Walk in the Spirit

MP3 Audio:  WS330308_Fr-Michael_Walk-in-the-Spirit.mp3

This homily was preached on Sunday morning, October 6, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.


Epistle Reading:  Galatians 5:16-24

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is One.

From this morning’s epistle:
“But I say walk by the Spirit, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” 

All of us are being led by someone or something.

Sometimes the person leading us, is leading us to a very good thing, sometimes toward not so good things, but we are all are being led somehow along the line. We are also–most of us at one time or another will be leaders, in the sense that people will, for whatever reason, imitate us, our behavior, our faith, our belief.

You know, St. Paul, in one of his epistles,very boldly tells the people he’s writing to, “Be imitators of me,” pattern your lives on me. Which I, quite frankly, wouldn’t have the guts to do. But that’s why he’s an apostle saint and I am not.

So all of us are being led somewhere by something, even if we are not conscious of it. Perhaps it may be for many people, a politician, it might be a religious leader. And that can sometimes be very good and sometimes very, very bad, if you listen to some of the guys on contemporary television right now. I’m thinking specifically of Joel Osteen, and people like that who have just gone off the edge.

Perhaps it’s the news media. I was having the typical argument with my son during the evening news, since we tend to take different positions on things, his incorrect, mine correct. He asked me, “Why are you watching that news program?” I answered, “I watch four different news programs, from left to the right. Only a fool would take his news from one source, because nobody’s got it all, for heaven’s sake. But I happen to agree with what these people are saying, more than I agree with the other people.”

You’d be amazed at the numbers of people who are swayed in what you might regard as basic core convictions, because of something they see on television, without trying to see if there is some kind of counter-balancing information coming from anywhere else. And I’m talking about people being swayed from basic Christianity, because they have seen something on the History channel which repeats some rumor, gossip, and innuendo from history, as if it were fact. And they say, “Oh God, if it’s on T.V., it must be true!”

So Paul is talking here about–spiritually at least–two ways in which we are led. Either we are going to walk in the Spirit, which means we are walking with God, we are living the life of the Holy Trinity, we are seeking God and His Kingdom

Or, we are going to walk after the flesh. Now, it’s important to understand what he means by “flesh” here. He is not talking about physical body so much; in Greek, that’s “soma”. In Greek, “flesh” is “sarx”, and the word he’s using here is the sarx word. And what he’s talking is not so much the body, he’s not condemning the body as some of the gnostic groups back in those days did, he’s not saying the body is bad, evil, or dirty. But what he’s saying is that the works of the flesh are basically those passions, those sins, those activities which we are drawn into because of the fall, and because of what has been let loose in the entire creation, which is contrary to where God would like to have us go. It’s absolutely contrary to God’s expectations, and this has been the case from Adam and Eve on. In their case, they were led down the wrong path by the serpent, who got them to eat from the wrong tree in the Garden of Eden.

Since then, it doesn’t take a lot. We can fall in for the works of the flesh very, very easily, because on many levels they’re more fun, they’re more enjoyable, and they titilate us a bit more than the works of the Spirit.

When he says the “works of the flesh,” he’s talking about essentially living our lives as if the Incarnation had never happened, as if Christ had never come, as if our salvation had never been accomplished.

I mean, you can give some excuse to some of the people in the Old Testament who hadn’t yet encountered the true and living God, except through something like the Law. In fact, he will refer to this as you go down, because it’s a little bit like telling a child, “No, you can’t have another cookie.” Or, “Whatever you do, do not think of a three-armed brass monkey with a diamond in his forehead.” Because you’re immediately going to think of a three-armed brass monkey with a diamond in his forehead. And that’s kind of what the Law did. The Law set down all of these things which were not up to God’s expectations. But the mere fact of setting them down, for some people, was enough to say, “You know, I’ve got to try that, at least one time. I’ve got to try that coveting-my-neighbor’s-wife thing just once. Just once, you know, ok? That’ll be it. But just one time.”

So he talks, he goes ahead, and he enumerates all of the desires–what he calls “the works of the flesh”–which he says are against the Spirit. Now, he’s being very clear here: this is an either/or situation. Either you are going to be walking with the works of the Spirit or the works of the flesh. And he lists the works of the Spirit.

Now the works of the flesh are plain: fornication, impurity–that’s the New Testament code word for gay sex and any other kind of [illicit] sex–licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit–he’s actually really not referring to either the Democratic or Republican conventions, he’s talking about what can happen within Christian communities. And I have just been through this in [another mission] for the last six months. We have had a real battle in that mission between a small group of people who were determined not to have the community go in the direction it wanted to go. I think we have turned the corner. It has been very bloody. We have lost people. The community has been harmed. Individuals have been harmed. That’s the kind of party spirit that he is talking about here.

