Sermon – August 30, 2020 – Thirteenth Sunday after Pentecost

High Aspirations

What a long list of traits Paul offers up as what new life in Christ looks like! All this talk about loving and welcoming, about giving and—oh, my!—forgiving… not just people we like, but even our enemies…. It seems pretty daunting, more than a little overwhelming. Great things to aspire to, of course—we should all have something to strive for, after all. But surely Paul can’t expect any one Christian to do all of this. Can he?
Well, yes, I’m afraid he does. Paul means it: this is what life in the Christian community needs to look like, and this is how Christians are to behave when they reach out beyond the safety of their own little piece of the world. Christians—that’s you and me, today—are to act like this because we follow
Christ, and this is the way of life he modeled for us. This way of life comes from Jesus. You know—the One to whom we say we belong, the One we claim to love, the One we seek to follow.
Now, before you mentally throw your hands up in the air at the impossibility of it all, I think there are three things we need to consider about what Paul is saying.
First, this very long and intimidating list isn’t prescriptive—it’s not a checklist of tasks to be accomplished in order to earn our Good Christian Merit Badge—so you can breathe a little sigh of relief—just a little one, though, because this list is descriptive: this is what life looks like when the Holy Spirit is alive and at work within the members of the community. It’s not about what we do as much as it is about what God does within us and through us.
Look back at verse 2: “…be transformed, by the renewing of your minds,” Paul writes, not “transform yourselves, renew your own minds.” What he describes in these verses is what it looks like when the Spirit is alive and moving and at work in a person or group of people. Remember back on
Pentecost, when we recalled how, as the early church was gathered at prayer, there was the sound of a mighty wind and leaping tongues of fire, and every single member of the community received some gift
of the Holy Spirit? Remember how everyone received some spiritual gift, meant to be used for the building up of the community? Remember how no one got left out? Not then, and not now. And least that’s the way it’s meant to be—all of us, gathered into one, caring for one another because God’s love lives in us, even when we don’t look the same or act the same or even believe the same.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists some of the gifts of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal. 5:22). Today’s reading spells out what those gifts look like “with skin on,” what it means to live out those precious and holy gifts of the Spirit in relationship with God and with one another, not because we can do it by good intentions or strength of will or any other human power, but simply because God makes it possible.
So that’s one thing for us to keep in mind: these things that Paul asks us to aspire to are more about God and what God is doing in us, and in our midst, than it is about our own need to check things off a list and see how we measure up compared to others.
At this point, you may be thinking that we’re off the hook, that this is about sitting back and just letting God go to work until—surprise!—one morning we wake up and we’re the kind of people Paul is describing here. And if that’s what you’re thinking, I hope you can hear Paul gnashing his teeth in the background. The second thing we need to notice as we read this passage is that this inner transformation and renewal of our minds is directed to discerning the will of God and it finds expression in what we do. This is not about how we feel—no matter how inspired or uplifted or close to God—this is not about how we feel as much as it is about how we act. Our transformation, our renewal in Christ, is not for our sake alone, but for the sake of others, and for the sake of the world. And when what we are doing doesn’t foster those gifts of the Spirit—the patience and kindness and peace and all the rest—when we don’t see those things happening, we need to step back and consider whether our actions truly do reflect the will of God for God’s beloved creation.
Look at the list of gifts Paul mentions in verses 6-8: being prophetic (and being a prophet in the Bible has very little to do with foretelling the future and everything to do with calling people back to God’s way of grace and mercy, of justice and love); ministering; teaching; exhorting (that means
admonishing and calling people to a higher ethical standard of living); giving; leading; being compassionate…. Every single one of them is to be exercised on behalf of others—not to increase one’s own net worth, not to gain a good reputation or curry favor, not even to build up one’s own ego, but to make love real, to serve others, to give what has been received as a gift to another, because that’s what Jesus would do. That’s what Jesus did do. Our faith and our desire to follow Jesus are not mature or complete—not “perfect,” as Jesus once put it (Matt. 5:48)—unless they find expression in concrete ways. As James says in his epistle, “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works is dead (James 2:15-17).” In other words, the Spirit transforms us as we do our best to follow Christ. And while that doesn’t depend on us, what we actually do is the evidence that the Spirit is alive and moving among us. And that brings us to the third thing we need to consider. Transformation, the “renewal of our
minds” in Christ Jesus, is an on-going process, a confllict between what is the better thing struggling to be born within us and among us. Moment by moment, the choices we make matter. Every day presents us with opportunities to cooperate with the Spirit or turn aside. Jesus didn’t force anyone to follow him while he was on earth, and the Spirit doesn’t do that today. We make our choices, and sometimes Evil wears a very tempting face.
“Why should I give anything to him? What’s he ever done for me?”
“They’re different, scary. They don’t belong here. Why can’t they just go back to wherever they came from?”
“An eye for an eye—that’s in the Bible, isn’t it? So why shouldn’t I get back for what she did to me?”
“He should have made better choices. He doesn’t deserve my help.”
“What happened was terrible, but I’m waiting to hear the rest of the story. He must have done something to deserve what he got—right?”
“I’d like to help out, but it’s just not convenient to… give anymore… to make those calls… to reach out to someone lonely… to learn how someone different experiences life. You understand, don’t you?”
Oh, yes, Evil can look so innocent, masquerading as convenience or principle or even, sometimes, necessity. But it’s still Evil, no matter how innocuous, because it tempts us to “think more highly of ourselves than [we] ought,” as Paul put it back in verse 3, tempts us to think our own desires are more important than anything else. But any time we refuse to love, to welcome, to forgive, evil erodes a little bit of our hearts and souls. Every. Single. Time.
But it doesn’t have to be that way—no! Praise God for the gift of Jesus Christ that means it doesn’t have to be that way! Paul urges us, “Do not be overwhelmed by evil, but overcome evil with good (verse 21).” Help to choose what is good and true and precious and life-giving—help to choose
what brings the Spirit and life to us and to this community—is as near as our breath, only prayer away.
When we ask for the Spirit’s help so that we can follow in the steps of our Lord Jesus, we can be sure that help is already on the way. We can not only aspire to the life Paul describes—we can reach, we can exceed even Paul’s wildest hopes for us. Why should we settle for less?
May our hearts and minds be transformed by the love of God, which comes to us in Jesus Christ and lives within us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Thanks be to God for this indescribable gift of love. Amen.