We are in the process of wrapping up our sermon series Vivid. We’re answering the question. What does it mean to be a Christian? What does it mean to live life in light of Jesus’ Resurrection. We’ve talked about looking at life through Resurrection glasses and how different it can make the world look. It’s like seeing colors that you didn’t even know were there but have been all the time because that’s what looking at life through Resurrection lenses really is. Every day all the time, regardless of what season it is on the calendar in the church. There is not one of us who has been born before a time that Jesus was resurrected. We’ve been focusing on the letter that the Apostle Paul sent to the church in Rome.
This was not true for the people Paul was writing to. It might have been for some, but there were many who were alive before Jesus had been crucified and resurrected, including Paul. Most of Paul’s letters to different churches around the Mediterranean were to teach them how to live in the reality of Jesus Resurrection, and why they were allowed to do so – different than before the Resurrection happened, different than their parents or grandparents could. There is a phrase that is heard in churches all around the world, “This is the way we’ve always done it.” The problem in many of these churches was that it hadn’t been done before, but that didn’t stop them from slipping back to their old ways of life. Paul tries to teach them how to break that cycle. He also teaches us how to do that.
Our mission statement as United Methodists is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. The next question is what exactly is a disciple? At its most basic level it is a student, learner, or pupil, but if we think about the disciples around Jesus, it was much more than that. They developed a relationship with Jesus, which allowed them to learn about, love, and care for people. If we want to be a disciple of Jesus and make disciples for Jesus, we need to have that relationship, too.
It’s not about making “Christians.” It’s about making disciples, or followers of Jesus, and really developing a relationship with Jesus. It’s that contact that changes us. That’s because when Jesus came into the world, he did not introduce a new form of religion. He introduced a vastly different relationship with God.
What got the first century Christians in trouble with Rome was not what they believed. It wasn’t what they thought specifically. What got the first century Christians in trouble with wrong is that they were so fascinated by a person, the person of Jesus.
They claimed Jesus was their king. He was a living king, and something about his spirit inhabited them, and what they did was absolutely amazing. Here we are two thousand years later, and the Roman Empire is long gone because they believe that Jesus lived on. Here’s the crazy part, the part we’re going to talk about today. They believed that Jesus actually lived in them and through them, not figuratively. Literally his life was their life, and it’s what accounts for the incredible things they did. Eventually, by the 3rd century, it became the main religion of the Roman Empire.
But somewhere along the way, this living vibrant relationship-driven thing took a turn and became like so many movements did. It became another religion, but it was never meant to be that.
One of our problems, and why we continue to struggle the way we do with sin/temptation and to struggle the way we do with following Jesus is because we’ve bought into what we’ve been taught and was modeled for us. We approach Christianity like a religion, and we need to understand, Jesus didn’t come to start a new religion.
All religions have several things in common. To summarize: you ought to, you don’t, you’re toast.
In the book The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis looks at a variety of religions, and he says that they have laws or rules in common. Some of these include: don’t harm others, don’t lie, don’t have sex with another person spouse, care for the week, and so on…
Once you break the rules, all religions have some more rules about what to do when you break the rules.
Christianity after about 280 CE took a turn towards “religion.” It began to lose its sense of a living vibrant relationship with the living resurrected Savior. It took the form of religion. Here’s why, and we can all relate to this. Our default when it comes to God is religion. Our default when it comes to God is rules. We say, just tell me what the rules are, and I’ll do my best to keep them.
Here’s what we do. The rules that we keep well make us proud, and the rules we don’t keep well, we eventually dumb down and find enough loopholes that we feel good about ourselves. We form our own version of our own religion.
This is true of all religions. This one person met a Muslim man in Egypt who didn’t pray the required five times a day. He wanted to explain, and the Christian said, “You don’t have to explain. Christians do that all the time.” So of course, religion is full of hypocrites. Of course it is, so are Christians who offer religion rather than a growing relationship with Jesus Christ.
Today, I’m going to try to explain the divergent views of approaching following Jesus the way that Jesus talked about it, the way the Apostle Paul talked about it, the way the first century Christians model that, versus a religious approach to Christianity.
