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Spiritual Fruit or Religious Nuts?

We are reading again this week from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the Galatians.

Remember in this letter, Paul is dealing with a community of faith in conflict. Folks in the church were arguing that being a follower and disciple of Christ was not enough and that Gentiles, who were non-Jews, still had to keep all the Jewish religious laws before they could become Christians and be accepted into the church.

We learned last week that even as early as the first century, the church tried to determine who should be allowed into the full life of the church and who should not. This early church to whom Paul is writing was struggling with the ‘who’s in’ and ‘who’s out’ debate.

In today’s passage, Paul will be talking about the freedom we have in Christ and what it means to live by the Spirit and grow in our faith and life by living the Fruit of the Spirit.

Christ has set us free for freedom. Therefore, stand firm and don’t submit to the bondage of slavery again…

All the Law has been fulfilled in a single statement: Love your neighbor as yourself. But if you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!

I say be guided by the Spirit and you won’t carry out your selfish desires. A person’s selfish desires are set against the Spirit, and the Spirit is set against one’s selfish desires. They are opposed to each other, so you shouldn’t do whatever you want to do. But if you are being led by the Spirit, you aren’t under the Law. The actions that are produced by selfish motives are obvious, since they include sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that. I warn you as I have already warned you, that those who do these kinds of things won’t inherit God’s kingdom.

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against things like this. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the self with its passions and its desires.

If we live by the Spirit, let’s follow the Spirit. Let’s not become arrogant, make each other angry, or be jealous of each other. – Galatians 5:1,14-25

When I went off to seminary almost 20 years ago, a person in my home church gave me a refrigerator magnet that I still think about. The saying on the magnet is meant to be funny and was given in that spirit, but I took the saying more seriously and have tried to live by it.

The magnet says, “God Wants Spiritual Fruit, Not Religious Nuts.”

In a lot of ways, this is what the Apostle Paul is saying in this portion of his letter to the Galatian church…that it is less about the stringent and literal keeping of all the religious laws; and much more about living and being guided by the fruit of God’s Spirit.

Sometimes it is amazing to think about what has not changed much in over 2,000 years…There are still plenty of people who get stuck in trying to understand Scripture literally and miss the message that Scripture has for us. If those who insist on taking the Bible literally would live the fruit of the Spirit that Paul offers as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control; we would see far fewer religious nuts in our day and age and more spiritual fruit.

Even this week, you may have seen in the news that members of the fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church in Kansas held hateful signs outside the funerals of victims from the Orlando nightclub shooting massacre (picture). You may have also seen the pictures of ‘angels’ with wide wings blocking the hateful protesters and their signs (picture).

Spiritual fruit, or religious nuts?

As Paul writes to the Galatian church he says, “Christ has set us free for freedom.” This Christian freedom is not unrestrained permission to do whatever we want; rather, it is freedom to act within the context of a relationship with God…a relationship of love. In this portion of his letter Paul contrasts selfish desires and the fruit of the Spirit.

This church conflict was so severe and destructive that Paul says, “If you bite and devour each other, be careful that you don’t get eaten up by each other!”

Paul goes on to list some of the people’s destructive behaviors; and it’s quite a list. The Common English translation which I read makes these destructive behaviors clear and understandable: “Sexual immorality, moral corruption, doing whatever feels good, idolatry, drug use and casting spells, hate, fighting, obsession, losing your temper, competitive opposition, conflict, selfishness, group rivalry, jealousy, drunkenness, partying, and other things like that.”

For Paul, the harsh debates and infighting among the people were outward and visible signs of an ongoing enslavement to the Law. Paul is trying to help the people understand that by the life, death, and resurrection of Christ, God has set them free. Instead of indulging themselves in selfish desires and behaving in ways that destroy their relationships with one another, Paul wants the people to live the fruit of the Spirit, which I’ll says again is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.

The destructive behavior Paul writes about is his shorthand for describing self-centered living as opposed to God-centered living. And Paul reminds us that “All the law has been fulfilled in a single statement”…A single statement Jesus taught: “Love your neighbor as yourself.’”

That means we are called to love and care for one another. We are called to show respect for our neighbors and ourselves by living the fruit of the Spirit.

