Texts: The Passion Account from a Synopsis of the Gospels†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† †††††† Good Friday
The Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness and Self-Control
††††††††††† In the name of him who loved us and gave himself to suffering and death that we might live forever with him, dear friends in Christ:† It was seven weeks ago that we began this Lenten series on the nine-fold fruit of the Spirit that are found in Galatians chapter five.† As I stated back then, my intent this year was to not only journey through this penitential season reflecting repentantly on our many sins and shortcomings, but to go a step farther and concentrate also on the ultimate goal Ė that is, to hold up the perfect end to which the Lord is working to complete in us.† My hope was that by not simply focusing on the negative but also studying the positive, we might be encouraged to press on all the more diligently Ė to be less willing to settle with what we are now and the little progress weíve made toward the ultimate goal, which is nothing less than to be transformed by Godís Spirit into the image of Christ, the image of him who is our perfect role model when it comes to displaying the fruit of the Spirit.† I mean, if we want to know what the Lord is working for us to become and what kind of fruit he is endeavoring to produce in us, we have only to look at Jesus.† This is true of all of the fruit of the Spirit weíve meditated upon so far: love, peace, joy, patience, kindness, goodness, and faithfulness.† In each case, Jesus is our flawless example.† And so by studying his life and behavior, weíll understand what we will one day become; and of course, weíll see how very far we have yet to go.
††††††††††† This evening we turn our attention to the last two fruit of the Spirit, which are gentleness and self-control.† And itís fitting that we do this on Good Friday, because itís especially in his passion that we see these virtues so clearly displayed in Christ our Lord.† And to a certain extent, these two fruit are related because both have to do with attaining mastery and discipline over the self.
††††††††††† The first is gentleness, sometimes also translated as meekness or humbleness. It has to do with mastery over the mind, soul, and emotions.† A person who has the fruit of gentleness would be totally submissive toward God and his will, and would seek to accept Godís plan and design whatever it may be with a sense of tranquility.† We see this displayed in Jesus in the way he submits himself to the will of his Father. He prays in the Garden of Gethsemane to let pass the cup of suffering heís been asked to drinkóbut only if there is no other way to achieve the same result.† It not being possible to attain mankindís salvation any other way, he willingly accepts the burden of cross and suffering.† So we also, when we produce this fruit, gladly take up the crosses we have been assigned by the Lord, submitting ourselves to his perfect will. With regard to dealings with other people, a gentle person would be affable, compliant with their wishes, modest in bearing, approachable in manner, measured in speech, reserved in attitude, and easy to get along with.† We see this aspect of gentleness displayed frequently in the teaching of Jesus.† Heís infinitely patient with everyone from a legal expert like Nicodemus on one end to the comparatively uneducated Samaritan woman at the well who had such a checkered past on the other.† Wherever and with whomever he is, he puts himself on the level of his students and adapts to their needs without making them feel inferior.† He lets them know that he is genuinely interested in their welfare and that they are important to him and loved by him.
But as I said earlier, itís especially in his passion that we see Christís gentleness. Though he is Lord and King of the universe, who could easily wipe away his enemies with a word, he submits to unjust arrest, insult, and unimaginable physical abuse without becoming angry, and without lashing out against his tormentors.† Instead he cooperates with them.† He prays for them.† He intercedes for their forgiveness.† In his own agony he has words of comfort the women who lament him, for a dying thief, and for his own mother.† So also we, when the Lord works in us to produce the fruit of gentleness, donít think of ourselves as more important or superior to others.† Instead we bend to their wishes, serve their needs, and see to their interests.† Gentleness is what maintains unity and harmony of the body of Christ as each of us seeks to include others and help them to feel wanted and cared for.† The opposite of gentleness is when we think of ourselves as better or smarter than others, when we become irritated with them, when we insult or slight them, or speak sharply to them without thinking how our words may harm.† The lack of gentleness shows up in our being suspicious of strangers, and sizing them up and making judgments based on appearance rather than striving to think the best about them and put the best construction on everything.
††††††††††† It happens in this fallen world that gentleness is sometimes mistaken for weakness Ė at least, thatís how itís often interpreted by the proud and worldly.† In truth it is anything but weakness. Instead it is what keeps strength under control and channels it for good purposes.† I mean, whoís really the stronger man, the one who beats and abuses his wife and children so that they live in terror of him, or the one who though he possesses greater physical strength, deals with his family gently and lovingly, and uses his strength only for their protection and good? †So also, Scripture informs us that a gentle answer turns away wrath.† When someone comes at you angry and complaining about something you did or failed to do, gentleness allows you to disarm their assault.† Instead of getting defensive and acting on the urge to attack in kind, it takes the strength of gentleness to say, ďOkay, youíre right.† Iím sorry.† What can I do to make things right?Ē
††††††††††† So thatís the fruit of gentleness.† Itís mastery over the inner self of mind, soul, and emotion.† The second fruit of the Spirit for this evening is self-control, which has to do with attaining perfect control over the impulses and cravings of the flesh.† We see this very early in Jesusí ministry when he takes a forty day fast while heís being tempted in the desert.† He is able to subdue his hunger and resist the devilís suggestion that he use his power to change stones into bread.† And of course the reason he doesnít is because you and I canít turn stones to bread. Though he has the power to perform the miracle, he is committed to living exactly as one of us.† And so he must trust, just as we must, that if the Lord put me here in this place and time, he must have a plan to take care of me and see me through it Ė without my resorting to extraordinary means.† So he takes charge of his severe hunger and does not let it control him.
