Convicted: Do No Harm
February 11, 2018 Series: Convicted
Passage: Galatians 5:13–5:26
02.11.2018 Convicted Do No Harm
Scripture: Galatians 5: 13-26
There was a time in my life when I was obsessed with Judge Judy. I’m gonna let that sink in real quick. There was a time when I would come home every day and would religiously watch Judge Judy. I couldn’t stop. I was fascinated by the different people who would come into her courtroom, by the different scenarios and lawsuits they’d bring. I was impressed by Judge Judy’s no nonsense way of getting to the truth. I’d try to guess every night how she would rule in a specific case.
Here’s the thing about Judge Judy. The cases are sensational. The people that appear on the show are a bit out there. And oftentimes the cases and scenarios never would have happened if we could just be decent people to one another.
Judge Judy’s job was to assess harm. Her job was to assess how much harm was done in a situation and if that harm warranted compensation from the harming party. There is harm that we can do to each other that does not transgress the law. But there is tortious harm that we can do that requires damages and reparations.
Our theme for this month’s sermons is the question if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict. If I was brought before Judge Judy for being a follower of Jesus, how would she rule? And we’re going to ask this question in light of John Wesley’s three rules to living a Christian life: do no harm, do good, attend to the ordinances of God. This morning we begin with the first rule: do no harm.
It is somewhat strange that the first step in living a Christian life, the first step in proving, in a sense, that you’re a follower of Christ is doing no harm. We might have thought the first step was doing good, a positive rule instead of a negative or passive rule. But perhaps the fact that our laws codify different types of harm we can do to one another alerts us to the necessity to talk about not doing harm.
On New Year’s Eve we read from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And I said that Paul’s letter to the Galatians centered around a conflict in the church. Paul had started a church there and then had left to go start another church or to go check in on one of the churches he started or to return to Jerusalem with money from the churches he started. And when Paul left, some other folks came in behind Paul. Paul had told the Galatians that worship of the God of Israel and of Jesus the Christ had been opened up to Gentiles, that they had been grafted into the tree of Israel. But that did not require them to follow Torah law. And perhaps most importantly for the grown men of the Galatian church, it didn’t require circumcision. There’s no way for me to talk about circumcision without 1) being awkward and 2) making a really bad joke. So these new people come in behind Paul and start telling the new Galatian Christians that if they want to be super righteous, they’ll get circumcised and follow Torah law. Some in the Galatian church bought it, perhaps wanting a way to be more righteous than someone else, and others remained in the teaching that Paul had given them. And then they fought about it.
In his letter, Paul comes down hard on the super righteous folk, the ones who were circumcised in order to appear more righteous and the teachers who led them to do that. Paul says Christ set you free from the law, don’t return under its yoke. You have been adopted by God and that adoption was not meant to make you a slave. At the beginning of the fifth chapter, Paul says “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Towards the end of the fifth chapter Paul sums up the whole letter and offers them instruction on how to move forward.
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. 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. 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, forbearance, 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.
So we’re going to take this in parts. After reminding the Galatians that they were called to be free, Paul says, “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.” Paul defines for the Galatians what it is to have freedom. It is not just freedom from the law, freedom from sin, freedom from guilt, but its freedom for as well. Freedom for love. Freedom for community. Freedom for reconciliation.
But the basis of the freedom is what Paul finishes with: If you bite and devour each other, watch out of you will be destroyed by each other.
You see, Paul was trying to resolve the dispute and to allow that resolution create community. That community would not be possible if the super righteous continued to hold their righteousness over the others or if the ones Paul was saying were right were to hold their win over the super righteous. They needed to stop devouring each other. They needed to stop attacking each other. They needed to stop doing harm to each other.
Who here has ever been in a fight or an argument and even after the fight or argument you were still biting and devouring each other? When you hold over the other persons head what they did? What they said? That you won? That’s not resolution. That’s not reconciliation. That’s not community. That’s not love.
Before we can get to do good in the rules we have to stop doing harm. And what Paul was saying to the Galatians in summation was that before they could love each other, before they could be in community with each other, before they could find peace and reconciliation, they had to stop doing harm.
But this isn’t just about a church dispute and its not just about our interpersonal conflicts. Paul continues by saying: 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. 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.
Paul says that proper use of our freedom involves putting some things aside. If you were here last week, this’ll sound familiar because he does a similar thing in his letter to the Colossians that we looked at last week. But we are to put aside the acts of the flesh and many of them are the ways that we do harm to one another. Sexual immorality, how often do we do harm to one another through sexual immorality. I remember the weekend that the #metoo movement began on facebook I was mortified. To see how many people in my life have been the victim of sexual assault.
