…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. (Galatians 5:22-23)
When I was teaching in Dallas, I used to take seminarians for a week-long experience at a Benedictine monastery in Shawnee, Oklahoma. For almost all of my students it was their first experience of monastic life and the only preparation I gave them for the trip was to read Benedict’s Rule, which has governed life in Benedictine monasteries for centuries.
Benedict’s rule is not long. It is not as much a book as it is a pamphlet. And the chapters of the rule are typically a handful of paragraphs. Out of 73 chapters, 9 describe the duties of the abbot (the head of the monastery) 13 describe the structure of worship, 29 deal with discipline, and 10 address the administrative needs of the monastery.
My students often focused on the fact that Benedict’s rule stipulates how much wine a monk is supposed to receive on a regular basis. But, bless their Methodist hearts, the modern Benedictine seminary relies on the Aramark Corporation and they dispense the same set of non-alcoholic beverages that are served on most college campuses. So, they were regularly disappointed.
The other thing that got their attention was the function of the Rule itself. Having never been to a monastery, they were certain that the Rule probably regulated every interaction. So, they expected the experience to be solemn, restrictive, and punitive.
After a few days, though, they discovered that this was far from the truth. To be sure, the Rule functioned as something of framework for monastic life and you could see that framework in the regular cycle of prayers and worship. But as the students got to know their hosts, they realized that the monks lived with real freedom and that there was an ethos, a temperament that life in community fostered, but it didn’t throttle.
Brother Kevin loved working with his hands, as well as building and repairing machinery. And made a motorcycle out of non-motorcycle parts, naming it recycled grace. Father Lawrence worked at the monastery’s university and eventually became President. Father Charles had a dry sense of humor, asked great questions, and could outwait any student sitting in silence, if my students struggled to come up with an answer.
Their discovery about the nature of Benedict’s Rule was much like the struggle that the church in Galatia had with the Law, or Torah. God had given the Law and it had grown in importance over successive conquests and exiles. With the best of intentions, the Pharisees further refined the application of the Law, unpacking and stipulating just what it meant to observe each of the commandments. So, the question for them was: Just what was Jesus’ attitude toward the Law and how were Christians meant to relate to the Law? Did he expect even more of his followers? Did he set it aside? Or was something else at stake?
Paul had founded the congregation in Galatia on the premise that it was something else. He taught the Galatians that – in Christ and with the guidance of the Holy Spirit – the Law was written on the hearts of Jesus’ followers. As Paul understood it, the central purpose of their lives and the life of the church was to live into ever greater intimacy with Christ, and the Holy Spirit would guide their lives in a way that gave free, expansive expression to that life of intimacy with Christ.
It was in this sense that Paul believed that the Law given to Israel was fulfilled in Christ. This was part of the ancient Jewish hope described in Jeremiah 31:33, among others. A number of English translations say God will write the Law on “the minds and hearts” of people. But the Hebrew is actually much more visceral and promises that God will write the Law on Israel’s innards and its heart. The image, then, is of the Law almost spilling out people or driving forward in a life shaped by the Law of God. But the point Paul had tried to make with the Galatians is that the goal isn’t the practice of the Law as an end in itself, but a journey into the life of God who gave the Law.[i]
Paul comes back to this subject in his letter to the Galatians because – since he has been away – there have been other teachers who have influenced them. Their emphasis has been on the observance of the Law, and these teachers see the message of Jesus as a perfection of obedience to the Law. So, they have started reintroducing the kind of detailed observance of the Law that had been characteristic of the Pharisees. As a kind of shorthand, New Testament scholars have described the debate between Paul and this new group of teachers as the debate between grace and the law – or the spirit of the law and the letter of the law.
Now, at first blush, I am sure that conversations about Benedict’s Rule and the Law in the church in Galatia are bound to seem irrelevant to our modern world. I doubt that many of you have read the Rule, and I am equally certain that most of us don’t read and reread the Ten Commandments, let alone the Book of Leviticus.
But, of course, we have debates over how laws ought to be used all the time. In fact, one could argue that our nation’s politics of late have been all about getting control of Washington and making rules for everyone. Of course, who is the legalist in that case and who is the advocate of freedom depends entirely on the people who are making the rules.
