Sunday, June 26, 2016

Call to Live the Fruit of Spirit

6th Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 8 (Year C)
1 Kings 19.15-16, 19-21; Psalm 16; Galatians 5.1, 13-25; Luke 9.51-26
Sunday, June 26, 2016 – St. Paul’s Emmanuel, Santa Paula

On the journey of faith, we frequently talk about being called to follow Christ, of being called to God’s service. In some circles, this notion of call is the exclusive domain of those who are ordained. While some are called into a particular form of ministry involving ordination, all of us who follow Jesus are called into life with him, into his service. All Christians are called by God to their own unique ministry.

All our scripture lessons for today deal with aspects of call. Our Old Testament and Gospel readings are call narratives – stories of individuals being called to God’s service or to follow Jesus. In 1 Kings we hear how Elisha is called to replace Elijah as God’s prophet. Elisha is working in a field when Elijah walks by him, throws his mantle – the symbol of his authority – over Elisha. No words are spoken, but Elisha knows what this means. He drops what he’s doing and follows after Elijah. In Luke’s Gospel, we hear three call narratives. In the first, someone apparently perceives a call to follow Jesus and expresses this desire to him. And to the other two, Jesus himself issues invitations to follow him.

Regardless of the specifics of the call, of who initiates it, or how it is delivered, we see a common thread. In all cases, there is a theme of singlemindedness and focus attributed to the calling to serve God. In the call narratives in Luke, Jesus requires his followers to have a singlemindedness in their approach to following him and his mission. To the first he warns that the life he is seeking is not an easy or comfortable one. To the other two he warns that if they are to follow, they cannot allow any other concerns to get in the way. Similarly, in the call of Elisha, Elijah demands of Elisha a total rejection of his previous life as he takes on the mantle of prophet apprentice.

In our Epistle reading from Galatians, Paul addresses this same theme – the singlemindedness that is necessary in accepting and living into the call to follow Christ. He is emphatic that when we become followers of Jesus, our lives are radically changed. In his treatment of the subject, Paul uses the dichotomy of “flesh” and “spirit” to illustrate the difference in life before following Jesus and life after accepting that call. By “flesh” Paul means focus on self. By “spirit” he means the power of God that becomes available to believers through the risen Christ. In this new life, we are not focused on and empowered by human desires and inclinations, but the Holy Spirit.

Paul also speaks of the freedom we have in Christ. This is freedom from slavery to our damaging human impulses and desires and from the destructive values of secular society. We are made free not just for our own sake, but to live into and embody God’s values. Paul goes on to discuss this in terms of what he calls “fruit of the Spirit.” 

So, just what is the fruit of the Spirit Paul outlines in his letter to the Galatians? You will notice that Paul lists nine attributes, but calls them the fruit of the Spirit. Fruit, singular. This is not a typo. The original Greek term translated as “fruit” is indeed singular. It is a unified whole. A single fruit that is manifest in nine ways. It is a package deal, not a list of things from which we can pick and choose.

In essence, Paul is stating that there are nine visible attributes of a true Christian life. Collectively, these are the fruits that all Christians are called to produce in their lives with Jesus Christ. Each of these is a characteristic of the Holy Spirit’s active presence in our lives, and serve as the physical manifestation of a Christian’s transformed life.

While attributes of the Holy Spirit, the fruit of the Spirit is also a series of attributes we are called to take on, like Elijah’s mantle taken on by Elisha. It is not something we are given in complete or perfected form, but that we are led to live into. The fruit of the Spirit is at the same time a gift that is bestowed by the Spirit as a hallmark of our receiving that same Spirit, and are characteristics that we continually strive to improve in our faith journey – improvement that can only be achieved through the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

In identifying the nine attributes, Paul uses very specific Greek terms – words whose definitions are far more exacting than our own translations. Let’s look at each of the attributes of the fruit of the Spirit a little more deeply. And with each one, consider a question to help us in our personal evaluation of how we fare in our own experience of the fruit of the Spirit.

The Greek language has multiple words for love, each characterizing a different type of love. The one Paul uses is agape. This form of love does not refer to warm feelings that we generally think of as love. It refers not to an emotion, but to the will – of how one chooses to view and interact with another. Agape is a self-giving love, given freely and completely. It is love that seeks the highest and best for the other, no matter who he or she is, no matter what he or she does. It is the love that describes the unconditional love God has for the world. In this, through Christ our greatest goal is to do all things in love.

The English mystic Evelyn Underhill considered love to be the “budding point” from which all the other attributes of the fruit of the Spirit proceed. In this, she cited 1 John – “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 Jn 4.16). The other attributes are rooted in and flow from this self-giving love.

In looking at the place of love in my life as a Christian:

Am I motivated to love others as God through Christ has loved me? To do for others as Christ has done for me? Or am I giving in order to receive something in return?

The joy of which Paul speaks is deeper than mere happiness, which is merely emotional and lasts only for a time. This joy is rooted in God and comes from God. As such, it is more serene and stable than worldly happiness. Joy is completely independent of the good or bad things that happen in daily life. It is a product of focusing on God’s purposes rather than on the particular circumstances we encounter.

