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.

The Business of Bearing Fruit

It’s that time of year again!  As if the average Lectionary-based, church-going Christian didn’t get enough sappiness with yesterday’s Good Shepherd Sunday, this week we have another pericope that begs to be made into a Thomas Kinkade painting.  “I am the vine, you are the branches.”

Inevitably, the preacher is tempted to talk about how it is that we, as disciples of Jesus, are to go about producing fruit.  For those who tend to be more conservative, fruit will look like abstaining from such immoral acts as card playing, drinking, and driving your car without a “Keep Christ in Christmas” bumper sticker.  For those who tend to be more liberal, fruit will look like keeping away from such immoral acts as voting Republican, buying Thomas Kinkade paintings, and driving something other than a Toyota Prius.  Moderates, being the good fence-sitter that they are, will tend to view fruit in any number of ways, including, but not limited to, keeping away from such immoral acts as smug self-righteousness, posturing, and looking down on those whose opinions differ from yours, all the while engaging in such by deriding the left and the right.

“Bear fruit” is an activity that one does, and so the temptation is invariably to turn Jesus’ words into a call to works righteousness, but let’s think more about the business of bearing fruit in the context of Jesus’ vine speech.  The first item of note is that this is obviously a metaphor. Jesus is using a common image from 1st century Palestine to help people understand the relationship with God that is available through him.  Metaphors always break down at some point, and we should be wary to push it too far.  Second, we note that in this metaphor, Jesus is the vine, the main trunk through which water and nutrients flow, while we are simply the branches: the recipients of the works done by the vine.  Third, Jesus goes on to say, “Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.”  The fruit we produce doesn’t exist without the vine, and as branches, our one and only job is to stay attached so that through us, God can produce good fruit.

I’m thinking that I’ll preach on Acts 8, the story of Philip and the Ethiopian Eunuch this week, but if I do opt for John 15, I promise I’ll do my best to avoid works righteousness.  I hope you will too.

How Much Should I Make The Check Out For?

As I noted on Tuesday, this Sunday’s Gospel lesson is a bit sticky for Episcopalians, especially those who hold Episcopal Office and like the color purple, but as I’ve reflected on this text this week, I’ve come to realize a group for which this lesson is even more difficult to hear and preach.

The ELCA has Bishops too!

That’s right, ladies and gentlemen, Lutheran Bishop are the group most likely to find difficulty with the Parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man.  Not only to they like that purple-ish color their Episcopal brethren and sisteren are so fond of, but the guy who got the whole thing started, Martin Luther, was the guy who coined the phrase of “sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia,” Only Scripture, Only Faith, and Only Grace.  With a clear nod to Paul’s letter to the Ephesians (2.8) which reads, “we are saved by grace, through faith.”

If you read the lesson carefully, it sort of sounds like Father Abraham is espousing some sort of works righteousness.  As in, Lazarus suffered and that suffering earned him passage to the bosom of Abraham, but Dives ignored the poor, which earned him a ticket straight to Hades.  The observant listener will quickly pull out their checkbook and ask, “how much do I need to give to get to heaven?”

The challenge grows when coupled with the tail end of the lesson from First Timothy, which reads, “As for those who in the present age are rich, command them not to be haughty, or to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but rather on God who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, generous, and ready to share, thus storing up for themselves the treasure of a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of the life that really is life.”

The savvy preacher will figure out how to allow their parishioners the time to write their checks before reminding them that Luther was, in fact, right; that we are saved by the grace of God and faith in Jesus Christ; that nothing we can do (i.e. no matter how big the check), we cannot earn our way into heaven.  Still, it is a tricky lectionary this week, full of chances to slip down the slope of good old fashioned Medieval Popery.  Good luck preachers.  I’ll be praying for you.