Galatians 5:22-6:2 CEB
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.
Brothers and sisters, if a person is caught doing something wrong, you who are spiritual should restore someone like this with a spirit of gentleness. Watch out for yourselves so you won’t be tempted too. Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.
While growing up in Pennsylvania, I remember how our house had a small orchard. Just a dozen or so apple trees that grew near the road. They had been left to get a bit wild, so the apples on them were small knobbly things, no bigger than a child’s fist. I remember my parents told me that in order to really get good apples, you need to prune a fruit tree. You actually need to cut it back to get it to grow good usable fruit! This week, as we not only look at practicing the simple rule to do good, we will also be looking at these verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians about the fruits of the Spirit. God’s grace is present with all of us, no matter how wild or wooly we might be, but like those unpruned apple trees, the fruit we produce may not be fit to eat in all cases. In practicing good, we find ourselves being pruned of all that prevents those fruits of the Spirit from being grown in our lives. In fact, we find under all those wayward branches and thickets of leaves the image of God lurking and waiting, being restored and freshly imprinted on our souls with every good act. The very Spirit of God will bring a rich harvest of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” into our lives, into the lives of our neighbors, and into our relationship with our God.
These fruits of the Spirit mentioned in Paul’s letter stand in sharp contrast with what Paul calls “the works of the flesh,” with the former helping to build up the community and the latter tearing it apart. In the works of the flesh, such as jealousy, anger, idolatry, and others, you find things that mark someone who has been consumed by their own selfish desires at the cost and detriment of their neighbor. You cannot do good for another if you are only concerned about your own good. On the other hand, not a single one of the fruits of the Spirit can be practiced in isolation or apart from our neighbors. For instance, how do you know if someone is kind or generous, or peaceful? Can you know these qualities apart from how they act toward others? I for one am always suspicious when someone loudly describes themselves as kind, patient, peaceful, or generous. If anyone possesses these qualities, they will not have to say a word, for these fruits will be apparent in how they live their lives in relation to others. In the end, you cannot love in action if there is no one to act upon, and that is true of every fruit. In the end, it takes the pruning of our own selfish desires and seeking to do good for our neighbor which helps these fruits grow.
The fruits of the Spirit, like all good actions, can only happen through our renewed relationship with God through Christ. The relationality of God is found in the very nature of God, as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are in a relationship with one another and with creation. You see, our human nature bears the imprint of the divine, or the imago Dei, calling us into a relationship with God and with one another as well. More than that, this idea of the imago Dei or image of God, means that we have the potential, due to sharing our nature with our creator, to be co-creators of good things and good fruit in this world. However, this image of God has been marred through the disease of sin, and instead of living into our relationship with God and neighbor, we have pursued our own ends. Instead of being righteous and fruitful, we have become like those wild, unpruned fruit trees, blurring what could have been. In the end, we are a defaced imago Dei that cannot find its own way, needing guidance from God. Paul shares that this came through Christ’s life and redeeming work on the cross. Now, grace allows our wayward branches to be cut back. Grace allows the defaced image to be restored. The fruits of the Spirit should be apparent in a life that has grace working in it, but it is also more than that. When we pursue actions that produce these fruit, they further shape and refine our faith until our whole being has been restored to God and our hearts seek only the good for our neighbor and our God.
Doing good does more than putting more good in the world, it helps restore who we were meant to be, image-bearers and co-creators with our beloved God. I hope these words plant hope in your hearts this morning because the practice of doing good can make us anxious and afraid. We can become anxious because the world is so big and there are so many needs. Surely the fruit of one single tree or even one small orchard cannot feed the world. The same is true of the good, how can any one person or community address the needs of the entire face of creation? In fact, there will also be times when the good we do will be rejected. There will be times when it seems like our actions are fruitless because we do not see any change in another person or in the world.
My friends, what we must ask ourselves is why do we seek to do good? Why do we seek to do what God would have us do to bring the whole of this wide creation back into a relationship with the divine? Friends, we practice doing good because it makes our persons and our lives more holy by seeking to have a character more wholly like God’s. I love how John Wesley puts it, "[Holiness is] the image of God fresh stamped on the heart; the entire renewal of the mind in every temper and thought, after the likeness of Him that created it" (John Wesley, Letter to Dr. Middleton, 1739). Doing good freshly stamps the image of God on our hearts, making it clear again, renewing us to who we are, children and image-bearers of the living God! When we seek to do good, it is not for the response but rather to perfect our own hearts and minds until all we seek is the good of our neighbors and the good of our relationship with God.
Ultimately then, we must let go of the good we do when we practice it. Often we get anxious about giving money to a person or to an organization because we have those pesky “what ifs” in the back of our brains. For instance, how many of us have not given money to the person on the street corner with the sign because we have heard or read how they might be professional panhandlers, begging on the corner by day only to drive their BMW back home by night? Other times, it might be the worry that they will take our money, and instead of food, they will buy drugs or alcohol. Friends, what would it mean to practice good and let go of the good we do? For instance, when a fruit tree produces good fruit, does the tree control who will pluck and eat its fruit? Does the fruit tree make fruit to turn around and consume its own fruit? Not at all! We put this fruit out there for others to take and to eat. We share this fruit so hearts may be fed and seeds may be planted, but my friends, anxiety chokes the seed while grace helps it grow. It is God who will grow the seeds, who will feed the needs in the hearts of others.
Make no mistake! This does not mean that we are helpless. Instead, it means that you and I do not need to shoulder the burdens of the world alone. It is like what we see in our scripture reading this morning where Paul writes, “Carry each other’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ.” God works in us and through our acts of goodness to feed the needs in each other’s hearts. It is like what I said earlier, none of these fruits can be grown in isolation, it takes the relationships between us to yield a rich harvest. The truth is we are all in a relationship with someone else. In me caring for you, and you caring for another, this great web of humanity is fed and cared for through the loving grace of our compassionate God. Indeed, we cannot answer every need on our own, but by lifting up our neighbor, all of us together can answer the troubles and needs of this world. I think this is why Paul said, “There is no law against things like this.” In other words, there is no limit set on how much “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” there can be in this world!
Now, this deep, interconnected web of neighbor loving neighbor might seem like a big risk, and it certainly would be a big ask if any of us were alone in its pursuit. Tell me, though, how many of us would it take living out this kind of practice before the difference would be felt? What percentage would it take? If 1% of us practiced doing this kind of good or 5% or 10%, when would the tipping point happen? When would we start to feel a change? I am talking about more than just big things like a neighbor with cancer or someone broken down on the side of the road, I am also talking about the everyday. What if we sought to practice good, to give up control on the fruits of our actions in everything, every day? People would probably start to talk about us! They would probably think we look kind of foolish! They would probably think we are dreamers, trying to build some kind of utopia! Friends, this kind of good looks foolishly impossible unless we have eyes to see it. The eyes that help us see it are found when the image of God is restored. The grace of God and the Holy Spirit help us to restore this image! The fruit we grow, through our actions and by divine grace, helps others see it too!
Siblings in Christ, I have foolish news for you this morning! We are trying to build a utopia. It’s called the kingdom of God. It’s called conforming this world to the reality of heaven, namely bringing heaven to earth. We can be a people now pruned of selfish ambition and producing the good fruit of the Spirit in this world, in our lives, and in the lives of others! We can build a place where we are no longer blurred and grown over by sin, but live and work in sharp relief as the people of God, sharing in the divine image. Like that orchard from my childhood home though, it will not happen on its own, it will take the grace of God and the people of God pursuing discipleship. It will happen as we seek to do no harm, to do good, and to stay in love with God. Amen.
Pastor Paul Grossman