Holy Saturday: New Creations Bearing the Marks of Christ

Read Galatians 6:15-18

Near the end of a forty-day fast during a mountain retreat in the summer of 1244, St. Francis of Assisi was praying and meditating on the cross of Christ.  As he prayed, he received a vision of a six-winged seraph, a creature of unearthly beauty, nailed to a cross.  This vision filled him with a strange combination of joy, wonder, and sorrow.  St. Bonaventure, his biographer, recounts the story: “Pondering what this vision might mean, he finally understood that by God’s providence he would be made like to the crucified Christ not by a bodily martyrdom but by conformity in mind and heart. Then as the vision disappeared, it left not only a greater ardor of love in the inner man but no less marvelously marked him outwardly with the stigmata of the Crucified.”  St. Francis would be careful to hide these visible marks of Christ for the rest of his life, preferring instead to let his actions demonstrate his love for our Lord. He was a new creation in Christ not because of the stigmata, but because his heart and mind were conformed to the image of Jesus.

It seems strange at first that Paul would end this epistle by declaring that he bore the “marks of Jesus”.  This probably just means that he had scarring from experiencing persecution and not that he had the stigmata like St. Francis.  It doesn’t really matter either way, because, when all is said and done, there is only one thing that counts: a new creation.  That has been the destination of this epistle and our forty-day journey.  We have been crucified with Christ, killing off the old man within and rejecting the works of the flesh, and we have been resurrected to a new life in Him.  Christ now lives in us through the power and mediation of the Holy Spirit.  Peace, mercy, and grace will be ours as we walk in this new rule of faith.  But this is more than just an individual walk.  Notice how Paul prays a blessing on the “Israel of God”.  That is the Church, the New Jerusalem, our Mother who is free. Jesus hasn’t just saved us individually from sin and death.  He has plucked us out of the kingdom of darkness and inaugurated a new Kingdom of light and hope and peace.  We have been chosen, not by virtue of ethnicity or circumcision, but because we have faith in Jesus Christ our Lord.  It is no accident that Paul begins (1:3) and ends (6:18) this epistle with the message of grace.  For it is by grace that we are saved and by grace that we live.  It’s about so much more than heaven.  It’s about salvation from misery and death, from failure and despair, from the mundane and ordinary, even from ourselves.  Grace resurrected us from the fall and freed us not just to survive, but to live.  All that matters is a new creation.

After Jesus rose from the dead, He proved his identity by showing His scars.  What a poignant and beautiful gesture.  Even the God of all the universe couldn’t escape life unscathed.  We all bear scars, from what others have done to us and from what we have done to ourselves.  But, brothers and sisters, we also bear the marks of Jesus.  He has sealed us through baptism and marked us as His own forever.  We do not belong to this world anymore; sin and doubt and despair and death no longer have mastery.  We serve a new King in a new Kingdom.  By His resurrection, Christ has set us free.  He is making us new, just as he makes all things new (Rev. 21:5).  Let us go forth into the world as new creations bearing the marks of Christ and proclaiming the good news of freedom and grace to all whom we meet.  Let us say together with joyful hearts: Alleluia!  Christ is risen!  The Lord is risen indeed!  Alleluia!


