August 28, 2016

Sermon by the Rev. Amanda Currie

1 Corinthians 9:24-27
2 Peter 1:1-15
Luke 4:1-13

“The Fruit of the Spirit is Self-Control”

If there is one model of self-control for us to look to for inspiration, it has to be Jesus. After all, he is the one that the Apostle Paul described as being “tempted as we are, yet without sin.” Right from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, Luke’s Gospel tells us that he experienced temptation. He had just finished being baptized and receiving the gift of the Holy Spirit when the Spirit led him in the wilderness where he was tempted by the devil.

Now, another version of the story, in the Gospel according to Mark, says that the Spirit DROVE Jesus out into the wilderness, but in Luke’s Gospel the Spirit seems to play more of a supporting role, rather than being the force responsible for him being out there. Luke writes that the Spirit “led [Jesus] in the wilderness,” seemingly guiding him through the challenges and temptations that would come his way, and helping him to get through them.

Indeed, when Jesus returns from the Jordan after his baptism, Luke tells us that he was “FULL of the Holy Spirit,” and I cannot help but think that it was the Spirit’s presence within him that allowed him to successfully overcome the temptations. Making use of his knowledge of the Scriptures, Jesus refutes the devil’s offerings with firm convictions about God’s commands and what is right. And he doesn’t give in to the temptation to turn stones into bread when he is terribly hungry; the temptation to worship the devil, even if it will get him power over the kingdoms of the world; or the temptation to test God and God’s protection of him, even when he is clearly experiencing a difficult time.

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I don’t appreciate being given the model and example of Jesus when it comes to self-control. I know that Jesus is totally out of my league. He is patient, even when his disciples continually doubt or get confused about his message. He is kind, even when the crowds of people looking for his help threaten to overwhelm him. He is joyful, even when he is criticized for hanging around with the wrong kind of people. And he keeps on loving and being faithful to humanity, even when we reject him and put him to death.

I just don’t think that I can keep up with that kind of example of self-control, when I’m still struggling with little things like trying not to complain so much and not getting riled up about stuff like bad drivers or bad grammar.

But that’s why I like today’s passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians. I’m not an athlete, but I do find it helpful to think about our Christian life as a kind of race. The metaphor acknowledges that even with the gift of the Holy Spirit in our hearts, living lives that produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control takes a lot of effort.

If you watched some of the Olympic Games this summer, you were probably as amazed as I was with the physical fitness, mental concentration, and sheer determination of the athletes to win those medals for their countries.

In comparing the Christian life to a track and field event, Paul comments that “In a race, all the runners compete, but only one wins the prize.” And then he says, “Run like you want to win.”

That’s what the athletes need to do if they’re going to have any chance at all. They need to train and prepare like they can actually win. Even if it’s their first Olympics and they don’t have much chance at all, they have to convince themselves that they DO have a chance, and run like they really want to win. For Olympians, that means having a lot of self-control. I saw a t-shirt this week that highlights the single-mindedness that these athletes must have. It said, “EAT, SLEEP, TRAIN, REPEAT.”

And we heard about what happens when that self-control breaks down. One of the Dutch gymnasts did so well in the rings event that he qualified for the finals. And he was so happy about it that he went out that night to celebrate with his friends. I’m not sure how tired and hung-over he was the next morning, but enough so that his team noticed. And since he had lost his self-control and “gravely violated his team’s restrictions on alcohol consumption” he was expelled and not allowed to continue.

But for the rest of the Olympians… after all the exercising, and eating right, and training, and resting, and training some more… when it comes time for the race, these athletes need to get into the right head-space, and then run with all their might like they really want to win.

I’m sure that many of you saw the clip of André De Grasse (the Canadian sprinter) and Usain Bolt (the Jamaican, and fastest man in the world) as they crossed the finish line in an early heat of the 200 metre sprint. Although André was a young man at his first Olympics, his determination was amazing, and he was doing very well.

