Lectionary Commentaries for June 27, 2010
Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

from WorkingPreacher.org


Commentary on Luke 9:51-62

Marilyn Salmon

The gospel reading sounds more fitting for the liturgical season of Lent than post-Easter.

But in this lectionary year, Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem is placed near the beginning of Ordinary Time, or Pentecost Season, in which the focus is on the Christian life. From the last Sunday of June to the end of October, we are on our way to Jerusalem. All of the Gospel lections for these four months belong within Luke’s journey narrative which begins at 9:51 as Jesus “set his face to go to Jerusalem” and concludes nearly ten chapters later (19:27) with Jesus’ arrival in Jerusalem.

The Journey Narrative

The journey narrative is a special feature of Luke’s gospel. Within this literary framework are some of the most familiar and loved stories of Jesus. Some are found only in Luke, and recognized by traditional titles, such as The Good Samaritan and The Prodigal Son. Other parables, sayings, and teachings have parallels in Matthew and Mark but do not occur in the same order. The arrangement of material within the journey to Jerusalem is clearly intentional. The author reminds readers at key points in the narrative that we are on our way to Jerusalem (see 13:21 and 17:10) and enjoins us to connect the individual stories to the larger literary context.

The phrase “set his face” is unique to Luke and suggests Jesus’ resolute and single-minded purpose toward his destiny. It signals a transition to this long central section of the gospel and also recalls themes announced earlier. Jerusalem has a prominent place in Luke. Luke begins and ends in the temple in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the location of Jesus’ death but also his resurrection and ascension. Acts begins in Jerusalem with Jesus’ ascension and the Pentecost story.

Jerusalem functions symbolically on several levels in this gospel. The story Luke tells is firmly located in the faith and institutions of Israel from beginning to end. After Jesus was circumcised, Mary and Joseph bring the infant Jesus to the Temple to “do what was customary according to the law.” On this occasion, Simeon tells Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed…” (2:33-34). On the first leg of the journey to Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples travel through a Samaritan village and evoke the long-standing antipathy between Samaritans and Judeans over the Temple (9:52-53), both a fulfillment of Simeon’s prophecy and a foreshadow of opposition ahead.

The Disciples’ Journey

The sayings on discipleship at the outset of the journey indicate that Jesus does not travel alone. He has disciples eager to follow him. Jesus’ instructions to would-be disciples seem harsh and unreasonable. No time to arrange for a funeral, even for a parent. No time to say good bye to family and friends. No one who looks back is fit for the Kingdom of God. 

His words here may strike us as uncharacteristic of our image of Jesus. Some commentators question whether or not Jesus could possibly have spoken them. Whether or not they represent Jesus’ own words, they make an important point about discipleship. Jesus’ response to legitimate requests to postpone the journey reminds Christians in every generation that there are always justifiable excuses to defer the journey or put off the claims of discipleship. Other important matters compete for our attention. Some must make heart-wrenching choices, but there is urgency about Jesus’ mission to bring forth God’s reign. Jesus compels us to proclaim the Kingdom of God. This is our Christian vocation and must be our first priority.

Preaching on the Way to Jerusalem

Luke’s journey narrative is indeed fitting for the Pentecost Season with its focus in Christian discipleship. I know the preaching habit–an understandable one–of considering only the week’s assigned readings for the coming Sunday’s sermon, but Luke is a literary masterpiece that lends itself well to reading the parts in relationship to the whole story. Themes that are announced at the beginning persist through the gospel. Preachers, who relate the individual gospel lections to their location within the larger literary framework of the journey to Jerusalem, and within the entire gospel, will likely find this an enriching habit for preaching Luke during this season. Neil Elliot’s comment on this text in the People’s Bible (Fortress Press, 2008) is instructive: “All that Jesus teaches about justice, about the right use of wealth, about prayer and steadfastness in his cause, he teaches as he leads his followers toward a final confrontation in Jerusalem.”

First Reading

Commentary on 1 Kings 19:15-16, 19-21

Steed Davidson

At first glance this passage appears as a story of how Elisha becomes a prophet and succeeds in Elijah’s position.

