Proper 8 (June 26-July 2)
Texts: Galatians 5:1, 13-25;
Luke 9:51-62; 1 Kings 19
ETHICS AND THE HIGHER POWER
According to St. Paul, ethics and morality are less about knowing the do’s and don’ts and more about aligning yourself with the correct Higher Power. The greatest Higher Power is God’s love, and so Paul says that the law, the ethics we live by, can be boiled down to one sentence: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
The two Higher Powers that Paul names are Flesh, with a capital F, and Spirit. The power of the Flesh is a typical human being living according to desires that get tangled up with the desires of others. And so the Flesh leads to envy, conflict, violence, and death. Being in conflict with others leads to constant Us-vs-Them thinking that diminishes human life.
The Spirit, on the other hand, is Paul’s way of naming the Higher Power of God’s love. When we open ourselves to that power, and strive to live in that power, love helps us to untangle from the desires of others, leading to greater harmony and working to help life flourish.
Let’s step away from Paul’s naming of Higher Powers as Flesh and Spirit, for a moment, and think about some powers that might be more familiar. By “Higher Power,” we’re talking about anything more powerful than the powers of a lone individual. Many higher powers are familiar things that help to order our lives together.
Traffic laws, for example. If you or I get caught breaking a traffic law, the higher power of the State can hand down consequences to us in the form of tickets or even jail. Traffic laws are higher powers that we ordinarily want to obey, because they help keep everyone safe. Even if we don’t get caught breaking these laws, there can be even more terrible consequences than tickets or jail, like a fatal car accident.
A power even higher than traffic laws would be the United States Constitution, a covenant by which all American citizens agree to live by — with the Supreme Court being the final judge on how to interpret the Constitution for ordering every facet of our lives. We proudly say that we are a nation that lives by the Rule of Law.
So: Is there any Higher Power for us United States citizens than the Constitution? Many would say, “God’s Law.” But in the Letter to the Galatians, Paul is arguing that things aren’t as simple as saying that God’s Law trumps everything else. In fact, he as a Jew had been very much zealous for God’s law, or what he thought was God’s law. Then, one day on the road to Damascus — when he was still known as Saul instead of Paul — Jesus appeared to him and confronted him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” Paul had been using God’s law to persecute Christians, and therefore Jesus himself! So his very point of conversion led to suspicions and questions about “God’s law.”
In Galatians he names the Flesh and the Spirit as even higher powers than God’s law. If we are under the power of the Flesh, we can begin to use even something good like God’s law in the service of bad things, like wrongly persecuting others. The Law under the power of the Flesh leads to the Us-vs-Them thinking which keeps us mired in violence and death.
But under the power of the Spirit, we discover that God’s Law leads to only one thing, Love. Jesus himself says this in all four of the Gospels. In two weeks, our Gospel Reading will bring us one of those moments. When a lawyer comes up to Jesus asking fundamental questions about God’s law, they sum it up in love: love God and one’s neighbor. When the lawyer then asks, “But who is my neighbor?”, Jesus responds by telling him the beloved Parable of the Good Samaritan. So in two weeks, we’ll get another version of what Paul is trying to help us understand this morning.
We began this morning with what I take to be Paul’s main point in this passage: namely, ethics and morality are less about knowing the do’s and don’ts and more about aligning yourself with the correct Higher Power.
Let’s quickly consider an example that’s familiar to us: Most of us are touched by someone in our lives, perhaps ourself, that suffers from alcoholism. The only thing that has proved truly effective for healing alcoholism are the Twelve Steps of Alcoholic’s Anonymous. Beating alcoholism is almost never as simple as following do’s and don’ts. It hardly ever works for an alcoholic to simply decide not to drink. And so the first and most important Step of A.A. is to admit that alcohol itself has become a Higher Power. Here’s the first three steps of A.A.:
• Step 1: We admitted we were powerless over alcohol — that our lives had become unmanageable. . . .
• Step 2: We came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. . . .
• Step 3: We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God.
Do you see how these steps say exactly what we’ve said about ethics and morality? Beating alcoholism is not primarily about do’s and don’ts. It’s about aligning yourself with a Higher Power that can help you say no to alcohol. For many in A.A., that’s God. For those in A.A. who don’t believe in God, the Higher Power can be the power of the group process itself. Helping one another to a life of sobriety is itself a Higher Power. Quite simply, it works. It works like nothing else has worked to bring healing to those suffering from alcoholism. As a pastor, I’ve seen this over and over again.
So let’s finish this morning by thinking about Paul’s guidance in terms of the Twelve Steps of A.A. Being part of this church community is like being members of Sinner’s Anonymous. We recognize that we are susceptible to the power of what Paul calls the Flesh. We may not fall into all the terrible don’ts that Paul names for us in verses 20-21. But we will fail on some of them unless we align ourselves with the power of Spirit. Our lives are committed to making “a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God” and God’s power of love. Notice that Paul doesn’t name any do’s or don’ts when he talks about the fruits of the Spirit. Essentially, the fruits of the Spirit are themselves higher powers which help us to flourish. Let’s hear these wonderful fruits one more time: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. May we live lives guided by the Spirit. Amen.
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Bethlehem Lutheran Church,
Muskego, WI, June 26, 2022