††††††††††† But once again, itís especially in his passion that we see him exercising self-control over his body.† I know itís a rather gruesome topic; but to clearly illustrate what Iím talking about I have to review again the brutal mechanics of crucifixion.† Crucifixion was designed by the Romans to be the most horrible way to die possible.† It was for them a terror weapon to keep conquered peoples in subjection.† The thought was that if you knew you might be crucified for rebelling against Rome, you would never take the risk.
††††††††††† When someone was condemned to be crucified, they were first flagellated; that is, they were beaten with a whip consisting of many thin strips of leather that were designed to cut and remove skin.† The strands often had shards of glass or sharp bits of iron or bone woven into them to cut deeper.† After being flagellated, the victim would be ripped, bleeding, and raw from the nape of the neck to the tops of the ankles.† We know that Jesus was actually beaten twice, once earlier when Pilate hoped that his being beaten would satisfy the crowd.† When someone was beaten to be released, heíd be struck with a cane Ė something more like a broomstick.† Antiseptics werenít widely available back then, and so the goal in this kind of beating was to not cut the skin up too badly which might cause death by infection later, but rather to bruise deeply and maybe crack a few ribs. Jesus had his flagellation then, on top of his back already badly bruised and sore.† Itís probably this two-fold beating Ė on top of all the other rough handling heíd received Ė that made it impossible for Jesus to carry his cross to the site of execution.
††††††††††† Once they arrived there, the victim would have his hands nailed to the transom of the cross.† They actually drove the nails into the wrist, right behind where the two bones in the forearm come together.† There were two reasons for that: one, thereís a nerve cluster there that makes it especially painful, and two, because a nail there will hold a manís weight, whereas one driven into the palm of the hand would simply tear out under pressure.
††††††††††† Once the hands were nailed, the transom would then be lifted into place on an already standing upright Ė and itís here that the cruel genius of crucifixion comes into play.† You see, with your arms outstretched and your body weight hanging from them, you canít breathe.† What happens is that the diaphragm muscle, the one that draws down to allow you to inhale gets pulled up tight like a bowstring making it impossible for you to fill your lungs with air.† Itís only after the feet are nailed to the cross that the victim can catch a breath. The feet were nailed flat to the cross with the knees bent, so that by pushing up on the nail driven through the instep the victim could raise himself up high enough to relax the tension on the diaphragm to allow air to come into the lungs.† Since it was incredibly painful to do that, as soon as the victim got some air, heíd drop back down so that his weight was hanging on his arms again.
††††††††††† And hereís the kicker: at this point the victim wants nothing more than to die and be done with it.† The trouble is that he canít.† He tells himself, all I have to do is stay down here in the lower position and Iíll suffocate.† Itíll be over in minutes.† But as soon as his air begins to run out the mind panics and the body takes over.† You canít will yourself to suffocate. Against your better judgment, your body will do anything to stay alive, pushing, twisting, and turning upward to get that next breath.† And the whole time youíre dragging the raw flesh on your back up and down against the rough timber of the cross.† Itís absolutely awful.† So what crucifixion does is make you your own worst enemy.† Youíre torturing yourself and prolonging your agony, and you canít stop it.† And it happens that the two strongest muscles in your body, your thighs, which are resting most of the time, are the muscles keeping you alive.† So crucifixion could last for days. †This is what made it so frightful.† Only when your leg muscles completely failed from exhaustion so that you couldnít pull yourself up to breathe would blessed death come.
††††††††††† Now think:† Jesus had such command over his body that he could will himself to accept this punishment to save us.† But it goes deeper than that.† You see, when the time comes that Jesus knows that his suffering has gone on long enough to pay the full price of our sin, he does will himself to die.† He gives up the spirit and heís done.† His mind can control his flesh even to the point of overcoming the instinct of self-preservation.† Now, thatís self-control.† More than that, it tells us that he could have done it at any time.† Not only could he have come down from the cross if heíd wanted to Ė to his antagonistsí amazement and alarm, he could have chosen to die earlier with the price of sin only partially paid.† So what Iím saying is that while any one of us would have been trying to die, Jesus is deliberately prolonging his agony Ė such is his mastery over his own flesh.
