Ash Wednesday – Self Control – Rev Alison Way – 22nd February 2023

2 Corinthians 5:20b-6:10, John 8:1-11

In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit Amen

Our marking of Ash Wednesday has very distinct characteristics and allows us a longer time clearing the decks and scrutinizing our lives in the sight of God. Owning our sins, confessing them and then allowing the forgiveness of God to fortify us for the journey of preparation to Easter a healthy Lent requires. The ash crosses depict how seriously we are taking this and our reliance on God’s forgiveness and love for us, and a determination to walk on from this day with hope in our hearts. Based on the love won for us on the cross and allowing the Holy Spirit to work in us, and change us from the inside out!

It is this aspect of the Holy Spirit’s work changing us from that inside out that brings about spiritual fruit in us. This lent we are going to particularly major upon this. Looking at how the Spirit can and does work in us to bring change about in us. The fruit are first described in St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. They are initially described as a holy counterbalance to a list of vices described as works of the flesh. These works of the flesh are the kind of thing that can overtake us when we let other things get the better of us (those devices and desires of our own hearts as the prayer book had it!). They are things like hatred, strife, jealousy, selfish ambition, dissension, factions, envy (and then a handful related to sexual morality and drunkenness). In a way this is like the list of things we shall shortly be repenting of in this service.

St Paul then goes on to describe the contrast of these, the way the Spirit works in us and through us as the fruit of the Spirit. One of my commentaries said of this phrase. These are the spontaneous qualities of a life directed by the Spirit as opposed to human efforts to live according to the directives of the law or the flesh. Another way of understanding this as the peaceful growth in a person directed by the Holy Spirit. Rather than our outbursts of undisciplined passion! The virtues and characteristics then described are a gift by God through the Spirit working in us and the way God can help us to live a more holy and Godly focussed life. I don’t think this is just a passive thing but us co-operating with God to let the Spirit work in us and through us.

And ways that people will see the power of God in the quality of our lives and lifestyles. Just after the fruit are described St Paul says. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. So the fruit are Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. As the Sundays and celebrations of this year’s Lent and Holy Week unfold, we will look at each one in turn. Before we look at today’s fruit, I just want us to contemplate why sometimes at baptisms, I teach the friends and families gathered what these fruit are and why they are important for the baby or child being baptised. It is the influence of God in the newly baptised child that matters and how the Holy Spirit will work in them from that day forward.

For today’s marking of Ash Wednesday – I picked the fruit self-control…. Jesus challenged those gathered at the temple when the woman had been brought in in our Gospel reading today. He said to them – let anyone among you who is without sin throw a stone at her. This is a really counter cultural answer to a trick question! Everyone recognised they had fallen short and walked away. We recognise the quality of Jesus self control here – and one of the best things we can do is attempt to be more like him in the face of hostility and difficult questions.

Self control is a word with a long history amongst the Greek classical writers. It was introduced by Socrates and Plato used it in relation to overindulgence in food or sex. Aristotle understood the difference between the person who had powerful passions but keeps them under control. As opposed to the person who does not deliberately choose wrong but has no power to resist temptation.

What is self control? Self-control at its simplest is exercising control over your feelings or actions or restraint exercised over one’s own impulses, emotions, or desires. In more spiritual language – We probably most think of it as the active effort we put forth to resisting temptations that are not God’s way for us. A more positive take – Behaviour honouring of our love for God and God’s control on our lives. A simpler way to put this is to move away from the two year old temper tantrums if we don’t get our own way! We have all developed from that approach to life.

I think it’s inclusion in Paul’s spiritual fruit for us is that the Holy Spirit can help us with the things we struggle to control in ourselves. Praying for this Spiritual fruit will help us in areas we find difficult. Help us to live in more loving and beneficial ways for others. In my Spiritual fruit story book, the fruit used for self control is a lime. A little can go a long way in our uses of limes. It says – the fruit of self control helps me to be strong and to get along. Strong in what sense?

  • Strong against things that tempt us that aren’t good for us.
  • Strong in seeking what God says is best for us.
  • Strength to get along – by thinking of others before ourselves.
  • Strength in seeking God’s will and in kindness in how we treat others.

This is not to say this is remotely easy or particularly straightforward, but is a sign of the Spirit living in us and moulding us the way we want to be. Elsewhere in Paul’s writings he recognises this is far from easy. In Romans 7 Paul describes how he longs to do the right thing but ends up doing completely the other – the wrong thing. It’s not a one off, he does this over and over again. He is still vulnerable to temptation, just as we are. Weakness and wrong doing where we should have greater self control. Where Paul struggles  just as much as we do… 

Paul’s answer to his and our dilemma is Jesus saving love for us on the cross. God’s mercy and forgiveness and our deliverance and our need for thankfulness are Paul’s answer and to live lives in response to that is Paul’s answer. Here is a deep truth we celebrate as Christians that if we acknowledge our weaknesses and mistakes, and are sorry, we can put them behind us as God forgives us and we can start again. For in God’s eyes that is already done and done in and through Jesus Christ.

Working on self control is not the path to punishing times of hard labour to make up for the past mistakes or present weaknesses, or agonising over our faults, living with grippling guilt, and struggles trying to do enough to earn a pardon. What needs doing is done already in Jesus. Through prayer, and guidance, there is the spiritual work that  can be done even on our worst weaknesses. The places where we find self control is really hard. This is spiritual work in our inner being – the spiritual fruit of self control.

Whatever your self control weakness area is our behaviour is our responsibility, but the Holy Spirit is the power that can help us change and our behaviour should include asking forgiveness of God. Giving thanks to God when we have better self control. Where forgiveness from God is of course God’s responsibility. Let’s let God be God to us and forgive us. Amen

References: Word Biblical Commentary: Galatians – Richard N Longnecker, the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible © 1989, 1995, The Fruit of the Spirit for little ones, Mandy Fender.

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