Good Friday: Boasting in the Cross

Read Galatians 6:11-14

“Christianity is the only major religion to have as its central event the humiliation of its God” (Bruce Shelley).  By any worldly standard, the cross of Christ is a scandal and a disgrace.  There hangs the man we call God, tortured and humiliated, bleeding and suffocating.  He was “one from whom men hide their faces; he was despised, and we esteemed him not” (Is. 53:3).  You could be forgiven for reacting the same way atheist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche did: “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. Yet his shadow still looms” (The Gay Science).  We all stand uncomfortably in the shadow of the cross, staring up at our dying Lord.  We would much rather believe in a God who demands our sacrifice, be it circumcision or religious rituals or good works.  Or maybe we’d rather an imperious God who smites our enemies and gives us victory over every adversity and power to do anything we want.  Or, conversely, we’d like a distant and impassive God who doesn’t really care what we do as long as we’re nice to each other and don’t hurt anyone’s feelings.  Anything but this; anything but the man on the cross.  For those who seek power, He demonstrates humility and weakness.  For those who seek compromise at all costs, He demands the ultimate sacrifice.  He felt the depth of our suffering and showed us the monstrosity of our sin by suffering and dying to save us from sin, death, and hell.  We all would like to boast about something: our wealth, our wisdom, our beauty, our holiness, our tolerance, etc., etc.  But at the foot of the Cross, there is no boasting.  We are all equally wretched and all equally loved; we are all equally marred by sin and all equally beautiful creations in the image of God.  The naked and bleeding man nailed to a Cross is our only hope, and He is our God.  Come let us adore Him.

Paul takes up the pen himself to finish this epistle.  The message is so important that he will not leave it to a scribe to write.  The apostle knew the suffering that life could bring and he also knew the temptation to brag, not least of which in how much he had suffered!  But there is only one thing he could find to boast in: the cross of Christ.  Think about how strange that is.  Why should we boast that the Son of God had to die such an excruciating and humiliating death?  Shouldn’t we boast in His creation of the entire universe, or, even better, in His resurrection?  Perhaps.  But many “gods” have claimed to create the universe and many “gods” claim immortality or resurrection.  It is only our God, our Jesus, who became one of us for the express purpose of dying to save us.  Jesus came to earth not to demonstrate His power or to prove that Yahweh was the only true God.  No, He came “to seek and to save the lost” (Luke 19:10).  In Peter’s words, “He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him” (Acts 10:38).  He spent His earthly ministry serving us mere mortals, and when it came time to die, He willingly gave up His life in exchange for our own.  Through the cross, Christ has given us His kingdom in exchange for the world, His freedom in exchange for our slavery.  Jesus loves us.  Jesus loves you.  We are right to be bewildered at the Cross.  Such love and sacrifice from the God of the universe is beyond anything we can begin to comprehend.  It is a mystery before which we must fall on our face in worship.

The world will never accept Christ on the cross, because Christ calls the world to die.  The world will tell you that you are running after a fairy tale, that you are foolish, just a victim of wishful thinking.  The world will say that, because you do not adhere to its commitment to money and status and sex and all the rest, you are intolerant and narrow-minded and backward.  The world views our humility as weakness, our chastity as prudery, our generosity as gullibility, our faith as ignorance, our hope as misguided, our love as hate.  Maybe they’re right, sometimes, about all of it.  Sometimes we Christians can be backward, intolerant, gullible, prudish, ignorant, misguided, and foolish.  But thanks be to God, the salvation of the world does not depend upon me.  I may be a fool, but I pray that I am a fool for Christ’s sake (1 Cor. 4:10).  I may be moving backward against the world, but that is because the first word out of my Lord’s mouth was “Repent” (Mk. 1:15).  The only answer I have to all the accusations of the world, the flesh, and the devil (and to all the accusations of my own heart) is to point to the cross.  I don’t really know much about anything, but I know that my God loves me.  Look at His hands, His feet, His side.  

The two greatest objections to Christianity are that there is so much evil in the world (thus, there can’t be a “good” God), and that a real God wouldn’t be so hard to find, so invisible.  Circumcision was an attempt to make God visible, but it just ended up creating an exclusive club that did more to demonstrate the evils of vanity and bigotry than God’s agape love.  The only answer we have to the problem of evil and the problem of God’s hiddenness is to point to the cross.  Where is God?  He’s right there, on the cross, killing sin and suffering and death once and for all.  Christ crucified does not prove anything – as the Nietzsche quote above demonstrates, it could just as easily disprove God.  But if we wrap our arms around Him, if we wrap our lives around Him, accepting the mystery of what He did for us, it just might save us.  The whole book of Galatians was written to remind us that freedom is found not in what we do or what we think, but in whom we believe.  As our Lord said to a woman he delivered from lifelong pain: “your faith has healed you. Go in peace and be freed from your suffering” (Mk. 5:34).  That is the word for you today.  Stop trying to earn it or understand it.  We have been crucified with Christ and He now lives in us.  Believe it; live it; and go forth in peace and freedom.

