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Sunday, 27 June 2010

The Fruit of the Spirit

Think of a bowl of fruit. I wonder what fruit you think of. Apples, oranges and bananas, perhaps; or at this time of year peaches and nectarines and strawberries? Or perhaps the tropical fruits, like pineapples and mangoes and papayas. It doesn’t really matter what they are – they are all fruit. So are things like tomatoes and cucumbers and squash and marrow; basically if it is a mechanism for carrying seed, it’s a fruit. If not, not, which means that disgusting rhubarb is actually a vegetable!

Fruit, of course, is Nature’s way of ensuring that seeds are widely distributed – the fruit is eaten, and the seeds deposited somewhere else to grow away from the parent plant. Obviously centuries of cultivation have meant that some fruit has grown a very long way from its origins, and of course, for farmers nowadays it is a cash crop; I’ve driven past cherry orchards in the South of France, and plum orchards in the Vale of Evesham, and we have all heard of the fruit fields in California.

St Paul talks about a crop of fruit, too, in our reading from the letter to the Galatians. He isn’t talking about apples and oranges, though; his fruit is qualities: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control And he calls this the fruit of the spirit.

The fruit of the Spirit. Now, you may have heard plenty of sermons on the fruit of the spirit – I know I have! And do you know, almost every time I’ve heard one I’ve ended up feeling horrible and guilty – I always start to think that I don’t show the fruit of the spirit in my life, and that means I must be a terrible, rotten person, or I’m doing the whole Christian thing all wrong, or something like that!

But I don’t think St Paul really meant what he was saying to make us feel all guilty and horrible. I’m sure he meant something rather different.

You see, he didn’t just write this list of good qualities out of the blue! He wrote it as part of a letter to the Christian Church in Galatia, which was either the Roman province of Galatia, or a much smaller area that was called Galatia long before the Romans came. Doesn’t matter which it was, not at this stage. What does matter is that the Galatians had a problem. They wanted to follow Jesus, but some of their teachers thought that in order to do that, they must also keep the Jewish law. They were teaching that they must become Jews first and Christians afterwards.

Well, St Paul was Jewish himself, and he knew that this was not so. He knew that you could be a good Christian without necessarily being a good Jew. He himself was both, of course, but he was beginning to abandon the Jewish rituals when they became a barrier to evangelism. He said that the Jewish law was fine as long as it lasted, but now that Jesus has come, it’s all changed. You don’t need to keep the Jewish law any more. “For freedom, Christ has set us free.”

But then he realised that people might just misunderstand him, so he goes on to say BUT. And his BUT is that you do have to let god the Holy Spirit fill you, and live in accordance with God’s will. You see, Paul says, if you just live for yourself – what he calls “the sinful nature” – if you don’t either follow the Jewish law or allow God the Holy Spirit to lead you, you might well end up with some or all of the nasty qualities he listed: idolatry and witchcraft, hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies and the like. And, he says, people like that don’t fit into God’s kingdom.

And then he says, but if you allow yourself to be filled with the Holy Spirit, you’ll produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. And he says that if you belong to Jesus, the old selfish you has been crucified. Put to death. He doesn’t you notice, say it should be put to death, or it must be put to death. He says it has been put to death. By virtue of the fact that you belong to Jesus.

The trouble is, of course, that when you hear that, if you’re anything like me you go “I wish! In your dreams!” and similar sort of remarks. Because we know all too well that we are prone to some of the things in the list of nasties – we might get jealous, or bite someone’s head off because we’re stressed out... and so on. There are times when a life showing nothing but Paul’s fruit of the Spirit seems like an impossible dream.

Perhaps Paul is being idealistic? Perhaps we should all be trying to be loving and so on? Perhaps that’s the ideal, and if we mess up it doesn’t matter all that much?

Well, that's not what it says. Yes, of course we should, ideally, be trying to be loving and all that, but by ourselves we simply aren’t going to succeed. It isn’t that we should try and develop these qualities – it is that, if we are God’s person, we gradually will develop these qualities.

I’ve said before and I’ll probably say it again that these Sundays in Ordinary Time are the ones when the readings put what we say we believe smack up against what we really do believe, and how that belief translates into practice. If we are God’s person, we are told, we gradually will develop these qualities. We’re told that we’re being made more and more like Jesus as we carry on our walk with God, and these qualities, above all, are ones that shone out of Jesus.

Now, we’re probably not going to notice them very much; it’s far more obvious that we’ve had a meltdown than that we haven’t had one when we might have done! Reminds me of the silly story of the man with the string round his wrist, and when asked why he wore it, he said, “It’s to keep the elephants away!”
“But there are no elephants!”
“Yes, you see, it works!”
It’s really hard to prove a negative! And in some cases it’s hard to prove a positive – we know when we have been unloving or unkind, but do we know when we have been loving or kind? And ought we to know? Wouldn’t we end up being proud of ourselves, as though it were all down to us, when it isn’t really.

Because, you see, these qualities are fruit. And you can’t make fruit, can you – well, there is doubtless an Apple factory somewhere, but that’s something different. You can’t go and watch a banana being made, or the peel being put on an orange. Fruit grows. It’s the farmers and the growers who produce fruit, not factories or mills. The farmer, or the market gardener, does a great deal to protect the fruit trees, and see that they aren’t eaten by pests, or get too dry, and that the trees have been pollinated so that the fruit can grow, but basically they have to be patient, and wait for the fruit to grow and ripen.

And so do we. We can’t manufacture love, or joy, or gentleness, or the other qualities Paul mentions. But we can help them grow.

How? Well, obviously first of all by really being God’s person, not just in Church on Sundays, but allowing what we do on Sundays to affect the rest of our week. Ideally we should try to take time to be with God, even if only for a few minutes, every day. John Wesley reminds us of the “means of grace” of prayer, both private and corporate, the Holy Scriptures and Holy Communion. He points out, in his famous sermon on “The means of grace” that these things aren’t powerful in and of themselves, but only insofar as they bring us towards God. We can pray until we’re blue in the face, Wesley says – well, words to that effect, anyway – but it’s not our prayer that changes things, it’s God working in and through our prayers. And, of course, Wesley reminds us, it’s not praying or whatever that makes us a Christian – it is God’s grace alone that can do that.

Nevertheless, the “means of grace” are very helpful to keep us aligned with God, and the closer we can stay to God, the more fruit will grow in us. Remember what Jesus told us, in John 15: “I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”

And in another of Paul’s letters, he reminds us to go on being filled with the Holy Spirit, too; it’s not a once-for-all thing, but a daily need, a continuous process.

But let’s be realistic, too – we are going to fail! We often show more nasty qualities than good ones. It happens. It’s no good saying “It oughtn’t to happen,” or “It doesn’t happen” when we know full well that it does. That’s because we’re here on this earth and we are not yet made perfect. And when it happens – not if, when – then we need to admit to ourselves, and to God, that it has happened. That we aren’t perfect. We need to apologise to the person we were unkind to, or who bore the brunt of our latest meltdown, or whatever, and then pick ourselves up and go on being God’s person.

Because the more we go on with God, the more we will grow these fruit-qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. It’s the only way. We can’t make them; we can’t even fake them. We can only grow them. Let’s be committed to doing just that. Amen.