One of the things that some of the commentators pointed out was that André didn’t seem to be intimidated by the superstar Usain who was so much faster than everyone else. And so, even in that early heat, André ran like he really wanted to win. That was what caught Usain by surprise… that this little, young Canadian guy was running so fast that he might actually overtake him.

Usain still came across the finish line first, but he was smiling and wagging his finger at André, as if to say, “Oh you… trying to actually beat me, are you?” And André was just smiling back, as if to say, “Yup! I came to run like a really want to win, even in an early heat of the 200 metre race against the fastest man in the world.”

I don’t think I heard anyone suggest that André could win those sprints against Usain Bolt, but he certainly ran like it was a possibility, and he went home with a silver and two bronze medals, as well as the determination to keep working and training and running until he can get a gold next time.

And the Apostle Paul suggests that someone like André De Grasse makes a good metaphor for our efforts to live as followers of Jesus. We know that we are not going to be perfect or manage to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit at all times, but we must live like it is a possibility. We can’t give up.

Paul also points out that athletes run for a perishable wreath (with today’s equivalent being a gold medal) but followers of Jesus “run for an imperishable wreath.” Which raises the question, “What is the imperishable wreath – the eternal prize for which we are competing?”

One possibility is that the imperishable wreath is our eternal salvation – the opportunity to live in heaven forever with God. But there is a problem with that suggestion… And the problem is that we know, and Paul very clearly teaches elsewhere in the New Testament, that our salvation is not earned by our good works, by our great efforts, or by our natural abilities to do good works. Indeed, heaven cannot be earned, no matter how hard we try to demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit in all that we say and do. The promise of eternity with God comes from God’s grace alone in Jesus Christ.

But it seems to me that the passage from Peter’s second letter suggests what that imperishable wreath may actually be. When we live the Christian life with dedication, effort, and self-control, doing our best to manifest the fruit of the Spirit that is within us – when we “run the race like we want to win” so to speak – then we get to become “participants in the divine nature.”

It’s not a prize that we must wait to experience after death, but it is a prize we get to enjoy right away. When we put our utmost effort into living out the fruit of the Spirit, the prize is the opportunity to participate in God’s work, to embody the wonderful characteristics of God-self, to be a part of God’s living body in the world.

Peter tells us that because of God’s promises, we get to escape corruption, and participate in the divine nature. So he says we must make every effort to try to increase in goodness, knowledge, self-control, endurance, godliness, mutual affection, and love. (That’s a pretty similar list to the fruits of the Spirit we read about in Galatians.)

It seems like even if we know that we are not going to be perfect, we need to “run like we want to win” and perhaps in doing so, we will break a few records, or at least make a “new personal best.” And although at the Olympics, only the fastest sprinters get the medals, in the marathon of the discipleship life, the imperishable wreath is ours day-by-day as we strive to keep on going with Jesus leading us along the way.

This is not anything that any of you don’t already know. You know that it is not your goodness that earns you a spot in heaven, but it is God’s grace. And you also know that in response to God’s goodness and grace to us, we are called to do our absolute best in following Jesus day-by-day in gratefulness and joy for all that God has done for us.

But Peter reminded the early church about these things, and so I am reminding you. That’s a big part of why we come to worship Sunday after Sunday – to remind each other about God’s amazing love, and to remind each other about God’s challenging call, to encourage each other as we continue the Christian life – like athletes training together and cheering each other on in competition.

Peter tells the early Christians that God has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of Christ who called us by his own glory and goodness. We are like Olympic athletes who have everything going for them. We are like runners who have good nutrition, plenty of opportunity for rest, the right shoes, good coaches, financial backing, and the support of family, friends, and the whole country behind us.

We have the Scriptures to instruct us, the example of Jesus to inspire us, the Holy Spirit in our hearts to guide us, and the Christian community to remind us, encourage us, and even challenge us to do better and better.

May we run this race like we want to win, and may the Spirit bear abundant fruit in our lives. Amen.