Maundy Thursday: You Are What You Eat

Read Galatians 6:7-10

Inside your body right now are literally trillions of microorganisms from thousands of species of bacteria, fungi, and viruses, mostly living in your intestines.  This is known as your “microbiome”, and we each have a unique combination of these little creatures.  Mostly, these microbes prove to be helpful, stimulating our immune system, breaking down toxins in our food, and helping us digest certain vitamins and amino acids.  Other bacteria and viruses can be harmful causing everything from mild discomfort to serious disease.  The best way to cultivate a healthy microbiome is to eat healthy food, which creates a welcoming environment for symbiotic microbes (the good guys) while discouraging pathogens (the bad guys).  Our microbiome is so important that it has been called another organ of the body – what lives inside us is literally a part of us.  In other words, that old cliché proves true: you are what you eat.

Paul uses a common analogy found in scripture of sowing and reaping (cf. Hos. 8:7) to demonstrate how the smallest actions have giant consequences.  In an agricultural society, this metaphor would have been obvious and visceral.  Since you likely aren’t a farmer, perhaps the analogy in the previous paragraph is more helpful.  Whatever you feed is what you get more of.  If you feed your sin and flesh, you will find those desires growing stronger, but if you feed the Spirit inside you, you will find desire for God to be easier and more natural.  We must remember, however, that such changes don’t happen overnight.  Just as with a new diet or exercise regimen, it takes time and perseverance to see the results that we want.  Our spiritual “microbiome” is full of pathogens that we must purge out and replace with the presence of the Spirit and His gifts and fruits.  Paul offers a very practical place to get started: “as we have opportunity, let us do good to everyone, and especially to those who are of the household of faith” (v. 10).  If we want to cultivate righteousness inside ourselves, we need to think of others first.  In what way can you help or serve someone else, especially a fellow believer?  What small act of kindness can you perform to make someone’s day a little better?  Each action of love or peace or faithfulness sows a seed of righteousness not only in ourselves but in everyone we meet.  We may not see immediate benefits from our good deeds, but we will receive a reward if we do not give up.

Tonight, we will remember the Last Supper.  Adam and Eve ate the fruit that they were commanded not to and thus cultivated the pathogen of sin in all people.  Jesus provides His Body and Blood as the antidote: “Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life…. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him” (Jn. 6:54-56).  We are what we eat.  In taking of the Holy Eucharist, we make Christ a part of ourselves.  But it is not enough just to participate in the Sacrament.  Our Lord gave two other commands that night: “wash one another’s feet” (Jn. 13:14), and “just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (Jn. 13:34).  Judas broke bread with the Lord, but he was still sowing to the flesh by his actions.  In order to be able to reap the good things the Lord has for us, we must serve and love one another.  And, unlike the disciples who fell away and denied the Lord on this very night, we must persevere in doing good if we hope to see the Kingdom.  Partake of the Body and Blood of our Lord and find every opportunity to do good.  Let us feed the Spirit inside of us that He may remake us in the image of Christ.

Wednesday of Holy Week: Bearing Your Load and Carrying Your Cross

Read Galatians 6:4-6

I work at a community college, and the issue of plagiarism is ever-present.  Often students are just ignorant about how to cite sources or properly attribute quotations.  But sometimes a student will try to pass off someone else’s work as their own or lift entire passages from a book and plop it in the middle of an essay without citing the source.  While doing research and collaborating with others are essential parts of the educational process, the grade you receive should reflect the quality of your work and yours alone.  To pass a class or even graduate because you are a clever cheater is not only unfair to others, it means you have deprived yourself of the very education you were ostensibly trying to receive.  Students who succeed at plagiarism fail at life because they enter the world unprepared to do real work and uneducated in the field that their education was supposed to prepare them for.  What looks like a short cut actually leads to a dead end.

