The Fruit of the Spirit
An Introduction to our Autumn Preaching Series
Imagine the scenario:
A church which is divided, composed of different factions and with its unity and faithfulness to the gospel threatened by those who are encouraging a return to the former practices of strict Judaism. When news of these developments reaches him, the founding pastor decides to put pen to paper.
The ‘Letter to the Galatians’ is one of the earliest letters written by the Apostle Paul and also one of the most emotionally charged.
The tone is set early on.
‘I am astonished’, says Paul, ‘that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ…’ (1:6). Later he despairingly asks, ‘You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?’ (3:1).
Even as the end of the letter comes into view, there is still time for another pleading and critical question:
‘You were running a good race. Who cut in on you to keep you from obeying the truth?’ (5:8).
As with all of Paul’s letters, the answer he offers to the early church is a combination of erudite theology and practical advice. In chapter 3, he explains that the promises first given to Abraham, forefather of the Jewish people, have always pointed to a time when ‘God would justify the Gentiles by faith’ (3:8). In the same chapter he offers one of his most memorable and compelling statements about the way in which the arrival of Jesus breaks down all manner of previous divisions:
‘There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus’ (3:28).
It is one thing to know the theory of unity and loving church relation- ships, but another to properly live it out. Paul recognises that we can’t bridge this gap by human effort alone. Instead, his counsel to the Galatians is that they can only truly live out their newfound freedom in Christ and know the healing they need for their personal relationships by seeking the guidance and transforming power of the Holy Spirit. Live this way, says Paul, and you will find yourselves in a place far removed from your current discords and jealousy:
‘But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentle-ness and self-control. Against such things there is no law’ (5:22–23).
I am often struck by the short sentence which completes these two verses. ‘Against such things there is no law.’ What point is Paul trying to make here? Could it be that he is reminding us of how irresistible, compelling and attractive it is when we see people living out these qualities?
It’s a sad fact of life that churches seem to be endlessly creative in finding new things to argue over. For the early church it was splits between Jews and Gentiles and argument over which traditions to keep and which to jettison.
In our time we fight worship wars and divide ourselves by the stances we take on issues of sexuality. We often find it hard to reach the positions of compromise or understanding which make possible the healing of broken relationships. Faced with such challenges, how we need to hear again the words of Paul.
Love… joy… peace… patience… kindness… goodness… faithfulness… gentleness… self-control. You can’t argue with these! There’s no law against living this way! These qualities, these Spirit-endowed and winsome virtues, are the ones which can transform and restore relationships between us.
As we look ahead to the autumn, many of us will be conscious of the uncertainty caused by the pandemic which makes it harder to plan. We don’t know for sure who will return to the building or who will watch online. We hope to open our building to welcome our neighbours to new initiatives but we can’t be certain which plans will succeed. We will continue to discuss our new vision but we realise more work needs to be done to find a form of words we can all agree on.
I can’t be certain what the answer will be to the many questions we face.
However, I am sure of this:
I believe God wants us to be a more loving church, a more joyful church, a more peaceful church, a more patient church, a kinder church, a better church, a more faithful church, a gentler church, a church where each of us has more self-control.
As we spend the autumn reflecting on these fruits my prayer is that God will give us a vision and perspective that goes above and beyond our immediate concerns, that he will bless us with a renewed experience of walking closely with the Spirit and the healing of our hurts and misunderstandings.