If you go with the religious approach to Christianity, that’s fine. You will be in the majority, but you’ll be frustrated your whole life because it doesn’t work. You’re going to spend the rest of your life trying to live up to a standard of the sinless Jesus Son of God. Good luck with that, right? You can’t even be like anybody else. You can’t be like your favorite sports person. You can’t be like your favorite singer. You have your hair brush in the mirror, but you don’t let anybody else hear that, fortunately. You can’t sing like whoever. You can’t act like whoever. You can’t dance like whoever. How are you going to live up to the standard of Jesus? You’re just going to be frustrated your whole life.
But I have got some good news. It was never God’s intent when he sent his Son into the world, to send Jesus into the world, as a model for you, to somehow live up to you because you can’t. He came to give his life, not only for you, but to you. Until that becomes your approach to following Jesus, you’re going to follow, be a Christian, who acts like all the other religious people. We’re try to live up to the law and up to a standard that we can’t.
Paul, who gives us all this rich insight, gives us a snapshot of what it was like when he was a religious person, like many of us, trying to keep God’s law, but at the end of the day, feeling like toast.
We’ve been talking about this for weeks he says, in Romans 7:15, “I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do.”
This is a religious person. Then the church came along and gave some more rules. You can do Penance. You can say a couple of these and several of those, and so on. Walk this street on your knees. You can pay God back by suffering. You can pay God back by doing things.
And Paul continues, “and if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.” (Romans 7:16)
This could really apply to any law, but Paul was talking about the Jewish law. Paul says, I’m not saying the rules are bad, and I just can’t keep them.
I think I should help people, but I don’t always do that. I know I shouldn’t lust after someone else’s spouse, but sometimes… I don’t think I should be stingy. I think I should be generous, but sometimes I keep more for myself. I know I shouldn’t lose my temper. I know the law. I think the laws are good. I think that people ought to behave and be generous and be honest and be kind. I believe all that I just can’t do it very consistently. Welcome to religion.
And Paul sums up his feelings after trying to do all of this, “What a wretched man I am!” (Romans 7:24)
You’ve either been there. You are there, or you’re going to be there. At some point every religious person says this. Wretched husband, wretched mother, wretched father, wretched student…
You know better, but you can’t help it. That is the trap of all religions.
Then Paul asks this question, “Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death?” (Romans 7:24b)
Here’s what he’s learned. This is what you know. Every time he sinned there was death. Whenever you break, even your own rules, there is death. Whenever you break the law of any religion, there’s death. There’s consequences. There is pain. You hurt yourself. You hurt other people. You hurt your marriage, your kids, your friends. You hurt your health. You hurt your finances. There’s always some kind of death. Paul asked the right question. It wasn’t “what.” It was “who.”
Our mission isn’t to memorize a set of rules, it isn’t merely to do better. What Paul says next maybe familiar, so we may dismiss it, but we need to pay attention. “Thanks be to God who delivers me through Jesus Christ Our Lord!” (Romans 7:25)
We see “Jesus Christ Our Lord,” and we think 2000 years ago, a romanticized Jesus who is the same color we are. He has the same perfectly manicured beard. His robes are perfect, and his feet don’t get sandy. He has these blazing blue eyes or blazing dark eyes, and he has this cool smile. He has all the great one-liners. You know, “Are we supposed to pay taxes?” “Whose picture is on the coin? Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and give to God what is God’s.” “Wow! That’s great. Somebody ought to write that down.”
He’s so cool. He walks into Jerusalem. They crucify him, a man’s man. I don’t care if you put nails and through me. I’m awesome. Then he rose from the dead, and the soldiers fell away in their terry cloth robes with their beards falling off.
But we don’t realize when Paul wrote this, Jesus had just died about 22 years ago. And if we think about it and our own reality 22 years ago for us, it would be that he died in 1994. This wasn’t a hundred years ago, 200, 300, a thousand years ago. “Deliver me through Jesus Christ Our Lord!”