Paul seems to be contradicting himself.  Yesterday we read that we were to “bear one another’s burdens”, but today he says that we each must “bear [our] own load”.  What’s the difference between a “burden” and a “load”?  It seems that, while we ought to help one another, we also have a responsibility for our own life.  Christ’s call to take up our cross is an individual call, just as each cross was for a single individual.  We are each going to have to give an account for ourselves to God (Rom. 14:12), and we will each be rewarded according to the labor we have done (1 Cor. 3:8).  God saves us as individuals, not because we are members of a group.  No matter how faithful your family or friends might be, you cannot coast into heaven on the merits of others.  Furthermore, we cannot expect other people to do the work of the kingdom while we sit on the sidelines.  It is common these days to hear people, especially Christians, complain about the state of the world.  If that describes you, may I gently and lovingly ask you a question: what are you doing to make the world better?  Are you fulfilling the calling of God for your life?  Are you faithful in bearing the load that God has placed upon you, even if you feel it to be overwhelming or unfair?  The world will only change when people change, and that must start with the people of God.  Instead of waiting for others to get their acts together, perhaps we ought to take Paul’s advice and “test [our] own work”.  Only then can we be prepared and equipped to face the trials that life throws at us.

Today’s reading connects to yesterday’s in one other way: sharing.  Paul admonishes us to share with those who have taught us.  The reason to bear our own load is that we might produce fruit that we can share with others.  Indeed, the only way to help bear another’s burden is to be strong enough to bear our own.  Even though we all will need help from time to time, we ought to strive to be the kind of person upon which others can rely.  That strength can only be found by being built upon the Rock of Christ and becoming deeply rooted in the soil of the Holy Spirit.  There are no shortcuts to salvation – it always and only runs through the Cross.  So, this Holy Week, let us each bear our own cross to Calvary that we may be reborn to a new and fruitful life in the Holy Spirit that will benefit not only ourselves, but the whole world.

Tuesday of Holy Week: Bear One Another’s Burdens

 Read Galatians 5:26-6:3

As Jesus fled the temple to avoid people trying to stone him, he passed by a man who had been born blind.  I’ll let John take the story from here: “His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’ Jesus answered, ‘It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night is coming, when no one can work. As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world’” (Jn. 9:2-5).  Then He spit in the dirt, made mud, spread it on the man’s eyes, and healed him.  This story demonstrates the two ways to react to a person suffering.  We can try to figure out what they did wrong and stand in judgment over them or we can see the opportunity to display the love of God and serve them.  It is a difference, as Jesus said, of night and day.  People sure of their righteousness had tried to stone the light of the world and would soon snuff out that light by condemning Him to death.  Our time on this earth is similarly short – will we be servants of darkness and condemnation or of light and grace?

Paul sets up the same stark contrast in today’s reading.  On the one hand are those who have been trying to deceive the Galatians, people concerned with worldly power and prestige, consumed by vanity, anger, envy, and self-deception (5:26 & 6:3).  Standing against them are those who walk by the Spirit.  They restore the fallen in gentleness and humility, understanding their own weakness in the face of temptation.  Most of all, they help each other and serve one another.  Nobody should ever be left alone or left behind in the Body of Christ.  Indeed, Paul says this is the “law of Christ”.  Wait a minute, I thought that Paul just spent this whole book rejecting the Law?   What is the “law of Christ”?  In our Lord’s own words: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another” (Jn. 13:34).  Love is the fulfillment of the Law (Rom. 13:10).  

