Sermon given at Eglise Presbyterienne, Kigali, 7th March 2009
In the past few weeks the word love has found its way into the theme several times. Which has to be a good thing. This is a church after all and we are Christians; love is what we are supposed to do and there would be something wrong if love didn’t keep appearing in what we talk about.
So this week I am going to expand on the idea of love and take a look at the fruit of the Spirit, because each of the fruit stem from the first fruit of love. Let’s look again at the passage from Galatians 5:22
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.
It is no coincidence that love is the first fruit that appears on the list. Of all the qualities that mark a Christian this is the one that permeates everything. This is the fruit from which all the other fruit stem.
Each fruit could be given a sermon on its own, so I am not going to go through each one in depth here. Instead I would like to look at what all the fruit mean to us and how they relate to a Christian life.
Before going on, there is something about this list that is worth noticing: “Against such things there is no law.” Now Paul was referring to Jewish law, but for the same reason we could make the same statement today. Across humanity, across all cultures, across continents and time, these virtues are seen to be good, not something to be outlawed.
Another point to pick up here is Paul’s use of the word ‘fruit’. In fact that wasn’t what he wrote at all. The word he used was karpos, meaning fruit as it is picked. In English, the word ‘fruit’ can be both singular and plural and, as we will see, Paul is using it in both senses here. Yes, each fruit can be seen as an individual characteristic, but in another sense they are each bound to each other as the one fruit that is developed by the Spirit.
2. What are the fruits?
So, what are the fruit of the spirit, or even what is the fruit of the spirit? Well, the easy answer is love, joy, peace, patience … but that really misses the point. These aren’t qualities that Paul is instructing us to adopt and build into our lives. What is important here is to understand that these are qualities developed in us by the Spirit.
In the previous section, Paul talks about the acts of a sinful nature. He lists sexual immorality, impurity, debauchery, idolatry and witchcraft. The list of fruit that follows is in stark contrast. As humans, we are sinful by nature. Does that mean we are bad people? Well, yes, in a way it does, especially if we allow ourselves to be gratified by the desires of the sinful nature as Paul puts it. There is some deep theology here that goes all the way back to Genesis and the Garden of Eden, but the good news is that we are forgiven, through Christ, and that we don’t have to stay that way.
Paul urges us to live by the Spirit so that we can be free of this old life. Paul says
But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you won’t fulfil the lust of the flesh. For the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one other, that you may not do the things that you desire. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
So, walking by the Spirit, (that is the World English Bible translation) or living by the Spirit (as in the Ne International Version) is the focus of what Paul is urging us. The fruit of the Spirit are a consequence of this choice of lifestyle. But let us leave this just now and pick it up again later. Before that it is worth reminding ourselves of what happens when we make this choice.
So, taking the most important fruit first, what is love? The Greeks had several words with different meanings which all translate into the English word love. The word Paul uses is agape, meaning kindness or benevolence. This isn’t intimate love with someone we are close to but an all-encompassing goodwill that comes from the love God has for us his children. It is a love that is kind (we will come to kindness shortly) and enduring. The passage from 1 Corinthians 13 has been read three or four times in as many weeks but is always worth going back to:
Love is patient. Love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
Love is an unselfish concern for others. It is putting others before ourselves. How do we know that this one fruit is the root of the others? Well, one clue is the greatest commandments:
You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.
You shall love your neighbour as yourself.
Another clue comes from Paul in his first Corinthian letter.
If I speak with the languages of men and of angels, but don’t have love, I have become sounding brass, or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy, and know all mysteries and all knowledge; and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but don’t have love, I am nothing. If I dole out all my goods to feed the poor, and if I give my body to be burned, but don’t have love, it profits me nothing.
We can know our Bible verses, we can give to the poor, we can pray; but if any of this is done without love, it counts for nothing. Perhaps this is what we mean when we say ‘God is love’. Love is the bedrock, the foundation of what it means to be a Christian and to follow Jesus.
So having laid the foundation, next on the list is joy. We don’t live in a particularly joyful world, do we? It isn’t hard to look around us and see the suffering that comes from hunger or the stress of over-working. Look at the faces of people begging for money on the streets. I don’t see much joy there.
Yet here it is on the list. Wouldn’t it be good to have some joy in our lives? Love your neighbour as yourself. What impact will we have on the world if we meet people with a smile and an enthusiastic handshake that makes them glad to have met us?
Peace is something that I have often missed in my life. Some definitions of peace are tranquillity or a sense of inner fulfilment. Again, looking around us peace is something that can be easily broken. This country has been through times where peace has been decidedly absent. Even in recent weeks we are reminded that peace is a very fragile flower.