No, he wrote this after hanging out with James, the brother of Jesus… Christ Our Lord. He had been to meetings with Peter, who hung out and had campfires with Jesus… Christ Our Lord. This wasn’t a fictitious religious person. This was a real flesh-and-blood person. He probably knew Mary because the Apostle John was taking care of Mary. This was somebody they knew, and yet Paul believe that this resurrected savior, resurrected like, “Hey, next time we go to Jerusalem, let’s go to by and see Golgotha. Next time I come to Jerusalem, would you show me where they put him in the tomb because everybody knows just where it is? It’s just outside the city.” This was history. This was an event. He was a real live living person, and Paul said, Yes, he died 21 – 22 years ago, raised from the dead, and his Spirit, not the memory of his spirit, the actual spirit of Jesus Christ Our Lord lives in us and through him, through it, there is a way to break the bondage of religion and to break the bondage of… I should but I can’t. I shouldn’t but I can, I want to. But I never seem to be able to pull it off….
And so, in much of Paul’s literature, he talks about our relationship with the law. He’s talking about the Jewish law, but he talks about a relationship with the law. He could be talking about any law or just about any religious law.
Part of what makes this so difficult to understand is that it is such a different way of viewing life. Paul does his best to differentiate following Jesus – who has been dead around 25 years, but they’re still following him – and living under the law.
The short version is, as long as you approach Christianity as rules to follow, break, have guilt about, try harder with, you’ve never experienced the Christian life the way it was intended to be lived.
Paul says in Romans 8:3, “For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature God did.”
You know what that was good for? The law is good for pointing out when people are bad. You’re bad… You’re bad… Fail… Fail… Fail… You’re bad… You’re bad… Fail… Fail… Fail. Oh, you had two good weeks? Crash and Burn. Fail… Fail… Fail. How are you going to make up to God for that?
The only thing the law is good for is to give you your grade. The law can’t help you be a better law keeper. The law can’t make you a better person. The law is a mirror of how awful you are…. For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the sinful nature God did…
God has done something for you that the law could not do. If you grew up at Church, you may say, “I know. I get to go to heaven when I die.” That’s not what he’s talking about. Yes, Christ paid the penalty for our sins, but what Romans is talking about is the power of sin as well. And this is what Paul says, Did you know that the law of empowers the power of sin? The law kind of super powers the power of sin.
Here’s what happens. The law reminds you of what you want to do, but you don’t do it, and the law says, “Ha-ha you didn’t do it.” The law becomes the judge, the jury, and the sentencer. Good law does this.
Paul wants to take us a different way. Approaching God through the law is our fault, but it leads to defeat. We all fall short. Paul invites us to look at this another way. Paul says this in Romans 6:14, “Sin shall no longer be your master,” We’ve talked about this for the last couple of weeks. “Because you are not under the law, but under grace.”
We went from being in Adam to being in Christ.
We’re not under the law – what does this even mean? That we need to live lawlessly. You must live out from underneath the law. It does not mean that we can do whatever we want.
We are under grace. The road divides. The old road leads to failure, failure, failure. You have your good days and your bad days. When you get older you stop doing some things, but you start doing other things. Every stage of life has a whole new set of, “You failed… You failed… You failed.” The law can’t help you. It just reminds you. Paul says there is a better way, but you’re going to have to abandon the way of the law to understand the way of grace.
We’re going to be in Galatians chapter 5, but before we go there, here’s a snapshot of how Jesus foreshadowed this. Jesus puts it this way in John chapter 15, “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me, and I’m in you, you will bear much fruit: apart from me you can do nothing.”
What does this say about the Ten Commandments, what does it say about the law? Jesus says, Here’s how it works. You’re going to learn… Forget about the law for a second… You’re going to learn to abide or remain in me, and it’s like a vine and a branch. Of course they saw this stuff all around them, but we know what it means. You’re the branch, and I’m the vine. The life of the vine goes into the branch, and then the branch bears fruit because the branch remains in the vine… By the way, apart from me you can do nothing.
To which we say, Sure we can. Tell me what to do. I’ll just jump higher. I’ll just be more disciplined.
