The Fourteenth Sunday after Trinity – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 5:16-24
In Christ Jesus, who saved us and set us free to live for Him instead of for the destructive desires of our own flesh, dear fellow redeemed:
When we see people throw away great wealth or great opportunities or great abilities, it’s hard for us to understand it. So maybe an elite athlete is dismissed from the team because of drug addiction. A gifted actor loses prime roles because of an abrasive personality. A brilliant student wiles away his days playing video games. A rich kid gets caught stealing. Things like these don’t make sense to us. We think that if we had what they did, we wouldn’t waste it.
But it’s much easier to be an “armchair quarterback” than an actual one. It’s easy to say what we would do different when we haven’t faced the things they have. As the account of the Good Samaritan taught us last week, when we see others experiencing difficulties, we should extend charity to them. We have room for charity toward others because we need their charity too.
If you want to talk about people who haven’t maximized their opportunities or appreciated their blessings, aren’t we at the top of that list? Let’s consider what good things we have that so few in the world even know about. We know that the God who created all things loves us. He is not angry with us because of our sins. He does not plot our punishment for our misdeeds. He sent His only Son to be our holy Substitute, to keep the Law perfectly for us, and to die in payment for our sins.
We know that Jesus rose again in victory over death. We know that the Holy Spirit works powerfully through the Word and Sacraments to comfort and heal and strengthen us. We know we are righteous in God’s sight by faith in Jesus. We know He does not count our sins against us. We know that He works all things in our life—even the bad things—for good. We know that He guards and keeps us every moment of every day and will safely bring our souls to heaven when we die.
Most people in the world, including many who consider themselves religious, do not know God’s love. They do not know He forgives them in Christ. They live in constant fear of His judgment. But you are free from those doubts and worries. You are free from the condemnation of the Law. You are free from the pressure of trying to appease God by your own works. You are free from the idea that how you live your life does not matter since you could never be good enough for God anyway. Your life does matter; Jesus gave up His life to save yours.
So what should you do with your life? How should you use the freedom you have in Christ? Some who have heard the Gospel of free forgiveness think that this gives them freedom to keep on sinning. “As long as I believe my sins are forgiven,” they think, “then I can just go on doing what I want.” But in today’s text St. Paul has some cold water to throw on that idea. He writes that to use our freedom for sin will lead us back into spiritual slavery. Just because we once believed in Jesus does not mean we will always believe in Jesus. Saving faith can be lost.
Paul includes a long list of “the works of the flesh.” Many of the things he lists are considered acceptable in our modern society. Sex outside of marriage is okay, says the world, as long as it is consensual. Hoarding money and goods is fine as long as it is done legally. Anger and hatred are justified as long as the target is really terrible. Drunkenness and wild parties are okay as long as no one gets hurt. But no matter how we try to explain these sins away or make them acceptable to our conscience, they are offensive to God. Paul does not mince words, “I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
So what hope do we have? We are guilty of committing many of these sins. But notice that Paul does not say, “those who have done such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” If that were the case, no one would be going to heaven. All of us have sinned. What Paul writes is, “those who do such things.” He is referring to those who willingly choose to sin and continue in it. They know what they are doing is contrary to God’s Word, and they decide to go ahead with it anyway.
None of us is without sin, and we cannot keep ourselves from ever sinning. But we can stay on the lookout for temptations and pray for God’s help to avoid sin. When we do fall into sin, God calls us to humble ourselves, to give up trying to justify our sins, and repent. But then He does not leave us under the condemnation of the holy Law. He leads us through the Gospel to Jesus’ cross and empty tomb where we are assured that our sins are all forgiven.
Through the powerful Gospel, the Holy Spirit lifts the burden of our sins off us. We don’t have to carry anymore what Jesus carried to the cross and paid for with His own blood. Now we are free. We are not weighed down anymore by the chains of sin and death and the crushing weight of the Law.
Those who carry an overwhelming load, whether from work or other responsibilities or committing to too many activities, don’t feel free to help others in need. “I’m the one who needs help!” they think. In the same way, until the burden of our sin is removed, our focus remains on ourselves. Our energy is spent in piling up more sins, in trying to keep our past sins buried, or in doing whatever we can to quiet our guilty conscience. But when our spiritual burden is removed from us through the Gospel, we are free to focus on others. Now we forgiven sinners are ready to bear fruit.
Paul contrasts “the works of the flesh” done out of love for ourselves with “the fruit of the Spirit” done out of love for God and neighbor. We believers find the power and motivation to produce this fruit by hearing Jesus’ Word and partaking of the Sacraments He instituted. “I am the vine; you are the branches,” He says, “Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” (Joh. 15:5).
