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The Fruit of the Spirit is Love

Saturday, June 12, 2021
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John 15:1-9

Jesus is the true vine, the source of life that comes from God, the experience of the kingdom on earth as it is in heaven. In the Old Testament the vine is Israel; as a teacher of wisdom in this tradition, Jesus is in the same relationship to the Creator and Sustainer, the One who tills the rich soil from which all fruit and life emerges.

The removal or pruning of branches has been an image that leads to curse and blessing—curse when we see others in need of pruning or removal, blessing when we search within (Psalm 139) and do the work of confession, repentance and change.

The word, the whole teaching of Jesus, is the collection of his sayings and how he encountered every person he met. It carried an authority (Matthew 7) unlike that of many religious teachers. And it led to an intimacy of abiding or remaining; the Greek word occurs ten times in six verses. And of course Jesus painted a picture—the branches are attached to the vine, cared for by the Gardener.

The outcome is much fruit. The literal word, poly carp, became the name of a second century bishop, Polycarp, who Irenaeus regarded as a disciple of John.

What is the fruit? The teaching slowly but surely provides the answer. To bear fruit is to glorify God. To bear fruit is to become a disciple of the teacher, Jesus. Jesus is loved by God, the vine created and sustained by the Gardener. And this love flows directly from Jesus to his disciples, to you and me.

To abide or remain in this love is keep the commandments. There is an echo here of the relation between the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20) and the Sermon 0n the Mount (Matthew 5-7). The commandments are not the test of our love or fruitfulness. Our love is the fulfillment of the commandments (Matthew 22), and all of the law and the prophets are derived from his words, just as Jesus is the Vineyard.

The teaching will continue in John 15 to explore joy, friendship and what it means to love one another. But the teaching of Jesus is clear: the fruit of intimacy with Jesus is love.

You are being licensed for pastoral ministry, to bear witness to the love of God in this world, and especially to the communities and contexts to which you are being sent. Before you call others to kneel in the intimacy of the altar, spend time in the altar yourself. Abide. And because you have known the intimacy of the Lord who loves you, in the abiding, you will preach love before you preach law. Remember the interpretive phrase of Jesus: you have heard it said (law), but I say to you (love).

When people know they are loved, they are motivated to fulfill the law. This is the logic of Exodus 20 and the ten commandments. Before you preach the law, preach love. Preach love because you are abiding in the love of God. And in so doing, you will create communities of people who actually love each other, who are not conformed to the world, but who are transformed by the renewing of their minds. And in so doing, you will bear much fruit.
 

John 15:9-17; Mark 4:26-29

Jesus was a rabbi who lived and taught in an agrarian setting. In the synoptic gospels, Matthew, Mark, Luke, he often taught in parables (stories, lessons) that drew his disciples’ attention to their ordinary surroundings. In the gospel of John, his lessons were related to statements about himself—-I am—that connected with the surroundings. We will get to John in a moment.

In the synoptics Jesus often spoke of the the Kingdom of God which is, he says, like scattering seed upon the ground. In Mark 4. 26-29 he likens what God is up to in the world to the common labor of a farmer, who plants in order to insure sustenance.

You are being sent to to labor in God’s kingdom, but remember that there are natural and profound rhythms to this calling. In our rhythms of life, we work and rest. In the economy of God’s kingdom, as we sleep, the work continues. The seed sprouts and grows, and we cannot account for this!

Our temptation can be to believe that we are self-sufficient. We want to convince ourselves that we have earned what we possess. We can point to particular  projects or academic degrees.

Now we enter or continue in fields of labor. We grasp handfuls of seed and scatter them. We are intentional, conscientious, deliberate. We are Methodist!

And yet in the rhythm of work and rest, you will at times set the labor aside. 

From experience, I can say that along this journey I have come to the end of my capacity. And at times I have watched as something mysterious and even miraculous occurred. There was change, growth, even transformation. And, if I were honest, I could take no credit for it.

In God’s kingdom, there are divine gifts within every living being. Generativity is built into the fabric and design of all of life. And there is an order, if we work and watch and wait—first the stalk, then the head, then the full grain in the head.

