Verification Principle

by Jason Micheli

Length: 27:00

Galatians 5.16-16  (click to see Scripture text)

September 12, 2021

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In the Middle Ages, the Benedictine monastery in the town of Cluny, in the Burgundy region of France, implemented a modest civic policy that soon made its way across the feudal communities of Western Europe and was practiced, in some fashion or another, for nearly five hundred years. 

The Benedictines called their arrangement the “Peace of God.” 

The Peace of God measure mandated the suspension of all warfare during certain days of the week as well as high holy days and liturgical seasons. 

Initially, the Truce of God stipulated the cessation of all violence from Saturday night until prime on Monday. 

Soon after, the Truce extended the law to lay down arms from Wednesday night through Monday morning of every week. 

The experiment known as the “Peace of God” grew out of the Benedictines’s recognition that the Lordship of the Crucified Jesus, which Christians professed on Sunday, carried with it practical implications for how Christians lived Monday through Saturday. 

Indeed that feudal lords accepted the premise behind the Truce of God, however reluctantly or imperfectly they did so, shows their acknowledgment that how Christians live Monday through Saturday risks invalidating the truth claims they make on Sunday. 

Of course, the Decalogue forbids God’s People from the killing of anyone, but even in the Middle Ages Christians realized their willingness to wreak violence upon other Christians rendered their worship of the Prince of Peace unintelligible.

That is, it falsified their faith, for if the Gospel is nothing other than news, then the Gospel cannot be known apart from witnesses— witnesses, moreover, whose lives exemplify the truth of that news.   

My friend and mentor, Stanley Hauerwas, likes to tell the story of how he hung a poster on his office door at Duke University. 

The poster had been published by the Mennonite Central Committee, and, overtop an arresting image of two people in grief embracing one another, the text on the poster says, “A Modest Proposal for Peace: Let the Christians of the World Agree That They Will Not Kill Each Other.” 

Every year for over twenty years, Stanley likes to share, students would knock on his door. Angry and offended by the poster, they’d say to Stanley, 

“This makes me so mad. Christians shouldn’t kill anybody.”

“The Mennonites called it a modest proposal,” Stanley always replies, “You’ve got to start somewhere.”

On the theory that you’ve got to start somewhere, in the Middle Ages, the Benedictines took the practical step of banning warfare and violence from sundown on Wednesday to sunup on Monday. 

If Christians were going to disobey their Lord and contradict the baptismal covenant they were now limited to three days a week in which to do it. 

The Peace of God in the eleventh century included an oath in which the Christian swore:

“I will not attack a villain or villainess or servants or merchants for ransom. I will not take a mule or a horse male or female or a colt in pasture from any man from the month of March to the feast of the All Saints unless to recover a debt. 

I will not attack noble ladies traveling without husband nor their maids, nor widows or nuns unless it is their fault. 

From the beginning of Lent to the end of Easter I will not attack an unarmed knight.”

Just imagine the oath if the Benedictines had had to account for the people in their parish using Facebook or Twitter.

Medieval Christians seem very odd to most of us today; nevertheless, they had a certain instinctive sense that worship was not a matter simply of belief, but both declared and actualized certain policies for meaningful living. 

Rather than rationalize and self-justify why our Monday through Saturday commitments do not comport with our Sunday morning claim that Jesus is Lord, Rowan Williams says, it would be better to renounce our faith altogether and sin boldly.” 

For when we separate our faith from our witness, we separate Christ’s work from Christ’s person. 

And when we separate the work of Christ from the person of Christ— when we separate the message about Jesus from the message of Jesus— we make the Church invisible in the world. 

That is, if what it means to be a Christian is a belief in your head or a feeling in your heart, then Christians no longer offer the world lives that are an exemplification of the Kingdom we await. 

Or, to put it in the terms with which Paul writes in his Letter to the Galatians, when we separate our faith and our witness, 

the person of Christ and the work of Christ, 

the message about Jesus from the message of Jesus, 

we forget that the result of the Holy Spirit resting upon us in the gift of faith is the same result as when the Holy Spirit overshadowed Mary. 

