Walking in the Spirit:
A Sermon for the 14th Sunday After Trinity
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord my Strength and my Redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
J.R.R. Tolkien once wrote, “It’s a dangerous business…. going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” Our sermon this morning will be focused on this morning’s epistle reading from Galatians 5, and I want to pay especially close attention to this simple command from St. Paul: “Walk in the Spirit.” In fact, more specifically, the Greek specifies that we are to walk by the spirit, which means Paul is telling us that there is a proper way to walk. Early Christians called themselves followers of the Way, or in Greek hodos. A way, a hodos, is a path. You might think of a well trodden hiking trail that you trust to get you out of the woods and back home. A way is a well-walked terrain by people who knew where they were going, and who have given us a way forward. One of my favorite verses in the Old Testament, Jeremiah 6:16, reads, “Thus saith the Lord, Stand ye in the ways, and see, and ask for the old paths, where is the good way, and walk therein, and ye shall find rest for your souls.” This Old Testament passage teaches us to ask for guidance in our walk, and Jesus Christ supplies the answer for what that way should be in John 14:6: “Jesus saith unto him, I am the way, the truth, and the life: no man cometh unto the Father, but by me.” If the Spirit is the means by which we walk the Christian life, Jesus Christ is the path we are to walk. So when Paul tells us to walk in the spirit, he doesn’t simply mean a directionless meandering with a sentimental sense of good feeling. A way, a path, is not just a description of the land you see around you. A way is a reliable guide, meant to shape how we walk. We could say that the effort of the Christian life is to, by God’s grace, conform the walk, our manner of life, to the way, the life to which Christ has called us.
There are three things to see about this idea of walking in the way. First, notice that walking in the spirit is not standing still. Being on the right path is not taking it. Imagine if you saw someone sitting on the side of a trail deep in the forest and you asked him, “Where are you going?” And he said, “I know the way here – I don’t need to do anything more.” You would be concerned for that person, as the light fades and the creatures of the night begin to stir while he sits idly on the path. So compare this idea of sitting still and not walking in the way with some of the works of the flesh listed in our epistle. Let’s take a simple one: adultery. If you are married, is walking in the spirit of your marriage simply not to commit adultery? Naturally not. “Sorry honey, I forgot our anniversary, but don’t worry – I didn’t commit adultery!” Good luck with that one, buddy. No – to walk in the spirit of matrimony is not an absence of adulterous behavior, but a presence, instead, of intentional behaviors of love for that spouse. In the same fashion, a Christian life is not an absence of ungodly actions, but a pursuit of the way of life Christ wants for us.
Second, although I have mentioned this already, notice again that this walk has to be in and by the Spirit. This means the Holy Spirit in particular. So this wording should make something of vital importance clear: when I say Christians have a duty to intentionally walk in the way Christ called us to, I am not saying we earn our way to Heaven. On the contrary, Scripture teaches that to think we are earning our way to heaven is to empty out the value of Christ’s sacrifice, as Paul teaches in Ephesians 2:8-9: “For by grace are ye saved through faith; and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God: not of works, lest any man should boast.” Instead, the reason we are to walk in the Spirit is because it’s pleasing to the Savior who saved us, because it honors the Father who sent Him, and because it makes our lives better. It makes our hearts lighter, our spirits fresher, and our confidence in the destination of this path firmer when we are actively walking on that path well lit by the fires of the Holy Spirit.
