Well, right off the bat our two texts for this morning, when taken together, provide us with something of a dilemma: first, we have Jesus telling his disciples and us that since he is the vine and we are the branches, we are to “abide” in him and he in us so that we can “bear much fruit;” and further, if we don’t abide and bear fruit as we are meant to do, we are like the branch that has withered away and is then tossed into the fire! And then, just now we turn to those verses in Galatians and we find out that this “fruit” we’re supposed to be bearing is, in fact, “fruit of the Spirit,” which is “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
And understand also that this is not referred to as fruits of the Spirit, but fruit; singular, meaning that these nine qualities of character are not to be thought of as wholly optional, a la carte selections for the spiritual life, but rather the result of one whole “harvest,” so to speak, of having abided as disciples of Christ. And therein lies the dilemma: who among us can honestly claim to embody every one of those traits that are meant to be the definitive evidence of what it is we believe and who we are in Christ?
I don’t know about you, but just reading that list aloud leaves me feeling pretty inadequate! I mean, I feel like I show love fairly well; I hope that people sense the joy that’s in me; and most of the time I’m kind, gentle and even generous (depending on the situation, of course, because you don’t want to be taken advantage of!). So I’ve pretty much got those things down; but take peace, for instance: in all honesty, I can be a worrier sometimes, and I’ll fret and stew and let the littlest of things consume me; and as far as patience is concerned, well, let’s just say that while I was in college my mother presented me with the gift of a plaque to hang over my desk which read, “Lord, give me patience… and I want it right now!” So, the fact is if all of these qualities together represent the core values of our spiritual formation; proof positive, if you will, of our abiding in Jesus Christ, then I for one am probably just a couple of bad days away from being thrown out on the brush pile!
Not exactly an encouraging word, I know! Theologically speaking, there are those who would chalk this up to the inherent nature of our sinful humanity; and there’s some truth to that. But I’d prefer to think that while we’re going to fall short, far short of the glory of God, by God’s grace in Jesus Christ we are forgiven those failures, whether that has to do with a lack of patience or kindness or anything else on that compendium of Spiritual fruit. But here’s the problem… here’s Jesus; who’s still there and still calling us, relentlessly to bear fruit and in doing so, to fully and wholly become his disciples.
So what does it say about those of us who profess our faith in Jesus Christ; who espouse those very core values we’ve lifted up here today to family, friends and to the world; who gather ourselves as a church, a community of faith and service dedicated to those very qualities of life and living; and yet are unable, and in some instances, unwilling to wholly embrace and to show forth those truths in ourselves?
I’m reminded here of a stretch of highway we used to drive on when we were living in Ohio. It was actually a beautiful road that wound through several miles of forest and farmland; and around this one turn was this large, lush green hillside that looked like it ought to be the centerfold in “Country Living” Magazine! The only trouble was, it smelled; it smelled bad! People were always complaining about it, and as I recall it finally got to the point where there had been an investigation by the state department of environmental protection as to what was going on; and it turned out that what all this lush, green acreage actually was… was a landfill! The bottom line is that no amount of freshly planted lawn could cover up the stench of what was just under the topsoil; and likewise, mere surface-level attempts at living a “Christian life” can never cover up who we are inside. As the saying goes, no matter how we dress up, sooner or later what we really are shows up. It’s only when this “fruit of the Spirit” is being sincerely and intensely cultivated within us that we have any hope at all of truly showing forth all the visible attributes of our life in Jesus Christ; and as I’ve been saying a lot lately, these are the days when it is crucial for us as persons and as a people to show forth our faith in a way that is clear and unalloyed.
So what, then, do we do about this? How do you and I move from being half-hearted Christians to truly “liv[ing] by the Spirit?” I think it helps to put Paul’s words to the Galatians that we’ve heard this morning in their proper context: the verses we shared this morning come amidst a longer discussion about freedom in Christ; specifically, speaking to these new Christians in Galatia about how “for freedom Christ had set [them]free;” free from the constraints of Jewish law and tradition, and yet how they still needed to honor, as believers in Christ, its good and proper intent. That’s why just prior to those verses we read this morning, there’s a list of the “works of the flesh” that they needed to avoid at all costs: things like “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry,” (v. 19) and on down from there! These are behaviors, says Paul, that definitely (and very obviously, says Paul) don’t fit into the Christian life or into the vision of God’s kingdom; but (and here’s the salient point here) if you seek to “live by the Spirit,” letting God’s Spirit fill you up, then that same Spirit will guide you in cultivating the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness and all the rest of it that is the fruit of God’s own harvest in Christ.
