Sunday, May 18, 2014

Under New Management

Galatians 5:22-26
May 21, 2014
William G. Carter 

By contrast, 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. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

If you are driving down the street, you might notice the sign that says, “Under New Management.” I suppose it is meant to announce a brand new start, a fresh new approach. “Come and visit it us,” the sign outside a restaurant may declare. “We are under new management.”

I don’t know about you, but when I see such a sign, I flinch a little bit: “Under New Management”? I suspect the old management wasn’t working so well. I wonder: will the waiters be better trained this time” Will the chef has stopped dropping cigarette ashes in my omelet? Has somebody told the teenager at the cash register to look up from her iPhone when it’s time to take my credit card?

New management usually takes over for a number of very good reasons. Whoever used to run the place has stepped aside. Someone has determined it is still a viable opportunity. And the new person in charge has made the necessary changes to start over again.

Now, I’m not talking only about a restaurant or a business or any of that. I’m also about our lives. In our scripture passage, Paul is discussing the “new management” that takes over our lives as Christians. There is a shift from being self-directed to Spirit-filled. It is a move from belonging only to ourselves, or belonging to the devil, to belonging to God and all that God loves.

Paul says this is the power of the Gospel. It frees us. Faith comes with liberation. We don’t have to be the person we were, captive to our natural whims, a slave to our own compulsions. Faith in Jesus sets us free. Paul says our old self is “crucified with Christ” (Gal. 2:20). In its place there is a New Creation. The Risen Christ lives in us.

Every once in a while, we meet a person who has changed dramatically, for the good. Something has happened in them, perhaps quickly, perhaps over a long period of time. We knew what they were like, but now they are different.

I think of a woman from my high school class. Around the time of graduation, she didn’t have any plans. Penny seemed to coast along, doing whatever her friends suggested that she do. She was nice enough, but not particularly focused. When we met again some thirty years later, she was transformed. There was a sparkle in her eye. She bubbled confidence. She was clear about her life and her values. “What are you doing?” I asked. She is a hospice counselor. She gives her life every day to people who need her, and it never wears her down.

I wondered out loud, how is that possible? And she began to speak of how she prays, how she reads the scripture slowly every day, how her walk with God opens her to fresh insight and deeper hope. I told her she wasn’t the same person that I remembered from years ago in school. She said, “I certainly hope not.”

This is a glimpse of what faith in Jesus Christ can do to us. It replaces the old management with something new. In this letter to the Galatians, Paul’s word for the old management is “sarx.” It’s a word that means “the flesh.” What he’s talking about are the natural inclinations of every wild animal, the tendency to do whatever we want, to take what others have, to stir up fights, to live without any boundaries. Paul has already given a grim recital of what this looks like: jealousy, quarreling, breaking into factions, giving into our impulses, and so forth and so on. That’s what he calls “the flesh” (5:19-21). It was the old management that was running the place into the ground. And there is another way. Thanks be to God, there is another way.

When Paul writes to these Gentile Christians in Turkey, he gives them a few lists. Here is how to treat people in your household, he says. Then he gives them a list of what destructive behavior looks like. And then, in the text for today, he presents a list of how you know someone is under the New Management of God’s Spirit.

So Paul gives us a list. When he writes to these Gentile people in Turkey, he loves to make his lists. Here is how the Christian people in your household ought to treat one another, he will say. Or here are the destructive behaviors that get us in trouble, and then he presents his list. In our text, he gives another kind of list, a list of how you know someone is under the New Management of God’s Spirit.

One day this week, a volunteer by the name of Jack stood in the door frame of my study. We were chatting about the Joyful Noise program that he is co-leading with our children right now. Jack said, “You know, Paul’s letter to the Galatians is difficult to teach to little kids.” I smiled and thought of a couple texts that I hope they don’t have time to cover.[1]

But it occurred to me that every child can perceive when a person has God at the center of their lives. How do you know God got “into” somebody? By what they are full of . . . and so Paul gives his list:

            Love, joy, peace;
            Patience, kindness, generosity;
            Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

Do you notice? We know what each word means. There is no need to look them up – love, patience, gentleness, we know what they are. And we know they are not specifically Christian words. When the Buddhist knocks on my door and speaks of peace, I resonate with her. When the Jew speaks of kindness, I nod in agreement. Anybody can be filled with peace or act with kindness, for God creates all of us with that potential.

What makes this a specifically Christian package is that these attributes are all embodied in Jesus. Everything we know about him suggests love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. This is how he is, and what he models for us. The true Christians are Christ-like. It is a supernatural transformation. I am talking about the people who are so full of the same Spirit that fills the Christ that they begin to resemble the Lord that they serve.

How remarkable that we should consider such character traits on the day we ordain our elders and deacons! Those who lead the Lord’s people should resemble the Lord they serve. And how will we recognize them?

  • Love is the ability to act for the benefit of others
  • Joy is the engine that never runs out of fuel.
  • Peace is the harmony that creates harmony, within and between.
  • Patience takes the long view of God’s eternal kingdom.
  • Kindness confronts the human tendency to be cruel.
  • Generosity counters the natural inclination to be selfish.
  • Faithfulness is the commitment to endure no matter what.
  • Gentleness is the velvet glove on the iron hand.
  • Self-control is the discipline to make room for God’s direction.
This is what comes if we welcome God to fill our hearts and guide our lives. The world doesn’t need any more heartless bureaucrats, hostile managers, or passive-aggressive waitresses. We don’t need any more church leaders that are full of themselves, much less full of their own opinions. What God’s people need are servants who are full of God, ordinary people who are so full of God’s Spirit that they begin to resemble Jesus. They open us to the possibility that there is another way to live. Their lives reveal that God’s dominion is at hand.

The weary old world can’t always understand this. To use the apostle Paul’s word, the world runs by “sarx” – that is, the natural inclinations of the flesh. It is evident in so many ways, but perhaps the most profound way is how we compete with one another. We interrupt others when they talk. We scoot around a slowpoke to beat him to the checkout line. I think of that lady in Texas who planned to bump off a middle school cheerleader so her daughter could make the squad. That’s as worldly as a tiger ripping apart a wounded zebra. That’s the way of the world. But there is another way, the way of God.

Years ago, the Dutch priest Henri Nouwen took a teaching job at Notre Dame. He was hired as a professor in a brand-new psychology department. He enjoyed the work, loved the students, but there was one thing that caused him to grumble: it was the university’s obsession with football. He didn’t have a problem with the sport, but he noticed that, in South Bend, at least, the obsession could be more important than everything else. What’s that all about? And how does it square with living a holy and compassionate life in the world?

If we live in Christ, he said, “It is not excelling but serving that makes us most human. It is not proving ourselves to be better than others but confessing to be just like others that is the way to healing and reconciliation. Compassion - to be with others when and where they suffer - is God’s way to justice and peace among people. Is this possible? Yes, it is, but only when we dare to live with the radical faith that we do not have to compete for love, but that love is freely given to us by the One who calls us to compassion.”[2]

Do you remember the list?

            Love, joy, peace;
            Patience, kindness, generosity;
            Faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.

These are the signs that God is at work in our lives. These are the gifts that increase in our souls as the Spirit of God directs our lives. And needless to say, these are the blessings that you might offer to the world.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Galatians 1:6-9, 3:1, 5:12, to name a few.
[2] Henri J.M. Nouwen, Donald P. McNeill, and Douglas A. Morrison. Compassion: A Reflection on the Christian Life (New York: Image Books – Doubleday, 1983).

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