BY THEIR FRUIT
TEXT: Matt. 7:15-23; 1 John 2:3-6
One of the things that made Jesus a great teacher was his ability to put difficult concepts into a form that people could understand. Most of his teaching is through stories, parables, and metaphors. He would take an everyday experience and show how the principles of God could be seen in and through it. That technique is also helpful to us, at least most of the time. Life in first century Palestine was not like life in 21st century America, so sometimes we have to dig a bit to understand the story. We have to learn about the life of a shepherd or find out what exactly happened on the threshing floor before we can really get what Jesus means in some cases.
In this instance, however, fruit is fruit. That is to say that while agricultural methods have changed drastically over time and while very different kinds of fruit trees grow over there than over here, it is still true that you only know for sure what sort of fruit tree you've got when the fruit actually appears and ripens. By what sort of fruit tree, I mean not only whether it is apples or cherries or figs. I also mean whether it is wild or cultivated, whether it is healthy or sick, and so forth. In today's world of hybrids and cloning and genetic engineering, it is probably even more true. You've got to see the fruit, taste the fruit, and see if people get diseases after 20 years of eating the fruit.
What is true in today's agricultural environment is also true in today's faith environment. Faith is grown in a particular cultural soil, so that pure religion of any sort is only a theory and not a reality. Our Christianity in America is mixed with the capitalism, humanism, and other particular ideologies of our political leanings or ethnic heritage. Judaism has Christian flavors mixed in and everybody has a bit of pop Buddhism thrown into the mix. Islam grown in America is very, very different from Islam grown in the Middle East because the soil producing both has very different properties.
All of that makes it very difficult for us to sort out our moral and religious lives. Just look at the current political atmosphere. We couldn't be more polarized, and yet all sides claim God's will. What is an honest seeker to do? Jesus steps in with some perspective. "You will know them by their fruits." That is to say, don't just trust the outward appearances and don't just believe what someone says...including me. "Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord' will enter the Kingdom of Heaven," says Jesus. It is not the creed which we say with our lips but the way we live our lives that is the true measure of our connection to Jesus.
In the next several weeks, we will be looking at what the Bible calls the "fruit of the Spirit." Paul lists these in Galatians 5: 22: "love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." This is the sort of fruit Jesus is talking about in Matthew 7 when he says that you will know God's people by the fruit that they show. He is not talking even about deeds so much as he is talking about the attitudes that produce truly good deeds. We all know of people who do good things for bad reasons. The fruit of the Spirit will expose that in the end.
We don't look at the amount of money a person gives, we look for a generous spirit. We don't look at the actual deed so much as we try to see if it was done with gentleness and kindness. Even if we disagree with the action...say an abortion or a decision to go to war...we should be asking whether in the action the person showed love, patience, and self-control. Seeing those things doesn't necessarily mean that the person hasn't made a mistake, but it does mean that the Spirit of God has been at work in that person's life long enough to produce some good fruit, and we have no business calling their salvation or their faith into question.
By their fruit...not by their creed, not by their political affiliation, but by their fruit. What follows in a person's wake? What follows in your wake? When you are with a group of people, what fruit do they taste from your hand? Paul also lists some of the opposite fruits..."enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy..." What fruit do people taste from your hand? If you have never been in a group where there was not dissension...stop and think about that for a minute. Maybe you brought it with you. If you get along with people that everyone else finds impossible, stop and think about that, too. Maybe you brought that peace with you.
We can see the principle in our day to day interactions and we can see it on a large scale. I have seen it at work in the incredible patience and self-control of a challenged teacher, in the faithfulness of a woman to a dying spouse, in the incredible generosity of the poor. I don't always know whether a person is a professed Christian or not, but I know the fruit of Christ's Spirit, when I see it. But recognizing the fruit of the Spirit is just one piece of it. It is a very helpful piece, to be sure. Learning to look for the fruit is how we avoid getting sucked into cults and abusive relationships. It is how we can be safe in our decisions to trust and follow. But an even more important question is how we go about cultivating that fruit in ourselves.
The most important thing to recognize here is that fruit is grown and not manufactured. I can't sit down for a day, a week, or a month, and produce patience. A tree doesn't produce an apple by its own will. The apple grows when the tree is well-rooted in soil full of nutrients and when it receives the right balance of water and sunshine. The job of the tree is not to manufacture the apples, but to keep rooted through the storms, to reach it's branches out and up toward the light and to drink in living water. If an apple tree does that, apples are simply a natural result.
That's the way it is with the fruit of the Spirit in us. During May we talked about the spiritual disciplines...prayer, Bible study, giving, receiving, confession, forgiveness, and there are a number of others. That is our soil, our water, and our sunshine. Those are the things we need to grow strong and to produce fruit. If, for instance, you have things in your life that are out of control...spending, eating, sex, alcohol, or whatever...the way to fix it is not to sit down and try to manufacture self-control. It can't be done.
Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and the way you get it is to get your roots back in good soil...you study Scripture, confess your sins and receive God's forgiveness. You reach your branches out toward the sun...you participate in worship, open your hands to both give and receive. You drink of the water...you pray, learning to know the God who made and loves you. If you keep doing that, day in and day out, year in and year out, one day you will start to notice that people respond differently to you now. Not only do you have more control over what you do, which was the goal, but you are more patient with yourself and others. Your reactions to offenses are more tempered with understanding and kindness than they once were and even your difficult answers have a gentleness to them.
John Wesley, who founded the Methodist movement, called it Sanctification. Like the growing of a tree, it is a life-long process of becoming more and more like Jesus through the very basic process of just sticking by his side through thick and thin. My friend Celeste lives in Rhode Island. We have been friends since the 7th grade. A few years ago we took a trip together to celebrate 30 years of friendship. As Celeste was packing up, her adolescent daughter said to her... "Now you're going to come home talking like Anne again."
I never followed up to see just what the problem with that was, but it has always reminded me of the way we grow in faith. We come to be more like Jesus by spending time with Jesus. It is a natural outgrowth. Celeste doesn't sit back and watch videotapes of me, trying to learn to imitate my speech and gestures, and I don't do that with her. But just in the process of being together as soul friends, we take on the characteristics of the other.
That is why just learning about Christianity and Jesus is not going to change anything. I think I told you once that there was a New Testament professor at the seminary I attended who was an atheist. He knew a lot about the Bible, but he never knew God. Christian faith, at its core, is not about doctrine or even virtue. It is about being in loving relationship with the God of Jesus Christ and with each other. When we connect in loving relationship, we start to become like those we love. When we connect in love to Jesus, we begin to be more like him. We begin to produce the fruit of his Spirit in our lives. Good deeds then spring automatically from a good heart, and right doctrine flows easily from friend to friend. It's not that doctrine and virtue are unimportant, it's just that they aren't the starting point. The relationship is where we start. The tree planted into the embrace of earth, washed by the water, warmed by the sun. Then others will watch and will eventually come to know us by our fruit. Amen.
Sermon ©2004 Anne Robertson
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