Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfill the lust of the flesh.
The key to understanding the Epistle reading appointed for this Sunday is to know the Holy Spirit for Who He is. When St. Paul tells us to walk in the Spirit, he does not mean just any spirit. He does not mean your own human spirit. He told the church in Thessalonica, "I pray God your whole spirit and soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ." (I Thes. 5:23) The implication is clear; he interceded that they remain blameless in spirit. Some of you may have been taught that your spirit is incapable of defilement, that it is holy; but, that is not true. As St. Paul also wrote: "Having therefore these promises, dearly beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God." (II Cor. 7:1) The Spirit we must learn to walk in is the Holy Spirit, that is, God present and powerful among His people.
It is not enough to know about the Holy Spirit in terms of Trinitarian theology, that he proceeds from the Father, that He is one with the Father and the Son, "Who with the Father and the Son together is worshiped and glorified." We may know all that, and be able to say all the right things about the Holy Spirit. But, unless we know that He works among us and in us, and unless we learn to recognize His work, He remains a stranger. His is a Mysterious Presence, but His indwelling ought to be a known and discerned Presence.
It would be easy today to zero in on the "works of the flesh," and to preach against various sins. Now, it is right to preach against those things that St. Paul lists, but only if we do so keeping in mind that he prescribes the cure before detailing his diagnosis. We should know that all of the things St. Paul lists are sinful, and that the consequences of living with those things willfully is dangerous indeed; as he wrote: "They which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God."
It is not fashionable to preach about Hell. It is fashionable in modern religion to make the Church safe for warm fuzzies, for feel good religion, to be "the church of what's happenin' now." It is not fashionable to mention death in church anymore. Is that not ironic? The one context in which we learn how to face death without fear, church, has become a venue in which we are supposed to avoid all mention of death. That time will come, when there will be no death, for Christ shall have come again. But, if we are to arrive safely at that destination, risen with Christ in glory to die no more, we need to prepare.
Sin and death are the sickness of the human race. This list that Paul gives us, that he calls "the works of the flesh," is merely a list of symptoms. Nonetheless, a real problem today is that some people cannot recognize the symptoms for what they are. For example, "Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness" are on the list. But, in some churches, no one has even taught the children, as they begin to mature, that everyone is commanded by God to wait until marriage. Television, movies, and the mores of our popular culture all seem finely tuned to teach your children to accept a standard of sexual conduct that is, frankly, sinful and forbidden. I don't care if "wait until marriage" seems quaint and outdated or not. You are required to teach it to your children, and to live by it. We don't get to make the rules, and we are forbidden to change them. It is God who has commanded us to obey His Law, and He never changes. Fornication is still a sin, and it will be a sin in the future too. Some things do not change, especially the commandments of God.
"Hatred" and "wrath" are also on the list. Indeed, the Epistle reading we heard today is followed by these words, as the last two verses of the chapter: "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another." And, there is more on the list, including such things as "heresies" and "witchcraft"- by which the King James translators meant occult practices (seances, fortune telling, and other forbidden practices, that I hope no one here dabbles in. The danger in those things includes demonic possession).
Here too we see the need for the remedy. We are told to avoid all these sinful things. But never forget, this comes to us in a larger context, one that begins by telling us that the solution is to walk in the Spirit. The larger context tells us more than not to hate or envy. It tells us to love one another, something positive, and that is more dynamic and radical than merely not hating. The whole context, remember, speaks of this remedy coming from the Holy Spirit.
If we really want to understand the meaning of today's Epistle reading, we need to see the contrast between "the works of the flesh" and "the fruit of the Spirit." St. Paul is not merely preaching against giving in to sin. He is providing the solution to the problem, and telling us more: How to advance into our calling to be holy people, that is, saints. And, he seems to be saying that we are stuck between two opposing forces: The Holy Spirit and the flesh.
When St. Paul uses the word "flesh," he takes his meaning from the words of Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane.
Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matt. 26:38-41)
It seems a simple task. Jesus told them to watch, to stay awake during His time of agony and prayer. They intended to watch and pray, but fell asleep because of the weakness of the flesh. "The spirit indeed is willing (in this case He does mean the human spirit), but the flesh is weak." How is the flesh weak? It seems, rather, to be quite strong. At times, it seems to have a power that grips and imprisons the human will. It seems strong indeed when someone finds it next to impossible to resist the flesh if certain properties are set in motion, such as lust, jealousy or rage.