Incarnation. 

When the Holy Spirit rests upon us at baptism, the result is the same as when the Holy Spirit rested upon Mary. 

The result is Christ. 

In both cases, the Holy Spirit conceives Christ. 

The fruit of the Spirit is God made flesh in the world. 

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-mastery; against such things there is no law.”

To turn the fruit of the Spirit into a list of oughts or advice— a good Christian should be kind— assumes that we bring to such virtues definitions which are already more or less correct. 

It assumes we naturally know what love is, say, or patience or self-control and that we know how to practice them. 

But that is certainly not how the Apostle Paul thinks of them. 

That Paul uses the language of the Spirit’s fruit means these attributes are gifts, gifts that come through the training of the whole Church— training Paul calls “crucifying the flesh.” 

The very language of crucifixion, moreover, is a clue that the fruit of the Spirit is not even primarily a description of us. 

When it comes to requests to preside at weddings, I say no more often than I say yes. Even when I do capitulate, it’s with the condition that the couple not ask me to preach on 1 Corinthians 13. 

“The Bible’s obviously not much interested in marriage, certainly not in married love,” I tell them, “but that’s no excuse to turn Paul’s letter into something it’s not. “Faith, hope and love abide, but love never ends…” For Paul, only Jesus, who was before creation and who was raised from the dead, is without beginning and end.”

“Paul’s talking about Jesus,” I tell brides and grooms, “Jesus is patient, Jesus is kind, Jesus is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. Jesus does not insist on his own way.”

Paul’s describing Jesus not us. 

Likewise our text today— he’s talking about Jesus.

The virtues Paul lists are firstly a description of Jesus, and, therefore, they derive their definitions from the narratives of his life. 

It’s from Jesus, who so refuses to save us through violence that he suffers our violence, we learn the meanings of faithfulness, self-control, and love. 

It’s from Jesus, who commands us to confront the brother or sister who has sinned against us, if necessary involving the whole community of disciples, we learn that peace is neither easy work nor can it be confused for sentimentality. 

We learn kindness from the one who forgives three times the Peter who had thrice denied him.

We learn joy from the one who makes the best wine for a party too drunk to appreciate it. 

We learn the nature of gentleness from the one who refuses to cast the first stone but nonetheless rightly names the woman’s sin as sin. 

By breaking the law in order to eat and drink with sinners, Jesus gives us a definition of goodness we could not have apart from Jesus. 

He’s talking about Jesus. 

Jesus is the one whose cross and resurrection have graced us with this in-between time, between the Old Age and the New, so that we might have all the time in the world to shape our lives according to his Kingdom. 

That’s patience. 

That’s God’s patience. 

The fruit of the Spirit describe Christ. 

But do not forget— 

The Christ born to Mary is not the only Christ made flesh in the world. 

There is also the Body that is Christ, born not to Mary but of water and the Spirit. That is, the Church. 

Just as the Holy Spirit anoints Mary’s son and sends him out into the world to confront the world with an alternative to the world, so too does the Holy Spirit anoint and send Christ’s Body into the world to bear witness to a Kingdom whose virtues are intelligible only in the light of Easter. 

In other words, the fruit of the Spirit are not attributes to which any individual should aspire nor are they a code of conduct individual Christians ought to obey. 

They describe the Body of Christ that the Holy Spirit makes flesh for the world. 

Paul could be writing to Nicodemus instead of sending this letter o the Galatians: For God so loved the world, he gave it his Body, the Church. 

Indeed Christ’s Body is even less impressive and more counter-intuitive than the body of a Jewish carpenter from Nazareth, but it’s a Body through whose life, 

a particular life marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, 

the world might know it’s the world— that is, a good gift cared for by a gracious God. 

This is why Paul views it a profound mistake that the false teachers’s would add the Law back onto the Gospel— because the Holy Spirit is already doing what the Law originally envisaged. 

The Holy Spirit is making flesh a People, a peculiar People, a witnessing minority, who might be a light to the nations. 

