By Their Fruit
BY THEIR FRUIT
TEXT: Matthew 7:15-20; Galatians 5:22-23
If you’re following along with the daily Bible readings, you’ll have recognized the Gospel lesson this morning as coming from this past Monday. As often as possible I will be taking my sermon topics from our current reading as one small way of helping us to connect what we read to our daily walk through life.
For a week and a half or so, we’ve been reading the chapters in Matthew known as The Sermon on the Mount, which begins with the Beatitudes at the beginning of Matthew 5. There’s enough in here for a thousand sermons, but I chose this one because I think it has more and more relevance to our cultural situation.
It has become harder and harder these days to know who to trust. With the advances in technology and media came increasingly sophisticated ways to manipulate thought and emotion. Those who are adept at “spin” don’t just have numerous opportunities, today you can make a whole career out of spinning a crisis, a speech, or a news event. Gone are the days when we receive objective information and decide for ourselves what it means…although I’m not sure there is any such thing as pure objectivity. But we are now very specifically told not just what has happened, but how we should think about what has happened.
With the advent of digital photography and programs for playing with them, we can’t even be sure that what we see in a photograph is really what was there, and everyone professes to be giving us the straight objective truth, with no spin, even as the spinners feed the lines into the teleprompter. What is real? Who do you trust?
You would think that you could trust those who speak for God. Not so. Of course it has always been true that those of us charged to bring the word of God to people are as fatefully human as anyone else. We all say things we wish we hadn’t said, do things we know we shouldn’t have done, and generally need more forgiveness from others than the average person.
But beyond that, there are wackos who claim to speak for God. There are cult leaders like Jim Jones and David Koresh who lead others to their death. There are those who promote hatred in the name of God, and those who usurp God’s right to judge and call down damnation on whatever people have upset their personal agendas.
Many today just shut it all off and trust only themselves. They don’t darken the doors of any church or religious institution, relying only on their own experiences of God and their own conscience to discern what is God speaking and what is the inner babble of the mind coming to the surface.
So, why bother? Is that the answer? I don’t think so. Our own experience is important and valid, but it needs to be checked against something outside of ourselves to help keep us from becoming one of those religious wackos. But how? How do you sort through the noisy gongs and clanging cymbals of religious speech and find a trusted voice?
It’s not a new problem. In the Bible, those folks are called “false prophets.” A prophet in the Bible is a person who speaks for God. Sometimes we think of them as only foretelling the future, and they do that sometimes, but their main role is to convey the Word of God to the people of God…whether it be raising awareness of sin, calling for reform in government, or bringing consolation and advice in times of great grief and crisis. Like today, lots of people took on the mantle of a prophet, but not all of them were true.
In the Matthew passage, Jesus is warning those on the mountainside to beware of false prophets. But since he says false prophets often come disguised as true prophets, he goes on to give advice about how to sort out the false from the true. How do we do it? By their fruit, he says.
Of course he’s not talking about whether they put bananas or blueberries on their cereal. He’s saying that a person’s allegiance is shown by how they conduct their daily lives. He uses the analogy of a tree. A diseased apple tree does not produce healthy apples and you’re certainly not going to find figs on a thistle plant. The nature and health of the plant is reflected in the fruit that is produced.
Before the fruit is evident, it might be hard to tell…I almost ruined an asparagus crop that way. I’d never seen asparagus growing before and didn’t know that it takes a couple of years to actually produce the first edible asparagus. When I moved to a new house and was cleaning up an old garden, I almost pulled it up as a weed. In a couple of weeks our daily readings will show Jesus warning us not to do any weeding until the crop is ripe and the fruit is evident.
But, eventually, the fruit of our lives gives us away. Of course even on a healthy tree, there are a few duds. Jesus doesn’t mean that true prophets never make mistakes or that we are looking for perfection. Whether you are looking at individuals or an institution like a church, your search for perfection will leave you disappointed and disillusioned. But he’s not talking about the perfect prophet. He’s saying that while a healthy apple tree might produce a few wormy apples, it is most certainly not going to produce poison ivy.
We won’t be reading Galatians until September, but I pulled the other reading for this morning from Galatians 5 because I think Paul helps us think a little more specifically about the metaphor Jesus uses. Paul is trying to tell the church in Galatia how they can tell if they are living according to God’s spirit. Again, he says we can tell, not by what we say, but by what we do and the attitudes we have in doing it.
He describes first life without the Spirit as including “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” Then he goes on to describe the “fruit of the Spirit,” as “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”
The true prophet, the person living life in the Spirit of God, is going to have mostly qualities from the latter list. The person without the Spirit will have mostly the former. Neither one is an all-or-nothing list, and neither list is exhaustive…they are both examples of the kind of fruit that comes from that life. They give us some signposts, both to examine our own lives, as Paul encourages, and to determine who we should trust to help us on our Christian journey, as Jesus encourages.
Jesus does not call us to blindly accept anybody who says they speak for God. As much as we would like Christian life to be that easy, it is not. Taking in all voices without any sort of filter is not just foolhardy, but dangerous. When you decide to take the teachings of a religious leader to heart…whether it’s a TV or radio personality or a local religious leader, stop first and look for the fruit. No matter how good they sound on the radio or how sincere they look on TV or in the pulpit, if they keep getting charged with crimes and carted off to court, if enmity, strife, jealousy, and quarrels seem to follow them wherever they go, if they can’t keep their sexuality or addictions under control, beware. Find your teachers elsewhere.
Look for those where peace and joy follow in their wake, where generosity is evident in their use of money, time, and talent. Look for those who are gentle and kind with others, who are patient and faithful in relationships, and who have learned to exercise self-control.
There will be some cross-over, as none of us has reached perfection…either perfect evil or perfect good…but we can get a sense of which set of behaviors and attitudes predominates. If we do that, we are less likely to waste our lives following misguided teachings or to do tragic harm by getting caught up with a wolf in sheep’s clothing.
Just as important is then to take that same discernment and use it to examine our own lives. What are the patterns of your own life? What follows in your wake? If someone else was giving you points for every attribute, would you end up with more points in the works of the flesh or more with the works of the Spirit? Really look at yourself and ask what fruit is evident in your life. If the measure you use to judge others was used on you, how would it turn out?
It’s not a fun exercise, as all of us have at least a few points in the negative column, but it is an exercise that is critical to our spiritual growth and health. It can seem frightening until we remember that God is standing ready to help us change and improve, rather than to condemn us. John 3:17 says, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” Recognition of the ways in which we fall short is the first step in the difficult but ultimately joyous journey of spiritual transformation.
Wouldn’t you rather come to a place where your life produces joy and peace rather than quarrels and strife? Wouldn’t you rather break harmful addictions and be able to exercise self-control? Wouldn’t you want someone to stand up at your funeral and describe you as kind and generous? It can happen. The Spirit is available to all who will ask and who will submit themselves to its discipline.
Like my asparagus plants, the fruit may not be evident for a few years, and for a time those looking in may see what looks like a weed, but eventually, the fruit will appear. “And the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” He who has an ear to hear, let him hear. Amen.
Sermon © 2006, Anne Robertson