To some readers this marks the end of Elijah’s career and a stunning replacement announcement to the prophet hiding in a cave in fear of reprisals after his victories on Mount Carmel. Read within the extended narrative of the books of Kings, Elijah’s story and career hardly comes to an end here, the accession of the two kings, Hazael and Jehu, takes place at a much later date (2 Kings 8:8; 9:2), and the announced anointing of Elisha never takes place. Yet at the same time, Elijah becomes more of a servant to Elijah rather than a prophet. The transition from Elijah to Elisha remains blurred in this reading, suggesting either a reliance of the Elisha stories upon Elijah for legitimation, or a rehabilitation of the career of Elijah. In any event, this passage provides exciting opportunities to reflect on vocation discernment and succession in religious service.

In a series of directives, God orders Elijah out of his depression. These orders do not provide details on how Elijah would affect the displacement of the sitting kings in order to anoint Hazael and Jehu. This contrasts with the case of Elisha who will replace Elijah as prophet. These concerns arise since 19:13b-18 appears as an insertion that repeats and interrupts God’s question at 19:9 and the details of the divine appearance given in 19:11-13a.

Excising the divine imperatives on anointing from this chapter enables us to read Elijah coming away from an encounter with God (19:11-13a) with a determination that results in the enlistment of Elisha as part of his company. However, the current shape of the text removes this luxury and readers need to struggle with how these directives shape our reading of Elisha’s start in the service of Elijah. The insertion offers a divine warrant for Elisha’s function as a prophet, one lacking in the real succession story in 2 Kings 2:1-12. It also elevates Elisha’s handling of the anointing of Hazael (2 Kings 8:7-15) and Jehu (2 Kings 9:1-13) as divine directives rather than simply the machinations of a misguided prophet. As the divinely appointed successor of Elijah, Elisha performs these functions, initially given to Elijah but left over after Elijah departed.

The continuation of the narrative in verse 19 following on the insertion of 19:13a-18 anticipates that Elijah would anoint Elisha as a prophet. Not only does this not happen, but the Bible mentions no practice of prophets being anointed. In an odd move, Elijah simply tosses his mantle onto Elisha and little conversation follows. Neither man acknowledges the significance of the action except that Elisha asks for time to bid his parents farewell. Elijah’s cryptic question, “what have I done to you?” both goes unanswered and raises a key question of this passage. Essentially, in this passage Elisha becomes, not the prophetic successor of Elijah but his “servant” (19:21).

The action of tossing the mantle onto Elisha communicates something to him. Presumably Elijah’s mantle represents more than just normal clothing but a distinctive garb worn by prophets. Elijah’s description as hairy (2 Kings 1:8) and prophetic clothing in Zechariah 13:4 suggest that this mantle signified the prophetic office. Apart from the instance of Aaron’s sons succeeding him in the priestly office through transfer of clothing (Numbers 20:25-28), the Bible offers no similar practice of casting a mantle on a successor. Nonetheless, Elisha reads this as a summons to join Elisha. This passage offers no indication that an actual succession takes place since the full transfer of the mantle to Elisha’s possession only occurs at 2 Kings 2:1-12.

Elisha’s departure gets delayed several times in the text. The Hebrew of verse 20 sets up the departure of Elisha. The initial word וַיַּעֲזֺב (ya azob) reads properly as “forsook” and suggests a decisive departure. Elisha’s request to say farewell to his parents in which he promises to leave with Elijah slows down his leaving. Instead of the narrative showing a tearful departure, it leads into verse 21 with the ominous phrase (“he returned from following him”) using the word שׁוב (sub, “return”) as in verse 20 but this time in the opposite direction as proposed by Elijah. All of verse 21 focuses on a series of deliberate actions by Elisha conveyed by a succession of six verbs of identical form. The verb sequence ends with the dominant verb in this passage הלך (halak, “go”) being modified by the verb קום (qum, “get up”).

Elisha joins Elijah as his servant, but it is not an instantaneous move. Apart from his parents, Elisha appears tied to the family wealth. The number of cattle at his disposal (verse 19) suggests a family of means. The sacrificial meal shared with “the people” includes the slaughter of at least a pair of oxen (verse 21), a luxury enjoyed by an elite group in the ancient world. That Elisha remains simply as “Elisha son of Shaphat” throughout the passage may hint at a prominent role for his father in the community. Separating from ties of this nature to become a servant of a lead prophet in a company of prophets ought not to be seen as a simple matter. No doubt Elisha becomes an assistant to Elijah, mostly likely in an apprentice position like that of Joshua and Moses (Joshua 1:1); surrendering his current life to do so.

