In the Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Sometimes it’s just hard to pay attention to what you’re supposed to be listening to. Your thoughts wander. You start thinking about what you’re having for lunch. You debate in your mind what you’re going to grill for the Labor Day barbeque. You might start feeling the weight of your own head. It might start bobbing back and forth. In a few moments you might feel a sharp poke in the ribs when the person sitting next to you throws an elbow your way. Some of you probably had that experience when you were listening to the epistle reading. Some of you are probably having that experience right now.
When it comes to the epistle, I can certainly relate. Who wouldn’t have trouble paying attention to it? It’s just a list of sins, and fifteen sins are listed without even a pause, it’s hard to be attentive to them. One blends in quite easily with the next. Our minds tend to focus on what we consider the “big ones.” Sexual immorality, sorcery, drunkenness, orgies. Those are big. Those are serious. These are the big headliner sins that get you on Oprah or an episode of Cops.
</span>Most of us have never stood around a boiling cauldron, muttered satanic incantations, and summoned demons to afflict people that have slighted us. But most of us have read a horoscope or used a Ouija board. Not all of us know what it’s like to be controlled by our desire for alcohol, but many of us have had at least one night that we drank too much and regretted it the next morning. Not all of us have engaged in extramarital sex, but our Lord tells us that if we think about someone other than our spouse lustfully that we’ve already committed adultery with them in our heart. All of us have done that at one time or another. It may have been while you were driving down the street or sitting in class. It also happens at home behind closed doors with a person looking at a computer screen. It can even happen with cell phones with built in cameras.
We are all guilty of the big sins. Even if they were the only ones that we listed, we would still all stand condemned. None of us is righteous, no, not one.
But if you look at the back of your bulletin you won’t find some of the sins printed in boldface and some of them shaded gray. Saint Paul isn’t willing to even let us distinguish in the list between “big” sins and “little” ones. There are no little sins. Every thought, word, or action against God’s holy Law condemns us absolutely. And if we probe even a little bit into the other sins, we’ll find that we are guilty of much more than we would have ever guessed.
One of the sins is translated as “envy.” Taken in that simple form, it’s already bad enough. Whenever we are upset that something good happened for someone else and not us, we engage in envy. We commit the sin of envy every time we do not rejoice with a friend at the blessings they have received. We commit it every time we think that the blessing should have been ours instead.
Envy also has a darker underbelly that’s even worse. The term you most often hear for it is Schadenfreude. Schadenfreude is taking joy in another person’s pain. While envy is the sin of becoming angry when God blesses someone, Schadenfreude is the sin of rejoicing when someone else suffers loss. This is the sin we engage in when we’re glad that so and so had a car accident. It’s what we do when we let ourselves feel glad that the team we beat in a football game feels lousy because they lost.
Another sin that hides in the middle of the list is “enmity.” Enmity literally means treating someone as if they are your enemy. In a good sense, it is what exists between Christ’s church and the forces of Satan. But here, Paul is talking about treating another human being as your enemy. But in Ephesians, Paul writes that our struggle is not against flesh and blood. Spiritually speaking we are to treat no one as our enemy. Every human being is a person for whom Christ died. Every human being is a person whom God chose to love on the cross even before even the foundations of the world were laid.
There are many ways we show enmity, but the most common is in the way we speak about others. Whenever we wish ill on someone or talk about them in a way that we hope will hurt their reputation, we are treating them with enmity. Whenever we desire anything less than the very best for someone, we are treating them as our enemy.
To treat a person whom God was willing to die to save as your enemy is to treat Christ’s saving work on the cross with contempt. It is to say that Jesus shouldn’t have died for them. It is to wish on them an eternity in hell.
At the end of his list of “the works of the flesh,” Saint Paul issues a terrifying warning to us. He says, “I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” Paul is talking about habitual and ongoing behavior. If the works of the flesh are your normal way of life, then you are no Christian. If when you make decisions, it’s the works of the flesh that are always the most desirable options, then the Holy Spirit has departed from you. If you live each moment gratifying only the desires of your sinful flesh, then you have already rejected the forgiveness of your sins.
It’s a harsh word. It’s a damning word. If Paul’s warning terrifies you, you’re not alone. It terrifies me too. The works of the flesh are present in all of us and they damn all of us.
If we judge our spiritual state on the basis of this list of sins, we are all lost. We have no hope. We have no way out. We will receive in our bodies the due penalty of our errors. We will burn in hell eternity because the works of the flesh are all that we ever really want to do. We know they are against God’s holy law, but we do them anyway. Most often, they are our whole desire.
This is why I think that perhaps the most crushing statement of all comes after Paul lists the works of the Spirit. He says, “Against these things there is no law.” If there is no law against these things, why is it that we are so lacking in them? The fruit of the Spirit is, “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” But our love fails, our joy peters out, our peace turns into wrath, our patience doesn’t last, our kindness is fickle, our goodness is tarnished, our faithfulness is temporary, our gentleness is short-lived, and all of this is due to the fact that we have no self-control at all.
Against these things there is no law. That’s the problem. They are good and wonderful fruits. They come from the Spirit. Because of this we think they’re no fun. We avoid them. There doesn’t need to be a law against something we don’t even want to do.
So where does this leave us? We live our days walking in the way of the flesh, and we hate all the fruit that the Spirit desires to work in us. Paul gives us the answer at the end, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
The answer isn’t working harder at being a good Christian. The answer isn’t treating the Bible as an instruction manual and hoping that by reading it you’ll learn how to live a godly life. God doesn’t rehabilitate sinners. God doesn’t teach us to be holy. God doesn’t construct a self-help program that’s supposed to make sinners into slightly less sinful people. None of that works. None of us are able, with God’s help or without it, to make ourselves less sinful, less wicked, or less ungodly.
There’s only one thing that can be done for us. We have to die. Our flesh has to be crucified with its passions and desires. This happened for each of us when we were baptized. Baptism is the place where God kills sinners and declares them to be Christians. In Baptism we drown. We are crucified with Christ. All of our sins are nailed to the tree. They are taken from us.
When the water hits us it kills us. But it’s not just plain water. It is water filled with God’s Word and connected to His mandate. It puts God’s Name on us. By baptism, the Father claims us as His dear children. We are clothed with Jesus and His righteousness. Baptism gives us what Christ won for us on the cross. All of our works of the flesh are gone forever. Jesus has forgiven them by His suffering and death on the cross.
When our bodies of flesh try to drag us into their wicked ways, we need only do one thing. We shout down Satan to His face. We say, “I am baptized. You have no power over me. Jesus has washed me with His own blood. He has forgiven my sins on the cross. He has promised that I will rise from the dead and live with Him for all eternity. All of this He’s delivered to me in baptism and I have His promise. You have no power over me.”
When Satan and his demonic horde see God’s name emblazoned on you, they can have only one response. Fear and terror. They must flee from you. You are a child of God by your baptism. You belong to Him. You are His forever.
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.