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01.15.12 Fruit of the Spirit—Introduction, Matthew 7:13-29

by on January 17, 2012

What is the chief characteristic of healthy, mature Christianity? It isn’t political power or popularity. It isn’t number of conversions. It is the presence of what the Bible calls fruit—and if we don’t bear fruit, we must question whether we are Christians.

Summary Points

  • Farmers on the relationship between grace and works
  • Thoughts on culture
  • The relationship between Christian and American culture
  • Finding the narrow gate of Christian culture
  • Three reasons why this is important
  • Questions for further reflection or discussion

Farmer’s understand better than most the relationship between divine grace and human works with regards to salvation. Farmers don’t pray over their fields and hope to reap a harvest in the fall. No, they clear their fields, plow them, enrich them, and seed them. Then they irrigate, weed, and fertilize their fields. That’s a lot of work! At the same time, farmers realize that the harvest depends on so many factors outside of their control—factors controlled by God. A harvest results from the collaboration between farmers’ work, and God’s grace.

Fruit requires cultivation. The Latin word defined as “to till or take care of a field” is colere. A person who takes care of more than just his field is a colonus, and what he takes care of a colonia. To use the English equivalents, a “colonist” takes care of a “colony.” None of this happens by accident. When applied to our relationship with God, colere becomes cultus, which is the basis for our word “cult,” which is the technical term referring to religious practice (the narrower definition of unorthodox Christian teaching is a further derivative).

From here it’s not hard to see that “culture” refers to the way we till or take care of our identity. Four things distinguish one culture from another culture: practices (the things we do together), convictions (what we believe to be true), institutions (the social organizations that support our practices and convictions), and narratives (the stories we tell about ourselves).

We can identify cultures and sub-cultures pretty readily. There is Colorado Springs culture, and there is a West Side subculture. And we can identify a national culture also. American culture is distinguished by eight characteristics: Individual achievement, Self-sufficiency, Competiveness, Being on the cutting-edge, Productivity, Efficiency, Youth, and Satisfaction of desire. (I owe these observations about culture and its Latin roots to Philip D. Kenneson)

The question we are challenged to ask, by Jesus and the entire Bible, is, “How closely related is our American culture to Christian culture?” People who talk about the “culture wars” are asking this question (though usually with respect only to sexual mores and manger scenes). The Bible challenges us more broadly. How many of the eight characteristics of American culture are actually Christian? That’s a challenging question.

Jesus tells us to enter the narrow gate, for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction. All of us are continually walking through a gate. Sometimes the gate is so wide we don’t even realize we’re walking through it. That’s like our surrounding culture; we just assume it’s universal because it’s normal for us. But if you’ve traveled overseas you know that the American way isn’t the only way. For example, “over there” they drive on the other side of the street and their hot and cold faucets are reversed. That’s normal “over there,” but it’s a new culture for American tourists.

Within this broad gate of American culture, is there a Christian culture—a narrow gate—for which we as Jesus’ disciples are to seek and enter? What might it look like? Remember the Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations? They are Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. They are part of the Christian culture. This Lent we will be studying the classic spiritual disciplines in a small group, including meditation, simplicity, service, guidance. These are part of the Christian culture. The “Fruit of the Spirit” from Galatians 5:22-26, the basis of this sermon series, are part of the Christian culture. You could join or create a small group to meet in your home or local coffee shop to discuss these sermons and discover the narrow gate in your life.

Why is this important? Three reasons. First, Jesus says false prophets will be known by their fruit. This implies that we know what good fruit is in order that we may recognize bad fruit. Second, our salvation depends on it! Jesus says not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” to him will escape judgment, but only the ones who do the will of his heavenly father. In Luke 13:6-9 he tells a parable about a landowner’s tree. The tree has not borne fruit and the landowner is prepared to cut it down. The hired hand requests one year to make the tree bear fruit. If he fails and the tree remains barren, then the landowner can cut it down. We are at risk of being cut down if we do not bear fruit.

Third, our witness depends on it. Just as false prophets are known by their fruit, so the world will know we are Christ’s disciples by the fruit we bear. Thus Kenneson writes, “Nurturing individual fruit in individual lives is not our ultimate goal. Instead, the church is called to embody before the world in all its relationships the kind of reconciled and transformed life that God desires for all of creation” (p. 34). That’s why his book is subtitled “Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit in Christian Community,” we need each other to grow in the Spirit, and the world needs us to do so. As fruit-bearing, mature Christians, we show how to enter the narrow gate of God’s kingdom.

Questions for Further Reflection or Discussion

  • What might be a narrow gate that God has placed before you, an opportunity unique to you that may serve as a growth point in your spiritual life?
  • This week, or this New Year, where can you add obedience to God’s will beyond just worshiping God on Sunday? Are there areas where you can have faith and bear fruit?
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