This is the concluding pericope in a short series of readings from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Galatians is, of course, a homing signal for those of us in the Lutheran tradition. It is Paul’s definitive treatise on faith, grace, and freedom. Yet, there is a paradox here (or is it an irony?) which may make us a bit uncomfortable, or at least a little perplexed.
The paradox is two-fold. We are already familiar with the theological aspect of it: Paul’s central paradox that even as we are set free by and for freedom never to “submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1), even so this freedom is ultimately and most powerfully expressed when we “through love serve one another” (5:13). Martin Luther’s version of this paradox led him to write The Freedom of a Christian, and we are all the better for it. But this leads to a homiletical aspect of the paradox which may be more difficult, especially when the text in question is a section of Paul’s characteristic exhortation cut out from its broader context. How does a preacher, especially a Law/Gospel preacher, preach “the law of Christ” (verse 2)? I suspect the only reason a Lutheran would ever dare to connect those two words to each other (“law” and “Christ”) is only because Paul wrote it down in the “large letters” of his “own hand” (6:11). I am guessing we may wish he had not.
Another way of asking this question is: How do we preach a text of exhortation while keeping the sermon Gospel-centered?
Perhaps the key, at least as far as Galatians is concerned, is in the last verse from last week’s epistle, which bridges these two texts together. “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep step with the Spirit” (5:25). Every action Paul is exhorting us to do is rooted in the fact that our life is now found in and by and with the Spirit. This is a life given wholly and holy as a gift from and by Christ Himself. We now live a Spirit-driven life, which means it bears the kind of fruit, and avoids the kind of poisons, Paul has already mentioned (5:18-23).
Every action Paul is exhorting us to do is rooted in the fact that our life is now found in and by and with the Spirit.
For this reason, I prefer the NIV (New International Version) or NRSV (New Revised Standard Version) translation of verse 1, which brings home this point in a way the ESV (English Standard Version) obscures: “You who live by the Spirit” (NIV) or “you who have received the Spirit” (NRSV) vs. “you who are spiritual” (ESV).
To “live by the Spirit” means this “law of Christ” is not like the previous life of the Law Paul derides so vehemently in this letter (see 5:18: “But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the Law”). In this sense, this law is not the law held over us as a condemning authority, but a law underneath us, grounding us, the soil from which we bear fruit.
There is a kind of holy spontaneity which arises from life in the Spirit, love rooted in the freedom of faith opened up by the promise of the Gospel. We can hear the spontaneity echoing in Paul’s phrases here. We bear one another’s burdens (verse 2), ...we do not grow weary of doing good (verse 9), ...and as the opportunity arises, we do good to everyone (verse 10). All of it is saturated in “a spirit of gentleness” (verse 1). Life in the Spirit simply arises (Yes, it arises! It is a life to which we are resurrected!) from a free and open responsiveness to the other whom the Spirit crosses (Yes, it crosses! It is a cruciform life!) into our lives. We do not know what form it will take until we actually encounter that other life in the present moment of our everyday living. The encounter informs what the goodness will look like as it responds to the opportunity it opens up for us.
All of this is what it means to live in step with the Spirit as a “new creation” (verse 15).
We know people who live like this, do we not? People who just cannot help themselves but to do good, to love and to serve anyone and everyone they come into contact with. They always seem to do it with a keen and wise sense of what the moment requires, never domineering and never manipulating. And they do it with a sense of kindness and joy that is an awe to be around. They would be the first to tell you they are not doing it because of anything within themselves. They are doing it because, as some of the folks I am thinking of right now would so often say, “You cannot outgive God.”
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you in Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Galatians 6:1-10, 14-18.