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In high school, about the time when cliques were solidifying and my place as a band nerd and language-loving geek were all but etched in stone, it seemed like a good time to figure out exactly what it meant to be a Christian. I’m not sure if I was looking for a salvation litmus test, or a list of rules or things to avoid so that I knew I was in the “in crowd” as far as my faith went, but whether I realized it or not, I started internalizing a list of passages that would help me stay on the straight and narrow.
The works of the flesh and fruit of the spirit lists in Galatians 5 were prime verses for me. I would read through the works of the flesh list and either beat up on myself for times I had been angry, jealous, or envious, or I would read through the fruit of the spirit list to make sure I was doing more of those things than the things on the other list. I was captivated – and terrified – by Galatians 5:21: “I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Do these things, and you are out of the kingdom.
At least, that’s how I read it at the time, and it terrified me.
Who hasn’t felt angry, or been envious, or had quarrels? Sure, some of the things on the list seemed a bit “out there” for a teenager who tried hard to follow all the rules. I wasn’t known for carousing, or drunkenness, or things like that. But, there were things on the list that happen to everyone, no matter how hard they try. It scared me to think that human nature might get the better of me too many times. I might be angry more times than I was patient. Or envious more times than I was kind. Did that mean I was out of the kingdom? And, if so, it didn’t really seem like salvation was a gift of grace.
And, so I felt afraid.
Afraid that I was always one step away from losing my salvation.
Afraid that maybe deep down I wasn’t as saved as I thought I was.
Afraid that I’d do something that could irreversibly separate me from God.
As I grew and went to college and encountered things I never could have imagined going through in my life, I learned to be afraid of other things. I learned to be afraid of people who took advantage of others. I learned to be afraid of systems that were unjust. I learned to be afraid of things changing in an instant. I learned to be afraid of losing people I loved dearly and didn’t know how to live without.
I watched political seasons come and go, and watched the fear ratchet up as people contemplated what life would be like with certain leaders in place. Would this be the time that we ushered in the apocalypse with our actions?
More recently, as the news bombards with news of yet another shooting, another terrorist attack, another hate crime, another injustice, it’s become tempting to be afraid to leave my front door.
And then last week, Galatians 5:1, 13-25 came up as the epistle lectionary text for the week. It wasn’t my week to preach, but because I love the company of my local clergy text study group, I went to study and talk about the texts anyway. We talked about the fear that is so present it’s almost palpable. We talked about our own temptations to be afraid. We talked about current events, and frightened people, and uncertainty that seems to span the globe.
And then it dawned on me.
What if the works of the flesh and fruit of the spirit lists aren’t supposed to contribute to our fear? What if verse 1 is true when it says, “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery”? What if Paul had something in mind so much deeper than “do this and be saved, do this and you’re out?”
I realized that these lists are not simply lists of things to avoid or things to do, but are lists that speak to something that reaches beyond ourselves. These lists remind us that our practices, our habits, our disciplines, and our relationships can multiply good things in us, or they can multiply harmful things. When we plug into anger, strife, enmity, jealousy, and the like, those things will multiply in and around us. By contrast, when we plug into kindness, patience, joy, and gentleness, those are the things that will grow and thrive.
I realized that, perhaps, this is one reason (among many) that God calls us to be part of a community. When we are connected to a community that seeks to connect with God, a community that is a place where the fruit of the spirit are growing, we will find those things naturally multiplying within us. Being part of a patient community leads to more patience within ourselves. Being surrounded with kindness brings kindness out of ourselves. There are ideal growing conditions for these things, and we help them to grow by tending to them.
The same is true with our fears. If we find ourselves consumed with fear, and we find our fears growing within and without, rather than walling ourselves off and hiding from our fears, we need to find the source of them so that we can disconnect ourselves from them.
When we plug into fear, fear will start flowing through us.
When we surround ourselves with fear, our fears will grow.
Fear is a monster that, when fed, will consume us.
When we disconnect from fear, we allow it to shrink until it no longer has power over us.
The trouble is, sometimes being afraid gives us an adrenaline rush.
Sometimes being afraid is addictive.
And fear is everywhere.
It’s on the news, in the faces of our friends, in those frustrating clickbait articles that remind us how unsafe we are. Disconnecting from fear isn’t easy, and it’s easy to get plugged right back into it.
But it is for freedom that Christ set us free, so that we might be connected to the spirit, to peace, to patience, to gentleness, generosity, and the rest. We have been set free so that we can be part of a community of people who work together to create a culture where fear is not what multiplies, but hope and joy. We have been disconnected from the things that destroy so that we might be connected to what gives life.
Brothers and sisters, let’s not re-connect ourselves to the things Christ put away for us. Instead, let’s connect to Jesus and to each other.
As it says in Hebrews 12 – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.”
Let’s look to Jesus and take off the yolk that’s heavy and burdensome. Because it is for freedom that Christ set us free.