We are free of the Law that brings death, free to love one another.  We don’t have to constantly be worrying about our status in the kingdom, desperately trying to earn the love and favor of a distant God.  We already have the love of God through the sacrifice of Christ and living in us by the power of the Spirit.  Because of this, we are free to spread that same grace to all people.  Vanity, backbiting, and status-seeking serve no purpose in the kingdom.  Instead, we are called to gently restore the wayward brother or sister and support the weaker members of the body, all the while finding help when we experience trouble.  We can bear the burdens of this life together, knowing that we are one in Christ, equally redeemed and equally beloved.  How can you help a fellow believer bear their burden today?  Is there someone you need to forgive?  Or do you need the humility to reach out for help and forgiveness?  Even Jesus needed help carrying his cross to Calvary (Lk. 23:26).  As the lyrics of the Servant Song remind us: “We are pilgrims on a journey / we are travelers on the road / we are here to help each other / walk the mile and bear the load.” When we forgive and serve one another, we follow Jesus in being the light in this dark world (Mt. 5:14-16).

Monday of Holy Week: In Step with the Spirit

Read Galatians 5:22-25      

When my son Gideon was learning to walk, we would hold hands and pace up and down the hallway in our house for what felt like hours.  He would carefully watch my feet and try to imitate what I was doing, often taking steps far too big for his little body.  He would lose his balance and I would have to pull him back up and try again.  His determination to walk was adorable, and, frankly, inspiring.  He didn’t want to walk; he needed to walk.  Sure enough, he was walking on his own in no time (and he hasn’t stopped moving since).  We learn by imitating and by making mistakes.  Through perseverance and trusting in the One who is teaching us, we can learn to be everything we are meant to be.

Much has been written about the fruits of the Spirit and I don’t feel a need to spend your time or mine explicating each one.  The main point is that the fruits spring from walking in faith, learning from God and our fellow Christians how life in the Spirit is actually lived out practically.  The fruits aren’t something that just happens to us; they are the consequence of daily choices to follow God.  For example, love means working for the good of the other, joy and peace result from putting our faith in God’s providence, and patience develops as we learn to practice forgiveness and gratitude.  That said, we can’t conjure up these fruits by the force of willpower any more than we can grow an actual fruit tree by wishing for it really hard.  We plant the seed in the ground, water it, fertilize it, tend it, and, eventually, the tree produces fruit.  We don’t make the fruit grow – we simply give the tree the environment it needs to produce what it is naturally meant to.  As Jesus said, “every good tree bears good fruit” (Mt. 7:17).  So it is with life in the Spirit.  If we walk in step with the Spirit, persevering in obedience, the fruits will grow naturally in our lives.  In the words of St. John Chrysostom: “evil works come from us alone, and hence [Paul] calls them works, while the good works require not only the resolution of our will but the kindness of God” (Homily on Galatians).

In order for these fruits to grow, however, we must prune away that which doesn’t belong.  In Paul’s words, we must “crucify the flesh”.  This brings to mind the collect for today from the Book of Common Prayer: “Almighty God, whose most dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”  Walking by the Spirit means to walk the way of the cross daily (Lk. 9:23).  God is calling us to die with Him this week, crucifying the flesh, so that His Spirit may live in us. Jesus told us: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (Jn. 12:24-25).  We are called to follow in Jesus’ steps all the way to Calvary.  Make a commitment this week to walk in step with the Spirit even as He leads you to the cross, trusting that being crucified with Christ will result in bearing all of the fruits of the Spirit in your life.  May the way of the cross be the path to life and peace for you this week and always.

Saturday of 5 Lent: The Works of the Flesh

Read Galatians 5:19-21

As we head into Holy Week, we ought to examine ourselves and reject the works of the flesh that we may enter into the freedom of Christ’s kingdom.  While Paul’s list here is not intended to be comprehensive (you can see where the Galatians had problems), it’s a good place to start a self-examination.

I. Sins of Impurity

  • Sexual immorality:  Are you engaging in adultery (sex outside of marriage) or fornication (sex before marriage)?  Are you pursuing any relationship primarily for sex rather than for committed, chaste friendship or lifelong marriage?
  • Impurity and Sensuality: Do you watch, read, or listen to pornography?   Do you seek out media (like Instagram) for the purpose of exciting lust?  Do you dress or act immodestly in order to draw attention to your body?  Have you objectified others rather than seeing them as images of God?  Have you, by treating sex as sinful, created undue curiosity about sexual matters by being a prude?

