As previously mentioned this morning’s service is a remembrance of the fatal shooting that took place on June 17, 2015 at Emanuel AME Church in downtown Charleston. The shooting was and is remarkable for a number of reasons not the least of which is the congregation’s show of love and forgiveness, that kept the shooter’s intention of causing division and hostility from coming to fruition. It is the juxtaposition of the intentions of the shooter and the response of the congregation that makes this reading from Galatians appropriate for this morning’s sermon. Paul addresses the church at Galatia, who are having some difficulty with the notion of freedom. They obviously were having questions about what it means to live in Christian freedom and Paul writes this letter to them to provide an answer. It is this portion of Paul’s letter that informs our response, as we remember the Emanuel 9 this morning. It is only through the proper understanding of Christian freedom that we can create community out of this crisis.
Our reading today begins with Paul’s theological statement and focal point of the entire letter. Paul writes, for freedom Christ has set us free. Only a few words but packed with significance. First and foremost, it is done. Our freedom has been won completely once and for all on the cross. We are free though not all of us are living in this freedom. We are free though many mistake worldly freedom with Christian freedom. Freedom can be understood as choosing from several different options. As Americans we are used to having choices; we walk into a grocery store and there are four or five different brands of whatever product we are looking for from toothpaste to soup. Many equate the ability to choose with freedom but Christian freedom actually limits our choices. If we would live in the freedom that Christ offers, we are no longer free to go off on people; we give up our freedom of speech so that we speak as we are led by the Holy Spirit with patience and love. We give up our freedom of religion submitting ourselves to the only true and living God and pledging our allegiance to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit exclusively. We are freed but not for the sake of self-indulgence; not for the sake of doing whatever we want, living totally unrestrained. Paul says that living a totally unrestrained life is to subject ourselves again to the sinfulness from which Jesus has set us free. He frames this argue based on the dichotomy of either living by the Spirit or living according to the flesh. Flesh here is not to be misunderstood as Paul saying that the human body is inherently bad or evil. For Paul, flesh is shorthand for being self-centered and individualistic as opposed to being God-centered leading to loving and caring about others. For Paul, the works of the flesh include both material (fornication, drunkenness) and spiritual (sorcery, idolatry) desires. Likewise, the fruit of the Spirit has spiritual benefits but also helps us in our relationship to the material stuff of this world. So there is not a body/spirit opposition in Paul’s argument, he is not making a case for giving up material possessions and desires but rather it is the conflict created by disordered desires. The natural longing for God becomes idolatry; the natural longing for sexual intimacy becomes fornication. When disordered desire or living according to the flesh takes over we begin to act out of rage and anger; our zeal, our deeply held beliefs become the cause of factionalism and division. But whereas the flesh causes hostility, strife, and division the Holy Spirit creates community. The two are diametrically opposed to each other. You cannot live according to the flesh and according to the Holy Spirit simultaneously.
This opposition between the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit has reared its head on numerous occasions in the church in general and in what becomes the United Methodist Church in particular. The church in general and United Methodism in particular has failed to live according to the Spirit. Colonial and early American preachers used Holy Scripture to support and justify the institution of slavery in this country. In the Methodist Episcopal Church this would result in a split between the Methodist Episcopal Church North and Methodist Episcopal Church South in 1840. The church missed an opportunity to bring community out of crisis; missed an opportunity to lead the country by setting an example of how to live according to the Spirit even when we disagree. Who knows if the different denominations had been able to work through the issue of slavery perhaps there would not have been a Civil War. The church failed again with the reunification of the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1939. This unification included the creation of the Central Jurisdiction, the only jurisdiction not based on geography and instead created based on race to satisfy Southern Methodists’ and their refusal to accept African American members into their annual conferences; again another opportunity for the church to set the example of living by the Spirit and eschewing the tendency to fulfill our self-indulgence; the church could have been at the forefront of the civil rights movement and the end of racial segregation and discrimination but it is not until 1968 and the unification with the United Evangelical Brethren to create the UMC that Central Jurisdiction and racial discrimination in the United Methodist Church came to an end from a disciplinary and policy standpoint. But at this year’s annual conference a pastor