We are appointed to go and bear fruit.

But as accomplished and invested as you are—-and you are!—you cannot produce growth. Growth is always a miracle. It is always a gift. We cooperate with the Creator, but in the end we confess that we do not know why or when the harvest is to come.

So what does Jesus give you to work with?

The Kingdom of God, Jesus said, is like the smallest of seeds. In the church we can become preoccupied with size. How many gather for worship? How large is the membership? What is the amount of the financial offering? After a prolonged pandemic, these are especially perplexing questions.

And in many areas of the world, implicitly and explicitly, we assign God’s favor to abundance. This is the prosperity gospel. If we gather in large numbers, if our membership is strong, if our resources are significant, this is of God.

So, again, Jesus told a story about the smallest of seeds. This is a reversal of our worldly  expectations. Jesus is profoundly present where two or three gather to pray in a house church amidst persecution. A small, rural church choir faithfully meets each week to practice their offering of praise to God. The Holy Spirit whispers in a still, small voice.

The Kingdom of God is like a mustard seed. We offer our gifts, as small and seemingly insignificant as they are. And yet, when these seeds are planted, there is growth. Here we are called to exercise the gift of imagination. As Paul writes, God is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine (Ephesians 3).

We do often look upon our small gifts with limited or lowered expectations. And of course the Kingdom of God is a reversal of our human perspective. From a small seed there is growth, and here the tree puts out large branches and birds make nests in their shade.

Whenever I see a tree, I now try to imagine the person who planted the seed. In a warm climate, like Florida, the tree provides shade and respite. The person who plants does not often reap the benefit of her labor. And yet in God’s economy, a small gift offered in faith has an extraordinary influence. The church is not calling you to do great things. The church is calling you to plant small seeds.

And in this, Jesus promises, there is a fruit of the spirit. In verse 11 of John 15, we hear the word: joy. Joy in verse 11 (chara) is similar to the greeting in Greek (chaire), often joined to Shalom (peace). The command to “love one another” is present subjunctive, implying continuous and lifelong. Abide in the joy of God, in the joy of the labor, in the joy of your calling.

For this you are appointed. To appoint (tithenai) is both to commission and to lay down one’s life. In the LXX this word is used in ordination and commissioning. To be
commissioned is to lay aside something, and to take up something else—the cross. 

So go and scatter the seeds, so that you may bear fruit and receive the gifts of God. In the labor of ministry for which you are commissioned today, my prayer is that, in a complicated season, you will know the joy of the Lord, and indeed that the joy of the Lord will be your strength.
 

Galatians 5:13-26; Mark 12:38-44

I give thanks to God for your gifts, for your calling and for your faith to take this next step in your leadership for the sake of the gospel and the church’s mission. You make these promises as our denomination lives in an extended season of uncertainty. You are not the first, nor will you be the last. So you, and all of us can be at peace about that. And listen for a word appropriate for this season. 

I want to suggest that a part of the tension in which we live is the relationship between love and law. Jesus in the gospels was asked to summarize the law.

The great commandment of Jesus is found in Mark 12:38-44, with parallels in Matthew 22 and Luke 10. Each links love of God (the Shema from Deuteronomy 6) with the command to love our neighbor (Leviticus 19). In Mark's gospel, the teaching comes in the midst of many other encounters where Jesus is being tested by legalists (Mark 11:27). In other words, his authority to teach or interpret scripture is questioned. In Matthew's gospel, Jesus is also asked a question by a lawyer. After speaking of love of God and neighbor and quoting Deuteronomy and Leviticus, he adds a concluding statement: "On these two commandments hang all of the law and the prophets" (Matthew 22:40). Richard Hays comments,

"These two commandments, in other words, are not merely the greatest or the most important, the ones at the top of the list; rather, they have a systemic, structural and hermeneutical role. All the other commandments in the Torah are suspended from these two pillars. It is a matter not just of priority but of weight-bearing. This claim is fully consistent with Matthew's insistence that in Jesus' teaching the law remains in force. Yet, at the same time, the passage inescapably proposes a particular hermeneutical reconfiguration of Torah, one in which love becomes the most determinative requirement. As the history of interpretation amply demonstrates, where such a hermeneutical reconfiguration takes place, the other commandments tend over time to recede in importance" (Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, 2016, p. 123).