Whether we think the flesh is strong or weak depends on what we intend to do. The disciples intended to do the right thing, that is, to stay awake, to watch with their Lord. But, they were overcome, and that is because the flesh had no power to resist exhaustion. And, that is what happens if we think we can rely on merely human power to become the holy people we are called to become. We find that the flesh, the stuff of which we are made, fails. It has no strength to do anything except to seek gratification and survival. That is the result of having a nature that is fallen. The flesh, this stuff of which we are made that is mortal and subject to death during this time of sojourn in the wilderness, does not possess that simple thing that the Scriptures call "grace."
Therefore, though we constrain ourselves and act like civilized people, and exert a measure of self-control, we are still faced with that weakness that cannot rise to the ever present occasion of God's commandments, as they are summed up in the two greatest commandments of the Law. How can I love God? How can I love my neighbor? Where does the necessary power come from?
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law. "
What is that? The list of sinful symptoms are "the works of the flesh," and the list of godly virtues are "the fruit of the Spirit." We need to understand the contrast between the flesh and the Spirit, and also the contrast between works and fruit. Works are man made. We produce things by what we do, and we call the result our works. In a positive sense, we may speak of the works of Shakespeare, the works of Mozart, the works of Rembrandt, and so on.
But fruit is grown. It is not produced by human effort, but by its nature and the nature of the soil. It grows by the power of life that is within the seed, and that is planted in good ground. It is God Who makes things grow, and therefore Paul uses the word "fruit" to speak of God's grace working in us.
However, although the growth of fruit is not a human work, it is aided by the right kind of labor. Human labor consists of preparing the earth, tending to the growing produce, and reaping it at the right time. But, it grows by another kind of power, and human hands cannot make it. Now, we are given gifts and helpful instruction to live by. We are given the gifts of Prayer, Scripture, Sacraments and the godly fellowship of the Church. We are given, therefore, means of grace to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives, and we must make use of them.
We must approach this based on what Jesus said:
Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing. (John 15:4,5)
Jesus said those words the night before He went to His cross to die for our sins. He taught that, after he would rise from the dead, He would leave again to go to the Father (not by dying again, but by a mystery we call the Ascension), and that another Comforter (paraklētos) would come, that is, the Holy Spirit. And, although the Holy Spirit is another Comforter, that is, He is not the Son, still He is God and is One with the Father and the Son. When Jesus said "Without me ye can do nothing," and then spoke of His own Presence coming through "another (allos) Comforter." He made it clear, in saying these things, that He would be with us by the Holy Spirit. (That is because God is One. Where the Holy Spirit is Present in power to work in us, He brings the presence of the Father and of the Son.)
Look again at the fruit of the Spirit. It begins with love at the top of the list ("love, joy, peace," etc.). That is the truly Divine love, using the Greek word agapē. This is what St. Paul describes in that famous chapter 13 of his First Epistle to the Corinthians:
Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth.
Where does that love come from? Paul, again, gave the answer:
"The love (agapē) of God is shed abroad in our hearts by the Holy Ghost which is given unto us." (Rom. 5:5)
We need the grace and power of that Mysterious Presence among us. We need the Holy Spirit to be active in us. And, we need to participate and find communion in that life and power that He alone gives. Otherwise, we cannot bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Today's Gospel reading teaches us what the key is.
And one of them, when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell down on his face at his feet, giving him thanks: and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but where are the nine?
The Samaritan who had been healed of leprosy returned to the Lord Jesus to give thanks. The key is in that expression of gratitude. If you know the full weight of what has been done for you by God's grace, by Christ pouring out his lifeblood for you on the cross, by His rising again to remain forever the Mediator between God and man, and by pouring out that other Comforter on his Church, you will return to give thanks. If you know what was done for you in your own baptism, the cleansing and rebirth in Christ, you will return to fall at His feet and give thanks.
The fruit of the Spirit cannot be made by our efforts, but we cultivate that fruit by cooperating actively with God. Each day we need to return to the Lord to give thanks. We give thanks by hearing His word, by prayer, by the sacraments and by the fellowship of the Church. We are given grace, and our participation, fellowship and communion (all of which are summed up in the original Greek New Testament by one word, koinōnia) must be active, not passive. We should not sit back, passively, and assume the fruit will grow without our cooperation; for then the weeds would strangle it. The flesh would be overcome by every passion, and we would be lost.
No, we cannot make the fruit by our own hands; it grows by the power of the life within it. But, we can prevent its growth by failing to cultivate it, by failing to return to the Lord Jesus Christ to give thanks. Without Him we can do nothing. With Him, abiding in Him, we can bring forth much fruit. Our lives can become the blessed, holy and joyful fellowship with God that lasts forever, that proclaims Jesus, and that makes Him known to every person we meet, whether or not we say a word.