Apr 24

Freedom, Flesh & Spirit : A Response in the Aftermath of the Boston Marathon Bombings

Below is a condensed version of a message I preached at our Saturday night service this past weekend:


I found myself agitated and angry many times this week as I processed the events that took place in Boston and Watertown. I’m still trying to understand what would possess people to take away the freedom of complete strangers.  What was the purpose of planting terror and fear into millions of people?  The decisions of two young men created one of the most the most disruptive, dangerous, costly and impactful acts that we have seen in the history of our state.  We will never again be able to watch the marathon without remembering the bombing and subsequent manhunt that occurred in 2013.  It will not be easy to enter into large crowds without wondering, will I be safe?

During the interfaith service that was held last week, Cardinal Tom O’Malley offered some great words of encouragement.  What I appreciated about Cardinal O’Malley’s words was that he explained that the Bible, particularly in the gospels, reveals a contrast between the crowd and the community.  Cardinal O’Malley said:

“The crowd is made up of self-absorbed individuals, each one focused on his or her own interests in competition with the conflicting projects of others. A community is where people come to value each other, and find their own identity in being part of something bigger than themselves, working together for the common good.”

His point was to not let what has happened define the city as a crowd of individuals, focused on competing interests, but be part of something greater then themselves.  His urged that Boston become a community, working together for the common good.  He went on to say to say that God has tasked his people with the  job of repairing the broken the world.  He explained that it would require that people not maintain a crowd mentality, but to become a community that maintains solidarity with the belief that “love is strong than death.”

That is a great vision.  A community that is unified, loving who believes that love is stronger than death, and is committed to the process of transformation, growing individually as well as corporately in order to fulfill God’s purpose.  Sounds a lot like the Church!

How can a crowd transform into a community in the midst of tragedy, conflict and evil?


“You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. For the entire law is fulfilled in keeping this one command: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other…” Galatians 5:13-15

Paul says do not use our freedom for the flesh.  In the original greek, the word for flesh is Sarx, which is a distinct word that refers to our sinful state.   Flesh essentially means living outside the realm of the spirit of God.  For Paul, Flesh is associated with living “under the law”.  When someone chooses to live in their sinful nature, they are essentially governed by the law.  They choose not to live under the freedom that comes in Christ.  They are in the flesh because they are living outside of God’s will and apart from God’s guiding influence through the spirit.

We are called to be free.  Free from death, free from the bondage of sin.  In Christ there is freedom. When understand the weight we were once under because of sin, and the sacrifice that Jesus made on our behalf, there is freedom.  In that freedom of new life, Paul is saying to freely give what you have received.


So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want.  But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law…Galatians 5:16-18

When we walk by the spirit, we won’t desire the the flesh, because the spirit leads us away from the flesh. Flesh is weaker than the Spirit.  As we walk with God, we experience a transformation.  This transformation of life in the spirit is not simple, though; it is a battle; a battle between our sinful nature and God’s will.  In that battle we recognize that flesh and spirit are opposites.  When we live in the flesh, we are not doing what the spirit wants.  This conflict is not some out of body experience, where we are simply helpless in what is going on; what Paul is saying is that when we are not walking with the spirit, we are fighting the will of God.  We are essentially saying, “I know better”, “I’m going to live and do things my way”, or “I know my way is the right way”.  When we live like this we are not growing, or experiencing God’s transforming power, we aren’t even walking with God.  We are walking in a totally different direction.

Paul says walk by the spirit.  We have to choose to walk in the spirit, choose freedom, and choose to let the spirit put to death our sinful nature.  Paul is talking about full surrender to the spirit of God.  We stop fighting God.  We put up our hands, and we trust the spirit to lead and guide us.  Others have used the illustration of a sailboat on the sea as an illustration for our surrender to the spirit.  The power for a sailboat doesn’t come from a motor, it comes from the wind.  Once a sailor positions himself in the wind, he lets the wind take over, and the boat receives power and direction with ease.  The sailor can’t control the wind, neither can he make the wind, he must surrender to it.  That is the same way we walk in the spirit.  When we surrender and walk in the spirit, the spirit takes over and our life becomes filled with power and direction according to the will of God.


Paul gives us a comparison between life in the flesh and the spirit to examine ourselves:

“The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.  But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.  Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other…” Galatians 5:19-26

Notice Paul makes a change in the image from “acts of the flesh” to “fruit of the spirit”, which emphasizes two key things.  First it is indicative of Jesus’ words in John 15 when he says, “I am the vine, you are the branches.  If you remain in me you will bear much fruit.  Apart from me you can do nothing.”  This strengthens the concept of the freedom we have in Christ.  In Christ our sinful nature is put to death.  Second, there is a shift from human responsibility (acts of the flesh) to something that requires divine enablement.  Last Monday I was working in my yard, and planted some new grass.  I cleared the area, leveled it with topsoil, planted seed, fertilized and watered it.  Yet, no matter what I did to create an environment for that grass to grow.  Only God can make it grow.  That is essentially what Paul’s use of fruit the fruit image indicates.  As a Christian, we are responsible to let the spirit be at work in our life; we surrender, trust, pray, make changes, but we cannot grow love, peace, joy, self-control unless God grows those fruits in us. The journey God takes us on when we are “walking with the spirit”, is the avenue in which fruit is produced.

The point in Paul’s examination is where the acts of the flesh destroys fellowship, the spirit creates it.  As we are being transformed, we aren’t just modifying behavior, we are being transformed into the likeness, the image of Jesus.  The traits of Jesus is fruit that is develop in us when we walk with the spirit.

Now we often see some or all of the fruits of the spirit all around us.  We all saw kindness and goodness extended to so many people this past week due the tragedy that we all experienced.  People rallied together to help each other out, cared for each other.  People offered food, homes, shelter.  Many risked their own safety and life in order to help and protect others.  People put their differences aside in order to serve and help for the common good.  When the crisis was over last night, there were cheers, high-fives, people celebrating in the streets with people they didn’t even know.  Without exploiting or over-spiritualizing all that happened this week, it gives us a picture of what the flesh and the spirit looks like In the midst of terror and evil, we see God’s spirit at work.

Here is the takeaway for us:  A life of freedom transforms us into people who love others.  I know of nothing more attractive to those who are hurting, grieving, seeking, and desiring to be in an part of a community that functions in the spirit.  In the aftermath of tragedy and conflict, people desire and crave to see the spirit of God at work, even if they don’t even know that is what they actually are craving. Let us go out and strive be that for church community and to the rest of the world.