While the shape of the text sets up Elisha to be Elijah’s successor, the narrative of Elisha’s joining Elijah’s service (19:19-21) offers no indication that this induces Elisha. The succession that ties these two men together lies in the power of the verb halak (to go). God commands Elijah to go (verses 11 and 15). The second instance of God’s command to Elijah in verse 15 includes another imperative sub (“return”). In the context of Elisha’s request to perform his filial duties (verse 20), Elijah repeats the same construction to him: לֵךְ שׁוּב (lek sub, “go return”). Finally, Elisha goes. This command to go binds both men together and them to God. They stand in the succession of those who receive the imperative and have responded. But the story of Elijah and its link with Elisha reminds us that even after responding to the command, failure, depression, family ties and social obligations can complicate the ability to readily respond.

Alternate First Reading

Commentary on 2 Kings 2:1-2, 6-14

Samuel Giere

The story of Elijah’s ascent into heaven by way of fiery horses and chariot on a heavenly whirlwind is a text with many boundary-crossings: the geographic crossing of the River Jordan, the passage of the prophetic mantle from one generation to the next, and the seeming rip in the fabric between earth and heaven.

Textual Horizons
Elijah’s story, beginning in 1 Kings 17, is set in the Northern Kingdom primarily during the 9th century BCE reign of Ahab, a king with a most toxic reputation. “Ahab son of Omri did evil in the sight of the Lord more than all who were before him.”1  A common thread that runs throughout Elijah’s story is that he has been the Lord’s agent against the unfaithful, apostate royalty of Israel.

Elijah’s storied career comes to a dramatic conclusion in today’s text.

It should be noted at the outset that the text itself begins with an expectation of its culmination. “Now when the Lord was about to take Elijah up to heaven by a whirlwind…” (2 Kings 2:1). The whirlwind (סערה) is a telltale sign of what is to come, as the whirlwind is more often than not a means by which the Lord intervenes in the world.2 The difference here is that the whirlwind is not bringing judgment, but lifting Elijah out of this world.

With his prophetic protégé in tow, Elijah repeatedly tells Elisha to stay behind. He does not. Knowing that Elijah will be assumed into heaven by the Lord, the company of the prophets (perhaps members of the prophetic guild) also tells Elisha to hang back. He tells them to shut-up, and he continues. 

Elisha’s determination to remain with his mentor leads him to walk with Elijah on the dry creek bed of the Jordan. This twice-crossing3 of the Jordan is an interesting border-crossing. Perhaps mimicking the significance of Joshua’s crossing,4 Elijah’s assumption into heaven occurs outside the initial boundary of the Promised Land.

Once upon the other side of the Jordan, the text brings us to the crossing of the boundary between generations. Upon Elijah asking Elisha what he could do for him before his departure, Elisha’s enthusiasm leads him to ask for a double share of Elijah’s prophetic spirit. (At this point it seems only appropriate to ask why anyone would want a double share of prophetic spirit given the heartache and danger that come with it.) Unable simply to grant Elisha’s wish, Elijah encourages him to pay attention to his ascension.

The drama of Elijah’s ascension is multiplied by its brevity and scarcity of detail. While walking along and talking, the chariot and horses of fire separate teacher and student.5 As Elijah ascends the whirlwind to heaven, Elisha shouts, “Father, father! The chariots of Israel and its horsemen!” With Elijah out of view through the tear in the fabric between heaven and earth, in the midst of deathless grief Elisha tears his clothes. And just like that, it is over. Elijah is gone. Elisha is left alone to carry on.

The story continues with Elisha’s reentry across the Jordan, the frantic search for Elijah, and the continuation of the Lord’s prophetic interventions in Israel by way of Elisha.

While Elijah’s career as a prophet comes to a conclusion with the divine whirlwind, his ascension into heaven only begins his lasting influence. The dumbfounded disbelief of the company of prophets that assumes in Elijah’s disappearance, a malfunction of the spirit of the Lord, gives way to the lasting influence of Elijah within the imaginations of Judaism and Christianity.

While the connections between Old and New Testaments are vast and deep, it is difficult to disentangle the story of Elijah from the imaginations and traditions of Church and Synagogue. For Christians, the textual horizon of Elijah’s ascension necessarily includes the accounts of the comparisons of Elijah with John the Baptist and Elijah’s appearance together with Moses at Jesus’ Transfiguration.6 As this text also appears in the Revised Common Lectionary on Transfiguration Sunday, Year B, we will leave comment on that thread for another commentator.