Third, this passage teaches us about a war going on inside of our souls. When Paul says flesh here, he doesn’t mean our bodies exactly. Often in the New Testament, the word translated flesh, “sarkos,” is specifically used to mean our willful desires for worldly things which resist obedience to God. He isn’t saying that our souls are good and our bodies are bad. He is saying that we, as Christians, have a war occuring inside of our bodies between a split allegiance in our souls. There is a part of us, put there by the Holy Spirit, that longs to delight in and fulfill the law of God. There is a part of us, inherited through original sin, that wants to rebel and reject what God wants for us, and choose our own path. But notice that the passage does not talk about walking in the flesh. It only says that it lusteth, that is, desires against the spirit. Here’s a way to think about the picture being formed here. Imagine setting a plan for your morning walk, and you say, I don’t know where I’m going, but I know one place I am not going, so the only decisions you make are negative – away from the place you are avoiding. You won’t get there, but you have no idea where you are going instead. The Holy Spirit, through Scripture, and the church, and the promptings of conscience, gives us a direction. All the flesh does is stray against the path. Our sinful desire will take any alternative to what is good for us. The fleshly part of our will is like a dog that will eat anything off the path it sees or a child that will run headlong down what looks like a fine trail but ends in a dangerous ravine. Doesn’t know where it’s going, as long as it doesn’t have to go where it’s told to go. Jesus Christ explains this in Matthew 7:13 where he says, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it.” God is absolute unity with himself, so that means our rebellion is a longing for disunity with the path he wants us to walk in. If you want to build for yourself a picture of what Hell looks like, look at the list of the works of the flesh: “Adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lasciviousness, idolatry, witchcraft, hatred, variance, emulations, wrath, strife, seditions, heresies, envyings, murders, drunkenness, revellings, and such like: of the which I tell you before, as I have also told you in time past, that they which do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.” Think of all of the pain, the agony, which comes from being led down all of those paths, the conflict, the confusion that infidelity, unbridled anger, and poisonous envy can cause in our lives already. And then remove all of the means of grace in this earthly life which give relief to the effects of those choices. That is Hell. See, in this life, when we sin, the providential order of God’s creation often gives us some measure of relief from sin’s consequences. But in Hellfire, instead, we would have nothing between us and the full effects of those sins on our souls. That is the path we take when we choose to live outside of God’s saving grace. Oh sure, there’s a lot more options for our lives in that list, in one sense. There’s a lot less constraint on your movement, because you have the apparent “freedom” to do things like practice witchcraft or nurse hatred for someone in your heart. But there’s also a lot more constraint to your movement on a safe path than a deadly path. If I drop you into the sea you could go in a lot of different directions, a lot more than on a boat, which is very cramped by comparison. But on the boat you’ll get somewhere. The other way, you’re just playing a guessing game about where the currents will take away your life.
The fruits of the spirit, against which there is no law, involve a constraint of options which actually then makes us more free to live a good life. See the freedom which comes with constrained commitment to walking in the spirit: “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance.” You’re not free to be filled with strife if you’re filled with peace, for example. The cross is the ultimate symbol of constraint. Christ took the narrowest path a body can take – an excruciatingly narrow way. But he walked in the spirit in that direction to make us a path out of the chaos, to forge a target for us to hit in our walk. X marks the spot. The word crucial comes from the word cross – something of crucial importance is something so valuable you would die on the cross for it. To Christ, you and I were crucial. We were worth that path to him, and that’s why he walked it. And if we desire covenant with that amazing work of divine mercy, then the fitting response is to accept the crucial pain of fighting the fleshly desires because of our gratitude that Christ has made the fruit of the spirit available to us. So Paul writes, “And they that are Christ’s have crucified the flesh with the affections and lusts.” You know, the Christian path has victory at the end, but the fact that it is depicted in terms of Christ on the cross means it will hurt sometimes. We will look at our sins and see that they’re intolerable, and think, why not just give up? Why not let the flesh have its way? But that’s just another trick of the flesh trying to cheat us out of the joys the Spirit has in store for us. It’s worth the effort to walk in the spirit, to resist the fleshly desires, because it’s in those fruits of the Spirit in this life that we get a glimpse of the end of the path. The love, the joy, the peace God wants us to have in Heaven, he also wants us to share in now. There will be adventure, danger, and even physical death on this narrow path, but danger and physical death is on the other, broader path too. But on this path, on this way laid out by the truth, there is the life in Christ, and that is where the faith resides that makes us whole, not only in that we know where we’ll end up, but in knowing that step by step we are already surrounded by the builder of our heaven and by the beloved fellow saints who have shown us the old, sure path. This way, when we reach the path’s end and see the fullness of the light of God shining on us so brightly and intensely that we too are set aglow, we will say, Our faith has made us whole – Glory be to God, for he is worthy to be praised! Amen.