Jesus says, I don’t mean I want you to try. If you learned the secret, if you change your mindset, if you change your approach to following me, that is no longer rule keeping and law failing, and become abiding and remaining and hang out with me, Jesus, you will look behind you, and there will be fruit, abundant fruit. And people are going to say to you,… You changed… You’re going to say… I know, but I’m not really sure how…. What are you doing differently?… I feel like I’m doing less than I’ve ever done…. You know you don’t blow up like you used to…. I know, and it’s kind of scaring me… You’re a better listener. What happened to you?… You’re going to be like… I don’t know…
Because you’re learning to abide, to live in, to live through Christ Jesus, and you look over your shoulder, and there will be fruit, more fruit. Jesus says, abundant fruit.
Doesn’t this sound a lot different than. “Here’s five things… Here’s four things.” Never. Always… Do your best.. Never, and promise. Doesn’t that sound completely different? That’s because it is. In Galatians 5 Paul talks about this in a slightly different way.
We’re going to walk through this in Galatians, but Paul also talks about this in Romans chapter 8. Paul talks about abandoning lawful living and beginning to understand what it means to have a growing daily walk with a living, resurrected Christ Jesus whose Spirit lives in you because you are his.
So he starts in Galatians chapter 5 verse 16, “So I say walk by the spirit…”
Okay, it’s easier Paul if you tell us don’t lie, don’t cheat, don’t steal. We know what that means. Walk by the spirit? What?
He says, here’s a new way, the new perspective I want you to learn. To walk means to keep in step with, be sensitive to. Don’t get too far ahead. Don’t fall too far behind. Keep in step with, be sensitive to, take your cues from the spirit of God that is in you because you believe in Christ.
Paul goes on,… And you will not gratify the desires of the flesh…. Galatians 5:16
If you walk by the spirit, you will get to the end of the day, and you look behind you, and you’ll say, wow! That was different. Wow! Sin said, “Hey come over here,” and I said, “No I’m going to go over there.” Wow! That was different. I will not gratify the desires of the flesh, instead of waking up saying. “Hey I’m promise, and I’m not going to, and I’m going to do better.”
He says, no forget about that. That’s law living. You’re going to fail. I want you to learn… Let’s learn, to walk by the spirit, and when we learn to walk by the spirit, when we get to the end of the day, week, we will look back, and we will not have, not because you chose not to but because we learned to walk by the spirit. You will not have gratified the desires of the flesh.
What are the desires of the flesh? I think you know. The desires are, I shouldn’t, but I want to, and I shouldn’t, but I want to. I think I will. Now I feel guilty, and I try not to, but it’s a habit. Now it’s an addiction. Oh my, what happened to me? The desires of the flesh, we know. Natural appetites that God gave you, all your appetites God gave you. Sin distorted them, and now you’ve mismanaged them, the desires of the flesh.
And Paul says, “For the flesh desires what is contrary to the spirit, in the spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.” (Galatians 5:17)
Paul is saying this conflict is the conflict you have all the time. God wants me to, but I want to… The law says, but I want… conflict, conflict, conflict.
Paul says this. When you get under the law, when you struggle a little while, you lose whichever way you go. When you’re good, you feel like you’re missing out on something because sin promises something. Then when you’re bad, you feel guilty because you got what you wanted or did what you wanted to do, but now you know you’ve wrecked, ruined, caused problems in your life, so you lose either way.
Whenever you find yourself in this conflict. It is a lose-lose. You’re either going to feel guilty, or you’re going to feel arrogant. And you’re going to judge all the people that are doing all the things that you aren’t doing, but you wish you could.
I’m not asking anyone to raise their hand, but find me a Christian, find me a Jesus follower, who doesn’t understand what it means to be led by the spirit, and I’ll find you someone who’s struggling with sin. On the days they do well, they feel so good about themselves, and they judge all the other people around them, and it’s a mess, and that’s why the church has such a sorry reputation.
Paul says, this is not the way to go. He says in verse 18, “But if…” There’s another path, another way. “But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law.”
That conflict I described as what it’s like to be under the law. I want to. I know I shouldn’t. Why did I do it? Help me!
Paul says, there’s a different way. “But if you are led by the spirit, you are not under the law.” (Galatians 5:18)
Because the spirit leads you in a direction, when you look over your shoulder, Oh my, look at the change in my life!