As long as we are connected to Him by faith, He promises to accomplish great things through us. He sends the Holy Spirit to produce in us “love” toward those around us, “joy” in our callings, “peace” from knowing His love, “patience” when difficulties come, “kindness” toward the hurting, “goodness” to the needy, “faithfulness” like the grateful Samaritan, “gentleness” toward oppressors and the oppressed, and “self-control” no matter the situation.
“The fruit of the Spirit” is wonderful fruit! It is fruit that brings blessings to our lives and the lives of those we meet. Paul writes that “there is no law” against these blessings. God wants us to have them. He wants us to drink deeply from the fountain of His Word where the Holy Spirit is always at work. And we must do this.
We must to do this because “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.” Our sinful nature and the Holy Spirit do not want the same thing. Our sinful nature wants to lead us along the path of self-centeredness and self-indulgence. This path heads directly toward hell. The Holy Spirit, on the other hand, wants us to have the good things of God: righteousness, comfort, peace, forgiveness, salvation, life. These gifts of Jesus keep us on the path toward heaven.
One way may look and feel like freedom, but fleshly freedom is slavery for the soul. The other way may seem like restriction and regulation, but suppression of our fleshly desires now is our only hope for life everlasting. Nobody has ever experienced true freedom by embracing the things of this world. If you remember the story of Pinocchio, the rowdy boys thought they had everything they could want on “Pleasure Island,” but their bad behavior turned them into braying beasts locked in tiny cages.
True freedom is found in Jesus alone. It is a freedom from sin, not a freedom to sin. We are Free to Be Fruitful. We are free to move beyond the failures of our past. We are free to live God-pleasing lives that benefit our neighbors. We are free to pursue noble things that let us sleep well at night. We are free to spend ourselves in service to Him who loves us with an undying love.
This freedom is yours not because of anything you did. It is because of what Jesus did for you. He was arrested, bound, and nailed to a cross so you would be free. He offered His holy life for your sinful one. He suffered in innocence so you would be spared of your guilt. Your Baptism joined you to Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection (Rom. 6:4). It connected your life to His. It grafted you into the living Vine.
The baptized who remain in Him by faith are no longer ruled by the flesh. Paul writes that “those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” So while you may have lost some battles to the flesh, Jesus has won the war. He has redeemed you from your sins and still grants you the blessing and the freedom to bear His fruit.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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The Fourth Sunday in Lent – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: Galatians 4:21-5:1
In Christ Jesus, who took upon Himself the yoke of sin and entered the dungeon of death, so that we would be ransomed and freed, dear fellow redeemed:
You and I are Americans. We were born here. We are citizens, so we have all the rights and privileges as outlined in the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. We wouldn’t like it if someone came along and tried to say we weren’t actually Americans. “You don’t understand what it means to be an American,” you’re told. “You don’t appreciate American freedoms. You may have been born here, but you are not from here.” We probably wouldn’t have to think too hard about a response. We know what we are.
But what if it were true? What if we thought we were “good Americans,” but everything we stood for contradicted the founding principles of our country? Something like this happened when Jesus told the Jews they were not descendants of Abraham. “What!?” they said, “Of course we are descendants of Abraham! We can trace our family line all the way back to Abraham and his son Isaac and his son Jacob!” Jesus replied, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would be doing the works Abraham did, but now you seek to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. This is not what Abraham did” (Joh. 8:39-40).
The Jews to whom Jesus spoke may have been blood relatives of Abraham, but they were not his spiritual heirs. They thought they were children of promise in good standing with God. Jesus called them “slaves”—slaves to sin. “Whoever is of God hears the words of God,” He said. “The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God” (8:47). The Jews were so offended at Jesus’ criticisms and His claim to be God that “they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself” (v. 59). It wasn’t His time to die yet, though that time would come.
In his letter to the churches of Galatia, the apostle Paul by inspiration of the Holy Spirit took up the same topic of Abraham and his descendants. Paul had traveled through the area of Galatia on his first and second missionary journeys. Christian congregations had been established along the way. But after Paul left, other preachers came. They did not teach the same doctrine as Paul. Presenting themselves as Christians, they urged the Galatian congregations to diligently keep the Old Testament laws. This included the laws regarding Jewish festivals and the law of circumcision.
But the Old Testament regulations were in place to point to Christ. Once He had accomplished His work, the Old Testament ceremonial and civil laws were no longer required (Col. 2:16-17). Jesus perfectly fulfilled them for all (Mat. 5:17-18). Hearing that the Galatian Christians were being swayed by these false teachers, Paul sent his letter. He asked the congregation members whether they received “the Spirit by works of the law or by hearing with faith” (Gal. 3:2). He wrote that Abraham received the Spirit by faith, so “it is those of the faith who are the sons of Abraham” (v. 7).
