Fruitfulness

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There is great danger in Paul’s image of the fruit of the Spirit.  Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and especially self-control are ripe for the abuse of works righteousness.  It is easy to take this fruit and turn it into an ethical treatise on how one must live one’s life.  This is especially true in the context of the whole lesson from Galatians 5 that is appointed for Proper 8c.  It is tempting to take this fruit, allow it to rot, and to chuck it at other disciples who we have deemed “not fruitful.”

But this is a serious misreading of the text because the reality, at least my view of it, isn’t that an apple tree works to make apples, but that an apple tree is because it produces apples.  Does that make sense?  Let me say it another way.  The fruit of the Spirit are precisely that, of the Spirit.  They are in no way the result of our own work, but simply what happens to those who have been caught up in the power of the Spirit.  These laudable qualities, “against which there is no law,” are the natural result of the Spirit’s work in our lives.

That being said, it is no doubt true that we can work to cultivate the fruit tree.  When we are walking close to the will of God, fertilized by the Word, we will no doubt produce better fruit in higher yields, but even when the Father seems far away, even when the Word is hard to hear, the Spirit remains, working within us to unite us to the Father.  As Paul wrote to open this passage (and is reiterated strongly in Romans 8), we have been set free in Christ.  We are set free such that the Spirit will produce fruit in our lives, even as we attempt to yoke ourselves once again to the bad soil of self-preservation.  As Christians, it is in our very nature to produce good fruit, the outpouring of the Spirit.  So relax.  Don’t work so hard to do what you can’t help but do in God, and instead, focus on the Spirit at work within you.  Allow yourself to be set free to let the Spirit produce in abundance.

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What holds us back?

The question that the Ethiopian Eunuch asks Philip may sound rhetorical, but it every much is not.  “What is to prevent me from being baptized?” actually had many answers in Philip’s place and time.  The man was Ethiopian, that is to say, not an ethnic Jew, for starters.  Then there’s the whole eunuch bit.  I referenced Deuteronomy 23:1 in yesterday’s post, but in case you didn’t look it up, here’s the SFW version from the JPS, “He that is crushed or maimed in his privy parts shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD.”  The NRSV doesn’t mince words, “No one whose testicles are crushed or whose penis is cut off shall be admitted to the assembly of the LORD.” [Side note – can someone explain to me why the word for male genitalia is a feminine noun in Hebrew?] So there’s that.  Not only is he a foreigner, but her serves the Candace, the pagan Queen of Ethiopia (Kush).  Though he was coming from worship in Jerusalem, he most certainly also took part in the religious ceremonies of the Queen. Though by now clearly an Evangelist, Philip was ordained as a Deacon, called to serve the poor so that the Apostles could preach the Gospel.  Surely, Philip doubted, on some level, whether he should be the one doing the baptizing.  Looking back through the lens of the catechumenate, we could say that he hasn’t been properly educated in order to be baptized.  There are lots and lots of reasons why the Ethiopian Eunuch shouldn’t have been baptized in that dessert oasis, but he was and the Kingdom of God is better off for it.

When I read this story from Acts 8, I can’t help but wonder what holds us back?  What keeps us from sharing the Good News?  What prevents us from loving extravagantly?  What fears and doubts and unknowns cause us to put our foot on the breaks and our faith on the back burner; safely ensconced in the comforts of nominal Christianity in 21st century America?

The harvest is ripe for the picking.  Not since the conversion of Constantine has the world in which Christians live been such a fertile mission field.  There are millions upon millions of people out there who are searching for the love of God, but have no idea where to find it.  They might have looked in the Church a while ago, but for some reason, that Church was hesitant to welcome and love them, and so they wander around in search of something they can’t quite describe, but they know they are mission.  And for our part, we’ve allowed ourselves to be held back.  We’ve turned our attention away from sharing the Gospel and toward winning the culture wars or balancing a budget or fixing the leaky roof.  We’ve been held back by any number of things that God is in control of anyway.

Our job, as disciples of Jesus, is simple: bear the fruit of kingdom.  When we attach ourselves to the worries and occupations of the world, we produce the fruit of anxiety and scarcity.  But when we abide in the true vine, when our source of nourishment is none other than Jesus Christ, when our vine-dresser is the very God who created us, the fruit we produce is kingdom fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal 5.22-23).

What holds you back from producing kingdom fruit?