It’s a whole different way of thinking, than “God I know that there are all these things you want me to do, and by golly I’m going to do them.”
If you’re led by the spirit, you’re not under the law. That conflict, it’s going to be different. The conflict is going to be diminished. That conflict, you going to see it differently.
Paul goes on, “The acts of the flesh are obvious.” (Galatians 5:19) There’s so obvious, and he list them. They’re so obvious, I’m not going to list them. You can look them up yourself, and I wouldn’t say it’s limited to those things he lists. They’re so obvious. You know what they are: jealousy, fighting, losing your temper, looking at all the wrong stuff, getting addicted to stuff, having a bad attitude, you hate skinny people, you hate rich people, you hate athletes. You hate people who make you feel like a failure. It just goes on and on and on and on..
The acts of the flesh are obvious… We all know what they are. Now look at this contrast.
“But the Fruit of the spirit…” Galatians 5:22)
This is huge. We have acts of the flesh vs. fruits of the spirit. Do you know what fruit is? Fruit is the result of something that happens internally, and pop! Look at that! Oops! Fruit!
You go to an orchard. You don’t see the trees going… Struggle… Fruit.
Paul says, this is a different way, a different approach. This isn’t the law. The law makes you go, struggle! When you are good, you are proud. When you are bad, you are guilty. No, we’re going a different way.
We know what the acts of the flesh are, but the fruit of the spirit is different. Fruit is produced in and through us, not by us. Fruit is produced in and through us, not by us.
Now here, Paul tells us what this is, and it’s really important, especially if you’re a Type A person. So you [breathe], I want to learn to live in such a way that your fruit is produced through me….
Paul says, “… but the Fruit of the Spirit…”
The acts of the flesh are obvious, but the Fruit of the Spirit … beep …. boop… “But the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance – which means patience – kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Galatians 5: 22-23)
When you see this list, this is what some – or many – people think. This is what law keepers think…. Okay, I’m going to be such a good Christian. I’m going to be more loving. I’m going to be more truthful. I’m going to have peace, patience, kindness, oh my goodness. I’m going to be more faithful. I’m going to be gentle! And by golly if it kills me, I’m going to get four accountability partners, and I’m going to get up an hour early, and I’m going to memorize scripture, and I’m going to be have self-control. God. Thank you for the list. I’m on my way!
Paul says, no, it’s fruit. It’s not a to-do list.
Don’t even look at the list. Just allow God to bear fruit in you. At the end of the day, end of the week, end of the month, as you learn this, you are going to look behind you and go, Wow! Look! I don’t know where it came from, but I have more self-control. It’s not as big a deal as it used to be. It’s not as big a struggle. My spouse is noticing a change, and my kids… Wow! I feel like something has changed in me.
Don’t think this could work in the real world? Let me tell you something about Paul. He lived and worked in the real world. And he started all of the Jesus franchises. All of them. Listen, I’m not kidding. He left corporate headquarters in Jerusalem. He said, You guys. You stay here. I’m going to put these things all over the rest of the world because I’ve got a good product. He got on a boat, not a ship, but a boat, like a sailboat and went all around the Mediterranean, and he put his little Jesus franchises and all the major cities. He didn’t just get his butt kicked around in business. He literally got kicked, stoned, put in prison. He didn’t have a phone or computer. All he had was people writing letters for him. And he put the Jesus franchises everywhere. Now, 2000 years later, it’s worth billions of dollars, and there are billions of followers. In two thousand years from now nobody’s going to know our names. 200 years from now, no one’s going to be talking about us.
What the Apostle Paul did was unprecedented. You know what he said? On those days, when I wake up in the morning, and I decide to take all my type A Tendencies… I’ve got to get it done, and it’s all up to me, and I take a deep breath and say… God, apart from you, I can do nothing. And I want your spirit to be released through me. And when I get it wrong, I’m going to get back on track because at the end of the day, I want you to do what you do, through me. And I want the wake of my life to be characterized by love… Not because I tried to be more loving and joyful, and peace and forbearance, and kindness, and goodness, and God heard that.