Perhaps only surpassed in notoriety by the likes of Adam, Eve, Moses and Enoch, Elijah would become an eschatological herald7 of the Day of the Lord8 who could calm the Lord’s wrath,9 heal the brokenness between generations,10 restore the tribes of Israel, intervene on behalf of the dying,11 and who had great zeal for the law of the Lord.12 Interesting about the canonical and extra-canonical traditions concerning Elijah is that his status as a prophet of the Lord — a herald of God’s judgment of unfaithfulness — is not more prevalent.13  

Preaching Horizons
There are many imaginative directions that the preacher could take with this text. Elijah’s persona within Scripture and Tradition is inseparable from his ascension into heaven. I suggest two simple things when considering this text for preaching.

First, avoid simple analogies between Elijah and today. It may be tempting to take this text the direction of comparing a “whirlwind” of our own experience with Elijah’s. This story is ultimately about the Lord’s intervention in Israel’s history — the prophetic spirit of the Lord, which confronts Israel’s unfaithfulness by way of the prophet, further blowing the lids off of our imaginations with this disquieting, fiery display of power.

The second is simply a question: How might this story, with so many boundary-crossings, fuel the imagination of faith today? Evident in the long-lasting influence of Elijah’s story is that it has the power to ignite the imagination of faith. How might it do so today?

11 Kings 16:30
2Job 38:1; Isaiah 40:24; Ezekiel 1:4; Zechariah 9:14, etc.
32 Kings 2:8, 14
4Joshua 3:1-5.1
5The chariots and horses of fire, symbols of the Lord’s power, become associated with Elisha as well, cf. 2 Kings 6:17.
6Matthew 17:1-8; Mark 9:2-8; Luke 9:28-36
7Matthew 11:14, 16:14, 17:10-12; Mark 6:15, 8:28, 9:11-13; Luke 1:17, 9:8, 19; John 1:21, 25
8Malachi 3:23 [English version 4:5]; Sibylline Oracle 2.187-189, also with others “taken up” in 4 Ezra 6.26.
9Sirach 48:10
10Malachi 3:23; Sirach 48:10; Luke 1:17. Quoting Malachi 3:23 [4.5], the Mishnah reports that in a halakhah given to Moses at Sinai it is said that Elijah will return to reunite those separated by injustice and to make peace in the world, cf. Mishnah Eduyoth 8:7.
11Matthew 27:47, 49; Mark 15:35-36; in a passage culminating in messianic expectations, the resurrection of the dead comes through Elijah, cf. Mishnah Sotah 9:15.
121 Maccabees 2:58
13Only in Romans 11:1-6, wherein Paul sees his own mission and speaking in relation to Elijah’s, in particular the content of the theophany on Mount Horeb in 1 Kings 19. Curious as well is James 5:17-18, in which the author feels a need to explicitly state that Elijah is of the same form (ὁμοιοπαθh,ς) as we humans.


Commentary on Psalm 16

Craig A. Satterlee

A Response to the First Reading

In the First Reading, when Elijah threw his mantle over Elisha to call him, Elisha, who is plowing twelve yoke of oxen, slaughtered his oxen, used the plow to cook them up, fed them to the people, kissed his parents goodbye, and followed the prophet as his servant (1 Kings 19:19-21). Elisha cannot return to his old life. As a response to this reading, Psalm 16, in which the psalmist entrusts his whole life to God–calling God his “refuge” and “good above all other” (16:1)–“is an intense, loving, joyful confession of trust” that makes the drastic action displayed by Elisha possible.i 

Trust as a Way of Acting and Living
Obviously, since this is a psalm, we are talking about trust in God. We are talking about faith.  The psalmist makes it clear that trust in God is not a right belief, a warm feeling, or an impulse in times of trouble. Trust is a way of acting and living that opens the self to God as the most important reality in life. We do not take drastic action because we necessarily feel trust; our actions are a way of maintaining or cultivating our trust in God.

Cultivating Trust in God
“I keep the LORD always before me,” the psalmist declares, “because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved” (16:8). The psalmist concentrates on the Lord; God is the focus of his undivided attention. Through the act of praise that is this psalm, the psalmist is so aware of God’s presence, power, and love that he is not distracted or unsettled by other things. As the psalmist praises God, his heart is glad. His spirit rejoices. His body rests in hope (16:9).  He is open to the LORD’S counsel, which comes to his heart night after night (16:7). 