II. Sins of Idolatry

  • Idolatry:  Have you allowed anything in this world (money, your job, your family, your education, etc.) to take priority over your relationship with God?  Do you neglect worship, prayer, Scripture, and works of service because you have “more important” things to do?  Are you unfaithful with money, either hoarding wealth or spending profligately?  Do you care more about your reputation than your relationship with Christ?
  • Sorcery: Have you attempted to manipulate God or “spirits” through occult or other means, such as fortune telling, astrology, Tarot cards, etc.?  Do you expect quid pro quo from God for prayer, Church attendance, and tithing, using the liturgy like a talisman rather than as a vessel for God’s grace?  Are you trying to earn your salvation by works?

III. Sins of Hostility

  • Enmity: Are you holding a grudge against someone else (justified or not) and failing to forgive as you have been forgiven?  Do you fantasize about harm coming to a person or people you dislike?  Are you standing in judgment over someone else’s sin?
  • Strife: Are you quarrelsome, looking to pick a fight?  Are you given to bickering, nagging, or rudeness?  Are you shunning anyone because of slights against you, real or perceived?  Do you participate in gossip?
  • Jealousy: Do you resent others when they are wealthier, more successful, more attractive, or just luckier than you?  Are you given to rivalry rather than collaboration?  
  • Fits of Anger:  Are you given to verbal outbursts when things don’t go your way?  Is profanity a regular part of your speech?  Do you say things in the heat of the moment that you later regret?  Are you physically violent, against people, pets, or property?
  • Rivalries, Dissensions, and Divisions: Do you have an “us-vs.-them” mentality about groups you belong to, whether that be based on politics, religion, race, class, or gender?  Have you practiced or approved of unjust prejudice?  Have you caused division between spouses, family members, friends, or the Church for your own benefit?  Has your pride made you isolated from the Body of Christ? Do you stand in judgment over other members of the Body?
  • Envy:  Do you take pleasure in the misfortune of those you dislike or see as rivals?  Have you tried to damage someone else’s reputation?  Do you spend your life comparing yourself with others rather than following Christ?  Do you tend to wallow in self-pity rather than taking actions to improve your situation?

IV. Sins of Intemperance

  • Drunkenness:  Are you intemperate in your consumption of food or drink?  Do you fail to take proper care of your body by getting adequate sleep, exercising, and eating healthy food?  Do you “self-medicate” mental or spiritual maladies with alcohol, drugs, or tobacco?
  • Orgies:  Are the people you surround yourself with encouraging sinful behavior, be it sexual immorality, gluttony, sloth, or the like?  Do you neglect your duties to your family, church, or vocation in order to indulge in amusement?  Do you waste time in order to avoid unpleasant realities?

These questions are not meant to be a comprehensive self-examination, but simply a place to start.  If you find yourself convicted by any of these questions, good.  But don’t stay in a place of condemnation.  There is no condemnation in our Lord (Rom. 8:1), and He desires not the death of sinners, but that they may turn from their sin and live (Ez. 18:23).  I recommend, if you haven’t already, scheduling a confession with a priest.  Alternatively, you can confess your sin to a trusted accountability partner.  At the least, you can lift all these things up in prayer and accept the Lord’s pardon and forgiveness.  Make a plan today for how you (with the help of Christ and the Church) can improve in the areas where you have fallen short.  Reject the works of the flesh, repent of your sins, and live a new life of freedom in the kingdom of God.