You may think that this doesn’t work in the real world. It does.
Here’s what I know about you, even if I don’t know you well yet. These characteristics, this fruit? This is how you want your spouse to be. This is how you want your children to be. You want your son or daughter to marry someone like this. It won’t make you less productive. It will make you more productive because all this struggle that takes so much time, energy, that causes so much stress, the guilt, the trying… It will slowly go away. This isn’t a to-do list. This is a fruit list, as we learn to walk in the spirit.
I’ll finish up with this, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24)
Those that are in Christ Jesus because they are in Christ and Christ died, and when he died you died because you’re in Christ, you have been separated from the power of sin.
He continues, “Since we live by the spirit, let us keep in step with the spirit.” (Galatians 5:25)
That’s the Christian Life. It’s keeping in step with the spirit of God. It’s a completely different approach. It’s a whole different mindset. It’s not a couple of verses tucked away. It’s the entire New Testament. And if you don’t learn this way, you’ll just become religious, and you’ll be frustrated your entire life. It’s about keeping in Step as opposed to keeping the law.
Now you say, okay, okay what do I do?
I don’t know. I don’t know. Kidding.
The thing is that there’s not a list of one, two, three things. It’s a mindset. So let me give you some starter stuff, some ideas. It goes back to this. Starts with:
1. Accepting this new identity. It says, I’m in Christ. I am in Christ. I am in Christ. What is true of Christ is true of me because I am in Christ. I’m forgiven. I don’t have to say, oh God I did it again. I am in Christ. I’m forgiven. I’m accepted. I’m completely love. I couldn’t do anything to get God to love me more. I died to the power of sin. I’m in Christ. This is who I am. I used to be over here in Adam, but now I’m in Christ. That’s the beginning.
2. Embrace this new approach. Sin, you’re not my master. Sin you can’t have my eyes. No sin, you can’t have my feet. Sin, you can’t have my mouth because today, I’m going to do my best to keep in step with the spirit of God. Holy Spirit. I want you to lead me.
Is it like a voice? Is it spooky? It’s never been spooky to me. It’s the spirit of Jesus who lives through you if you put your faith in him.
Paul says, and he wasn’t talking about someone who lived a long time ago, but somebody that knew. He says Jesus Spirit was alive, and literally lives in you.
And so, the new approach is simply… God, today I know all the things I’ve got to do, and I’ll fail. God, I know the way I ought to be, but I’m not good at it. Today, teach me to walk in the spirit and allow you to produce fruit through me.
3. Refuse to interact with God on the basis of law. This is what gets us every time. To interact with God on the basis of law. It sounds like this: I did it again… I did it again…. Actually our response should be, God, I got out of Step… I got out of step….
“I did it again. – I’m so sorry.” That’s the law period vs. “I got out of step.” You did this or that. You blew up again and God says, You got out of step with me. Now let’s take a step back. Now I’m going to lead you to go in there and take responsibility for what you just said.
Alright. I’m going to get back in step with you.
I’ll be honest. It’s easier to be religious, but it’s a lot more frustrating. I just want you to know that the Christian life is not about imitating Jesus because you can’t.
The Christian Life is the life of Christ that has been given to you. It’s what guarantees you go to heaven when you die, and it’s what guarantees that the power of sin has no hold on you. It’s what allows you to say no to sin. It allows you to personify sin. I know that I’ve been saying yes to you in that area my whole life, and I’m not going to do it anymore. Because I’m in Christ and Christ is in me, and the power of sin has been broken.
It’s a brand new approach. It really isn’t because it’s how the New Testament Church was launched, but it seems to have gotten lost to many people over the centuries. Thankfully there’s always been a remnant of people who never abandoned this approach.
Will you pray with me? Lord Jesus, help us to let go of this stressful, frustrating law keeping. Help us to develop a relationship with you where we stay in step with you. You broke the power of condemnation. You have freed us from a standard we can never live up to. Help us to experience this new freedom to walk with you and see the fruit of our changed lives. Thank you for the extraordinary gift of your death and your new life! Amen!
Adapted from Andy Stanley’s series “Free.”