What is the most powerful and pernicious temptation of the Christian life? The answer may surprise us because righteous and religious people tend to see sin and temptation in the usual places as the usual suspects: greed, gluttony, extramarital sex, sloth, pornography, envy, losing our temper, and the like. We experience them as “sins of weakness,” because in moments of temptation, the willingness of our spirits seems like no match for the weakness of the flesh. Looking back upon moments when we gave in to them, we feel and say that “something overcame me.”
Jesus never had a good word for these sins of weakness, so-called. He said that such defiling things come up out of the unclean-ness already in our hearts. But he reserved his most apocalyptic, hair-raising, fire-and-brimstone words and warnings for what we might call the “sins of power,” of the righteous and religious. I call it a “performance-based piety,” by which we seek to justify ourselves before God and others by our own performance of good works, to earn God’s love and favor by the means and expressions of his love and favor. These are the most tempting, damaging, destructive and divisive, insidious and seductive temptations precisely because they maquerade as virtue and faith, and they take advantage of the good and virtuous things we would hopefully do already, anyway, because they are expressions of God’s grace toward us.
That inevitably, unfailingly leads to a sort of piety parade, seeking to be justified in the eyes of God and others, in comparison to others, who must inevitably fall short of the example we set, if they are to make us look better by comparison. If we can’t see others who fall short of our virtue and our piety, then we’ll go find them. If that doesn’t work, then we’ll invent them. Or we’ll enlist them. We’ll fear them and judge them, no matter how hard they try, until they give up and accept the role assigned to them, as “them.”
We of Emmanuel Mennonite Church have committed ourselves in our vision statement to “choosing peace” and “extending hospitality.” So we must be all the more wary of this common but pernicious and persistent human temptation, to justify ourselves over and against enemies and inferiors, as it is the taproot of so much violence. Left to fester, it can go from violence of the heart toward others, to even the violence of the hand.
Jesus took the Pharisees to task for this tendency, while in today’s passage, the Apostle Paul is challenging this very same tendency among Gentile Christians in the churches of Galatia. Some interloper had followed Paul’s work there and insisted that the Galatian Christians lacked this one thing that would make their faith complete and assure them of God’s favor: the Jewish rite of circumcision.
Paul doesn’t pull any punches when he responds to this new teaching. After the customary greetings, he starts his letter with, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel which is really no gospel at all.” The problem, however, is not circumcision itself. In his letter he tells them, “Neither circumcision nor uncircumcision means anything; what counts is the new creation” (Gal. 6:15). But if we turn away from letting God justify us toward trying to justify ourselves yo God, then we will have also turned our backs on this “new creation.” We’ll have gone back to the same tired old performance-based piety. And that’s a form of idolatry, because it substitutes ourselves as our own saviors.
It doesn’t have to be circumcision. It can be about any other thing in law or religion. Some of us have experienced pressure from well-meaning Christians who told us that we needed to speak in tongues to fully know God’s favor. And I wonder and worry at times about if we have ever taught the Mennonite peace position in such a way that we communicated that other Christians who didn’t share that position were second-class Christians or not Christians at all. What a far cry that would be from where Paul began his moral discernment, by saying, “I am the chief of sinners.”
Now that I’ve identified what I think is the most divisive and destructive distraction, the most subtle and seductive temptation, a temptation of the spirit, what’s the antidote? What is the greatest anti-temptation? The sweetest, greatest and glorious alternative that Paul recommends?
It has to do with Paul’s seven words: “Not I but Christ lives in me….” In other words, our union and solidarity with Jesus, now and forever, or the union and communion of his Spirit within us, and among us, they are the antidote and the opposite of this performance-based piety. Its the difference between us living for Jesus, and Jesus living in us, and through us.
The difference can be subtle, and hard to recognize, because Christ lives in us through his Holy Spirit in such a gentle, respectable, peaceable way. He has no intent to overpower us, eliminate our personhood or personality, nor draw undue attention to himself. In the words of a song by Jesus Adrian Romero, the popular Mexican singer, “No sé dónde comienzas tú; no sé dónde termino yo,” that is, “I don’t know where you begin, I don’t know where I end.” When Paul writes about “Christ, who lives in me” then, we’re not talking about something like some sci-fi film, “The Invasion of the Body Snatchers,” in which some alien force dramatically takes us over, obliterates our personalities and turna us into automatons and robots. No, Christ indwells us in such ways as to make us more our true, unique selves than would be the case whenever we let the fashions, follies and fears of society fill us and run our lives. It only stands to reason that our Creator would know better how we might be and become our own true selves better than anyone else would, or even we might.
