Sunday, June 27, 2010

Are You Bearing Fruit?

You can learn quite a bit by planting a garden or caring for fruit-bearing trees. One of those things you can learn quickly is how little control you have when it comes to making things grow. Sure, you can help the process in a variety of ways, but in the end, and you green-thumbed people know this best, there is really nothing we can do to make fruit appear. The appearance and growth of fruit—and the conditions that support it—are controlled not by our willpower but by the patterns woven into creation by God Himself.
The Apostle Paul, writing to Christians in Galatia, urges them—and us—to “walk by the Spirit,” that is, to allow the Spirit of God to lead us in thoughts, in attitudes, in what we say and of course in what we do. Significantly, Paul refers to these right thoughts, attitudes, words and deeds as “fruit of the Spirit.” The idea is not hard to catch: Paul is saying that if the Holy Spirit is present in a person, then the Spirit in that person will produce right thoughts, attitudes, words and deeds. And just like in the created world, this is not a matter of our willpower, but it is a process that proceeds from God Himself. He has chosen to live in you, and since He is there, He will produce certain characteristics in you. Paul spells out what those characteristics are—so let’s look at each one in a little more detail.
The first fruit listed is love. Love that proceeds from the Spirit of God finds its highest expression in self-sacrifice. “Greater love has no one than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” Jesus said, and He also lived it. Not to be confused with infatuation or lust, Godly love is a willing commitment to put the needs of others ahead of your own. Are you bearing the fruit of love?
Paul also mentions the fruit of joy. This is not simply happiness, but truly enjoyment of God and His gifts. Joy is being amazed at what God has done for you in Jesus Christ. For that reason, joy is not dependent on favorable circumstances. Joy is what the Christian still has, no matter what, even in the worst of circumstances: membership in God’s family! Are you bearing the fruit of joy?
The next fruit of the Spirit named is peace. While we’d settle for a definition of peace such as “the absence of conflict” or maybe just “quietness,” peace rooted in the Holy Spirit means that a lasting truce has been called between you and God. The great big debt incurred and compounded by your sin has been paid off by the agony and death of Jesus on the cross. There is now no doubt about your identity: you are a baptized, adopted, forgiven child of God, and when you know who you are, there is wholeness. Are you bearing the fruit of peace?
Paul says that patience is also a fruit of the Spirit—but I’m afraid it’s fruit that nobody really wants. We live in a world in which “instant” almost isn’t even fast enough for us. And yet those walking in step with the Spirit will have patience. Maybe it would help us to think of patience not so much in terms of “waiting,” and instead think of it as “accepting God’s timing as the right timing,” and trusting that he knows the best “when.” Are you bearing the fruit of patience?
Kindness is next, and while it seems like simple fruit, it also seems to be sorely lacking nearly everywhere you go. Interestingly, kindness is not just a state of being. I’ve never heard anyone being urged to “have kindness.” No! We are urged to be kind! Kindness is being mindful that how we speak and the way we act matters—a lot. Kindness could be thought of as grace in action. Are you bearing the fruit of kindness?
Goodness is another fruit of the Spirit, and let’s not confuse “goodness” with “being nice.” In case you haven’t noticed, it’s not easy to be good and to do good. The opposite of good is evil, and being good will sometimes mean you have to confront evil and call it out, and that takes courage only God can provide. Have you taken a stand for good lately? Are you bearing the fruit of goodness?
The Apostle Paul says that faithfulness is fruit produced by the Spirit, and it is a special and beautiful fruit. Faithfulness is not merely possessing faith, but it is the ongoing pattern of being true to that faith. Faithfulness means orienting your entire life around the Lord and His Word and His wishes. Are you bearing the fruit of faithfulness?
The fruit of gentleness might be the most underrated quality on this list. Men, in particular, might hear “gentleness” and think “that sounds wimpy and weak.” But Spirit-grown gentleness is actually strength under control. Some of you have met our dog, Theo, a one hundred and two pound Newfoundland. He could knock just about anyone off their feet if he wanted to. But he knows not to, and he doesn’t. That’s gentleness, and that’s not a bad way to deal with people, either. Are you bearing the fruit of gentleness?
Finally, there’s self-control. The Spirit grows in us the ability to say no to things that are bad for us and yes to things that are good and Godly. The fruit of self-control makes it hard for the Christian to use the excuse, “I just couldn’t help it.” Self-control means you can always say no to the devil’s lies. Furthermore, you can say yes to meeting God in His Word, yes to His presence in your life and in worship, yes to anything that is going to make that bond stronger. Are you bearing the fruit of self-control?
I love what Paul says next. After making this list of Spirit-borne fruit, he says, “against such things there is no law.” There are plenty of laws against sinfulness, but you cannot be too loving. There is no restriction against being too joyful, or too filled with peace, or too patient. There is no penalty for being too kind, too faithful, too gentle, too self-controlled. God will only be pleased to produce this fruit in you and let you use it.Now, an unfortunate by-product of this “fruit list” is that it does point out what we are not. At the end of each fruit, the question was asked, “Are you bearing it?” And you may have honestly answered, “no,” or “I don’t know,” or “not as much as I should.” If that’s the case—and it’s the case for me—you are urged to confess this before God and admit where you fall short. Do so knowing that even now your sins are forgiven, removed, and cancelled by Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. The punishment that brings you peace was placed on Him. By His wounds you are healed. And then simply ask the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in you and for you to be aware of it. You may not realize all that the Holy Spirit is already doing in you. You may be bearing this fruit unconsciously. That’s how it is supposed to happen. After all, our tomatoes and apples don’t grow by our own willpower. Neither does the fruit of the Spirit appear in us by our own determination. It is His work in you that makes it happen. Just ask Him—provide Him withthe fertile soil of your heart—and let Him grow miraculous fruit in you.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Love, Obedience, and Abraham Lincoln