I remember, twenty years ago today, I was working in the mailroom at Princeton before my late morning class. 

My supervisor, Vince, was on the phone with his wife, who was in the hospital dying of cancer. 

She told him to find a television and then, he said, the line went dead. 

The nearest TV was mounted in the corner outside the dining hall. The TV was on mute. 

And for a while all of us standing there, staring up at the buildings, we were on mute too. 

Until the first tower fell and the silence became a chorus of whispered “Oh my God’s.”

The first time I preached was the sermon for the following Sunday. 

I’d just been appointed by a bishop who was desperate to fill a vacancy at a small, clergy-killing church and who had scoured the seminary for a United Methodist student. 

I made the mistake of trying to say too much in my sermon that Sunday, as though God needed defending. 

Fred was a quiet, elderly African American who served as the patriarch of the congregation.

I didn’t know it at the time. 

Fred’s son always attended service with his Father, but Fred sat alone that Sunday after the eleventh and every Sunday thereafter. His son’s office had been in the second tower. 

I remember, just a few weeks later, I was making my way from a coffee shop to campus and I stumbled upon Fred standing in a crowd on Nassau Square. 

Fred was wearing a large wooden cross around his neck and was holding a sign that had a wooden paint stirrer taped to the back. 

The sign was sky blue and in a bold white font it read, “Christians Against War.” 

“I didn’t peg you for the protesting type,” I said to him. 

And he looked at me with an intensity that unnerved me. 

“My only hope for my boy,” he said, “is the resurrection. I’m clinging to the news that Jesus is alive and will put my boy back together and raise him up— and me too.”

I looked around at the demonstration, wondering how what he said explained what he was doing.

“I saw the notice for this gathering, and I figured, if I’m counting on it being true that Jesus is Lord, then I ought to try to live like I actually believe it.”

What virtue is that exactly, I wonder? 

Faithfulness? Peace? Self-control?

Whatever virtue the Spirit produced in Fred, I don’t have it. Likely neither do most of you. 

Fortunately, Paul’s letter is not written to you. 

It’s written to the whole Church. 

Indeed this is why Paul uses the odd locution “the fruit of the Spirit is…” 

Paul doesn’t say “the fruit of the Spirit are…” 

It’s singular, “the fruit of the Spirit is…” 

That the fruit of the Spirit is singular means one virtue is not present except where all of them are present. 

Peace is not present apart from patience nor faithfulness apart from self-control. 

Joy is not possible in the absence of goodness. 

And love that is not schooled by the ability to confront untruthfulness with gentleness is not love but sentimentality. 

The fruit of the Spirit is…It’s all one gift. 

They go together. 

They require one another. 

The Spirit produces them all, not in every Christian believer, but throughout Christ’s Body. 

Which is to say, there is no way for Christians to make the Gospel intelligible to the world without depending upon the lives of other Christians. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer makes the same point commenting on the Beatitudes in Matthew’s Gospel:

“Each of the Beatitudes names a gift, but it is not presumed that everyone who is a follower of Jesus will possess each beatitude. 

Rather, the gifts so named in the Beatitudes suggest that the diversity of these gifts will be present in the community of those who have heard Jesus’s call to discipleship. Indeed, to learn to be a disciple is to learn why we require one another.”

Because none of us possess all the gifts, our lives in isolation cannot bear witness to the fullness of the Kingdom. 

At the beginning of his paper, Gods, the philosopher John Wisdom tells a parable of two people who return to their garden after a long time away. 

Rather than finding their neglected garden overgrown and desiccated, the two discover that their old plants are doing quite well. 

One of the two people concludes that while they were away, a gardener must have been coming to the garden to tend the plants. 

But upon further investigation, they can find no evidence to suggest that the proposed gardener has been working in the garden. 

The one that believes there must be a gardener posits the gardener must come and work at night. 

The other person in the parable insists that cannot be true for surely someone at some point would have heard the garden at work or happened upon the gardener working in the dark. 

The one who believes in the gardener; however, calls attention to the precise arrangement of flowers in the garden and argues that an invisible gardener must come to tend the garden. 