We do harm when we make idols of things. Oftentimes we think of idolatry as worshipping a statue, but it’s much more than that. Think about how many of these gods were tied to the economy. The god of the harvest, god of grain. The god of war. The god of fertility. The god of the sea. They wanted wealth. They wanted strength. They wanted control. We make idols for ourselves, we just don’t construct statues to them. Idolatry involves worshipping something created in place of the creator. It means worshipping something in place of God. We worship money. We worship security. We worship success. And we’re willing to set God aside in those pursuits. And we are willing to harm each other if it means gaining those things we worship.
We do harm through hatred. We do harm through sowing discord. We do harm through jealousy. We do harm in fits of rage. Just get on 95 in rush hour. We do harm when we are only out for ourselves. We do harm when we break people into groups and attempt to devour them. We do harm when we envy what others have, when we must have what someone else has.
And when we continue in doing harm, we will never see the fullness of the Kingdom of God in our midst. We will never see creation as God intended. Paul told the Galatian church they will never see reconciliation, love, and community if they kept devouring one another. We will never see the full restoration, real love, and beloved community if we continue doing harm to one another.
How do we stop doing harm? How do we stop doing acts of the flesh as Paul puts it? We embrace life in the Spirit. We embody the fruit of the Spirit. Paul finishes this section saying: But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, 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.
Notice how many of these fruits of the Spirit are primarily about doing no harm. Eventually they can lead to doing good, but for the most part they’re about not allowing any more harm to enter the universe. Being loving, instead of being hateful. Being joyful instead of being snarky. Being peaceful instead of being violent. Bearing with people instead of dismissing them. Being kind instead of being mean. Keeping fidelity. Being gentle. Exhibiting self-control instead of lashing out. All of these dispositions keep harm from coming into the world.
As a simple rule, as a general rule, as a rule for Christian living “do no harm” seems easy and straightforward. You hear it and you think, well no duh. Being a Christian ought out to mean not being outright terrible to another person. But think with me for a moment of how hard it would be to go a whole day doing no harm. And for a moment we won’t talk about systemic harms, we’ll just look at harms we do to each other on a personal level.
You’re driving around and someone cuts you off. Do no harm. At work someone doesn’t follow through on a task. Do no harm. Someone gossips about you. Do no harm. Someone takes your place in line. Do no harm. Someone makes a joke at your expense. Do no harm. Work is just plain bad. Do no harm.
Here’s what makes doing no harm really hard. The rest of the world doesn’t abide by that rule. I think it would be really easy to do no harm if we were assured we wouldn’t encounter harm going about our daily lives. If the goal was to just keep everything copasetic the job would be a lot easier. But that’s not the world we live in. It’s not our lives.
Instead, we live in a world where we face harm on a daily basis. We live in a world where people are mean. Where people are rude. Where people are nasty. Where people will bite at us and attempt to devour us. Where people will engage in the acts of the flesh. And it is in that world, not a utopian good place, where we are tasked with going and doing no harm. We are tasked with not returning evil for evil. We are tasked with not biting back.
And therein lies the rub.
Doing no harm means from time to time we will accept being hurt and choosing not to hurt back. Doing no harm means from time to time we will have to accept things being unfair. We will have to accept harm being done to us. Doing no harm means not escalating things. Doing no harm means we live differently, we act differently, we embody conflict differently.
Reuben Job, a bishop in the United Methodist Church, wrote a book on these simple rules. And about doing no harm he wrote:
Each of us knows of groups that are locked in conflict, sometimes over profound issues and sometimes over issues that are just playing silly. But the conflict is real, the divisions deep, and the consequences can often be devastating. If, however, all who are involved, can agree to do no harm, the climate in which the conflict is going is immediately changed. How is it changed? Well, if I am to do no harm, I can no longer gossip about the conflict. I can no loner speak disparagingly about those involved in the conflict. I can no longer manipulate the facts of the conflict. I can no longer diminish those who do not agree with me and must honor each as a child of God. I will guard my lips, my mind, and my heart so that my language will not disparage, injure, or wound another child of God. I must do no harm, even while I seek a common good.
And I would add, I must do all these things while knowing that these things I have determined not to do will be done by others perhaps against me.
That is hard.
But it also embodies Christ in the world. To do no harm is to live differently. It is to live in a way demonstrably different from the shadow side ways of the world. People will take notice if you live your life doing no harm. There was a Roman centurion whose job it was to oversee the crucifixion, the execution of Jesus. He saw how the people mocked him. He saw how he’d been beaten and tortured. And he saw, that as Jesus was dying, the sun went black. He saw real, physical evidence that Jesus could have stopped it, could have stopped the execution. But he didn’t. And the centurion declared surely this man was the son of God.
If you resolve to do no harm, people will know. People will see. People will realize that there is something that makes you different. And if one day you are put on trial for being a Christian, the first piece of evidence, exhibit A if you will, will be that first you did no harm. In a world full of hurt and hate and violence and destruction, you added nothing to it. You did nothing to escalate it. You did no harm.
Let us pray.