Further on in the letter, Paul illustrated this teaching by the example of Abraham’s two sons. One was born from Sarah’s maidservant Hagar whom Sarah gave to Abraham in the hopes of obtaining a child (Gen. 16:2). Abraham and Hagar conceived a son named Ishmael. But Ishmael was not the child of promise. God kept His Word to Abraham and Sarah that they would have a son of their own. They named their son Isaac. Isaac was the child of promise. “[A]ll the nations of the earth [would] be blessed” (Gen. 22:18) through him, because the Messiah would come from him.
The practicing Jews in Paul’s day would have absolutely called themselves the spiritual descendants of Isaac. But Paul disagreed. Paul called the Jews who rejected the Gospel the spiritual children of Hagar’s son Ishmael. “[Hagar] corresponds to the present Jerusalem,” he wrote, “for she is in slavery with her children.” And what was it that the Jews were enslaved to? They were enslaved to the law. They adhered to a religion of works. They rejected Jesus as their Holiness, their Substitute, and their Savior, and they trusted in their own righteousness. Therefore they remained in slavery to sin.
But the spiritual descendants of Isaac are those who believe the promise. They believe that God the Father sent His only Son to be born of Mary who could trace her lineage back to Abraham and Isaac. They believe that her Son Jesus kept the law perfectly in their place, so the law could no longer condemn them. They believe that His sacrifice on the cross ransomed them from the power of sin, devil, and death. These, wrote Paul, are “children of promise,” children of freedom.
So which category describes you? There are some who believe that the freedom which Jesus obtained for them allows them to do whatever they want. They are kind of like those who behave badly and say whatever wicked and unkind thing they want because “it’s a free country.” Our freedom as Christians can be misused just like our freedom as citizens can. Jesus’ death for the forgiveness of our sins should not make us comfortable with sin. Since our sin caused the death of our perfect Lord, we should want to avoid sin at all cost. We are free from the condemnation of the law, but the Ten Commandments are still in place for our good and for the good of our neighbors.
Let’s dig deeper into what it means to be free in Christ. Freedom in Christ means I do not have to wear a certain kind of clothing, eat or avoid certain foods, or work a certain job. I am free to go to the grocery store and buy whatever I want. I am even free to buy more than I need in the case that I might need it in the future. However I am not free to disregard the needs of my neighbor. Unfortunately we see this happening now when people hoard essential goods in quantities far higher than they need or for the purpose of reselling the products at a higher price. This selfishness and greed leaves their neighbors without and uncertain what to do. That is not the way of Christ.
At the same time, it is easy to think well of ourselves when we do not do those things. We care about our neighbors. We want to help them. We are generous. From these thoughts, it is only a small step to self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is comparing ourselves with others and imagining that we come out ahead. It is the opinion that we have done a fair job of keeping God’s law. This is how the Jewish preachers were who wanted to pull the Galatian Christians from the doctrine they had been taught by Paul. They urged the Galatians to seek comfort and peace in what they did for God and not in what He had done for them.
Like the Galatians, we have fallen for this temptation many times. We love to compare ourselves with others and pass judgment on them: “Well I wouldn’t have done that!” “How could he be so stupid!” “We would be so much better off without them!” Or, “They would be so much better off if they were like us!” This kind of self-righteous behavior comes even easier to us at this time of tremendous stress in our country. We want to find people to blame for this disruption in our lives. It could be carriers of the virus from other countries, our national and local government officials, health care workers who do not support us the way we expect, or any number of other targets.
But if all we want to do is hold other people’s feet to the fire, then we should start holding our own feet to the fire. If we want to level the law at others, we should level it at ourselves. The fact is none of us by ourselves is better or more righteous than another. Paul wrote in another letter quoting a Psalm that “all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no, not one’” (Rom. 3:9-10). By nature we are all slaves to sin.
But “Christ has set us free” from this slavery. He kept the requirements of the law perfectly in our place. As soon as we came to faith by the power of the Holy Spirit, His righteousness became our righteousness. That means we have no need to compare our life with the lives of others. We have nothing to do to get ourselves into heaven. Jesus fulfilled the law for us, and He fully paid the price for our sins. His atoning death in our place means the devil can do nothing more than blow hot air. His accusations cannot stick anymore, because Jesus won salvation for us.
We are now “heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:17). We are children of promise, and The Children of Promise Are Free. We are free to love God and our neighbors, not in an attempt to get ourselves out of trouble or to prove our worth, but because Jesus set us free to love freely just as He loves us. We are members of “the Jerusalem above,” the holy Christian Church.
Our membership in Christ’s Church by faith subjects us to persecution from those who remain enslaved to sin. But we are not about to return to that slavery. We “stand firm” in the glorious freedom we have in Christ. In Him, our sins are not counted against us anymore. Through Him, our salvation is certain when our life in this world ends. And with Him, we will enjoy the perfect bliss of heaven forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(picture is from “The Dismissal of Hagar” by Pieter Pietersz Lastman, 1583–1633)