Friday of 5 Lent: Gravity and Grace

Read Galatians 5:16-18

“All the natural movements of the soul are controlled by laws analogous to those of physical gravity.  Grace is the only exception.”  These words of French philosopher and mystic Simone Weil pretty well sum up our spiritual life.  On the one side we have the inevitability of gravity, pulling everything toward ourselves, a constant consuming need for more and a desire for others to revolve around us just as the planets do the Sun.  That’s the flesh, a soulless natural force that attempts to fill us with everything that surrounds us in the vain hope that we might become like God.  There is a reason that the first sin was eating something.  The Spirit of grace, on the other hand, is wholly different.  It can only work where there is light and air inside us.  Weil again: “Not to exercise all power at one’s disposal is to endure the void.  This is contrary to all the laws of nature.  Grace alone can do it.  Grace fills empty spaces but it can only enter where there is a void to receive it, and it is grace itself which makes this void.”

Perhaps an analogy would help.  A hot air balloon on the ground is just an empty bag tied to a basket with ropes.  But when hot air is pumped into it, the bag expands and lifts up off the ground.  As long as the hot air is pumped into it, the balloon is no longer bound by gravity and soars majestically and peacefully through the sky.  In the same way, we are just empty vessels.  We can try to fill our balloon with any number of things, but it is only when we allow God to empty us and fill us with the fire of His Holy Spirit that we can overcome the weight of our flesh with its sinful desires.  Sometimes, hot air balloons are tethered to the ground to keep them from being carried off by the wind.  This might be analogous to the Law (see v. 18), which protects us but also keeps us under the force of gravity.  If we are to soar into the freedom that Christ would have for us, we must cut the tethers that bind us to this world, even the ones that make us feel safe.  So, you see, choosing to walk by the Spirit rather than walking by the flesh is not like flipping a switch inside yourself or choosing a different spiritual “diet”.  It’s more a matter of answering the question “Which force will you surrender yourself to: gravity or grace?”

Maybe the most important part of the hot air balloon analogy is this: it can only stay aloft as long as hot air is continually pumped into it.  In the same way, we can only stay aloft spiritually by the daily visitation of the Holy Spirit.  Invite the Holy Spirit in right now, as you read this, and give Him full control of your day.  Allow Him to show you how to serve, how to forgive, how to listen, how to heal, how to hope, how to love.  Let go of the endless list of “I want-s” and embrace the freedom to soar in the Spirit.  It’s quite a stormy world out there and your little balloon is going to get buffeted about, make no mistake about that.  But as long as you leave open the void inside to be filled by the fire of the Spirit, He is faithful to hold you aloft through all the tempest and toil of this life.  Jesus said: “In the world you will have tribulation. But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).  Do not surrender to the flesh, to doubt and dejection and despair.  Surrender to the Spirit and He will lift you up (Jas. 4:10).  Sin may be as inevitable as gravity, but God’s grace is more than sufficient to elevate us above our problems, our mistakes, and our limitations.  May the Spirit lift you up today.

Thursday of 5 Lent: Freedom to Forgive and Love

Read Galatians 5:13-15

“Of the Seven Deadly Sins, anger is possibly the most fun. To lick your wounds, to smack your lips over grievances long past, to roll over your tongue the prospect of bitter confrontations still to come, to savor to the last toothsome morsel both the pain you are given and the pain you are giving back–in many ways it is a feast fit for a king. The chief drawback is that what you are wolfing down is yourself. The skeleton at the feast is you” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking).  Sin consumes.  It cannot create anything of value – it can only destroy.  It is like a parasite that grows stronger as its host becomes weaker.  And it’s not just anger: greed, pride, lust, sloth, the whole miserable lot of them are leeches that sap us of our God-given strength, leaving us feeling exhausted, anxious, hopeless, and depressed.  Once we find ourselves in that state, it becomes easy to play the blame game, to lash out at others as if our own bad decisions were their fault.  We would do anything to avoid responsibility, anything to keep our sins attached to us even as they kill us.  After all, we’re free, right?  That means I can do whatever I want!  God wants me to be happy, doesn’t he?  I can’t be happy without…well, you know…and anyone who tries to hold me accountable or confront me about my sin or just stands in my way is my enemy.  I don’t need them anyway…. And that, my friends, is how churches are torn apart: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Pet. 5:8).

