Sunday, October 5, 2014

Living Letters from Paul: A Series on the Epistles, week 4

Fruitful Living
Galatians 5:16-25
October 5, 2014
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
Christina Berry

Clay pots. Clothing. Now fruit. The apostle Paul seems to really like metaphors. If you don’t remember that term from school, or if you haven’t learned that word yet, “Metaphor is a form of thought that occurs when we use one word to mean another word.”[1] A metaphor stands in for something else in a poetic way, like saying “Jesus is my rock,” or “My teacher is a real dragon,” or “My best friend is totally a chicken” Unless your best friend actually is a chicken, of the clucking, egg-laying, feathered variety.

So – metaphors – Paul really likes them. Remember, he’s the one who said we are the body of Christ. He like sports metaphors, too – running a race, competition, and objects - military armor, buildings. Jesus used metaphors, too – lots of them. In that day and time, the choice of metaphor was different from what we might say. Jesus and Paul used terms and imagery that were familiar to people – grains of wheat, the vine and the branches, a great and luxurious banquet.

Metaphor can capture the imagination in a way that direct speech might not. But it can also go astray, if we aren’t careful! If I mention apples this morning, some of you will think fruit and others of you will think of phones, laptops and music players. I’m going to do that, mention apples, and trust that you will think of fruit. Because today’s metaphor is all fruit, no technology.

And as you heard, this scripture concerns the fruit of the Spirit. Paul is using this metaphor in a powerful way, since in this letter one of the issues he addresses is the question of who is part of the church and who is not. The first big controversy Christians faced was whether or not a person had to be Jewish in order to become Christian.

Paul has addressed this issue before. In the letter to the Romans, he used a metaphor of branches grafted onto trees, saying that these Gentile believers were the wild branches that had been grafted onto the cultivated tree of Israel. The art of grafting branches from one tree to another was well known in the first century, and had been around since at least 300 years before the time of Christ.[2] Grafting lets you have more than one variety of fruit on the same tree. You can graft branches and have several kinds of apple, all on one tree. Paul asserted that Gentiles don’t need to become Jewish to become Christian, but the question remains for them, how do we know who is Christian, then? And what rule guides our lives, if it is not the Mosaic law of Torah?

Paul is very clear – there is one gospel, and that is Christ, crucified and risen. Those who have followed Jesus will be known not by the outward signs and symbols of the observance of the law, but by the fruit they bear. Just like you can tell an apple tree by the apples hanging on it, you can identify where the Holy Spirit has been by these fruits listed in Galatians chapter five.

An interesting thing about fruit trees: even though you can graft branches onto a tree, it takes an entire tree to grow the fruit. You can’t grow an apple very well with just a branch full of blossoms. You need soil, and pruning, and rain and weather. And if you want a fruit tree to produce, it takes time, and changing seasons – not just the warmth of spring and the heat of summer, but the chill of autumn and winter’s snow.

You may already know that a fruit tree produces fruit for a purpose. That crisp red apple, so sweet and tasty, is not a random happening. That apple is there on the tree so that you – you and all sorts of animals – will want to eat it. It is beautiful and appealing so that some creature will pick the apple, eat it, and leave the seeds somewhere where they might have a chance to grow, to make a new apple tree.

And that tree, in its time, will grow apples of its own, and the apple tree will continue for generation after generation. When the tree bears love and peace, joy, patience, kindness… those who are hungry for such things will accept them, and a seed can be planted – a seed that can create a place for love to grow. It is all about the survival of the species.

Or in our story, with our tree of faith, it is all about the passing on of the Christian faith, growing fruit, planting seeds, handing on that love that grew in us. And we’ll just stretch this metaphor a little bit more before it breaks apart. The tree in Paul’s metaphor is not just you or me or one person. He’s not talking about individual works, but about the character of community. So the fruit of the Spirit is not works, though actions might make visible such things as love or joy or peace. But the fruit of the Spirit is a list of character traits, akin to the Roman virtues, traits that make it clear that we belong, body and soul, to Jesus Christ and no other.

These are not heroic, unheard of qualities, but the attributes of our particular kind of life:
· love: the ability to care for another as deeply as we do for God and self;
· joy: the abiding quality of happiness and gratitude in every circumstance;
· peace: a peace which passes understanding, that blesses those who curse us and prays for enemies, forgiving and reaching out;
· patience, that blessed quality that is the basis of forbearance, patience that lets differences be so that connection can thrive;
· kindness: the ability to speak truth in love, to offer acceptance to all;
· goodness: the true righteousness that only God can give – not just good-deed doing but walking in goodness;
· faithfulness: fidelity to our Lord and Savior, unswerving loyalty to love;
· gentleness: non-violence, in soul and mind and body, a way of being peace in the world,
· self-control: perhaps the most challenging – the ability to manage our own feelings and desires, acknowledging every part of ourselves and choosing how we will act.

That fruit is borne not only by individual branches, but by the whole body of believers, the entire tree, as it were, all the branches.[3] Let’s face it, not one of us can bear all of these fruits all the time. Most of us can manage some of them most of the time, but who, really, can produce, on a daily basis, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control? That’s why we need the church, the whole church. Not just our congregation, but Christ’s church worldwide.

None of us, as individual branches, can bear all that fruit. But all of us, as the tree, can do it, because the Holy Spirit is within us and around us, these fruits can grow. And when they do, may those who are near us know us by our fruits, and may those who hunger for love taste and see that God is good.


[1] Jennifer L. Lord. Finding Language and Imagery: Words for Holy Speech, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010, 41

1 comment:

  1. You had your funny on!

    Some Bible metaphors, especially sheep, need to be explained. My kids have no experience with sheep. I think we should take them out to a sheep farm so they'll understand shepherds, shearing, flocks and stuff better.