“FRUITS OF THE SPIRIT: SELF-CONTROL”
Romans 7: 18-25
The Reverend Phillip Blackburn
October 9, 2016
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Why do you go to Church? Think about it for a minute. Why are you here every Sunday? Do you come to church because it is what you do? Do you come because you believe in the institution? Do you come because it makes your week feel better when you do? I mean it, why are you here? For quite some time in our country we never really considered this question, the question of why church? For most of you, when you were growing up, you just went. Your mother and father went, so you went. And then you just kept going. But today things are different. Today there are many more questions being asked about the value of Church itself. Does going to church really make you a better Christian? Does it draw you closer to God? Is it still a vital means of practicing our faith? Now, of course you know how I feel about this, but let’s consider the issue for just a minute. Why are so many people, and not just people outside the church but inside Christianity as well, asking these questions?
Well, for that answer I think we have to look at the world around us. As you know, confidence in institutions is crumbling. Just this past weekend, as Hurricane Matthew bore down upon Florida, a well-known internet blogger suggested that NOAA, that’s the National Weather Service which tracks such things, was inflating the magnitude of the storm to promote the idea of climate change. This is what I mean, we’ve gotten to the point where we can look out the window and see a hurricane, but still question the institution who exists primarily for the purpose of studying, predicting and warning about hurricanes. Our belief in institutions is at an all-time low. So, here is the thing. If the Church, the American Church and our little congregation, want to be seen as an institution, if we want to view ourselves as an institution; if we want to relate to ourselves as an institution, then we might as well close our doors, because ain’t nobody interested in being a part of an institution.
So if we aren’t an institution, and if nobody wants to be part of an institution, then what are we? Well, let me say this, Jesus never set out to create an institution. Nor did the apostle Paul intend to create some monolithic structure that is “CHRISTIANITY.” No. What they set out to create was a movement, and more specifically, a community. The Church is supposed to be a community, and that is something far different, and in truth far more vital in our times, than an institution. If the Church were functioning in our society as a true community, shaped by the Holy Spirit and pointing back to Jesus Christ, then I suggest we wouldn’t be having these conversations about the utility of the Church at all, because if someone is in authentic community the last thing they want to do is throw it away.
And this brings us to the fruit of the Spirit. We are going to spend a lot of time on the Fruits of the Spirit over the coming week, and Tasha and I hope that you will let these fruit take hold in your life and in your behavior and in all your communities as we enter a period of what I have scientifically named, “national freak-out” as we come to the election. Don’t freak out. Instead of freaking out, let us consider the very nature of who we are called to be, not just as individual Christians but as the community that is First Presbyterian Church.
The fruit of the Spirit, you see, are all about community, and today we are focusing upon the last of those fruit, self-control. Self-control is not a big theme in Scripture but it does pop up occasionally, and perhaps nowhere more clearly than in Romans, where Paul seems to be in mid freak out as he tries to change the thinking of the Roman church. Paul is making his case for the significance of the Spirit in the life of the believer and he points out, rightly, that without the Spirit, the believer is trapped. Paul found himself trapped between being a slave to sin, which ran roughshod over his body, and a slave to the Law, which existed in his mind but, inevitably, only pointed him back to sin. Thus his solution is to be a slave to the Spirit. Well, that is all well and good, but Paul also recognizes the problems he has, namely, that he does not do what he wants to do. That is, he has no self-control. He does not do what he wants to do. And how many of us understand this. Think for a moment of all the things you want to do but do not do; all the ways you want to better yourself, all the unfulfilled goals which still lie unachieved. We do not do what we want to do, and thus we come to self-control.
And in a community, a lack of self-control can be toxic, because ideally we understand that for a community to thrive, everyone within it needs to be able to set aside their own impulses for the greater good. If we define self-control as the ability to discipline one’s own impulses and desires, then it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that in a community this is important. This is a lesson I have learned the hard way. When I was in Indianapolis we had a guest speaker coming and he was running late. I was supposed to introduce him and I asked my supervisor what I should do. “Just go up there and tell a joke or something,” she said. Before I go on, I think most of you know at this point that saying to me, “just tell a joke or something,” is not a good idea, but still, what followed was not entirely her fault. The year was 2003 and the speaker was going to be doing a Bible Study on the OT, so the joke I quickly conjured in my head was this, “before our speaker arrives, I wanted to tell you about an exciting new find in OT research. It turns out the reason the Hebrews were in the desert for 40 years after leaving Egypt is because they were looking for WMD.” Well, let me tell you something, that went over like a lead balloon. And while I still contend that, on its merits, the joke was funny, I understand completely why I had to go meet my supervisor afterward to “reflect.” The joke, whatever one may have thought of it at the time, did not respect the community. There were people there who still very much supported the war in Iraq, people who had family who were over there, and it was a political hot button at the time regardless. Why, before a bible study, introduce something like that? It was really a terrible idea.
The truth is that self-control, the ability to control our impulses, the ability to bring our mind, body and faith into line, as Paul sought, is vital to a community and it is rooted in the presence of the Spirit. Within the confines of Christian community, that being the Church, Paul thought it was pretty much only possible through the Spirit. Left to our own devices we will often hurt, alienate and argue with one another.
There is no doubt that for those of us who pay attention to the news and politics will see our anxiety rise as the election approaches, but I suggest to you that the antidote for that anxiety can be found here, in the Church. But it can only be found here so long as we cultivate that which we were intended to be, a Spirit filled, Christ shaped community. We are not an institution. Perhaps we never were and were only fooling ourselves, but we have entered an era when we can no longer afford to be confused about what we are. We are a community. You and I were called to exist as one body, the body of Christ, and the Holy Spirit gives us that which we need to do so. For today, for this week, consider only the idea of self-control. You do not have to do that which you do not want to do. The Spirit, and this community, will give you the strength to follow Christ more perfectly in the days ahead. Amen.