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Sermon preached by Reverend Neil Bramble Chapman

Human Nature

Sermon 27/06/04 Rev'd Neil Bramble-Chapman

One of my favourite TV programmes is Robot Wars and in this show two robots fight with the intention of inflicting as much damage as possible on the other, hoping that in the process they will disable their opposition. They fight it out in an arena, which is their battlefield. I am also reading a book at the moment about life on the battlefields of the First World War, describing life in the trenches, the mud and terrible conditions the men lived in, the effect which their experiences had on their lives. Wilfred Owen is famous for his war poetry and in his poem “Anthem for Doomed Youth” he evokes life on the battlefields with these words:

“What passing bells for those who die as cattle?
Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.”

Paul in his letter to the Galatians in chapter 5 describes how our human lives are like a battlefield. The arena of warfare between what Paul calls the flesh or the sinful nature and the Spirit is written within our lives. The battle between these two natures within, is played out in our lives.

Paul has argues that we have been set free from slavery to sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Chapter 5 vs.1 says, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Paul asserts that we must not, therefore, be bound to any other form of slavery. The slavery that the Galatian Christians were beginning to be bound to was the Law, the Jewish Torah, and the belief that Salvation came through a meticulous observance of the law in all its aspects.

Just as an aside, I wonder whether we have things in our lives which we have become enslaved to? When does a hobby or a pastime which we enjoy become an obsession which rules and dominates our lives? Just think for a moment about your life and reflect whether their is anything to which you are enslaved or might be tempted to be enslaved to.

Paul knows from his own conversion experience on the Road to Damascus that the Law and observance of the Law do not bring Salvation, for it led him to persecute Christians. So here he argues from his own experience and understanding that the Law is not enough, it is only through Christ that Salvation comes.
Paul also sets out for us the struggle which we all know within our lives, the struggle to do right, to live the right kind of life. For Paul it is as if these two parts of us are in opposition with each other and we know this from our own experience of our almost daily struggle with sin and temptation. Verses 16 and 17 of Chapter 5 stress this conflict within our lives:

“So I say live by the Spirit and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want.” Paul has struggled with this inner battle in his letter to the Romans where he states in Chapter 7 vs. 19 “For what I do is not the goo I want to do, no the evil I do not want to do, this I keep doing”

Paul continues in Galatians to draw out the conflict between the sinful nature and the Spirit, one is a life lived for and under God and the other is a life lived for and under that which is not God. Our sinful nature draws us away from God and the Spiritual nature draws us closer to God.

We are given a list of representative vices which the sinful nature seeks to indulge in, which include, impurity, debauchery, hatred, jealousy, factions and selfish ambition. It is not meant to be an exhaustive list and it was quite common at the time to just give a list of a few vices which stood for all vices. However the ones that are mentioned may have been particularly relevant to the Galatian context. Similarly, Paul outlines a list of representative virtues by which we are encouraged to live and we are informed that the Spirit produces these within us. Again the list is not exhaustive, but may have been particularly relevant to the Galatian Church and indeed are relevant to any and all churches and individuals.

Paul speaks of love, which is not grasping and possessive, but generous and giving; joy which is not a fixed and insincere grin in the face of adversity, but shows confidence and trust in God; peace which conveys so much more than the mere absence of violence, but also health, well-being and prosperity and also of kindness and generosity, which concern doing good for others.

In attempting to give some kind of answer as to how we might not live by the sinful nature, Paul emphasises that we must live in and by the Spirit, vs. 18 “But if you are led by the Spirit you are not under the Law” and vs. 25 “Since we live by the Spirit let us keep in step with the Spirit.” The answer to the spiritual and Ethical problem which lies before us, the way to victory in the battlefield of our lives, is not the Law, the Torah of rigidly adhering to any set of rules, but living life in the Spirit, which is given to us in and through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Overcoming the sinful nature within us is something which we can neither do easily nor on our own, but only through the power of the Holy Spirit and the Death and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I would like to finish with a story for you to take home, one that I hope will sum all this up better than I could. Paul J. Nuechterlein Delivered at Redemption Lutheran, Wauwatosa, WI, July 1, 2001.

It is a story that Lutheran writer and teacher Walter Wangerin, Jr. tells about his son Matthew when he was in elementary school. Matthew had developed a problem with his desire for comic books such that he was stealing them. And Pastor Wangerin tried on three occasions to use the law in getting Matthew to stop stealing comic books. But, as Pastor Wangerin once put it: the Law can shame you, the Law can blame you, the Law can restrain you, but it cannot change you. It cannot give you real freedom.

The first time Pastor Wangerin discovered that his son Matthew was stealing comic books was during one of their night-time prayer times. He glanced down to see Matthew's bottom dresser drawer ajar, and filled with comic books. He knew that he and his wife hadn't bought Matthew so many comic books, and so he needed to investigate. He leafed through them to find that they were all stamped with the Evansville Public Library stamp. In other words, his son Matthew had been checking these books out without bothering to check them back in. He was stealing them.

So Pastor Wangerin called the librarian to tell her what his son had done and to ask if she could help by laying down the law to his son. She was a very good librarian. So Matthew traipsed across the street under his burden of many comic books, and Carolyn Outlaw, the tall, stern librarian excellently explained the law to Matthew.

But Matthew did not stop stealing comic books. The second time they discovered this fact was after having spent a summer in St. Louis where Pastor Wangerin had been a guest lecturer at the seminary. Matthew had apparently spent his summer going to the corner drug store and stealing comic books; and he had even somehow managed to smuggle them all back to Evansville. So explaining the law to Matthew had to fall to Pastor Wangerin himself this time. It was no longer practical to return these books to their rightful owner several hundred miles away, but neither was it right for Matthew to keep them. So Pastor Wangerin started a fire in the fireplace and began to preach to Matthew on the Seventh Commandment, "Thou Shalt not Steal," while dramatically tossing those comic books into the fire one at a time (the flair for the dramatic being something he learned from his mother). Did the raging fire perhaps remind Matthew of ... hell?

When they discovered Matthew stealing comic books a third time, Pastor Wangerin and his wife Thanne were beside themselves. How could they make their son to understand the law? How could they make him to follow the law? Pastor Wangerin decided it was time for drastic measures, something they rarely resorted to: spanking. He brought Matthew into the room and explained again to him the law against stealing, and its dire consequences, and then he spanked him. Matthew's body went stiff as a board, but he did not cry or show signs of remorse. Would he finally change? In his despair, Pastor Wangerin left the room, and he cried.
It was a number of years later and Matthew and his mother were driving in the car, having one of those discussions in which many of the sentences begin, "Remember the time...." Suddenly Matthew mentioned the times he had been stealing comic books, noting that he had finally stopped. But he followed with a curious question: "Do you know why I stopped?" "Sure," said his mother, "Dad finally spanked you."
"No!" said Matthew. "It was because Dad cried. Dad cried."

The Law can shame you, the Law can blame you, the Law can restrain you, but it cannot change you. It cannot give you real freedom. Only God's love in Jesus Christ can begin to change us, can begin to give us real freedom. Amen