At the end of the day, you see, it’s all about the gardening.
As any gardener will tell you, the measure of the harvest is in direct relationship to the amount of care that goes into the garden while it’s growing; as a neighbor of mine used to say who had this pristine showplace of a vegetable garden in his backyard, “What you get out of a garden is what you put into it.” And it’s true, whether you’re talking peas and cucumbers, or the fruit of the Spirit; just as you won’t get a good garden without plenty of weeding and feeding along the way; likewise you cannot expect things like faithfulness, gentleness and self-control to flow naturally and abundantly out of you if you haven’t first worked at these qualities in your life!
I’ve told you before about this Christian Caregiving Seminar I attended some years ago in Florida; and one of the moments I clearly remember about that week was how one day there was a whole group of us sitting around this table, lamenting how incredibly hard it sometimes for people – even church people (!) – to get out of their own way long enough to be able to reach out to one another in love! And I’ll never forget it; there’s this sweet, elderly gentleman sitting beside me and listening to all this griping, and finally, he fairly well slams his hand on the table and says, rather defiantly and in a distinctively southern drawl (!), “Son… it’s all about relationships!”
And, of course, he was right; true love, real kindness, sincere generosity, and faith itself doesn’t come out of thin air or because we say so, but rather it happens in relationship to others; from person to person, friend to friend, family to family, from God to disciple to the world. Just as fruit can’t be manufactured – or at least any kind of fruit you’d want to eat – but has to be grown, you also cannot manufacture love, or joy or any other fruit of the Spirit; it, too, has to be cultivated out of an open, willing and Spirit-led heart.
Of course, it’s also true we don’t do all the gardening. I love what Sarah Dylan Breuer has written about this: she says, “No farmer, no matter how clever, can MAKE seeds grow. She can participate in the process by influencing conditions to make them more conducive to growth – watering, composting, and so on – but the gifts of life and growth come from God, and only from God, who graciously created a fruitful earth and gives without calculation of deserving the gifts of sun and rain.” Breuer’s words are a reminder to us that in nature, God is always in control; and friends, it’s just the same when it comes to our working to grow the fruit of the Spirit. That’s why Paul, at the end of all his words about not proceeding out of some “opportunity for self-indulgence, but through love” (v. 13) and all these other incredible ideals of the Christian life, Paul sums up by simply saying, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
Guided by the Spirit! Beloved, let me just say it’s impossible for us to overstate that! The bottom line is that there are basically two ways of living life; one is to do things based on our own resources, doing whatever comes naturally and relying pretty much solely on whatever innate wisdom we possess, or at least common sense or intuition. The other way is to depend on a Spirit: letting that Spirit direct your life; letting it guide you, empower you, strengthen you; letting it shape you by its work in you and in those around you. Friends, we are meant to be led by the Spirit; we are meant to be guided by the Spirit to be the kind of people God has created us to be. And why not; because this Spirit is no less than the Spirit of Jesus, who is the presence of the living God in us and among us.
So, beloved… what’s growing in your garden?
You see, the thing is, we’re not always as patient, or as kind, or as gentle, or as loving as we should be; and we don’t always bear the kind of fruit that makes for a bountiful harvest and which glorifies God. But here’s the thing; together with God, by the grace that has come to us in Jesus Christ, we can be working on it. Together, we’re tending the garden; we’re tilling the soil of forgiveness and humility, of “longsuffering” and endurance (there’s that patience thing again!), of love that’s unconditional and unlimited. We’re figuring out, together, what’s going to make this garden grow and what it will be in our lives that produces the absolute best fruit possible; that which will show forth the greatest evidence to all those around of who and whose we are. But while there’s a whole lot we can do and should do to make that happen, what this garden needs the most is the breath of God… to fill it and us with life anew…
…because that is how the fruit of the Spirit grows and abides, and how it will flourish.
May we be truly nurtured and blessed as we are guided by the Spirit; and may our thanks and praise and thanks be unto God!
Amen and AMEN!
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry