(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on October 9, 2016)
Last week, Jesus’ words in John chapter 15 reminded us to root ourselves, draw life from, take our direction and values from Jesus.
And this week, we look at Paul’s words in his letter to the Galatians, describing the fruit that comes from remaining in Christ, from walking by the Spirit. Grab your bibles, let’s read Galatians 5:16-26.
So I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law.
The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. (Galatians 5:16-26, TNIV)
I’ve been thinking about two different images Paul gives in the bible, thinking about the differences and similarities between this Galatians image of “fruit” and the image in 2 Corinthians about being the “aroma” of Christ.
To me, this is a clear case of “both/and” and not “either/or”. They are both illustrations given to us to help us with what it looks like to be a follower of Jesus. So join me if you would on a little brain exploration around the illustrations of “aroma” and of “fruit.”
About a week ago, there were some people at our house for a campfire in our backyard. The next morning when I was grabbing my keys to leave the house, there was no mistaking the aroma of campfire smoke that was wafting from the jackets hanging on pegs below my keys. I love that smell, do you? Being around a campfire, that aroma of smoke gets on you and stays with you, clinging to coats and clothes, lying dormant in your hair until you take a shower and the water brings the smell to life again.
An aroma can be powerful. There’s a candle in the church office…I don’t know what it is supposed to smell like, but to me when that thing is lit, as soon as I open the door I think I smell maple syrup and I’m ready to eat some pancakes. Studies seem to show that smell is the strongest sense we have for bringing to life old memories.
An aroma can be powerful in a good or a bad way. In fourth grade, I was playing football at recess, and I got tackled…landing right in a pile of what some dog left on the ground. I went to the bathroom, used 50,000 paper towels to try and wipe it all clean, but the rest of the afternoon I spent almost gagging as the aroma just couldn’t be erased.
These examples make me think of the aroma image as an “outside-in” illustration.
When we are around, “in the vicinity” of a strong smell, it has a way of sticking to us, affecting us for awhile. There are the times when the outside-in affects us without our intention, like sitting around a campfire. And there are the times when the outside-in is an intentional way we are trying to change…you know, like the breath mint after the cup of coffee, or the splash of perfume or aftershave when you don’t have time for the shower.
To move it to the spiritual application realm, our behavior and our values are often affected by the environments we put ourselves in, affecting us from the outside-in…for good sometimes, for bad other times. It can be positive, like when we are around people who influence us for the better, or when we try to do the right thing even if we aren’t “feeling it”.
And it can be negative, like the negative kind of peer pressure, or when we try to slap on a fake mask of respectability without caring about our true character.
As I’ve thought about it, this aroma image, the outside-in image, seems to be less deep, less lasting, than the fruit image.
Producing fruit is much more an inside-out image of change. Fruit-bearing plants dig deep, pulling nutrients from the soil, producing over a long period of time fruit that is always a reflection of the true nature of the plant. Strawberry plants don’t produce pumpkins. They might produce better or worse strawberries, but always strawberries, because that is the kind of plant they are.
Jesus is clear in John 15 that remaining and abiding in him, connecting to the true vine, is what defines us and enables us to bear fruit. Paul is clear in Galatians 5 that walking by the Spirit produces spiritual fruit. Remaining, abiding, walking in God is how we experience true character change from the inside-out.
I’ll still hold on to both illustrations as worthwhile.
What environments will we put ourselves in, and what effects will those “aromas” have on us? And what will we draw from, what will we sink our life into, what will birth the lasting “fruit” that our lives produce?
The best way to live is to be drawing from Christ and putting ourselves in environments where the aroma of Christ “sticks” to us as well. Our church’s vision statement demonstrates this goal. We want our growing community, the environment of the people here, to have the aroma of Christ which sticks to any and all of us who are part of it. And we want to listen to Christ, through scripture and prayer, so that we are remaining in Christ the true vine.
All of that together leads to changing in the Spirit, finding fruits of the Spirit emerge in us, fruits that affect the wider world as we live out God’s love. All of that is our goal, the aroma of Christ around us and covering us, the fruit of the Spirit bursting out of us.
Paul’s words in Galatians reminds us what it looks like, how to evaluate both the aroma of our environment and the fruit or character coming out of us. Christ’s aroma and the Spirit’s fruit have a smell and a taste and a look: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
I notice how these characteristics are virtually all expressed in relationship with others, in community.
Love needs someone TO love. Peace is both harmony in ourselves, but also in our relationships. Patience is more than waiting alone, but is a fruit that is best evidenced in the face of a repetitive and demanding toddler, for instance, who asks for the 19th time in a row, “Why?”
Placing ourselves in challenging relationships, in conflict, is a good opportunity to get a measure of what kind of fruit is coming out of us, what kind of character truly is inside us. Our political tension, our Yearly Meeting tension, they both are showing us what kind of character is inside us. The fruit we are producing in the midst of this tension: love or disdain, division or peace, gentleness or harshness…the fruit we are producing gives us an eye-opening glimpse of where our root is, where our character is drawing from.
I think that is why Paul gives the comparison lists. It’s not necessarily enjoyable to read the “anti-fruits” of the Spirit, the acts of what Paul calls the sinful nature. But I think it is helpful for us to have the comparisons: is what I’m doing selfish ambition, or kindness? Is it true love, the kind that hopes for the good of the whole person? Or sexual immorality and orgies? Faithfulness or jealousy, kindness or hatred, fits of rage or self control?
There is a marked difference, a different quality in these lists. I think we ought to use these comparative lists to evaluate both the fruit we see coming from our lives, and the aroma of the environments we are putting ourselves in. Because again, it is the both/and that is most helpful: the outside-in affect of aroma, the inside-out affect of roots and fruit. What God desires for us, what is best for us is when the aroma of the environment around us AND the things we are drawing our life and values from are marked by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
I’d like to give some examples of how aroma, how our environment, how the “outside-in” influences we experience can be helpful in strengthening our rootedness in Christ.
The best book I’ve read in the last several years is an “aroma” that is outside my usual environment. Many people have written about the “echo chambers” most of us live in. We tend to hear from, read, and experience all of our lives with people who think like us and look like us. Social media accelerates this phenomenon if we are not intentional to counteract it, if we are not intentional to expose ourselves to thinkers who DON’T look like us and think like us.
I believe it is essential for us to listen to those with a different experience, and then to “test” those aromas with these lists in Galatians. I think it is essential for us to listen to those with a different experience so they can help us get a fresh whiff of the aromas we live in all the time, but can no longer distinguish because they are just “normal”.
The book I read is called “The Cross and the Lynching Tree”, by James Cone. He is an African-American man who has spent his life as a theologian. In many ways, this book is his life’s work, although he’s published many other books. This is a personal and a theological and a biblical look at how one of the worst examples of our history, the lynching of African-Americans, is both a powerful example of what Christ experienced on the cross and at the same time a horrible indictment of how opposite of Christ’s example American Christianity was through that era.
It opened my eyes to so many things I have not seen as a white man. It deepened and enlarged my understanding of how Jesus stood in solidarity with all who are victimized. It allowed me to see the hatred, discord, debauchery exposed by the people who perpetrated the lynchings, and the ways the silence of the majority who allowed it to happen made them complicit.
Exposing myself to this book, this aroma, has pushed me to dig deeper into Jesus, the vine. Jesus who stands with the victimized, not the ones in power. Jesus who broke racial and ethnic lines with a radical embrace of love. Jesus, about whom Paul said we are all one in Christ, not male or female, not Greek or Barbarian, but all one in Christ.
The choice to listen to an aroma outside my norm deepened my connection and commitment to the vine, to Jesus.
As a man, I choose as well to intentionally listen to women’s perspective.
Friday night, a woman named Kelly Oxford bravely tweeted out her first experience of being sexually abused, and asked other women to do the same. She is calling out acts of sexual immorality and debauchery, and bringing them into the light so we will choose whether we will live according to that list, or treat each other with respect as the fruit of love and goodness and self-control is produced in us by the Spirit.
Last night she tweeted “Women have tweeted me sexual assault stories for 14 hours straight. Minimum 50 per minute. harrowing. do not ignore.” Over a million women, and counting, have been sharing what it is like to be a woman in our society. Not only has it saddened me, it has challenged me to remain in Christ. I want Christ to be my example and my source of energy and life.
Reading some of those tweets reminded me of one of my favorite parts of the bible, Luke 7. A “sinful woman”, as she was known, gate-crashed the Pharisee’s party where Jesus was a guest in order to wash Jesus’ feet with her tears and experience his love and healing.
Simon the Pharisee couldn’t take it. And Jesus’ first words are what I was reminded of reading those tweets: “Do you see this woman?” Are you actually allowing yourself to see and hear her experience? Jesus did. And his response to her was full of love, peace, gentleness.
How can I let the outside-in aroma of my environment open my eyes, challenge me to draw more deeply from Jesus the true vine?
I must test the outside-in influences in my life, yes. And, I believe I have a responsibility to listen to voices not like me, so that God can challenge and push me, open my eyes to my blind spots, lead me deeper into Christ’s way of living in the world.
May we root ourselves in Christ, the true vine.
May we, as Paul says to the Galatians, “Walk by the Spirit.” For, he says, if we walk by the Spirit we “will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature.
We who belong to Christ Jesus don’t have to splash on brash cologne to cover up our unwashed bodies. Instead, our acceptance of Jesus as Lord of our lives means his life and death do a work of forgiveness and transformation in us. As Paul says, “Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires.”
May we live by the Spirit and experience the fruit of the Spirit emerging from our lives!