Proper 9C July 7, 2013
Jesus said, “Do not rejoice . . . that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”
This sermon is not about dieting, though that is part of it.
Last week the epistle included St. Paul’s list of the manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. The Greek word we translate “self-control” is engkra’tia. The root word kratia means government as in demokra’tia – democracy – rule by the people, or plutocracy rule by the rich, autocracy rule by one person, aristocracy rule by “the best” and so forth. Engkra’tia is self-government or as Christians understand it, government by the redeemed and Spirit-led self.
It is one manifestation of the fruit of the Spirit – along with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and gentleness. For the Greek philosophers engkrateia was the foundational virtue; for St Paul it is the last listed of the manifestations of the fruit of the Spirit.
Plato’s Republic argues for rule by the philosopher-king. (6:488) He uses the analogy of a ship with an infirm captain and a mutinous crew. “The true pilot must pay attention to the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds, and whatever else belongs to his art, if he intends to be really qualified for the command of a ship, and he must and will be the steerer.” For the Christian Jesus Christ is the true pilot. He is the creator and ruler of the world, “the year and seasons and sky and stars and winds;” he guides and directs us by his Spirit, and engkra’teia self-government is a manifestation of the fruit of that spirit.
Because self-government was so foundational in Greek philosophy it became a point of connection between Greek philosophy and Christian witness. In Acts 24 Paul was summoned before Governor Felix, “And as Paul discussed justice, self-control engkra’teia, and the coming judgment, Felix became frightened.” Felix kept Paul in prison for two years. He and the Jerusalem Temple authorities wanted Paul to make bail and skip town, but Paul was a man on the Lord’s mission and refused.
If we all exercised the virtue of self-government perfectly and all the time the world would be a different place and we would be different people. But the fact is that we are subject to the will of the flesh, the flesh that as Paul reminds the Galatians works “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”
Plato’s analogy begins with an infirm ship captain, and Paul in Romans 7:14-20 reminds us of the human condition, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” Not much engkra’teia self-government in the flesh.
Another way to think of this spiritual reality where “when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand” is as a fatal spiritual sickness, or in the terms of today’s gospel as demonic, evil from outside. Jesus sent the 70 out with his command and authority to heal the sick and preach the good news. They came back with the report that “even the demons submit to us.”
And Jesus responds, “Do not rejoice . . . that the spirits submit to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Life in Christ is life with engkra’teia with self-government, self-control in this life as a fruit of the Spirit of God from Jesus dwelling in our hearts by faith, nourished by his word written and by his spiritual presence in the sacraments.
The Greek philosophers thought we could do it by ourselves, without reference to God. The Greek philosophers were wrong. Self-government, self-control, is a gift from God. We receive this gift like others not because we are good but because God loves us.
Bur the greater gift is our eternal relationship with the God who made us and loves us through Jesus Christ our Lord. Our names are written in heaven, written in the blood Jesus shed on the cross.
Because our names are written in heaven we have available to us God’s presence and power as we face the face down the demons, as we are healed from the spiritual sickness of sin. God gives us the power and the will to push back – to push back from the table. (You wondered when I’d get to dieting.) God gives us when we ask the power of righteousness, the power to fight evil when we experience temptation.
God gives us the freedom of obedience. Like Naaman the Syrian leper we receive power to move past our own notions of how God should act and begin to see him at work in the world Jesus has redeemed. Like the Galatians we receive power to resist unjust demands, power to bear one another’s burdens, to work for the good of all, and especially for those of the family of faith, to live in the new creation that began with the Resurrection and continues forever.
So we rejoice that in Christ we are delivered “from this body of death. Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” And thanks be to God for all the fruit of the Spirit, for love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and engkra’teia, self-government, self-control. Amen.