Using freedom as an opportunity for the flesh pretty well encapsulates the world we live in.  We use freedom not to build one another up, but to pursue our own selfish ambition and our basest desires.  How much of our interpersonal conflict arises from a schoolyard-level dispute that amounts to “I want that! Give it to me!”?  As St. James puts it: “What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (4:1-3).  What can stand against such powerful desires?  Why, love, of course.  Paul says that the whole Law is summed up in that one word.  Love desires the good of the other above all else. “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Cor. 13:4-6).  Rather than giving in to a desire to devour our neighbor for our own benefit, love prompts us to serve our neighbor for their benefit, indeed to give up our life for them if need be.  Prideful “‘knowledge’ puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1).  Brothers and sisters, we are called to humility, to consider others above ourselves (Phil. 2:3).  “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom. 14:19).  What do you need to do for peace and building up Christ’s body today?  Is there someone you need to forgive?  Is there someone you need to apologize to?  Or is there an old grudge or an old hurt that you just need to let go of?  Let us end the cycles of conflict through the radical power of Christ’s love and forgiveness.  May the “skeleton at the feast” be resurrected just like Ezekiel’s dry bones (Ez. 37).  Let us love our neighbors as ourselves.

Wednesday of 5 Lent: Removing Leaven and Producing Fruit

Read Galatians 5:7-12

Okay, let’s talk about that last verse.  Paul wishes that those who are so proud of their circumcision would just finish the job and lop off the whole kit and caboodle.  How petulant!  But there is a deeper point here.  We are called as Christians to produce fruit (Mat. 3:8; Eph. 5:9), and fruits are the reproductive part of a plant.  In other words, we are to spread the Spirit into all the world, reproducing the life inside us into others, and that can only happen if we are first justified by faith.  Thus, relying on circumcision causes us to be unfruitful spiritually just as much as castration would cause a man to be unfruitful physically.  Such small compromises hinder us from obeying the truth (and the Truth, Jesus [Jn. 14:6]).  When we try to sand off the rough edges of the faith, we end up removing the cross and replacing it with a sort of therapeutic deism, a far-away yet loving God who exists to make me feel better about myself and support my desires and who just wants me to “be nice”.  Instead, we are offered “Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).  The cross of Christ stands in condemnation of both salvation by works and the feel-good spirituality so endemic to our age.  How could we ever think that compromising the gospel would be acceptable as we contemplate the cross?  The choice isn’t between a “nice” and “mean” Christianity; it’s between fruitfulness and barrenness.

The other analogy in today’s reading mirrors this theme: “a little leaven leavens the whole lump”.  This refers, of course, to the practice of kneading yeast into a lump of dough in order to make it rise. But we must be careful what leaven we use, as Jesus said: “Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees, which is hypocrisy” (Lk. 12:1).  Just as a woman who becomes pregnant by an unworthy man is in for a lifetime of regret, so too are we to avoid those who would fill our souls with lies.  Paul expands on this in 1 Corinthians: “Do you not know that a little leaven leavens the whole lump? Cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our Passover lamb, has been sacrificed. Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (5:6-8).  Only unleavened bread was to be eaten at Passover and it is unleavened bread that becomes the Body of Christ in the Eucharist.  Our old self was leavened with sin and therefore must be cast aside for the unleavened Body of Jesus.  To try to add bits of our old life into our new life in Christ is to defile what we have become.  Even a small amount of sin corrupts our entire self.  What little compromises with the world are you holding onto today?  Just as a mustard seed of faith can bloom into a mighty tree (Matt. 17:20), so too can a tiny seed of compromise blossom into a poisonous vine that can choke the very life out of us.  We must uproot these weeds in the garden of our life before they grow unmanageable and kill the good fruit we are trying to produce.  Only then can we follow the first command God ever gave to us: “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it” (Gen. 1:28).  Let us fill the world with the fruit of repentance, multiplying His blessings to us, so that “the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea” (Is. 11:9).