This joy does not mean that a person will not experience sadness on occasion. Sadness at the death of a loved one, at the actions of others, at particular circumstances, are bound to happen. But joy undergirds even such sadness with the sure knowledge that we are still loved by God no matter what happens in our lives. And that no matter how bad things may seem, God will redeem it and make all things new.

In looking at the place of joy in my life as a Christian:

Am I experiencing a joy of life on a regular basis, or is my happiness dependent on things going smoothly in my life?

When Paul talks about peace, he is talking about much more than the absence of conflict. The Greek word for peace carries a far deeper meaning – that of wholeness, completeness, tranquility in the soul that is unaffected by outward circumstances or pressures. It is an inner calm and stability. Peace is the result of resting in relationship with God. It is a sense of steadiness or balance that comes from trusting that everything is in God’s hands.

In looking at the place of peace in my life as a Christian:

Do I find myself frazzled by turmoil in my life, or am I experiencing “the peace which surpasses all understanding?”

Patience is more than not getting upset while waiting in line. It is the capacity to hold up and to continue under difficult circumstances. Not with passivity or complacency, but with hopeful determination and resilience that resists weariness and a sense of defeat. It is also described as long-suffering, forbearance, perseverance, steadfastness.

In looking at the place of patience in my life as a Christian:

Am I easily set off when things go wrong or people irritate me, or am I able to keep a godly perspective in the face of life’s irritations? To see others as God sees them?

Kindness is not just being nice. It is acting for the good of people regardless of what they do. It is the ability to act for the welfare of others, particularly for those who may challenge our patience. It includes the qualities of being compassionate, considerate, sympathetic, humane, and a sense of being adaptable to others.

In looking at the place of kindness in my life as a Christian:

Is it my goal to serve others with kindness, or am I too focused on my own needs, desires, or problems to let the goodness of God overflow to others?

Generosity (Goodness)
What the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible calls “generosity,” the majority of the other Bible translations render as “goodness.” And generosity is certainly part and parcel of goodness. But the original Greek is probably closer to “goodness,” and is closely linked with kindness (which we just discussed). This sense of goodness includes uprightness of heart and life, reflecting the character of God.

In looking at the place of goodness in my life as a Christian:

Does my life reflect the holiness of God, and do I desire to see others experience God at a deep level in their own lives?

Faithfulness is committing oneself to God, including a resolve not to wander away from that commitment. True faith and faithfulness require trust in God. The original meaning indicates “divine persuasion” received from God. As such, faithfulness is not of human origin, not something that we make happen. It is a gift from God. In Ephesians, Paul prays that God “may grant that [we] may be strengthened in [our] inner being with power through his Spirit, and that Christ may dwell in [our] hearts through faith, as [we] are being rooted and grounded in love” (Eph 3.16-17).

Included in faithfulness is an integrity whereby we serve as ones whom others can look to as examples of those who are truly devoted to Christ.

In looking at the place of faithfulness in my life as a Christian:

Are there ways of hypocrisy or indifference toward others in my life, or is my life characterized by faith in Christ and faithfulness to those around me?

Gentleness is a disposition that is even-tempered, tranquil, having one’s passions under control. The original Greek is best translated as “meekness,” but not as an indication of weakness. Rather it is really the ability to keep power and strength under control. In this, there is also a sense of humility.

In looking at the place of gentleness in my life as a Christian:

Do I come across as brash and headstrong, or am I allowing the grace of God to flow through me to others?

Perhaps self-explanatory, this is the ability to control one’s thoughts and actions. It is a releasing of our grip on earthly desires and of the power these desires have over us. It is choosing instead to be guided and controlled by the Holy Spirit.

In looking at the place of self-control in my life as a Christian:

Are my earthly desires controlling my life, or am I allowing the Spirit to direct me to the things that please God and serve others?

Growth in the Spirit
The fruit of the Spirit are about how the Spirit manifests itself in our lives of faith. How we nurture that fruit and allow it to continually grow within us. And within our community. This raises an over-arching question we should consider:

Am I actively depending on the Holy Spirit to guide me in God’s ways so that I don’t get wrapped up in myself? If not, am I willing to admit to God that his ways are better than mine, and that I need the Spirit’s guidance to change and live as God is calling me to?

As those called to follow Christ, as those who have accepted his invitation, we have a responsibility to God and to ourselves to periodically take a critical look at where we stand vis-à-vis the benchmark that is the fruit of the Spirit. The questions associated with each attribute are intended to help us do just that. If we are serious about our faith, we owe it to ourselves and to God to do this evaluative work. Make no mistake. This life of faith takes work, effort, and determination. It is not easy. It means sacrifice, dedication, and focus. But we are not called to do this alone. We are guided by the Spirit, who shows us the way and gives us the strength and courage to claim our freedom in Christ and to live in a new and better way.

[Note: Reflection questions were adapted from "10 Ideas: Reflecting the Fruit of the Spirit"]

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