We live in a world of conflict where east rubs against west and terrorism has become a global threat. There has probably never been a period in history, certainly recent history, where there has not been war in some part of the world or other. Yet it is easy to become part of this world and to learn to live with this absence of peace. We get used to it.
And here it is as the third item on Paul’s little list. If we walk in the Spirit as he urges us, peace can be ours despite all that is going on around us.
Next we come to patience, sometimes translated as long-suffering. Now I shouldn’t really be talking about this. Patience is not something that radiates particularly from my character, and I know whose fault that is.
A custom I have learnt here in Rwanda is the paper queue of cheques along the counter at the bank. When I began to get impatient one day, wondering why after twenty minutes I didn’t seem to be getting any closer to being served, I noticed that people were coming up to the counter and putting their cheques at the front of the queue. The locals were very amused when I started moving these cheques to the back of the line.
Impatience doesn’t do us any good. When we are impatient, we don’t think clearly, we rush and make mistakes; we forget things and end up places without remembering the reason for going there. Impatience causes frustration, and where there is frustration, there probably isn’t much room for God in what we are doing.
If there is a lot of impatience in our lives, there is unlikely to be a lot of kindness, the next fruit. Being kind to others takes an effort, and usually involves time. Being kind means turning our attention away from whatever urgency is screaming at us, and giving that attention to someone else.
And that is a real effort, certainly for me. It is very easy to go through each day with nothing in our mind but the immediate, the urgent, the top priority. I know some people that live each minute of their lives dealing with each new thing the world with all its serendipity throws at them. That’s not to say they aren’t kind people underneath, but it is a big effort for them to let that kindness out.
Kindness is thinking and doing for others, and to repeat Paul’s teaching about the necessity for love, if kindness isn’t shown with love, then it counts for nothing.
Now we are on to goodness as a fruit. This one is a little harder to put a finger on than the fruit we have met so far. Goodness is one of those things that everybody can recognise, but maybe can’t quite describe.
Goodness, I think, is more than just doing what is right. Besides, in a world where God’s word isn’t always read, who is to say what right is? I think it is more than being just being kind or joyful or patient.
Paul says of the fruit that there is no law against them. There is just something about goodness that is recognised by anybody, anywhere as being virtuous. The humanists in the world might refer to a spirit of humanity. In Africa there is a word ‘ubuntu’ which captures the nature of goodness nicely to my mind. Bishop Desmond Tutu said it nicely. He put it this way:
A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.
For us, goodness or ubuntu, however you think of it, comes from God. It is a fruit the Spirit will grow in us.
The next fruit is another that will only come to us from the Spirit – faithfulness. The Old Testament Jews weren’t particularly faithful to God. The various kings in Judah and Israel either walked in God’s ways, obeying his laws or not, as was more often the case, particularly in Israel.
If there is one aspect of God’s character after love that could be pointed to, it might be his faithfulness. For all our failings, for all that the human race has turned its back on God, he hasn’t turned his back on us.
People who are faithful don’t let you down when the going gets tough. They don’t walk away because we have done or said something to upset them. People who are always there and are still there after years aren’t as common as we might hope. This is possibly one of the key features of a successful marriage, again after love. No marriage is without its trouble and difficult times. The ones that last, and funnily get stronger in the lasting, are the ones with faithfulness.
Moving on to gentleness, we can look to Jesus as being the best example of how we should live our lives if this fruit is growing in us. Yes, Jesus could be tough when he wanted. He wasn’t being gentle when he overturned the tables in the temple, or when he called the Sadducees and the Pharisees a brood of vipers.
But time and time again, he dealt with people in gentleness. When the adulteress was about to be stoned, Jesus was gentle when he said that he didn’t condemn her, but serious when he told her to go away and sin no more.
Gentleness isn’t weakness or being mild-mannered. Gentleness takes strength and self-control, because often it is at times when gentleness is most needed that we lose that control. Wouldn’t it be good to be able to face the troubles of each day and deal with people in a way that Jesus would approve without resorting to anger and aggression?
And self-control brings us to the last of the fruit, but possibly the one that enables all the others. Earlier we read Paul’s urging that we should live by the Spirit and not gratify the desired of the sinful nature. It takes self-control to do this.
Self-control is not giving in to the temptations of life. We live in a world where many people are driven by the need to find instant gratification. The quick fix, learning theological metaphysics in five easy steps, getting rid of our problems now not later. This all stems from a short-termism which stops people looking ahead and investing in a better future rather than being slaves to immediate want. There are another three sermons if anybody wants on modern-day consumerism and spending to satisfy immediate wants.
Self-control isn’t just about not flying off the handle in rage when something upsets us. It comes from being able to look ahead; to see the bigger picture and realise that the immediate problem isn’t such a big deal in the context of everything else. As Christians we have the promise of eternity. With that to look forward to, people putting their cheques into the front of the queue at the bank should hardly bear thinking about.
