Last Saturday night I had the privilege of teaching at our confirmation retreat. My topic? Jesus and sin. I mean, who doesn’t want to talk about sin on a Saturday night, and what teens wouldn’t be excited to be learning about this? I do have to give our confirmation youth a ton of credit. They were engaged in the teaching. They had great questions and solid answers. They took a ton of notes. It was a highlight ministry moment for me to be with them, and I hope the church is very proud of our youth.
While teaching I shared a story with them from my own life. When I was around their age, I hit a crucial moment in my life and faith. Growing up, I had always taken Jesus seriously. I did the same with the church, but in my early teenage years it struck me that no effort on my own part would ever eradicate sin from my life. I tried really hard, but even if I made it 24 hours without doing something I’d call “sin,” within the next day, surely I would have messed something up.
One day in high school a teacher asked me to take a letter to the mailbox outside of the school. So, I dutifully took the letter, made my way downstairs and out the front door of the school. Then, for some reason, I couldn’t find the mailbox. I got frustrated and muttered a swear word under my breath, which for a Baptist kid trying to be perfect was a real no-no. (I still have a serious distaste for swearing all these years later.) But at that moment, I felt such shame. “You screwed up again, Troy. Aren’t you ever going to get it right?”
But also this was the moment when I realized that I could not fix my sin problem through my own effort. I had to ask God for help. Over the next several years, God’s Spirit kept working in my life to reorient me around the good news of God’s forgiveness in Jesus and also that the work of eradicating sin in my life was really the work of the Spirit, not my own effort.
What is God like? Lots of words can describe one God. We’ve gone through many of them this fall — God is delighted with you, the playful Creator, rhythmic, purposeful, Lord of all the nations, wise, relational, generous, eternal, judge, gracious and kind, and love. But even with those words, we do not come close to capturing in full who God is. God is always more than our words will describe, always more than our minds can imagine.
Today our focus is on two of those words. God is gracious and kind, so I am designed for forgiveness and kindness. This is a message I needed to learn as a teenager. It’s a lesson I still need to be reminded of from time to time even as a pastor. I used to fear God’s judgment — you’re never going to get it right, Troy, and just you wait until God’s wrath falls on you! — but I have come to trust in God’s graciousness and kindness, at least on most days.
The psalm we read today is so beautiful in how it drives this point home for us. Words from this psalm come up when we hear God’s pardon in worship. “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” Isn’t this a God worthy of worship and trust? Who among us wouldn’t want a parent who is filled with mercy and grace, slow to anger, and characterized by a never-failing love? But that’s God!
God takes our sins and carries them as far away from as possible — further than the east is from the west. God’s compassion is higher than the heavens! And God knows us, which is even better news, isn’t it? The psalm says, “For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.” God knows us. God loves us. God forgives us. God is gracious and kind, you can count on that.
So, what does that mean about us, then? Throughout this fall we have emphasized how our lives mirror who God is, so this means we are to be people who are forgiving and kind.
But here’s the catch: We can’t do this on our own strength. Just like I couldn’t work hard enough to stop sinning, so too it’s reliance upon the Spirit of God at work in our lives that leads to change. We read Paul’s description of the fruit of the Spirit from Galatians, but it’s preceded by a list of fifteen items he dubs “the works of the flesh.” It’s a list filled with words that destroy the fabric of the community — fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, and carousing. I imagine that you hear much of this list and can think, “Those aren’t too hard to avoid,” but there are several that are a bit too close for comfort. Who among us never struggles with anger or quarrels or envy? These works come from the efforts of the individual apart from the Spirit. These are life divorced from God.
But the fruit of the Spirit is different. While I highlighted that there are 15 works of the flesh and that it might be possible to pick and choose among them, Paul is clear that the Spirit’s fruit is singular. He uses nine adjectives to describe the fruit, but it’s one fruit.
It’s apple season here in Michigan. I enjoy apples. We can eat them raw, slice them up and dip them in peanut butter, stew them into sauce, and even make them into pies. If I have a honey crisp apple, how could I describe it? It’s red, yellow, firm, sweet, crisp, smooth, acidic, delicious, and nutritious. I just used nine words to describe the same piece of fruit. All of them are true and help us gain a better understanding of the apple.
Paul is doing that here with the fruit of the Spirit. It’s one fruit, but it’s characteristics have a broad description. Paul writes, “By contrast [to the works of the flesh], the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” This is not a pick-and-choose list. You either have the fruit or you don’t. And if you don’t, the Spirit’s got work to do in you! The fruit is the result of an inward condition made by the Spirit within each of us willing to welcome the Spirit into our lives.
But that invitation is also one that gives the Spirit permission to root out the “works of the flesh” that have defined us. I had to learn that I couldn’t fix my sin problem on my own strength; so too, as people seeking to follow Jesus Christ, we must submit our whole selves to the work of the Spirit. As Paul writes, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.”
It has been noticeable to me throughout my ministry, but particularly over the past six or so years, that our world is seriously missing the fruit of the Spirit. And while that is distressing and destructive, what is far worse is that often it is those who claim to be Christians that are not resembling these fruit. Love. Joy. Peace. Patience. Kindness. Generosity. Faithfulness. Gentleness. Self-control. My dear friends in Christ, this should not be. If Christians are not known by the fruit of the Spirit, then we are failing and divorced from the gospel.
When our lives are defined by the Spirit-given fruit, there is no need for the law because what emerges is what is good for the community. Elsewhere in Galatians Paul writes, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal. 5:1). Charles Cousar observes that, “Persons freed by Jesus Christ are given the vocation to love one another….There may be contexts in which it is difficult to determine exactly what love demands, but there are no occasions where the command can be set aside, no conditions under which Christians are obliged to do something less.”
Freedom is always for something. It is not merely freedom for its own sake or freedom from something; no, it is for something. In this case, the freedom is for love, and I think it’s no coincidence that Paul’s first word describing the fruit of the Spirit is love. In one of Paul’s most famous writings, Paul describes love in this way, “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends” (1 Cor. 13:4-8a).
These days those words make me want to cry because our world is severely lacking in this kind of love and that is partially a reflection of the church not living up to its calling to allow the Spirit to do its work in us and through us. We Christians have some serious repenting to do, because in relying on our own strength, our lives more resemble the works of the flesh than the fruit of the Spirit.
God is gracious and kind. We are designed for forgiveness and kindness. That only comes through the Spirit’s work in and through us. I pray that we grant the space for the Spirit to work in us. It is only then that we will learn that that is who we are because that is who God is.