Galatians 5: Freethos

What do you want to be remembered for?  Hold onto that for a bit…

In Paul’s letter to the Galatians, he made a concerted shift in what we call chapter five.  He expressed his disdain for the Judaizers’ insistence for circumcision and its ramifications.  He didn’t mince words: who cut you off from the path you were running so well?  I wish they would go the distance and castrate themselves…  Nice.  Would make a nice card from Hallmark.

Slowly moving away from a focus on the law, Paul chose to encourage focus on freedom instead – freedom found in knowing God’s love for us is not in any way dependent on anything we do or don’t do.  We are loved unconditionally, which yields great freedom from a sense of obligation to follow the law to gain merit.  But then, in a strange twist, Paul instructed them to give up their freedom!  He told them to become servants to others – loving others as they love themselves.  This, he went on to say, is aligned with living “animated and motivated by God’s Spirit.”  When we orient ourselves in such a way, we find ourselves less interested, less tempted by the things our “flesh” desires, which are nearly always self-serving. 

Surely those who were demanding adherence to the Law were suggesting that without it, lawlessness and immorality of all sorts would result.  Paul answers the objection by noting that there is another option that works far better than legalism.  When we love our neighbors as ourselves, we fulfill the Law – not to end it; love completes it, fills it up, makes it whole.  In another letter to a different church with related problems, Paul stated that he believed the law leads to death, not life, and that grace alone leads to life.

Paul also warranted against using freedom from the law as an excuse to pursue self-centered living.  He offered a brief catalog of what happens when we fall into that kind of life:  The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like.  Note what he emphasized: three sins of sexuality, two of false worship, two of wild partying.  But right in the middle there are eight outcomes of selfish living, and they all threaten unity within the community.  When we are selfish, we don’t just hurt ourselves – we hurt many others.  When we’re selfish, unfortunately, we don’t really care about anybody else. When we have presence of mind, however, we know it’s not what we really want.

In contrast, Paul paints a picture of what life led by the Spirit yields: love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.  That’s good stuff.  The kind of stuff we hope is said of us at our memorial services.  I believe it’s what we truly long for.  So, how do we cultivate it?  How do we live life led by the Spirit?  Seems pretty fuzzy…

Writing for the Center for Action and Contemplation about non-dualistic thinking and living, James Finley writes:

“In my most childlike hour, I have tasted the presence of God that is perpetually manifesting and giving itself to me as my very life. While the value of my life is not dependent upon the degree to which I realize this unitive mystery that is always there, the experiential quality of my life is profoundly related to the degree to which I am learning to live in habitual awareness of and fidelity to the God-given, godly nature of the life that I’m living.” 

I like that he distinguishes between our inherent value and the quality of our lives.  One of which has been forever settled as far as God is concerned.  The other, however, depends on us to do our part, to seek God, and to seek to be faithful to the Way of God.

The fruit of the Spirit is more something we cultivate than we outright pursue.  The fruit is a product of caring for the tree, which requires intent.  Without intent, I really believe we can only get so far.  We will reach a peaceful place – a better version of ourselves – but not necessarily be truly transformed.  Genuine transformation is a metamorphosis whereby we are a new and continually renewing creation.  Born again.  The difference between a caterpillar and a butterfly.  This God-required shift needs us to play our role.  We need to pay attention to our steps in the dance if we hope for anything more than pie in the sky.

I’d like to suggest a new word: freethos.  It’s a combination of ethos – which has to do with our way of being, our ethics – and freedom that we have thanks to the Good News of Christ.  Freedom-informed and motivated ethos.  Freethos.  But in order to come to grips with this freedom ethos that is part of our metamorphosis, we need to do some work.  Work that requires reflection on questions like the following:

·       How do you determine what is the best way to live?

·       Who/what informed your ethics?

·       How does your ethic jibe with God’s love of everybody? 

·       How does your ethic love neighbors as yourself?

·       Where is there a shift needed?

·       Do you actually want the fruit of the Spirit?

To entertain these sorts of deeper questions requires some key components.  We need space to process this stuff, we need information to help us know the character of God, and we need support from other people who are on the same journey.  A huge piece of this for me is in how I try to start my day, choosing to be aware of what motivates my mood, my attitude, and my behaviors.  When I begin my day seeking God (created space), I find myself reset: my wakefulness starts with recognizing my value, which increases my desire to know and follow God – to love God and love others.  I prefer quiet space with a few readings (information), meditation, time to reflect (sometimes written), and pray.  Bouncing ideas off others helps further shape my thinking (community support), and having people around me on the same path helps as well.  This practice orients me so that as I face decisions through the day, I am motivated from the right place.  I think this orienting/resetting practice works for a lot of people, even if the methods we employ vary.  Some get reset by a meditative walk outside.  Some in music.  Some in an act of service.  How are you making room in your life for the cultivation to occur?