3. Staying on the vine
So there they are. The nine fruit that Paul tells us are what we will experience if we walk in the Spirit. I don’t know about you, but when I look at this list the biggest thing I experience is a sense of inadequacy.
It is easy to think of the fruits as being some kind of check-list for Christians. Like Boy Scout badges, characteristics that we must collect and build into our natures so that we become better people or more like Christ.
In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. If we read Paul carefully, nowhere does he say that we must strive to acquire these fruit. The only instruction he gives us is to walk in the Spirit. The fruit are the consequence of how we live our lives; something that the Spirit cultivates in us, not something we grow by our own efforts.
And this is one of the points in the Bible where we have to understand what we have read but then take another step to realise the implications. In our faith, we have to recognise that there is more to this world than what we can see and touch and smell. The Kingdom, and with it the influence of the Spirit transcends the physical boundaries of the world that we live in. It exists now, has always existed and exists into the future. There is more to this world than we can experience with our five senses.
I would not like to give the impression that I believe in the supernatural. But if we take the literal meaning of that word – above nature – and read Paul’s message, we can see that there are other forces at work here on planet earth. I don’t mind people knowing that I believe the Spirit will work in me and everyone here. And that certainly isn’t natural, at least not in the sense of coming from nature.
So if our own effort – trying harder, praying longer, reading more of the Bible – isn’t going to grow the fruit of the Spirit, how does this happen? What do we have to do to ‘walk in the Spirit’ as Paul puts it?
Look at John 15:5
I am the vine. You are the branches. He who remains in me, and I in him, the same bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.
The answer is, hang on to the vine! Jesus is the source of the goodness, kindness, patience and all the other things that flow through us. But that can’t be the whole answer, or at least it doesn’t help us understand how we apply this to the reality, the busyness, that is our daily lives. What exactly might ‘hanging on to the vine’ mean? What has to happen so that the Spirit can do its work?
4. Letting it happen
An obvious answer is prayer. We should all spend some of our time in prayer. And just like the fruit of the Spirit aren’t like Boy Scout badges to be collected, prayer isn’t about giving God a daily list of wishes. Prayer should be about asking to be changed in ways that we have not yet imagined. Yes, we are told that God will answer our prayers and our wishes, but how much more could there be to our lives if we were to ask God to use us in his way, for his purposes?
I think that another answer has something to do with how we see the world. Certainly we can try to remember to be patient, and put reminders in our diaries to do kind things for others. These are surely not wrong, but will come more naturally and feel less contrived if the Spirit has led us to those things in the first place. So when we come across someone in need, and that isn’t difficult in this country, has God just given you an opportunity to help? Perhaps it is just coincidence, but that doesn’t stop you helping anyway and thanking the Lord for being able to.
Another hint might be that, whenever we come across something of beauty, to recognise that it comes from God. The colours on a bird, a lingering sunset, a new birth. These are all from Him, and part of the world he created. Take time to appreciate, and most importantly, recognise and give praise for the world that God has given us.
Even inspired works of art. The Cistine Chapel might be one example. Other examples that have inspired me are the Gothic cathedrals In Europe. These are magnificent pieces of architecture seven and eight hundred years old. They are built out of carved stone and demonstrate the sheer artistry of masons that had no more than basic tools to work with. The effort of thousands of people took many years to construct these wonderful buildings which could only have been accomplished out of a love for God.
The beautiful things around us are easy to spot. But sometimes God acts in our lives in subtle and less obvious ways. John Ortberg, who is an author I have mentioned before, gives an example from a children’s book called Where’s Wally? For those that haven’t met Wally, he is a character with a red stripy jumper and red stripy bobble hat. On each page in the book, which is filled with red stripy things, Wally is hiding somewhere. Wonderful fun for children of all ages trying to find Wally.
As we fly through our daily life it is easy to forget that Jesus is there all the time. When we are waiting in the queue at the bank and the person in front is paying in deposit after deposit, just remember to ask for a little patience. We might meet someone only briefly, but could make a difference in their lives just by asking why they have been sent to us just at that time.
‘Hanging on to the vine’ I think, is a recognition that Jesus is with us all day every day, wherever we go and whoever we meet. Like a faithful friend, always there. If we walked around with someone at our side, somebody that we could see and touch, we wouldn’t ignore them. We would talk to them. We would ask them questions.
So when set out in the car, let’s remember that Jesus is in there with us and drive as he might want us to. When we go to the busy supermarket, just take time to think that he is there helping us push the trolley. Before we go into a meeting at work that we might not be looking forward to, take Jesus into the meeting with you and remember some self-control.
If can hang on to the vine, we will surely begin to recognise in ourselves a more loving, peaceful and joyful nature.