“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no Law.” (Galatians 5:16-23)
When I was a young adult, the Christian Church in the United States seemed to have a fascination with the topic of spiritual gifts. Maybe this was a fad that has run its course; maybe I was more aware of the discussion at the time because of my youth. But it seemed that Christians everywhere, from groups on campus to Lutheran congregations, were asked and invited to fill out inventories in which they assessed their spiritual gifts. Often they would be invited to join certain boards and committees or to engage in certain tasks based on their self-assessments of their spiritual gifts. This process was a handy way of recruiting Sunday School teachers and choir members, but it also had a higher significance. It required Christians and Christian groups to define spiritual gifts and to explain how they are different from other talents and abilities.
To some people there was no difference. Anything a person could do well was considered a spiritual gift. To other people, the difference was important. God the Father, who created us and gave us our bodies, our minds, and all our abilities, had made each of us unique and special. But the Holy Spirit, who entered our lives, gave us faith in Jesus, and taught us to imitate Jesus, also bestowed us with abilities that went beyond what we received in creation. We were given spiritual ways to serve the Church, to be of use to our fellow Christians, and to honor God with our lives. Knowing our spiritual gifts mattered precisely because those gifts were intended to serve the people of God and were not to be wasted on the world, on those outside the Church.
The second group of Christians was wrong. Dividing the creating work of God the Father and the sanctifying work of God the Holy Spirit implies a false distinction within the Holy Trinity. The Father and the Son and the Spirit are one God. They worked together in creation, and they work together in sanctification. Likewise, God does not distinguish between our service to neighbors in the world and our service to neighbors in the Church. We all have vocations, callings, opportunities to love our neighbors and help them. These callings are exercised in the home with our families. They are exercised in the community with our neighbors. They are exercised in our careers. They are exercised in volunteer opportunities. They also are exercised in the congregation. Sometimes we do things for one another in church that we do not get to do anywhere else. More often, we do things for one another in the church that we also do for our families and for other gatherings. Doing them at church does not make them more spiritual; doing them other places does not make them less spiritual. We are Christians every hour of the day, not just when we are at church. We love God and love our neighbors every hour of the day, not just when we are at church.
We serve one another at church. Because I am called to be pastor, I preach the sermon and lead the service. In a large congregation, we might have a preacher, a liturgist, a lector to read the lessons from the Bible, and an acolyte to light the candles and put them out. Other members of the congregation lead the music, ring the bell, keep the building clean, and prepare snacks for us to enjoy after the service. We all put money in the offering plate. We all pray for the congregation and for one another during the week. We support one another, and together we do the work of the Church. We use our God-given abilities, our resources, and our opportunities, to enrich the lives of one another. But all of us also do things for our families, our communities, our country, and the world in general—even if those things are nothing more than to pray. That work also is loving service to our neighbors for the glory of God. That loving service also involves spiritual gifts.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote about the fruit of the Spirit. He contrasts the fruit of the Spirit to the works of the flesh. It might seem unfair that the works of the flesh add up to fifteen activities while Paul lists only nine fruits of the Spirit. No wonder the devil tempts us to think that sinners have more fun than saints. But both lists are open-ended. Both are summaries of works and fruits, summaries of lists that could be much longer. Both lists describe ways of life, one which fits into the sinful world and one that belongs to the eternal kingdom of God. Paul’s list of the fruits of the Spirit comes out nicely in our English translation. We have three fruits of one syllable, three fruits of two syllables, and three fruits of three syllables. The verse is easy to remember, easy even to set to music. And this list of nine fruits of the Spirit might seem like a convenient sermon outline, a way for preachers to describe Christian living with a paragraph on love, a paragraph on joy, a paragraph on peace, and on through the entire list.
But that outline would also be a mistake. Talking about love and joy and peace and the rest in that fashion would sound too much like Law, telling us how Christians should live, how we should be different from the sinful world. If a preacher took this verse and said, “Thou shalt love; thou shalt rejoice; thou shalt have peace,” that preacher would be missing the point. Paul did not intend to describe how Christians must live. He was telling us the consequences of being a Christian, the results of being forgiven by God and claimed for his kingdom. Paul was not writing about commandments; he was describing fruit, the natural result of being alive in the kingdom of God.
The fifteen works of the flesh listed by Paul are all against God’s Law. They describe how a sinner lives, a person who has chosen to rebel against God’s Law. We compare that list to our lives, and we might be tempted to focus on the things we have never done, or perhaps the things we used to do when we were younger but have stopped doing. We like the Law when it tells us we are right. But Paul’s list also identifies weak points for each of us. If we are able to avoid sorcery and orgies, that does not mean that we are also free from jealousy, envy, rivalry, and divisions. All these works of the flesh are wrong. They all reflect a life that is self-centered, a life that is lacking love for God and love for our neighbors. They all show us why we need a Savior, why are lives are not good enough for God without the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.
Christ has set us free. He set us free from our sins. He set us free from sins committed against us. He set us free from the burden of the Law. He set us free to be children of God, to live the lives God had in mind when he created us and the world around us. Jesus lived a pure, sinless, God-pleasing life in this sinful world. He showed us how perfect love looks in this world. Jesus also took our sins and our guilt and paid for them on the cross. He ransomed us, paying to reclaim us for the kingdom of God and to reconcile us to his Father. Jesus defeated all our enemies, rising to life to prove his victory and to promise each of us a share in his victory.
We are free because of what Jesus did for us. We are not free to return to our sins, to the works of the flesh. We are free to be children of God. We are free to do those things that God had in mind when he created us. We are free to live with love, with joy, with peace, and with all the fruits of the Spirit. These qualities have nothing to do with God’s Law. They are not against the Law, but they also are not governed and regulated by the Law. They belong to us as free children of God, not as rewards for obeying the Law. They do not describe what we must do because of God’s Law; they describe what we have because of God’s Gospel, because of the work Jesus has done to rescue us from sin and to reconcile us to his Father.
When God created us, he wanted us to bear that fruit. He wants the same for all people. Jesus wanted even Judas Iscariot and the high priest Caiaphas and the governor Pontius Pilate to have lives filled with love and joy and peace. If they rejected those lives and those blessings, that was not Christ’s fault. He paid on the cross to redeem them. He prayed that their sins would be forgiven. He wished to welcome them into Paradise as surely as he wished to welcome the repentant thief, the apostles Peter and John, the women from Galilee, and all people into his Father’s kingdom.
We were created for lives marked with love, joy, peace, and all the rest of the fruits of the Spirit. We lost those fruits because of sin. We turned away from God, doing things our way instead of his way. We fell short of the glory of God, and we were no longer capable of bearing those fruits. In God’s orchard, we were empty trees, taking up space without bearing fruit. We were destined to become nothing more than firewood.
But the work of Jesus changed us. He went to the dead wood of the cross to make us living trees in God’s orchard. He suffered and died for us so we can live forever. He poured out his Holy Spirit on the Church so we can believe his promises and be saved by his work. He set us free so we can bear fruit for God, so we can enjoy love and joy and peace and all of God’s blessings in our lives today and in our eternal lives in the kingdom of God.
The Holy Spirit continues to work in our lives, keeping us alive so we can bear fruit. He gives us faith in Jesus, and he sustains that faith in our hearts. The Holy Spirit works through the Word of God to bring us faith in Jesus. He uses the Law of God to diagnose our need for a Savior, but in the Gospel promises he tells us about our Savior, Jesus Christ. He gathers us around those Gospel promises in the Church. When we confess our sins, he assures us that we are forgiven through Jesus. The Holy Spirit washes us clean in the water of Holy Baptism. He brings us to the Table of the Lord, where we receive the body and blood of our Savior, making us confident of forgiveness, of eternal life in God’s kingdom, and of our share in Christ’s victory over all our enemies.
While we live in this sinful world, we remain sinners who need a Savior. At the very same time, we are also saints who know our Savior. We are confident of his victory and of his blessings for our lives. We live, not under the burden of the Law, but under the freedom of the Gospel. Knowing we are forgiven, we are able to forgive those who sin against us. Knowing that we will live forever in God’s kingdom, we are able to live today as citizens of that eternal kingdom.
Today we practice for heaven. We live with love, with joy, and with peace. We built our qualities of patience and kindness and goodness. We exercise faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. We do these things, not to earn a place in heaven, but because we know that we have a place in heaven. Being citizens of heaven, we bring a taste of heaven into the lives we live today. To God the Father, who created us to have these blessings; to Jesus Christ, who gave himself to give us these blessings; to the Holy Spirit, who pours these blessings into our lives every day, be thanks and praise and glory, now and forever. Amen.