As a thought experiment, after describing the details of crucifixion, I sometimes ask my confirmation students, ďSuppose the Lord came along to you and said, ĎHereís the path to eternal salvation.† All you have to do is allow yourself to be crucified.† Just willingly submit to it. At any time during the process, you can change your mind; but then you lose.† Then you go to hell rather than heaven.í† The question is this:† How long do you think youíd last before you changed your mind and begged for the punishment to end?Ē† My guess is that a lot of us would give up already during the flagellation.† I seriously doubt any one of us would last very long on cross itself.† So weak is our flesh, weíd forfeit an eternity in heaven for a momentís relief.
††††††††††† But now, letís take the thought experiment to the next level.† Suppose that itís not your salvation thatís in the balance.† Suppose you could to be crucified to save someone else, say, someone you love and care for deeply.† Then how long do you think you might last?† Itís hard to say.† In the case of a truly great love, maybe a few of us could hold out a bit longer; but letís face it, deep down inside weíre pretty pathetic.† Under crucifixionís terror and pain, most of us would sell out everyone we love because way down inside, we love ourselves more than anyone.† Thatís the nature of sin in us.
But letís take it one more step.† What if the deal was that you could be crucified to save someone who really hates you, who goes out of the way to insult you and be mean to you?† Then how long do you think youíd last?† My guess is that none of us would even think about volunteering in the first place.† But even if someone did, about the time the first whip lash fell across your shoulders Ė or even more likely, about the time you just saw the whip, thatíd be the end of it.† But this is the point:† thatís exactly what Christ does for us.† We were his enemies.† And every time we sin, we prove that we still are.† And yet he willingly stays on the cross for us.† He could call it quits one way or another at any point; but he doesnít Ė so great is his love for us and his self-control over his own body.
††††††††††† †Now, fortunately for us, our salvation does not depend on our submitting to crucifixion Ė either for ourselves or for anyone else.† Jesus did that for us.† But having received salvation through faith in Jesus, what we are called upon to do is to put to death in ourselves the sin nature Ė to gain mastery over our own bodies and kill its unwholesome appetites and impulses.† What am I talking about?† Anything that has control of you.† For some of us it could be eating.† Now I know all of us need to eat to stay alive; thatís not what Iím talking about.† Iím talking about the kind of eating that controls you and causes you to over eat, and eat things you donít need or that arenít good for you but that you crave. For others it could be drinking Ė and Iím not talking about water.† Alcohol is okay in moderation; but some of us are controlled by it: †that urge to drink more than is good and healthy.† Or it could be an appetite for sex; again, I donít mean the healthy kind that takes place in its proper place in a committed marriage between a husband and wife, but the kind that seeks satisfaction in improper lust, in adultery, fornication, pornography, perversion, or homosexuality.
††††††††††† It could be oneís appearance that is the obsession and that leads to an extreme workout regime, or to crash dieting and anorexia, or to multiple plastic surgeries and liposuctions, or to a vain fixation on cosmetics and clothes and accessories.† It could be the over indulgent pursuit of any pleasure or hobby that crowds out commitments to family, to the job, or to the Lord.† It could be oneís work itself that is the addiction.† It could be the inability to control a tongue that gossips and spreads tales, or that utters curses and profane words.† It could the need to be popular, or powerful, or wealthy. It could be all or any combination of these things and a whole lot more; whatever it is that causes you to say, ďI just canít help myself.Ē† Thatís right. You canít.
††††††††††† And thatís why the metaphor of crucifixion is so apt.† As much as we might want to suppress and kill the sinful desire of the flesh in question, it keeps struggling back up for another breath of air.† It refuses to die.† No matter how hard we try to suffocate it, it keeps coming back.† And so we are at war with ourselves.† And if weíre not careful and persistent, we can let the sinful nature win the war.† Thatís when we just give up and let sin have its way Ė at which point weíre lost.† Or we can stay in the fight and win, not with power of our own, but with the spiritual fruit of self-control produced in us by Godís Holy Spirit.† Itís the same supernatural self-control that gave Jesus mastery over his flesh and that allowed him to do what none of us could.
††††††††††† How do we get it?† The same way we get all the other fruit of the Spirit: by recognizing that we donít have them and canít produce them on our own, by identifying and repenting of our outright sins and failures and useless attempts correct them, and by receiving once again the Words and Sacraments of Christís forgiveness, which he gave himself to death to secure for us.† In this way the Spirit of Christ comes to dwell within us so that we are empowered increasingly to exercise self-control and put to death our sinful desires and impulses.† And this way too we become gardens in which all the fruit of the Spirit grow Ė love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control Ė just as they are seen abundantly overflowing in the life of Jesus Christ to whose image God is recreating us.† Let it not be that his work in you is in vain; but let us strive all the more to give ourselves over to his will, commending our spirits to his loving care, that there may be a bountiful harvest of the Spiritís fruit in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.† Amen.
Soli Deo Gloria!