Once we have an idea what we want to be about – our freethos – we need to put it into practice.  Otherwise it’s not really worth much.  Practice is hard because it’s different; it’s change.  Nobody likes change.  But change is the hope for our lives and the lives of everyone in the world.  And it is possible.  And it is our destiny.

Ricky Gervais was interviewed by Stephen Colbert this past week.  Ricky is a self-proclaimed agnostic-leaning-toward-athiest.  Essentially, he dismisses a lot of holy writ because he recognizes the time-bound nature of all of it.  The Bible, Quran, Buhdda’s teachings and others all reflect the people writing them – their cultures, their time in history, their biases, etc.  Ricky trusts that scientific discoveries, by contrast, will be around forever, so he puts his faith in science.  Unfortunately for Ricky, he missed the larger message of all of the religious writings.  Despite their very human origins and flavorings, they are all saying in one way or another that they have experienced what we call the Divine, God, the Greater Other, Higher Power, our Ground of Being, etc.  That Presence, they say, is with us deeply, and for our best.  There’s no reason for so many people to make that up.  What this means for you is that as you pursue the cultivation of a life that will be marked by amazing fruit, you’ve got a very big Someone in your corner and on your side.  You are not alone.  The metamorphosis can happen – in fact, it’s meant to happen.

What is that possibility worth to you?  What are you going to do differently to cultivate it?  These qualities represented by the fruits of the Spirit are what I believe most people long to be known by and remembered for.  It’s there for the picking…

Review of Galatians so far…

Galatians One: Backstory.  In this introductory chapter, Paul set the stage for what is to follow.  He was deeply disturbed that Jewish Christians from Jerusalem came into the region of Galatia at some point after him with an addition to the Good News: grace is great, but once you receive it, you also need to follow key Jewish customs, including circumcision.  Paul reminded them of his testimony of being one of the most highly educated people in his age group on Judaism.  If he, of all people, did not adopt the Jewish rituals, that was significant.  This chapter calls us to consider our own backstory, asking why we believe what we do, querying into who informed what we think and believe and do.

Galatians Two: Chicken and Waffles.  The second chapter of this letter finds Paul continuing his backstory, recalling to mind a meeting he had with the highest leaders of the community of Jesus followers: Peter, James, and John.  They agreed that Paul was teaching correctly; the only encouragement was that he keep providing for the poor a top priority.  This was significant because when Peter arrived in Galatia, and found himself under the watchful guise of the “Judaizers”, fear got the best of him (he was a chicken), and he waffled, distancing himself from the Gentile believers and favoring the Jewish Christians.  Paul held him accountable for his cowardice in front of everyone.  Paul then encouraged his readers to realize that when we add anything to “grace alone”, we actually undermine and eventually replace it with something much less.

Galatians Three: You Belong.  In the third chapter of this letter, Paul deepens his argument regarding the fallacy of gaining God’s love through works by appealing to the story of Abraham’s faith.  It was Abraham’s faith – not what he did – that changed everything.  Everyone belongs in God’s family – there are no second-class citizens based on religious practices.  The whole point is to embrace what is simply there (God’s love) and move forward, allowing it to shape everything about you. 

Galatians Four: Training Wheels.  In this chapter, Paul continues trying to help the Galatians understand why moving from grace to Law is such a mistake.  First, he uses an analogy regarding children.  Until they are old enough, they were under the care of others to guide them.  Once they were mature enough, however, they knew who they were and how to behave, and no longer needed the others’ constant guidance.  The Law acted as a helpful guide for the Jewish people.  When Christ came, however, grace became the means of understanding God’s love and also the new guide to live.  Second, Paul interpreted the story of Abraham, Ishmael and Isaac as allegory to illustrate the fact that choosing the law over grace was a step down from the higher aim of embracing life through faith alone.

Galatians Five: Freethos.  Paul touches once again on the futility of legalism and following the law are for the believers in Galatia who have been captivated by God’s Good News of grace.  He draws a contrast between the self-centered life of the flesh versus the other-centered life in the Spirit.  Firsts, he notes what happens when we are living by the flesh – it’s not good.  Then he writes about the fruit that comes in our lives when we walk by the Spirit of God – it’s the stuff we all want more of in our lives.  If you want more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, gentleness and self-control in your life, live your life in step with the Spirit of God.