I took our car in for an oil change, and I was sitting in the waiting room, which was empty except for me and one other man. There wasn’t much to do, so I struck up a conversation, and pretty soon we were talking about United States Presidents. And that’s when things started to get a little strange. You see, this man began talking about Abraham Lincoln; that he not only considered Lincoln to be the greatest President ever, but also the greatest American of all time and possibly the greatest man in history, period. In fact, he even said that he tried to live his life according to the teachings and example of Abraham Lincoln.
Well, now, this piqued my curiosity. I’d heard of Buddhists and Confucians, but I’d never met a Linconian—a disciple of Abraham Lincoln. I didn’t even know there was such a thing. So I just had to ask a few more questions:
“Are there others like you?” I asked. “Oh yes, there’s a group of about 40 here in Lake County; we meet once a week on Friday evening—that’s the day Lincoln was shot. Our leader has a Masters Degree in American History. Every week, he reads a selection from Lincoln’s writings, and then he gives a talk explaining what it means and suggesting ways we can apply it to our lives. And of course, February 12th, Lincoln’s birthday, is a big holiday for us. We have parties, exchange gifts, and sing Civil War songs. It’s fun.”
“That’s fascinating!” I said. “So you must study Lincoln’s life and writings?” “Well, not exactly,” he said. “I do own a leather-bound copy of Lincoln’s complete works—his speeches and letters. I also own several biographies of Lincoln. One of these days I really do plan to read them. I just haven’t had the time.”
I started to push him a little. “But how can you be a disciple of Lincoln if you don’t read what he wrote?” “Well, it’s mostly common sense stuff, really,” he said. “Do unto others, the golden rule, be nice to people, free the slaves, that kind of thing. And besides, I listen to a half-hour speech about Lincoln every Friday.”
“I see. So how does being a follower of Lincoln affect your life?” “Well, like I said, I go to a meeting every Friday. I celebrate Lincoln’s birthday once a year. I own a leather-bound edition of his writings and speeches. Oh, and most of my friends are also Linconians.”
“So, when you get together with your friends, do you talk about Lincoln’s life and how to live out his teachings?” “Oh, no, not really. That stuff’s for Fridays, when we go to the meetings. No, we mostly talk about sports, politics, our families. We’re normal people, you know.”
As you may have guessed, this conversation never really happened. I just made it up. But it would be ridiculous, wouldn’t it, for someone to claim to be a follower of Abraham Lincoln, and yet not study his writings…not be familiar with the events of his life? You might reasonably doubt the depth of someone’s devotion to our sixteenth president if they had never heard of the Gettysburg address, or the Emancipation Proclamation, or Ford’s Theater. You would rightly expect that if a person claimed to be a disciple of Lincoln’s, it would have an affect on how they lived, beyond attending a meeting once a week.
Do you see where I’m going with this? If you are a Christian…if you are truly a follower of Jesus Christ, it will affect much more of your life than just Sunday morning. Following Jesus isn’t a hobby. It’s a way of life. It’s a way of life that makes us different from the world around us. It’s a matter of identity—it’s not just a matter of what you know, it’s a matter of who you are. To say it another way, Christians define themselves by their connection to Jesus Christ. That connection is a real thing. Again, it makes us who we are: people who have Jesus living inside them. Question number one in Luther’s Small Catechism: What is Christianity? Answer: It is the life and salvation given in and through Jesus Christ. Not a code of regulations. Not a list of do’s and don’ts. Not a burden of guilt to motivate us. Christianity is being chosen by God, adopted by him, cleaned up, forgiven, and being plugged into life with Jesus that lasts forever.
So how does someone respond to all this? Jesus tells us in his usual straightforward manner, “If you love me, you will obey what I command.” Now, right away you might hear that and think, “whoops,” because we know ourselves. We know our own track record with keeping God’s commands. We are weak-willed, rebellious, in a word, sinful. That’s what made Jesus’ suffering and death on a cross necessary. But again he did that for you so you could be chosen, adopted, cleaned up, forgiven, and plugged into eternal life. So if you return to God and admit your sin and spend some time at the foot of the cross, then your debt is paid in full. You have the proverbial clean slate. Not only that, but you have the Holy Spirit as your counselor and advocate. He goes with you through life pointing you to Jesus. Having given you these priceless gifts, your resurrected Lord gently asks you, “Do you love me?”
If you do love Jesus, then you will want to obey his commands. You won’t have to be forced to. You won’t obey Jesus because you’re scared of what’ll happen if you don’t. You obey his commands because you love him and know that’s what’s best. If you didn’t love Jesus, then you wouldn’t really care what he commanded, would you? If you do love him, then you do care, and you’ll want to do things his way.
By the way, what are the commands Jesus wants us to obey? Any idea? Earlier in this same conversation, Jesus said it clearly. This is chapter 13 verse 34: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Are you sensing a theme here? Love seems to be very important to our Lord Jesus…but he’s not talking about sticky sweet sentimental feelings or warm fuzzies. When Jesus talks about love, he’d usually talking about sacrifice.

