3rd Sunday after Pentecost, Proper 8
June 30, 2019
The Rev. Meg Lovejoy+
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Han van Meegeren was a Dutch artist who painted during the 1920’s and 30’s. He was what one could politely call adequate, but he wasn’t extremely gifted in painting originals. Seeing some of his fellow artists receive more favorable reviews than he, he allowed his envy to consume him, and van Meegeren began to forge the paintings of many 17th century painters.
His forging skills were incredible and in the mid 1930’s he developed such a fool proof technique that he was able to paint several new paintings and claim they were from the great Dutch Master, Johannes Vermeer. One of his paintings was sold to Adolf Hitler’s associate, Hermann Goring. Yet, he was eventually discovered and at the end of World War II, van Meegeren was charged with treason for selling Dutch cultural treasures to the Nazis. His defense was that the paintings were forgeries, but no one believed him, so he then had to paint another forgery to prove that the paintings in question were his creations.
van Meegeren was convicted of forgery and fraud and died of a heart attack before he could serve his sentence. The envy that started out as something small grew into such a great self-centered vice that it took over his life and ultimately caused his death.
Paul speaks of the desires of the flesh and fruits of the spirit in his letter to the Galatians we heard today. The Galatians were struggling with the controversy of circumcision and Paul’s letter encouraged the people to look forward, even if it meant they had to experience change. In verse 6, which is not included in today’s reading, Paul writes, “For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love”. Gal 5:6 The law, by which the people of Israel had lived before the coming of Jesus, required that only those who were circumcised could be the true followers of God. Jesus taught that his coming, his sacrifice for humankind, changed the focus from the law to the two commandments that were the most important; loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself. Paul speaks of the freedom we are given as followers of Christ. The freedom that Christ Jesus gives us is the opportunity to serve one another humbly in love, to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Paul tells the Galatians to live by the Spirit and not by the flesh. The term “flesh” is more accurately translated as self-indulgences. His list includes both material self-indulgences such as fornication, envy, drunkenness and spiritual self-indulgences such as idolatry and sorcery. Paul explains that our Christian freedom does not give us unrestrained permission to do whatever it is we want to do. His point is that any actions that are taken in self-centered living and without love for the other just enslaves us and separates us from God.
The fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are what Paul describes as allowing true freedom. The risen Christ gives us the basis for understanding the meanings and relationships of servanthood, true freedom, love, and the Spirit. That basis is unconditional love. We believe that through that love we can move toward life in harmony with those other than ourselves. Our freedom through Christ is an opportunity to go beyond the demands of the law in order to love in the same way Christ loves us. This was the message the Galatians were not understanding.
All of us suffer from self-indulgence from time to time. Maybe it’s envy such as what van Meegeren felt. Maybe it’s jealousy, anger, idolatry, or quarrels and dissentions. Those self-indulgences are the forces in our lives that work in opposition to God’s will and keep us separated from God. When we are led by the Spirit, we are given a freedom that comes with love.
This was the lesson Jesus was trying to teach to James and John when they asked Jesus if they should “command fire from heaven to come down and consume” the Samaritans. Lk 9:54 The Samaritans considered themselves to be the descendants of the ancient Joseph tribes of Ephraim and Manasseh and the Levitical priests (the Levites). They remained faithful to Mosaic faith and viewed Judaism as an Israelite heresy. They did not view Jerusalem as the central place of worship. For the Samaritans, Shechem was their central city and Mount Gerizem was their sanctuary. So there was this angst, this discomfort, when people of Israel passed through their land.
When I read how Jesus set his face to go to Jerusalem, I thought of my parents trying to herd four kids plus a dog into our station wagon and all the other things that needed to be packed and loaded for our annual Thanksgiving trip to Dallas to visit his parents. My dad was determined to get off on time and take the best route. Jesus knew the best route was to go straight through Samaria to get to Jerusalem. He was just passing through and the fact the Samaritans didn’t receive him was not high on his list of things that offended him. He was looking ahead to the days to come. So Jesus rebuked James and John. They had missed Jesus’ lesson of loving without an agenda; of loving your neighbor as yourself.
To be free means we no longer are imprisoned by “me, myself, and I”. True freedom means we move beyond the self and move into love and service to the other. This freedom is not freedom from responsibility rather, it is freedom for responsibility. This is what Jesus Christ did for us in his death and resurrection.
As we leave this place and go out into the world, may we carry the mantle of the fruits of the Spirit and move in love and service to our brothers and sisters in our human family.