A few years ago, I spent considerable time in conversation with students who wanted to do away with the title LORD for God, because they found it hierarchical. So I notice in this particular scripture that the psalmist calls or refers to God as LORD five times and I wonder what to make of it. Since the psalmist knows God as LORD, the psalmist also understands himself as servant. The psalmist understands that he is not the master of his own destiny. The psalmist’s life does not rest in his own hands; he belongs to another. Moreover, the psalmist only has one Lord (16:3-4). In the language of the psalm, the psalmist only worships one God and does not “run after other gods” (16:3) or participate in their worship.

Since God is the psalmist’s LORD, the psalmist receives all the good things that come his way as coming from God. The language of verses 5-6—portion, cup, boundaries, pleasant land, rich inheritance—evoke the Promised Land and God’s salvation of Israel. The good things in life the psalmist receives are for the psalmist reflections and tokens of his destiny with God.

According to Psalm 16, we cultivate trust in God by keeping God as the focus of our undivided attention, worshiping God, being attentive to God’s counsel, recognizing God as our one and only LORD, and receiving good things as coming from God as tokens of our destiny in God.  Cultivating trust in God by living and acting in these ways, we may find ourselves responding to God’s call as Elisha did — no turning back. 

Trust that Flows from the Gospel
But there is more! In the appointed Gospel reading, Luke tells us that, while making his way to Jerusalem, Jesus said to someone, “Follow me.” That person responded, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father.” But Jesus said to him, “Let the dead bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim the kingdom of God.” Another said, “I will follow you, Lord; but let me first say farewell to those at my home.” Jesus said to him, “No one who puts a hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:59-62). It strikes me that these two potential followers only wanted to do what Elisha did, and that Jesus demands even more drastic action and even deeper trust.

In Acts (2:24-32; 13:34), Peter and Paul use Psalm 16:10 to proclaim that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, makes it possible for us to pray the psalm with a level of trust that matches the psalm’s claims. In Christ we can pray with trust and confidence, “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.” In Christ we will not cease to exist. Even more, we will not lose the gift of God’s presence and the joys that come from being in God’s presence. The love of God revealed in Christ Jesus inspires the kind of trust so wonderfully described by the psalmist: “You show me the path of life. In your presence there is fullness of joy; in your right hand are pleasures forevermore (16:11).

Preaching Psalm 16
Rather than calling people to respond like Elisha or, even more, in the ways that the ones Jesus called could not, Psalm 16 invites the preacher to overwhelm the congregation with the good news that, in Christ, God does not abandon us to the grave but shows us the path of life in God’s presence. Only then can the preacher help the congregation to emulate the psalmist in undertaking practices that cultivate the trust that flows from this good news. 

iKonrad Schaefer, David W. Cotter, Jerome T. Walsh, Chris Franke, Psalms (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 2001), 37.

Second Reading

Commentary on Galatians 5:1, 13-25

Elisabeth Johnson

Resisting the Yoke of Slavery

Through his allegorical interpretation of the story of Hagar and Sarah in chapter four, Paul has argued that in Christ, God has made us children of the free woman and not the slave woman. In 5:1, Paul sums up the point of his allegory and introduces the discussion that follows: “For freedom Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery” (5:1).

The rabbis used the image of the law as a “yoke” with positive connotations, but Paul equates it with a yoke of slavery. In the ancient world, war captives were sometimes marched beneath an ox yoke as a symbol of their entry into slavery. Paul has already argued that before coming to know Christ, the Galatians were “enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods…to weak and beggarly elemental spirits” (4:8-9). Paul now claims that by accepting circumcision and law observance, the Galatians would return to a state of slavery.

In 5:2-12, Paul speaks directly to the main purpose of his letter: to dissuade the Galatians from accepting circumcision. Paul views this as a life and death matter for their spiritual health. If the Galatians allow themselves to be circumcised, Christ will be of no benefit to them. They will be obliged to obey the entire law, and in seeking to be justified by the law, will be cut off from Christ, fallen from grace (5:2-4). Life in Christ means that we trust in God’s gift of righteousness, and that “neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything; the only thing that counts is faith working through love” (5:5-6).

Freedom and Love
In 5:13, Paul sounds the call to freedom once again: “For you were called to freedom, brothers and sisters.” He then begins to sketch what it means to live in the freedom Christ gives.

Paul was likely aware that his emphasis on freedom could be viewed as dangerous, opening the door to libertinism. Paul exhorts the Galatians not to use their freedom as an “opportunity for self-indulgence,” or more literally, as a “base of operations for the flesh.”