stood up as we were debating a resolution addressing racism to recount how at his previous appointment members of his congregation stood at the door to prevent African Americans from entering the church. He did not say where in SC this was but he refuted the notion held by some that racism was not as serious a problem in SC and definitely not in the SC Annual Conference of the UMC. It is unwise and much too speculative to try to draw a line from colonial times to the massacre that occurred June 17, 2015 during the Bible study hour at Emanuel AME Church. However, as Dylan Roof walked into this Bible study intent on destroying community; acting out of self-indulgence with a plan to destroy this gathering of God’s children we are reminded that the church has to be the leading voice if we are ever going to live in the unity and harmony promised by God the Holy Spirit. By Roof’s own account, the love that he encountered at Mother Emanuel almost convinced him not to go through with his plan. He almost decided to walk away but he was controlled by his flesh. Dylan Roof’s beliefs had created such a zeal within him that he acted according to the flesh; he acted out of anger, malice, and divisiveness. He acted out of his enslavement to a belief that he had the power and authority to take human lives; that somehow destroying these people would give him victory. He is not the first and unfortunately as we see from more recent events in Orlando he is not the last of people who have been formed and shaped by this notion that they have unchecked freedom to take life; to destroy community, to do whatever they want to do. However, Paul makes it clear that attempts to destroy others will lead to our own destruction. “If…you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” (v. 15) We get an image of two wild animals tearing and ripping at each other with claws and teeth believing that there is a victory to be had when in actuality with each blow inflicted on the opponent they are destroying themselves.
This is the message this morning, we need each other. God has created us all in such a way that we cannot survive without the help and support of others, there is just no two ways about it. Paul in his list of the works of the flesh lists, quarrels, strife, enmity, dissensions, factions among others but these point to the ways the works of the flesh promote division and a scattering into isolated individualism. The fruit of the Spirit on the other hand, creates unity bringing us all together in the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
It is easy to hate Dylan Roof. That is what I want to do. I want to be self-indulgent and wallow in the hatred and anger and rage that I felt when the realization of what had occurred hit me with full force. That this fellow could sit through an hour of Bible study, pray with this group of people and still take their lives in cold-blood. But to be self-indulgent is not to be self-loving. To give my self-control over to the passion of anger is to deny the power of the Holy Spirit to lead and guide toward unity and wholeness. We are freed from these passions in Jesus Christ. That is not to say that there will not be conflict. Indeed, it was the openness of this congregation to unquestioningly welcome everyone who enters their doors that made it possible for this young man to do what he did. To live according to the Spirit is to live in the vulnerability that is found in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Jesus loved without restraint; Jesus not only sought out those who were oppressed and abused but he also sought out the abusers and oppressors. Jesus did not condemn as he corrected; instead he constantly called to everyone to all who would listen giving every man, woman, boy, and girl a chance to experience the healing and wholeness he offered. If we are going to be followers of Jesus Christ we have to have a different understanding of freedom and power than those who do not follow Christ. Whenever, conflict arises and it will, we are charged by the power of the Holy Spirit to meet it with generosity meaning a humility that makes a space for others, patience that bears with those who sin differently than we do, kindness that seeks what is good for everyone, and faithfulness that will not let us walk away from this community God has given us. This is not optional or a suggestion but is a command. To meet this crisis or any crisis with hate and anger is to feed into the death and division that was intended by this horrible act but to be the church to be followers of Christ is to take seriously our responsibility to bring community out of this crisis. How can we, led and guided by the Holy Spirit turn what was meant for evil into good? How can we get beyond the initial coming together for prayer vigils and walks, which are good but only temporary? How can we see how God is creating a more permanent and intimate community out of this crisis? Hear me clearly, we are not in this alone; the Holy Spirit is with us to empower and sustain us. As Paul continually reminds us and the church in Galatia with the imperatives to walk by the Spirit (v. 16, 25), live by the Spirit (25a), be led by the Spirit (v.16, 18, 25b). Through these imperatives Paul asserts that we are either led by the flesh leading to unrighteousness, death, and destruction or we will be led by the Spirit leading to righteousness, life, and creation. We are called to action while being totally dependent on the Holy Spirit so that we are able to live in Christian freedom and bring community out of crisis.
To God be the Glory.