How will you respond to Jesus? As you think about that, consider this poem quoted by Pastor Gregory Dawson:

Christ has no body now
But yours
No hands
No feet on earth
But yours

Yours are the eyes
Through which he looks
With compassion on this world
Yours are the feet
With which he walks to do good
Yours are the hands
With which he serves all the world

Yours are the hands
Yours are the feet
Yours are the eyes
You are his body

Jesus said, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” Let’s show Jesus to each other by obeying his commands.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Can You Relate To A Triune God?

If Trinity Sunday is nothing more than a chance to rehash a set of doctrines about God that nobody understands, then this might just be the most boring weekend on the church calendar. And I say that as someone who believes that correct doctrine is of great importance. The Bible itself says that we are to pursue true apostolic teaching. But here’s the rub: God is not a set of doctrines. God is God. God is an intelligent being. God is spirit, and yet more than that—He actually came down and walked around as a human being on this planet that he created. My prayer today is that Trinity Sunday will be transformed when you realize that God wants you to know Him. In other words, He wants to live in relationship with you. He wants you to know what He is like, and He wants to know you in the deepest possible way. Through the words of Holy Scripture, the one and only true God approaches you and says, “This is who I AM.”
The very idea of “having a relationship” has its origin in God. The God of the Bible has, from the very beginning, lived in relationship with Himself. Way back in Genesis chapter one, God can be overheard talking to himself, saying “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.” Who could he be talking to, except those parts of himself that we have come to know as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit? That very idea is expressed in a most beautiful and moving way in today’s Old Testament Lesson from Proverbs 8. Here, Jesus, the wisdom and Word of God, is portrayed as a master workman alongside his Father, crafting the world with creative power. Their work is joyful, but a careful reading of verses 30 and 31 reveals that the act of creation is not the only happiness described; it says, and this is from Jesus’ perspective: “I was his daily delight, rejoicing before him always, rejoicing in his inhabited world and delighting in the children of men.” Does that not “wow” you just a little? As the Father is raising the skies and filling the oceans, his delight is in His Son. You can almost envision His hand on His Son’s shoulder as they share this indescribable experience. Father, Son, and Spirit have lived in relationship with one another from eternity. The act of creation is a decision God made to live in relationship with other beings beside Himself—namely, human beings. He wanted—and still wants—to live in relationship with people so that his delight and rejoicing will be multiplied! What a thought! When you live in relationship with God, He rejoices! You are fulfilling His purpose for creation.
But sadly, it’s hard for us to live in relationship with God. We may be born with a God-shaped hole in our souls, but on our own, we don’t know what it is. We know there’s an emptiness there, so we try to fill it with achievements; with friends, family, or anyone who seems to care; with possessions; with excitement; and when things get desperate, we put various substances into ourselves trying to fill that hole up. But we will never do it. What we try will never work, because it is a God-shaped hole. The only thing that will fit there is a relationship with God. And because we are by nature sinful, selfish, and spiritually dead in trespasses and sins, we cannot initiate the relationship that can finally make us whole.