But, if we are honest with ourselves, the spiritual struggle – with grace and the law or, if you prefer, with the spirit of the law and the letter of the law – carves a canyon straight through each of our lives and goes much deeper than that. And depending on our temperament and circumstances we play to our strengths and evade our weaknesses. We play the child of the Holy Spirit when it suits us, when we are comfortable with its demands, when it doesn’t stretch us, or challenge us. And we retreat behind the letter of the law when we have given everything to God that we are willing to give or when it makes us feel better about ourselves by laying down the law for others to follow.
What Paul makes clear, is that the Christian doesn’t do that and can’t. We are baptized into Christ and the Holy Spirit leads us into ever-deeper intimacy and identification with the life of Christ. And out of that experience, Paul writes, flows the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
In surrendering our lives to Christ, we surrender our lives to the Spirit and the Law of God is written on our innards and on our hearts. This isn’t a to-do list. It is a “what-we-become” list, a description of what pours out of us and what drives us out into life. And the fruit in that list is not a random, unrelated list of timeless virtues. It is description of the ways in which our lives are changed when the light of Christ and the guidance of the Holy Spirit shines in every corner of our lives and that light is, at once, invasive and merciful, bruising and healing.
Paul places love at the beginning of the list because all the rest of fruit flows from love. This is not love as sentiment. It is not love as mere affection. It is love as an unconditional commitment to a life of intimacy with Christ and to the wellbeing of our brothers and sisters on their own journey into Christ.
It is not the kind of love that is content with being kind or with avoiding being unkind. It is not the kind of love that is content with being generous with our friends and cruel to those we consider our enemies. It is not the kind of love that carves up the world in terms of those who are deserving and those who are undeserving (no matter the criteria that we use for making those distinctions).
It is the endless, restless desire to live in a way that makes the presence and the possibility of God’s grace real to others. And it constantly asks what more we can do to make God in Christ real to others.
And once the Holy Spirit has anchored our lives there – in the knowledge that we have been loved in that fashion and in the knowledge that our lives are meant to be an expression of that kind of love – the rest of the Spirit’s gifts flow from it:
Joy in knowing that in Christ our relationships with God and with one another are being healed
Peace in that we have found that one relationship that orders and enlivens our existence
Patience which grants others the space and time to find God
Kindness out of which we risk ourselves for others
Generosity out of which we give and continue to give
Faithfulness which endures challenges large and small that confront us along the way
Gentleness which keeps us from wounding others and obscuring the face of God
And self-control which leads us to set aside impulsive, self-serving behavior that distracts us from the calling of the Spirit upon our lives
Are we ever done with this journey? Is there a set of metrics that will help us to assess our efforts? No. And God forgive us when we have given people the impression that there are answers to those questions.
But God forgive us, too, when we have made it sound as if the Christian life is a forced march. Because it is anything but that.
The reason that Paul insists on the grace of God and the guidance of the Holy Spirit is because the Christian life is a radical departure from life as usual. And the gifts of the Spirit are the starting point for a life of endless creative expression of Christ’s healing presence, worked out in our relationships with God and with one another.
If you haven’t yet experienced the Christian life in that way, I would encourage you to begin praying that Spirit will give you those gifts and begin working them out in your life:
In your heart,
In your family, in your friendships,
In your interactions with those you have yet to meet
In the way in which you navigate your emotions
In the way in which you weigh life’s choices
In the things that you value
And in the things that you give your energy, your time, and your gifts
To paraphrase Søren Kierkegaard:
Don’t just be a Christian…as if “Christian” is some assigned label that you are simply stuck with forever, an identity that means nothing to you. No, take all of your life to become a Christian: Choose, again and again with each new day, to be a child of the Holy Spirit. Abandon your calculated safety for a reckless, wholehearted life of faith in Christ. Continue to trust, to become, to grow, to risk. And let that journey allow you to discover the power of Christ in you as an agent of his presence and as an expression of Christ’s love.[ii]
[i] One of the best and most evocative treatments of Paul’s letter to the Galatians is that by J. Louis Martyn in the Anchor Bible Commentary, vol. 33A (New York: Doubleday 1997). See especially, pp. 120ff., 150ff.
[ii] Freely adapted from an article by Karen Wright Marsh who, in turn, paraphrases the work of Søren Kierkegaard: https://www.americamagazine.org/faith/2020/02/28/startling-prayer-life-soren-kierkegaard?gclid=CjwKCAjw5NqVBhAjEiwAeCa97WC5aVFhaHPTeUcYHDfgW_ZzOALjb4tabPOZDuxGEpKxJlPADvAfxRoCvMoQAvD_BwE