Summary: The Galatians (and we) may desire specific orders about how to live our lives (which the law provides), but God calls us to a life led by the Spirit, and we cannot know exactly how that will look.
We humans are sort of a funny bunch. Many of us love the thrill of the unknown. We like to take a good opportunity whenever it presents itself, even if that may mean changing our plans entirely. Young adults, those in my generation and younger, are notorious for waiting until the last minute to make any firm plans because there’s always the possibility that something better will come along. What’s sort of humorous about this human tendency is the fact that we actually lead happier, healthier lives when there is some order and structure.
Take children, for example. Study after study has shown that kids are happier and perform better in school when they get a good night’s sleep and eat a good breakfast. And children get better sleep when there is a regular nighttime routine to prepare the child for bed. I can tell you from experience that students enjoy school more when expectations are clear and the routine is predictable. If a child knows they need to concentrate on math in the morning but there will be a recess time after that, they will be able to focus better on math, rather than worrying and wondering when recess might pop up.
I imagine that at least to some degree these tendencies continue into adulthood. I, for one, cannot live without my calendar. Certainly, my daily routine varies from day to day and week to week, but as long as I can look at my calendar and mentally prepare for the week ahead, I am fine. Even as there is something within us that enjoys some spontaneity and fun, there is also something innate that craves order and structure.
For generations, the Jewish people had lived under the structure of the Jewish law; it might even be said that they thrived under the law. Paul’s opponents in Galatia tried to build on this human desire for order as they sought to discourage the Galatian Christians from following the gospel preached to them by Paul, and instead to stick with the law. In the midst of something very new and very different, the young Galatian Christians were undoubtedly uncertain about this business of following Christ. They surely wondered what it was to look like, especially since they had watched the Jewish people living under the guidance of the law for many years. And we have clearly seen through Paul’s letter that these new Christians were easily swayed in their early years as they pursued a path forward.
As a matter of fact, if the Galatians were looking for a detailed blueprint of how to order their lives, they might have found Paul’s letter disappointing compared to the teaching of his opposition. By contrast, Paul sketches only a few short strokes in his portrayal of a community guided by the Spirit. And now, having sought to set the Galatian churches straight, Paul brings his letter to a close. And the basic premise of the passage we have heard this morning is that the law might provide order and structure, but only a life led by the Spirit is a true Christian life.
Here’s the thing about a life led by the Spirit—it cannot be contained in some sort of comprehensive instruction manual; it can’t be ordered and structure in any sort of predictable way. If Paul had tried to do that, he would have effectively limited the power of God’s grace and undercut his own argument. Yet, even in the few short strokes of this passage, Paul has given us a remarkably rich account of some traits that might characterize the common life of a Spirit-led community. And it begins with the understanding that life according to the Spirit is not something that can simply be structured according to human expectations.
So what does it mean to live by the guidance of the Holy Spirit? Well, for one thing it is a life lived in community. We modern humans, particularly those of us raised in western culture, place a great deal of emphasis on independence. We can take care of ourselves, we can make it on our own, we don’t need anything or anybody. My sister was the embodiment of such cultural training when we were younger. My parents referred to her often by the nickname, Lindsay “I can-do-it-all-by-myself” Travis. But life in the Spirit is not a life of lonely striving, this is not a life that is restricted to a zone of privacy as so much of a worldly life is; rather, this is a life lived in community. The church, like an extensive family of brothers and sisters, is characterized by the interdependence of its members. And that means that we support one another in times of need, but also that we are willing to confront one another when necessary. This might seem offensive to our individualistic sensibilities, but because we are members of the body of Christ, our common welfare depends on the spiritual health of EACH member, and we all have a stake in helping one another walk faithfully as Christ’s disciples.