By Annette Brownlee
Years and years ago I had a conversation with a friend in which I tried to explain why I believed in Jesus Christ. We were more hippies than hipsters back then. But she knew I was a Christian and she asked me this question. What do I need saving from? Her question is a fair one. Scripture tells us that Christ saves us from our sins.
But I knew that the language of sin and evil meant nothing to my friend. It was offensive to her, “other people’s categories.” So to explain Jesus based on something that was offensive to her (as it is to so many today) seemed like it would go nowhere.
So, I said this. It’s not so much that you need saving from something, it’s you need saving for something. So, what do you think of my answer? Remember, I was about 23 or 24 at the time. My answer was probably clever. But is it the gospel, the truth of Jesus Christ? If our witness to Christ, if the Church’s witness to Christ, is meant to magnify him, to make him more visible in all his truth, beauty, and particularity, how’d I do? Did I take the easy way out?
And I think the answer is yes. Now, I don’t think the place to start in trying to present the gospel to others is with sin and judgment. We always start with the full-on love of God. But the gospel does include both being saved from and saved for — through Jesus Christ. The from what and for what? The reading this morning from the letter to the Galatians includes both: what we need saving from and what we are saved for. They need to be heard together. And never separated.
Paul sets up this chapter on freedom in Christ as a contrast between the two. Why is this so important? To hold them together? When we separate them and focus on one without the other, things get distorted. God’s grace is distorted. Our understanding of our new birth in Jesus is distorted. Most important, each without the other distorts the identity of Jesus Christ, who stands among us, both forgiving us and as a part of his forgiveness calls us to participate in his ministry for the sake of the world.
So, on to that list of works of the flesh in Galatians 5:19: “Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” It’s fairly comprehensive, and not exhaustive, as Paul indicates — and things like these.
Two observations about it. First, this list covers both tablets of the Ten Commandments. Sins against God: sorcery and idolatry. And sins against our neighbor: jealously, anger, licentiousness. Every item on the list stands against who God has made us in Jesus Christ. Every single one works against seeking another’s welfare. Every single one stands in contradiction to forgiving others, in contradiction to encouraging others, to hoping with and for another. Every single one draws us from the love of God and seeks to destroy the creatures of God.
In other words, every single one makes a mockery of who God has made us in Jesus Christ. All together they are Peter, denying Christ three times at his trial as the cock crowed: “I do not know the man.” Sin against his friend, as he put his welfare above his friends’; and in doing so, sin against God, as he denies the one true God.
The second observation is this: St. Paul is talking about us: Us as individuals, us as members of families and nations. Us as the church around the world. Alexander Solzhenitsyn wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes … right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years” (The Gulag Archipelago).
The stories of our lives and families tell us this. So do the headlines every day. Paul describes this as works of the flesh, because these works reside in us and in the quotidian nature of life. On our own we cannot free ourselves from their grip, can we? Or protect ourselves and those we love from the damage they inflict.
This bracing list — fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealously, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these — holds a mirror up to a naïve gospel that says we are not really captive to sin’s thrall. We just need to get our act together.
A gospel without a clear proclamation of the sin of the world is magical thinking. Soft-pedaling sin because it makes people feel bad about themselves or lowers their self-esteem. The gospel’s response to that is this: reducing sin to social or psychological categories (which are real) is to fail the people whose lives are absolutely flattened by it.
And yet, saying all this — and repenting of all this — we proclaim Christ’s response. As he did with Peter, Christ stands among us and says, peace be with you. Here is the absolutely free act of God: God chooses to still be with and for us despite our utter disregard of God and one another. God’s response to our turning away from him is to turn toward us in Jesus Christ. God forgives us, and in doing so leaps over the chasm that our sin has created between us and God. His forgiveness is our restoration to communion with him, and our hope for the world.
But as I said, this list of the works of the flesh must be held together with the list of the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. His forgiveness is not simply to make us clean, or to give us the peace which passes understanding. To make us morally upright. If it were, Paul could have ended his chapter with these works of the flesh, Christ’s victory over them, and our liberation from their chains.
But Paul does not end the chapter there, does he? The fruits of the Spirit tell us that freedom from the power of sin is freedom for our participation in Christ’s ministry. Christ’s forgiveness of us always includes vocation and discipleship.
Like his two stretched-out arms on the cross, while he forgives us the sins we have committed in the past, as a part of that forgiveness he calls us into his ministry now and in the days to come. Galatians 4:5: “God sent his Son in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as his children.” The fruits of the Spirit — love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are given for this very purpose.
“Peter, do you love me?” Jesus asks his friend who denied him three times (John 21:15-18). Yes, Lord, you know that I love you. Three times denied; three times Jesus reaches across the gulf Peter’s sin has created to draw him back. But Jesus’ forgiveness does not end there, does it? Or his forgiveness of us? “Yes, Lord you know that I love you. You know all things about me.” “Then feed my sheep.”
The works of the flesh can never be left behind as we feed God’s sheep, that is, participate in Christ’s ministry. Jesus liberates us from sin’s grip on us. He does so as one scarred from the battle. Scarred, tortured, victorious, but the marks of the battle still to this day present in his resurrected flesh. All of the Gospels frame Christ’s ministry as a battle to wrestle back his creation from the very powers described in this list of the works of the flesh.
And it is into this ministry that he draws us and gives us the fruits of the Spirit. So forgiven, freed from the very works of sin that try to claim us, and given a vocation we might what? Might resist the very same works of the flesh we have been freed from. Yes, we are freed from the grip of sin for or the very sobering work of resistance.
Perhaps if I had been wiser years ago when my friend asked me, “What do I need saving from?,” I might have dodged the way she framed the question and said something like this. You are God’s beloved child, whether you know it or not. My greatest joy is discovering the unfathomable depths of who God has made me — and all of us — in Jesus Christ.
To this crowd, however, I might bring it up a notch. In relation to being saved from our sins, and this list of works of the flesh, Luther puts it far better than I ever can. “You too are beloved children, unconditionally objects of God’s eternal favor. As such, you too are anointed with the Spirit to rise up as new subjects in a lifelong battle against the unholy powers and battle for the healing of the nations.”
The Rev. Annette Brownlee is chaplain, professor of pastoral theology, and director of field education at Wycliffe College, Toronto.