Galatians 5:13-25 and John 15: 1-8
I don't know Chinese, but I have enough friends who speak it to know that in the Cantonese Chinese language when you use different tonal patterns, the words can mean different things. If a word goes up at the end, it can mean something totally different than if you say it with your tone going down at the end. Unfortunately, missionaries to China did not always understand this. They would bring hymns that had been translated into Chinese, but they would retain their European melodies. So as they sang the word for "Lord" to what would be for us a common hymn melody, it changed the definition of the word. And instead of singing "Jesus Christ is Lord”, they would end up singing "Jesus Christ is pig." A colleague of mine, whose parents came to the United States from China, became a hymn writer. And he wanted to create hymns in Chinese that were more appropriate! But when he did so, it made the hymn melodies sound like Chinese folk songs and his parents didn't like them because they associated those sounds with unChristian songs. They had been taught that certain sounds are Christian and so their son's new hymns, although they made much more sense within the Chinese language, sounded too pagan to their ears.
Oftentimes the Gospel and our culture gets all mixed up. What Scripture is always trying to get us to do is to understand our culture from a Gospel perspective; but more often than not, we instead come to Scripture with our own cultural perspective. Of course we are all immersed in our culture and figuring out which is which is a difficult thing and perhaps even impossible at times because as people we live in cultures. We see this all through history and especially in the missionary movement where people were always going into cultures they didn't understand and bringing their own right along with them. Right here in Minnesota as people shared the Gospel with Native Americans, more often than not, what they shared was not the Gospel but their own culture. Making people wear certain clothes, speak English, even taking kids from their parents in order to share the love of Jesus Christ, doesn't make a whole lot of sense to us today, but in the minds of those missionaries, they were sincerely doing what they thought was God's will.
Paul, in writing to the Galatians, is trying to help them see that they are getting off track with what it means to follow Jesus. The whole letter to the Galatians is really addressing one issue- whether one has to be circumcised in order to be a good Jew-- a good follower of Jesus. Paul's argument is that circumcision or no circumcision, it doesn't matter in Christ. That Jesus came and transformed the law so that what matters now is living by the Spirit-- loving our neighbors as ourselves. Instead of doing it the way they've always done it-- the way even Scripture tells them to do it-- Paul shares his own story of experiencing the love of Christ; shares his own story about how he used to persecute the followers of Jesus because they were not following the law, and then he experienced the love of Christ-- the grace of Jesus-- and his whole life changed to understand that we must now live by the Spirit.
Earlier in the letter Paul addresses one of the leaders who is still telling the people they must be circumcised. And he says this, "If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jews, how can you compel the Gentiles to live like Jews?" In other words, if you continue to uphold these cultural-- and yes even Scriptural!-- practices that are keeping people from Jesus, than you are actually living like someone who does not follow Jesus. So if you are not following Jesus, how are you going to share the Gospel to those who are also not following Jesus?
It's a tongue twister, to be sure. But it's also a brilliant way of saying to these people whom he loves, if you're not actively sharing Jesus' love with each other, than how are any of the people you want to reach, going to want to follow Jesus?
It's a question that we, as Christians, have been asking all of our lives. It's a question that you often hear from people who don't go to church-- why would I want to be a part of that hypocrisy? People who say one thing and do another?
How do we share the love of Jesus without just forcing our cultural ways onto other people? How do we figure out what is of God and what is not?
John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement, saw over his lifetime all the ways in which culture and Gospel get confused. He didn't' use that language, of course, but after he began to experience the Holy Spirit, his understanding of his ministry changed dramatically. In the 1700's nature was considered rather evil by the church. So people weren't really allowed to preach outside of a church building-- again, it seems silly to us today, but that was their cultural norm. Wesley, however, realized that demanding everyone come into a church building wasn't logical because there were no labor laws. So instead he went into the open air and began to preach to people where they were-- even while they were working-- in fields, in mines, in debtors prisons-- the Holy Spirit opened Wesley up to see that in order to share God's love, we have to be flexible and discerning about what is essential and what is not. And for Wesley, that was really the core of it all-- what is essential to loving God and our neighbor? We should go and do that. Everything else we can argue about later.
So how do we know what is essential? Paul gives us what I think is a really helpful guideline in Galatians. He lists the things that are not of the spirit-- idolatry, hatred, fighting, selfishness, drunkenness, sexual immorality, moral corruption... It's quite a list. And then he lists what is of the Spirit-- the fruits of the Spirit-- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
And it is these, that we are to both live into and to use in recognizing the Holy Spirit in our lives. Where do we see love? That's where we see the Spirit. Where do we see joy? That is of the Spirit. Where do we see patience and kindness and goodness? Then that must be the Spirit at work. Where do we experience faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control? Those are all places where the Spirit is at work. And so when we see those things, even when they are outside of our own comfort zones and our own cultural understandings, we need to let the Spirit slow us down to be patient and kind and gentle and full of self-control so that we can show love to those we do not understand, recognizing that the Spirit is so much bigger than us.
And we need not be afraid-- this is a big part of this. We need not be afraid. Oftentimes our inclination when we see the hurt that has been caused by people sharing culture instead of God's love, is to pull back and to err on the side of not sharing God's love. But that's not the answer either. In the Gospel lesson for this morning Jesus says, "I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, then you will produce much fruit."
To not bear fruit-- to not share both verbally and actively our faith in Christ-- is to whither on the vine. That is a crucial part of our faith-- when we keep our faith private where no one will see or judge us for it, our relationship with God suffers. God's love multiplies when we share it-- when we dare to bear fruit.
It’s been amazing these past couple of weeks to see the earth come alive again— to see everything blossoming and growing and blooming. And it’s made me wonder how often we, as Christians, have become okay with not blooming. What would a lilac bush be if it didn’t produce lilacs? Or an apple tree without apples? How often have we, as Christians, become okay with not blooming— not producing fruit? In my yard we have a grapevine. The first year we moved in, it was just a green vine. It produced no fruit at all. And while it was pretty, I kind of wondered how long we were going to keep it. But last year, with pure joy, we began to watch it grow these little tiny green grapes that turned into beautiful purple bunches of grapes, and we were elated to see it bear fruit. God invites us to bear fruit— to share all that God has given us both so that others will know what Holy Spirit fruit looks like, but also because it is in bearing fruit that we experience the greatest pleasure of God’s love!
Bearing fruit-- sharing God's love, serving God through serving one another-- is the way that we know that we are abiding with God. When we see the fruits of the Spirit and choose to share them, then we know that what we are doing is of the Spirit.
So let's go be a fruit smoothie! Let's go into the world-- into the St. Cloud region-- with all humility, looking for the fruits of the Spirit-- love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control. And may we share those same fruits with others so that together with the Spirit we can be part of transforming the world in Jesus Christ.