On so many levels, we have a tendency to act as if freedom means doing whatever we please, instead of being free to love and serve one another. As a result, we so often “bite and devour” and destroy one another. Think about the biting and devouring we see and hear happening in our world, our country, our neighborhoods, and at times our own families and faith community.

Our Scripture passage challenges us to turn away from this type of behavior and turn our lives toward the fruit of the Spirit. That means replacing hatred with love, and replacing strife and quarrels with respect.

On a very practical level, it can mean staying faithful in our relationships out of love, respect and faithfulness to our families, our marriage, our friendships, and our working relationships. It can mean diffusing anger and rage by exercising patience.
It can mean saying a kind word instead of complaining or passing on gossip. It can mean giving generously to God’s work in this world and when we see a need. It can mean demonstrating self-control in our consumer culture instead of insisting on more and more.

Because of the gift of freedom we know in Christ, we are called, even in these seemingly small ways, not to indulge ourselves, but to love and care for others.

It’s also important to remember that the fruit of the Spirit to which Paul calls us to live does not rule out disagreement and doubts. In healthy community, we are able to engage in disagreement in a way that risks opening ourselves with honesty, knowing that we are in a safe environment to ask our questions and express our doubts and disagreements.

This is why Paul is so adamant that the Galatians walk by the Spirit, live by the Spirit, and be led by the Spirit.

Paul also informs us that our life choices have consequences. Choosing to live life guided by the Spirit, matures and ripens the fruit of the Spirit, while living life disconnected from or unconscious of the Spirit brings chaos, hostility, and anxiety.

There is a story about two brothers, ages 8 and 10 and from time to time they would be sent to their room if they had misbehaved. But the punishment was not very effective, because there was a big fruit tree right outside their bedroom window.

They would go out the window, onto the roof, into the branches, down the tree, across the back yard, over the fence, and into the field, where they would play ball for a while, then come back over the fence, across the back yard, up the tree, into the branches, onto the roof, and in the window; and no one ever knew that they were gone.

Then one day they overheard their father say to their mother, “Mary, this tree hasn’t borne fruit for years. Tomorrow morning I’m going to cut it down.” They were horrified. They needed a plan; so that night they went to bed early, gathered together all of their money, went out the window, down the tree, and into town to the grocery store, where they bought all of the apples they had, and some string. Returning home, they proceeded to tie apples onto every branch they could reach on the tree. Then they went to bed, and waited for their father to get up in the morning.

When their Father got up, he went outside. Then he came back in, calling out, “Mary! Mary! It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen! This tree which hasn’t borne fruit for years this morning is covered with apples! You have to see this; it’s absolutely covered with big, red, juicy apples! I don’t believe it!…It’s a pear tree!”

The fruit of the Spirit is not something we can grow or manufacture ourselves. Instead, God prepares us, molds us, invites us, and sends us into the world to live fruit-producing lives so that the world will see and experience the life-giving love of God in and through us. Then our fruit-producing lives of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, will attract others.

Yet, anytime we talk about changing or adjusting our lives to live differently or more intentionally it’s tough and it takes time. The same is true with living the fruit of the Spirit. So, what would happen if we took the fruit of the Spirit one at a time and incorporated each fruit more fully into our lives in a more manageable way?

You’ve heard of the Fruit of the Month Club…some of you may even be members. Think about what could happen in our lives or how our lives might look different if we focused on one fruit a month. So, one month we focus on being more loving, the next month more joyful; the next month more peaceful…and on through all the fruit of the Spirit. My guess is, if we were intentional about that process, at the end of the nine months we would have ‘birthed’ a new and more fruit-filled and fruitful us.

In his letter to the Galatians, Paul says we will be known by the fruit we produce. All who see our living in the world will know us because we will generate and spread more love, AND joy, AND peace, AND patience, AND kindness, AND goodness, AND faithfulness, AND gentleness, AND self-control.

Spiritual fruit or religious nuts?

I believe this church offers a place of welcome to all people and is a safe place from the shame and judgment of religious nuts. Therefore, this becomes rich ground to bear spiritual fruit.

May it be so for each of us.
Thanks be to God.
Amen.