Flesh (sarx) for Paul is not merely the physical body, but the whole self under the power of sin, with its self-serving desires and motives. This self is never satisfied, it seems, never has enough esteem, status, wealth, pleasure, or whatever else it is seeking. Self-indulgence easily becomes a new form of slavery.

Christ frees us not only from the law, but from the sinful self. Freed from self, we are free to serve the neighbor, to “become slaves to one another” through love. To serve “through love” means that serving is done not to meet the demands of the law or even to feel good about ourselves. It is completely focused on the needs of the neighbor.

Quoting Leviticus 19:18, Paul says that “the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself'” (5:14). The word translated “summed up” (peplεrοtai) could also be translated “fulfilled.” Quite possibly Paul intends both meanings here. This commandment sums up the intent of the entire law, and loving the neighbor in this way fulfills the entire law (cf. Romans13:8-10; Mark 12:28-34; Matthew 22:34-40; Luke 10:25-37).

Paul’s understanding of love (agapε), of course, is not about sentimentality or warm feelings. It is the self-giving love God has shown us in Christ, “who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). This kind of love goes far beyond what the law demands. It is an all-encompassing way of life, constantly seeking to serve the neighbor.

The alternative to loving service to one another is described in 5:15: “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another.” The verbs Paul uses suggest the actions of wild animals engaged in a struggle to the death. Self-centeredness inevitably leads to seeing others as rivals rather than beloved children of God. The resulting behavior is the opposite of loving service and destroys life in community.

Flesh and Spirit
Paul continues describing the stark contrast between life according to the flesh and life according to the Spirit. The NRSV translates verse 16 as two parallel imperatives: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.” The second part of verse 16 would be better translated as a statement of future results, conditional on the previous clause. In other words: “Live by the Spirit, I say, and you will by no means gratify the desires of the flesh.” When the Spirit is in command, the flesh loses its power.

Paul goes on to describe how the desires of the flesh and the desires of the Spirit are diametrically opposed. He is not describing a dualistic split between body and spirit. Rather, “flesh” refers to the whole self under the power of sin, with all its self-seeking desires and self-serving ways.

We tend to think of “desires of the flesh” in terms of indulging bodily desires, and certainly some of the “works of the flesh” listed in 5:19-21 fit this category. But the other “works of the flesh” Paul lists are more about matters of heart, mind, and speech as these affect our relationships with God and one another. Eight of them have to do with divisiveness within the community: enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, and envy. These less tangible “works of the flesh” can be every bit as destructive as the more salacious ones.

By contrast, the “fruit of the Spirit” is love with all the qualities that flow from it: “joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things,” Paul adds (5:22-23). The Spirit, not the law, produces this fruit, which more than fulfills what the law requires.

“Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires,” Paul continues (5:24; cf. 2:19-20). Christ has freed us from slavery to sin and self-indulgence and has given us his Spirit. Verse 25 is a condition of fact: “If we live by the Spirit (and we do), let us also be guided by the Spirit.” The verb stoichοmen has military connotations of standing in formation or marching in line. In other words, “since the Spirit leads us, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”

Preaching Possibilities
A couple different directions come to mind for preaching this text, depending on what is most pertinent in one’s context.

One could address the notion of freedom in our culture as license to do “whatever I want” or to gratify every desire. “As long as I am not hurting anyone,” so the saying goes. Yet unbridled self-indulgence is rarely harmless to the self or others. It inevitably leads to using others for one’s own ends, while the sinful self is never satisfied, always unfulfilled.

Paul offers a radically different understanding of freedom. The freedom Christ gives is not freedom for self-indulgence but freedom from self for service to others. It is the freedom in which life in community flourishes.

On the other hand, there are those in the church for whom this kind of freedom seems too risky, those who desire the security of prescribed rules. The command to love your neighbor as yourself seems too vague and hard to measure. There is always the temptation to add litmus tests of true faithfulness, such as a particular stand on an ethical issue.

Paul warns that by seeking justification in anything other than Christ, we cut ourselves off from Christ and fall away from grace. The law cannot provide the security we seek. Our identity, our justification, our inheritance as God’s children are secured solely by God’s promise made good in Jesus Christ. God’s unconditional, self-giving love is the only power that can set us free to love our neighbors as ourselves. And faith working through love is the only thing that counts (5:6).