Envy, drunkenness  carousing and the like–I think that’s the tag-all for whatever else you don’t think of there as being works of the Spirit. I went to the Episcopal seminary with a fellow that I still know, who wrote down on a test that “fornication was sex outside of marriage” and “adultery was sex when you were married.” He is now the dean of a cathedral. Ok, good. Yeah. Nice guy, but dumb.

All of these are things which pull us away from focusing on God. Whether it’s some kind of sexual impurity, or overeating, or porn on the computer, or whatever, all of these works of the flesh have come about because of Adam’s fall, because sin and corruption and therefore guilt have been let loose into the creation. And like I said, it’s almost like telling a child, “No, you can’t have that cookie”. You get these very obvious rules as to how God expects us to live, and we just feel as if we have to push against it.

And if you get enmeshed in them–and all of us have at one time or another, and may be now–if you’re enmeshed in them, you know how hard it is to break them. And in fact, you can’t break them on your own. We talk in the Orthodox tradition about the passions. And the passions, a passion, is any sin that has become habitual, that has become as much a part of your daily routine as brushing your teeth in the morning. That’s what a passion is.

Now we may sin and fall and repent and overcome the sin, but if it’s on the level of a passion, it’s got its roots into our soul, it’s got its roots into our heart. And it’s like trying to pull up some of the weeds out of my garden that I try. I mean, we have big, tall, old oak trees all over our property, hundred-foot-tall-if-not-more pine trees, and if I try to go plant something, the roots of all of these are all over the place, and dug-in. And I’ve got to chop them out in order to put another plant–a flower or something like that–in. That’s what happens with the passions. It’s got its tendrils all through you, all through your soul, all through your heart, and all even into your mind. And it’s very, very difficult to break.

And then he goes on, and he talks about, “Ok, what are the fruits of the Spirit?”

And he says, “I warn you as I have warned you before about the works of the flesh. You do these things, you cannot inherit the kingdom of God.” Ok, there’s no wishy-washy here. You do these things, you’re not getting into the kingdom.

So, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, self-control, against such there is not law,” by which he means there is no law to kick against. There is no law forbidding these things. People kick against the law because it says, “No, you can’t be impure, you cannot have fornication, you cannot commit adultery,” all of these things which are forbidden by the law. And we push back against that and say, “Wanna bet?” 

But against the works of the fruits of the Spirit, there is nothing condemning these things. They are open to us. They are free to us, if you wish to join our life of God’s grace and enjoy them. Therefore, they’re not nearly as attractive as the other things which we allow to get ourselves enmeshed into.

These are not necessarily set up one against the other. I mean, love against adultery, this against that, or what have you. But it’s just a list of the things that, if we cooperate with God’s grace in our lives, we can experience.

How many times? Well, I can testify to the fact that love grows. I don’t basically like people. Never have really liked people, frankly. And that’s not as odd as it sounds, to become a priest. Your initial attraction is to the pretty clothes, the incense, all that good stuff. And you regard Christians as a necessary evil in the Church, but, you know, ok. You wish that they weren’t there, but you know, that’s what you gotta do. Like my daughter who is a fantastic nurse, can’t stand people, but somehow she works on people. But as you get into the life of the Holy Trinity, as you come to confession, as you prepare yourself for communion, as you really seek to allow Christ’s love to work through you, you find your ability to love to expand, it grows. It can grow beyond your own immediate family. We have adopted children, which has on several occasions really annoyed my natural daughter. And I have to sit down and explain to her, the more you love, the more capacity for love you have. It really is a given in God’s kingdom.

So, yeah, I can now really, you know, with most of the people I am dealing with–one or two who are annoying–but you know, I genuinely love you guys. I love the other guys. I love people that I encounter. And I do that, not because I’m a naturally touchy-feely guy, I am not. But because Christ’s love more and more has rooted itself in my heart. And I fail many, many times. I fail more with my immediate family, who are my first responsibility, than anybody else. But I know that I have grown in that, and am better at it then I have been. How many times have you longed for joy, for peace, for patience, with children, with spouses, with friends, with co-workers? All of these are the things that are laid down for us, as the signs that we are growing.

There’s only one genuine test of spiritual growth:
Are you sinning less? And are you loving more? That’s all.

