Saturday, October 01, 2005

Bearing good fruit

Story – romantic movies – ‘the one’

I have the feeling that at the heart of one of Christianity’s greatest debates is a similar sort of anxiety.  The argument I’m thinking about is the one that began that great split in the Christian Church that for some reason we call ‘the Reformation’.  And the question was this - how can I be certain that I’m saved?

For common folk in the Medieval Church this was actually a question that weighed heavily on their minds - the source of huge anxiety – you have to remember, they had no romantic movies – and the most satisfactory answer, more or less, was this – go to as many masses as you possibly can.  So you’d see people in the great cathedrals literally running from one side chapel to another, waiting for the moment when the priest would raise the consecrated host, never actually receiving the bread and wine – it was a religion of high anxiety in an age of anxiety.

We all of us, Catholic and Protestant alike, have much to be grateful for to that most anxious monk of all, Martin Luther – who in 1517 posted his famous 95 theses which basically boiled down to a single, earth-shattering realisation – that our salvation is never actually in doubt – not something that hangs in the balance and might be whisked away for a momentary lapse – not the goal of life at all but the freely-granted foundation of it!  Salvation depends not on works but on how we respond in faith to the faithfulness of God.  The tragedy of course is that this realisation led to schism and war and burning people at the stake – and to a yawning chasm between Roman Catholic and Protestant Christians that is not yet fully healed, even in our own day.

Partly that might be because of the tension between different layers of the New Testament itself that makes it possible for people to choose the bits that appeared to support their favourite position – but maybe also because at one level Luther’s realisation didn’t take away the basic anxiety – Protestants seemed just to have changed one cause of anxiety for another – how much faith is enough?

Remember last week I spoke about the life-long quest we have as Christians to become our true selves – the challenge to become authentic?  Either way you look at it, it’s about accountability – about our response to the saving initiative of God in Jesus Christ.  This week, Matthew keeps up the pressure – Matthew the gospel writer with the uncomfortable habit of cursing fig trees and cutting down fruit trees that don’t bear good fruit – according to Matthew, if we’ve heard the good news, if we’ve received the gift of the gospel then whether it’s about faith or about works we’d better measure up. 

In the original context of Jesus’ conflict with the chief priests and the temple authorities, the point of the story about the recalcitrant tenants seems fairly clear – the Jewish religious elites have lost their chance because their actions don’t match their claims, so the good news and the promise of salvation is going to bypass them.  But then we need to remember Matthew himself, writing for a Jewish Christian community 50 or so years after Jesus, some of whom are in danger of losing their faith, and others who want to impose conditions on non-Jewish converts – and Matthew, writing for his own community, is saying it doesn’t matter who you are, if you don’t bear good fruit then God’s kingdom is going to bypass you.  And so I can’t avoid asking myself – are there any ways in which I am like the Pharisees – ways in which I have got other priorities in place of God?  It’s a recurring theme for Matthew, just think about the parable of the talents – when you’ve received the gift of God’s Word, then you’re responsible for what you do with it.

So there’s still some anxiety, after all.  Are we bearing the right sort of fruit, or not?

And for this question it’s St Paul who has the word I think we need – St Paul writing to the church in Galatia with whom he is very disappointed indeed – the Galatians it seems are fighting amongst themselves, and they are abandoning Paul himself for the teachings of some un-named opponents who are teaching that they should all be circumcised and adopt the cultural practices of Judaism.  And St Paul’s answer is this: you don’t need the Law because being baptised in Jesus Christ you have the gift of the Holy Spirit. 

In some Christian circles today, people make quite a big thing of going through the various lists St Paul comes up with, here, and the letters to the churches in Rome and Corinth, trying to identify which of the gifts or the fruits of the Spirit they have.  I think that’s basically misguided, because it overlooks what Paul’s own main argument is – that you don’t need lists, you don’t need external guidelines or regulations because you have something far more dynamic, far more reliable, and that is the living Spirit of Jesus Christ.  When you are living in Christ, Paul writes, this is the sort of stuff that happens.

And I think there are three main points here.  The first one, as I’ve already pointed to, is that the fruits of the Spirit aren’t your work, they are evidence of the Spirit working in you.  St Paul takes seriously that the Holy Spirit is not just a theological abstraction or a difficult idea that we can only explain using clover leafs, but a real and vital agent at work in the communal life and the worship of the church.  That’s the first thing – the Holy Spirit is rightly called the Comforter, but also the Disturber and the Challenger and the Ruffler of Feathers – because it is the Holy Spirit that brings life and creativity, and thrives on diversity and freshness, it is the Holy Spirit who is the enemy of stuffiness and conformity and apathy.  The Holy Spirit is at work here – hold on to your hat!  Expect miracles, expect something remarkable.

The second point is this – that the fruits of the Spirit are organic – you don’t manufacture them, you don’t choose them, they just grow.  The fruits of the Spirit appear naturally as you grow towards the true self that has existed the whole time as a blueprint in the mind of God.  You don’t need to be anxious – because what you are to become is already known to God.  Does that mean you don’t have to do anything at all?  Not at all – your job is to pay attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit within you.  Pay attention to your dreams – learn to be still.  Spend time resting in prayer in the heart of God.  Learn to recognise what is and what is not the movement of God’s Spirit.  Be flexible – trust God and allow your life to move in the direction God’s Spirit is moving.  Fruit-growing is a co-operative enterprise – the fruit you end up with depends on two things - the movement of the Spirit – and on what you yourself long for.

And the third point is this – that the fruit of the Holy Spirit is relational.  Think about St Paul’s list – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – none of these are solo acts, they are all qualities that we can only develop in our relationships – they are all attributes that we can only discover in ourselves, and in one another, as we live together in a community of love.  That’s why being a Christian can never be a private, individual affair, your Christian faith can only ever grow and come into its true potential in a community that is committed to living out the faith of the gospel in mission to the world around it – pay attention to one another, learn to listen to one another’s dreams, affirm what is of God in one another, work together for God’s kingdom.  Forgive without limit, love without reserve, and in the way you live, proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ to everyone you meet.

The fruits of the Spirit are already, and uniquely, yours.  Luther had it right – salvation never was the prize for bearing the good fruit but the soil in which you are planted and in which, as God’s precious seed, you already are growing just as God intends you to.