Knowing this, The Father, Son, and Spirit formulated a plan that would keep their dream alive—their dream of living in relationship with people. The Son, with whom the Father had hung the stars in the sky and laid the foundations of the mountains, would become one of the human beings that they cared so much for, and in this way, God would deal with the problem of sin. Sin had a devastating effect on relationships. It made people not care about God and even less for their neighbor—witness the son of Adam and Eve murdering his brother. But if sin could be dealt with—more than that, if sin’s cost could be paid for—then a renewed relationship could be possible.
And so Jesus is born into the world he helped create; and so Jesus speaks continually about His Father; about honoring His Father; about being sent from His Father; about His Father giving Him glory; about knowing His Father; and about doing His Father’s will. And it is His Father’s will that he, Jesus, should become the once-and-for-all offering for sin, and that makes it all sound very neat and tidy. It is His Father’s will that He, Jesus, should be hated, betrayed, made fun of, spit upon, beaten, whipped, and finally nailed to a wooden cross. Yet none of that was the worst. No, the worst came when the Father turned away from his Son, withdrawing his relationship from his beloved, co-creating Son, ignoring the cries of the one in whom he had so delighted. This is the hell that Jesus faced on the cross. Not some lake of fire, but his Father walking away.
And there was only one reason for this. Because of our sins of thought, word, and deed; because of the things we have done and the things we have left undone God could have and should have walked away from us. He would be justified in turning his back on us in sadness and disappointment. But the Father put Jesus in the place we were supposed to be, and Jesus willingly and obediently took what we deserved. He took it. He didn’t complain that it wasn’t fair. He didn’t run away or bail out at the last minute. He took it, because He, with His Father and the Spirit, had one goal: to live in relationship with you and thereby to delight and rejoice in you.
Having dealt with sin and hell at the cross, and having crushed death with the resurrection of Jesus, God could now go about initiating the relationship with us that he so desired. So the Holy Spirit goes into action. Through water and the name of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, that very Spirit initiates the relationship that is so precious to Him. In Holy Baptism, the Spirit wraps his arms around one whom he loves, and gives that one the gift of faith—the ability to respond to the Spirit’s embrace with one of his or her own. The Holy Spirit opens your eyes to see all that Jesus did so that you can live in relationship to God. It has all been done for you. It has all been done to you. Spirit, Son and Father moved heaven and earth for you. The relationship between Father and Son was broken so that your relationship with Him could be repaired. He just wants the joy of knowing you.And as you are drawn into a relationship with Father, Son and Spirit, you realize that there is another way you can multiply His delight. That is to live in relationship with other people with the commitment and love that God showed to us. Beyond the greatest gift of our relationship with Him, we also have been given the gift of living in relationship with mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, sons and daughters, sisters, brothers, aunts and uncles, nieces and nephews, cousins, friends, teachers, students, co-workers, and the list goes on. Sin can damage these relationships just as sure as it can damage a relationship with God; but when our relationship with God is strong, then we will approach all of our other relationships with the grace that we have received and learned from Jesus. We will see the other person that we’re looking at as someone who needs mercy, compassion, forgiveness and friendship, and we’ll share those gifts because Father, Son and Holy Spirit shared them with us. We were made for relationship with this Triune God of ours; and we were made for relationship with each other. How He must rejoice when we finally “get it.”