If you find yourself growing–however incrementally, and that may be one very slow step at a time–in love, if you find more peace in your life even though it seems slow and retarded, if you find yourself being able to be kinder, then that’s a good sign that you actually are following the lead of the Holy Spirit, that you’re living the life of the Holy Trinity, and seeking to live not according to your will, but according to God’s expectations, which are His will for us.

The question is, “How do we get from being wrapped up in these works of the flesh, to expressing these fruits of the spirit?”

You have to seek purity of heart.

And I can guarantee you probably don’t understand what purity of heart is. We hear the word “purity” in our culture, and we immediately think of something sexual or sensual. It’s a cultural disease. And that’s not what purity is talking about. That’s part of it. When Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” He’s not saying if you’ve never picked up a copy of Playboy, you’re home free.

Purity of heart means that you have only one love in your life, and that is God. And because of that, you have room in your heart for many, many other loves. It means singleness of purpose. 

We talked last night about Mary in the temple. And we talked about her being pure of heart, so that when the angel Gabriel came and spoke to her, there was no division in her heart about what she said. I don’t know when the last time you talked to an archangel was, but the last time I did, he really put the fear of God into me. You know, it’s not something you just go, “Well, alright, sure, if I’m gonna do that, I’m free this Thursday, we’ll try to do that.” I mean, here is one of the most pivotal events in the creation, and he tells this young teenage girl, “You’ve been chosen to bear God’s Son.” But she was prepared for that, because her heart was single of purpose, and the purpose of her heart was to be one with God.

If something is pure,what is it? It’s all of what it’s supposed to be. Pure gold is gold with nothing else mixed into it, no silver, no copper, nothing. Pure whatever is something which is not mixed up with anything else. And the problem is, that with our hearts, and because we have allowed the works of the flesh to get themselves rooted into our hearts, our hearts are bitterly divided. They are divided between God and this world. They are divided and therefore they are not single, they are not one. They are not pure.

We say that Mary was pure of heart, not just because she never had sex with anybody–there’s nothing wrong with having sex with somebody if you’re married to them–but because everything in her heart was focused on being obedient to God’s will. That’s why we regard her as being pure in heart.

So when Jesus says, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God,” who’s the first person you’re gonna think of? The one who was so focused, so intent on God’s purposes, that she said “Yes”–not blindly, because she asked a couple of questions–but said “Yes” when God called her to this tremendous work of becoming the earthly mother of an uncreated God.

So we seek purity of heart, by seeking to remove those things that divide our heart.
You  must love God above everything.

You love God above your spouse, you love God above your children, you love God above your friends, but by doing so, it makes it possible for you to love spouse, children and friends more than you ever had before.

You just can’t do that with your love. If you commit yourself absolutely to God, to living the life of the Holy Trinity, it’s His love that fills your heart. If we loved with our own love, we would love very little. If we loved with our own desire to love, we’d love very, very little. Only God’s love can flow through us, and this is our great gift by virtue of baptism and Chrismation and the sacraments.

Only God’s love can truly take up residence in our hearts. But if–because we’re fearful that maybe we won’t be able to love others–we hold back from that, if we say, “Fine, I’ll give You everything else, but I’m going to keep this relationship to myself,” then your heart is divided. And if your heart is divided, you cannot walk in the Spirit, you cannot be transformed, you cannot have love, peace, joy, kindness, all the things that are listed as fruit of the Spirit, except maybe in really tiny portions, which may come to you because God is trying to get across to you what you could have.

You want to move from the works of the flesh to the fruit of the Spirit? Make your heart one with God. Be single in your desire and your purpose. Follow Him and His will to the best of your ability. And if you do that, you’ll find the best of your ability getting deeper and broader and better able to follow Him. You’ll be able to overcome all of those things that are rooted in your heart which distract you. And, by the way, there’s nothing wrong with overcoming one thing at a time. Many of you are struggling against gluttony, or lust, or several things at one time. Work on one at a time, that’s okay. God understands this. You don’t have to get holy by Thursday. Friday will do.

So, you just do the best you can. But open your heart to God so that He can dwell there, and so fill it with Himself and His loving presence, that nothing else can creep in there and kind of edge out of the way and divide your heart again.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, God is One.  Amen.


This homily was preached on Sunday morning, October 6, 2013,
at Christ the King Orthodox Church in Omaha, Illinois, by Fr. Michael Keiser.

About Fr Joseph Gleason

I serve as a priest at Christ the King Orthodox Mission in Omaha, Illinois, and am blessed with eight children and one lovely wife. I contribute to On Behalf of All, a simple blog about Orthodox Christianity. I also blog here at The Orthodox Life.
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