The believer believes that if they just pay closer attention to the garden, they’ll confirm the necessary existence of such a gardener. 

They both study what happens when closer attention is paid to the garden but they still can reach no definitive conclusion from their empirical observation. 

They each see the same garden, yet one accepts the existence of a gardener and the other cannot. 

John Wisdom, the philosopher who tells the parable to unpack what philosophers call the verification principle; namely, the principle that all our convictions, but particularly our convictions about God, must be open to argument and investigation. 

The existence of a gardener is not self-evident. 

You can’t simply assert, I believe a gardener exists. 

You’ve got to provide an account that makes plausible your conviction that a gardener exists. 

This demand for verification is even more incumbent upon Christians. 

After all, Christians go well beyond the general conviction that a gardener exists. 

Christians make the particular claim that the Gardener-with-a-capital-G is a first century Jew from Nazareth who lived briefly, died violently, and rose unexpectedly. 

To claim the Gardener is the child born to Mary is a ludicrous conviction. 

I mean, think about it. 

Most people struggle simply to believe in a Gardener. 

To claim the Gardener is the child born to Mary is absurd on its face— there’s nothing in the Garden to substantiate such a claim. 

It requires witnesses. 

It requires witnesses, whose life together substantiates the conviction that the one who preached the Sermon on the Mount is the great, cosmic Gardener. 

The Gospel is a self-refuting assertion apart from lives whose coherence can only be explained by the resurrection of the crucified Christ. 

This is what Paul means today by telling the Galatians that we not only proclaim the crucifixion, we participate in it— “crucifying the flesh.”

 

Standing there on the town square next to Fred in October, 2001, I said, “I guess I assumed you’d be consumed with anger. I’m surprised you could come out to a such a gathering. 

And, I remember, he spit on the sidewalk— in disgust. 

“You can’t imagine the rage I feel, preacher…” 

His eyes lit up wide and then got wet.

“You think I want to be here? Sure, I want to kill every last one…” and his voice trailed off in a string of expletives, “But if I’m depending on the Lord to give me my boy back, I can’t act like the promise of resurrection is the only thing he ever said.”

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control…”

No scientific investigation can posit that the Gardener is Jesus. 

No philosophical theory can persuade that the Gardener is Jesus. 

No historical document— certainly not the Bible- can prove that the Gardener is a Jew named Jesus. 

You, Christ’s Body, the Church, are the verification principle. 

You are the fruit that the Spirit cultivates in the Garden so that all might know not only that there is indeed a Gardener but that the fullest expression of this Gardener is the one who forgave his enemies while dying on a tree.

In other words, our sanctification is necessary not to God but to the world. 

You don’t need to become holy so that God can redeem you. 

God’s already redeemed in Jesus Christ. 

You don’t need to become holy so that God can redeem you. 

You need to become holy so that the world might come to recognize the character of the God who has redeemed it in a crucified savior. 

If such a vocation strikes you as an extraordinary claim for ordinary people like ourselves, then take heart that the churches to whom Paul writes were even less impressive than us. 

That Paul admonishes them for falling back into works of the flesh is but an indication that Paul understands that the Old Adam may have been drowned in our baptisms but that doesn’t mean the Old Adam is not, as the saying goes, a mighty strong swimmer. 

Paul’s all too aware that we remain at once sinners and saints; be that as it may, God has nevertheless called forth such imperfect people to be his particular people whose peculiar virtues might gesture towards the end all have in Christ. 

Looked at from God’s side of this plan, it seems an odd and reckless gambit to risk so much on people like us. 

Looked at from our side, it should be an occasion for joy. 

In a world where life often feels like it’s just one damn thing after another, God has given us— you and me!— with a destiny and gifted us with something worth giving our lives to, something worth dying for. 

 

16 Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh.17For what the flesh desires is opposed to the Spirit, and what the Spirit desires is opposed to the flesh; for these are opposed to each other, to prevent you from doing what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law. 19Now the works of the flesh are obvious: fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy,* drunkenness, carousing, and things like these. I am warning you, as I warned you before: those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.

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