In Luke, the great commandment of Jesus is set within the context of a legal question, which is asked and answered in a straightforward way (Luke 10. 25-28). But this becomes the window into a further question, who is my neighbor?, related to the second commandment, and Jesus responds with a parable (the Good Samaritan) and an answer in the form of a different question (which of the three in the story was a neighbor?). In the end, the one who demonstrated mercy.

Later in his Echoes of Scripture in the Gospels, Hays reflects on mercy in light of Matthew's use of Hosea 6. 6, "I desire mercy and not sacrifice". He writes,

"Matthew's Jesus discerns within Scripture itself the hermeneutical principle that all the commandments are to be interpreted in such a way as to engender and promote the practice of mercy among God's people"...and then, "for Matthew, the story of Israel is carried forward through a particular, prophetically shaped interpretation of Torah within a community called to embody the mercy of God" (127-128).

Why is all of this important?

The church struggles with the relationship between law and love. We are people of One Book (the Bible), and yet we are called to see many books within the Book, to read deeply within the Scriptures, and allow the wholeness of the message to interpret the parts. We do harm when we take one verse (or half of one verse) of the law, and quote it without understanding how the rabbis and the apostles placed it within a context. It is clear that Jesus intended the law to be set upon the foundation of love, which bears the weight of the teaching. This is actually how the Ten Commandments rest upon God's deliverance
of his people from slavery (Exodus 20).

Eternal life begins, in each of the gospels, when our lives reflect a love for God and for our neighbor. This was the framework through which John Wesley spoke of our journey to perfection, how we become disciples of Jesus who practice mercy toward one another, and who live in trust and confidence that God offers that same mercy to us.

The whole law finds its completion—-its fullness (Pleroo)—in loving our neighbor as ourselves. Again, the opposite of this is devouring others, which is actually self-destructive. Completion is more consistent with the greek word than fulfillment or summary or performance. There is also the sense of something being made perfect by being restored to its original identity. Love restores law to its originating purpose. Law without love is incomplete.

There is a contrast between the works of the flesh (sarx) and the (fruit of the) spirit (karpos). This list of virtues and vices was common in the Greco-Roman world. The flesh is about our works (righteousness); the fruit is what God grows in us.

The letter to the Galatians is about liberation from law. Paul speaks 25 times in Galatians about the law as an enslaving reality (5. 3). We are called to freedom, but not a freedom that is self-indulgence. The opposite of this is love in service to others. “Love is the embodiment of Christian freedom…Freedom in Christ finds its fulfillment in love, in the life of radical self-giving to God and to neighbor” (Tom Langford). This is also a Wesleyan understanding of holiness.

We are on a a journey to holiness. We are humbled that God and the church have called each of us to leadership in a holiness movement. We are called to meditate on, to teach and to live out the implications of what this means.

A student came to the Rabbi Hillel and asked the question, “Can you teach me the whole law while I stand on one foot?”

Rabbi Hillel responded, “What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole law, while everything else is commentary. Go and learn it.”

Do no harm. Do all the good you can. Stay in love with God, or as Paul would say, “walk in the spirit.”

All the rest is commentary. Tune out the noise. Avoid the trolls. Law is important—circumcision, food laws, required times for religious observance—but law is always in the service of love.

When you love the people to whom you are sent, they will find themselves becoming more obedient to the law. In three different teachings, Paul says that it is not about either circumcision nor uncircumcision (Gal 5:6, Gal 6:15, 1 Cor 7:19)

What is it most important?
  • Faith working through love Gal 5:6
  • The new creation Gal 6:15
  • Keeping the commandments 1 Cor 7:19

As you come to love your neighbor, you will discover that you are growing in your love for God. And you will experience the good news that God has first loved you, and as you abide there, you bear fruit, the fruit of the spirit, which is love.

Love God. Love your neighbor. All the rest is commentary.

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