So how do we get from the inevitably violent performance-based piety to its inevitably peaceful antidote of “Christ living in me?” It takes a cross. For “I am crucified with Christ,” Paul says. By which he means some dying, in this life, while we yet live. Dying to all the other persons and powers that would want to live their lives through us.
Paul went through a dying of sorts when the Crucified Christ confronted him on the road to Damascus and demanded to know, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” and so turned him from his persecutor to his apostle. Paul would later say that, “I die daily,” by which he meant the costs he paid and the sufferings he endured for his calling, by way of stonings, ship-wrecks and whippings, beatings and imprisonments. Those sufferings and setbacks, those obstacles and opposition were his cross. As terrible as they were, they served to disengage him and disenchant him from all the performance-based popularity parades by which people often seek justification from each other, as well as from the performance-based piety on which he once based his life. That’s how he could say that, “I die daily.”
I would wish no such sufferings on anyone. I’ve often wondered how it was that Paul emerged from them without despair and cynicism. The answer again must be in the seven words, “Not I but Christ lives in me.”
Which confronts me with the question, “Whose life is it, anyway?” Its a question we must keep asking, because the answer again might surprise us. We may think of ourselves as self-made people. But all sorts of people wish to live their lives through ours, and they know how to make that happen, like the false teachers who had infiltrated the churches of Galatia. That’s what advertizing is about, or many paid political announcements. Some 90 years ago, the world’s dirtiest book was penned and published. Through it the author sought to inject his rabid antisemitism, his fear and loathing of other races, and his will to dominate the world into his readers, so that they would carry out his violent agenda for him. He largely succeeded, beyond his wildest dreams, millions of people willingly let him live out his feverish fantasies through theemselves, at the cost of scores of millions of lives. The author was Adolf Hitler, the book was Mein Kampf, and for a brief period it became more widespread in German homes and schools than the Bible. Looking back we ask, “How and why did people let him into their heads and hearts?” And “What gives him the right to live his feverish fantasies of hate through other people? Who does he think he is, God Almighty? Or Jesus Christ? Whose life is it, anyway.”
So its not a question of if people will try to use us for their own ends and live out their lives through us. Its only a matter of when, and who. And will we let them? It even seems like the worse some people’s agenda is, the more subtle, seductive and effective they are at enlisting people and taking them over. So, of course we should be careful.
But what if someone who offered us the gift of his life through ours had already demonstrated his complete and perfect good will, and his power to deliver what he promised, namely, love, truth and peace? Say, someone who had walked on water, raised the dead, and when he was put to death for it, offered no violent resistance but prayed for his executioners? What if he is God Almighty, whom we know through Jesus Christ?
Such a one is already present among us and within us, someone who, as Paul said, “loved me and gave himself for me.” I can tell his effect on our lives by our presence here this morning, and our faith, hope and love for him. By his Spirit he already has access to the deepest levels of our own spirits. And yet he does not take advantage of that access to overwhelm us nor to take away our freedom, power or personality. If anything, he respects them and even augments then. He is persistent and patient, but also as respectful and gentle as a lover courting his beloved. As we surrender over time the parts and pieces of our souls and spirits to him, he blesses them with the gifts that he promised, of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, humility…” the fruit of His Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Then, wonder of wonders, the more we are his, the more we are ourselves. He is Jesus the Lord, whom Paul said, “lives in me.”
I hope this doesn’t sound too mystical or mysterious. I’m not saying much that is different from what the third step of AA or other 12 step groups mean when they say, “We made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood Him.” Then the Christian life again is not so much something we try to live for God, but which God lives through us.
Thinking in those terms has changed at least one thing for me this week. I’m often only a little way into my daily prayers when my mind fills up with duties and demands of the coming day. And then, as my anxiety increases, I typically pray, “O Lord, please help me do X, Y and Z, so that I might do them for you, and do them well.” That may be more a prayer of anxiety, than of faith. It may well be another example of performance-based piety, rather than of inviting and letting Christ live in me.
But these words in Gal. 2: 20 encouraged me this week to pray differently, to pray more like this: “Lord, more important than anything I might do for you, however good, is whatever you would do through me. So I invite you now to live more of your life through more of me, as much as you wish to move into and make your own. If, in the course of living your life through me, you want to do something other than what I have planned, then I’m willing to let it go. You can take my precious agenda today, the one in which I have invested so much of my pride and fear, and nail it to the cross if you wish. For I am no longer my own; you purchased me on the cross, and there, in your eyes, I died with you to everything and everyone else who wishes to live their lives through mine. For its really your life after all. Amen.”