, a life full of virtue, faith that prevails, gentleness of heart, and strength of spirit. Never set the law above these qualities, for they are meant to be limitless.” In other words, good character isn’t objectionable to any legal system: how can it be? Laws are made for lawless people, to limit their misdeeds against others. Freedom is given to those who use it rightly.
Paul completes his thought, reminding us that “we who belong to Jesus Christ have already experienced crucifixion. For everything connected with our self-life or flesh was put to death on the cross and crucified with Messiah. If the Spirit is the source of our life, we must also allow the Spirit to direct every aspect of our lives.”
It comes down to this: the two kinds of commandments illustrate the point. The Thou Shall Not commands are for lawless people, needing to be trained away from evil acts and bad habits. Stop doing them! These are the borderlands of life and dangerous territory for believers to cross into, for the sins of those frontiers can lead you out of God’s kingdom where you become, once again, a child of darkness and subject of Satan. You can be rescued from there, but your will is being shaped all the time by the things you submit to. A stern warning must awaken your conscience against the failings of a fleshy life: Don’t do that. Get away and keep away from those things!
But when we live a life in Christ, accepting the direction of His Spirit within us, more and more we draw in from those borders where the enemy has snared us before, and into a rich and abundant life in the fruitful plains where good things grow in us. Like the good soil in the Parable of the Sower, we burst forth with a vast harvest crop and the abundance can feed thousands.
Here is where the Thou Shalt commandments find us, at the heart of our faith. And deepest of all are the commandments to love. What does that mean: to love? When we’ve departed from the shadows and now live in the light, we see more clearly and what we find is beauty. The good things entering our minds and hearts heal us and we learn what we truly were made for. Whatever is right or constructive, pure and honorable, true and valuable, worthy of praise: keep these things in mind, and before your eyes. A complete cure from the world’s tainted liquor takes a while to achieve, and has to be maintained. In the end, we find objects worthy of our love, God being first of all, and then others, and eventually even ourselves.
We’re living here in a marvelous state, in a county known to grow and produce great abundance far beyond what we need or can use ourselves. Just about every county in California can boast of that, and of beauty unmatched just about anywhere. 40 million people live here and all of them are worthy of our love.
John and Annie Bidwell built this city for Christ to be known. Let Him be known through our church and our lives, fruitful boughs, baskets of bounty. Freedom is for no lesser aim than that we freely live and love like that.