Sowing For a Harvest: That’s Hilarious

Psalm 126:1-6
John 15:1-11

As a third-century man was anticipating death, he penned these last words to a friend: “It’s a bad world, an incredibly bad world. But I have discovered in the midst of it a quiet and holy people who have learned a great secret. They have found a joy which is a thousand times better than any pleasure of our sinful life. They are despised and persecuted, but they care not. They are masters of their souls. They have overcome the world. These people are the Christians–and I am one of them.”

Would you describe yourself as joyful? Would you say that you are happy? There is a false stereotype of Christians that “to find religion is to be made miserable.” And yet, we read it in our Scripture lessons this morning—joy is a fruit of the Spirit. It isn’t a weak word, either. It’s not a faint smile and the attitude that you just have to endure the bad in life; it’s not resignation. It’s not wearing a fake smile when you feel like crying or kicking a door in—there’s more to it than what my wife calls the “’happy Christian’ stereotype.”

The early church father Tertullian once said, “The Christian is hilarious.” In Latin, hilaritas (hilarious) is the answer to the Greek word chara, ‘joy,’ which is closely related to the word ‘charm,’ and also to the Greek word for ‘grace,’ charis. It’s true that following Jesus requires you to give up some things that other people (and you, too) enjoy; it’s true that following Jesus demands something more than the cheap grace that says, “I’ve show up in church on Sunday; now to go do my own thing for the rest of the week.” Jesus demands more than just lip service—he demands your whole life. Despite what you may think, though, the Christian is happy; smiling; boisterous; full of laughter. There are those who think that there is a touch of the unseemly in Christians’ joy; it goes beyond the propriety of their good manners. It “just isn’t the way things are done!” Yet there is no denying it. The fruit of the Spirit is joy.

Have you ever seen a crime drama, or a criminal proceeding? The defendant sits at his table, worry and anxiety gnawing at him as he awaits his fate. Will he be found guilty? The jury slowly files in, and takes their seats after hours of deliberation. The judge asks, “Has the jury reached a verdict?” And the jury foreman replies, “We have, your honor.” He opens the envelope which contains their answer. Every person leeeeans forward in their seats in anticipation….The foreman reads the preamble, “In the matter of so-and-so, on the charges of thus-and-such,” he starts, and declares that the jury finds the defendant, “not guilty.”
Instantly, the defendant leans jumps to his feet in joy, and hugs his lawyer. Tears run down his face. A huge weight has been removed from his back! He is a free man! Relief and, indeed, joy, flood his heart. There is no one who knows joy like the person who has been relieved of a great burden.

And when Christ has entered your heart, you have every reason to be joyful. Death itself has lost its power over you, as has sin. There is a reason that the early Methodists were accused of being “enthusiasts”—they were too happy about the work God had done in their souls to restrain themselves. The same can be said of the early members of the Salvation Army, the Salvationists, or the early followers of St Francis of Assisi, the Franciscans. There is a story told of an organist in England who pleaded with a Salvation Army drummer not to bang his drum so hard. The Salvationist replied, “Lor’ bless you, sir, since I’ve been converted I’m so happy I could bust the bloomin’ drum.”

Indeed, this describes the apostles themselves on the day of Pentecost in Acts 2. When the Holy Spirit descended upon their gathering and they were filled with the Holy Spirit, people thought they were drunk, they were so happy. It’s been happening ever since. When God saves someone and their happiness overflows, there are still some who scowl and glare—how dare religion escape the confines we’ve set aside for it! Yet that new Christian need not mind the disapproval. The early Methodists would understand.

So beyond outward appearances, what are the realities behind joy as a fruit of the Spirit? It’s not all laughter and emotional highs, after all. To get to the heart of what this supernatural joy is, we can first distinguish it from some of the things it’s commonly confused with.

Pleasure and a positive emotional state are often confused for joy. Some people probably think that joy is just a matter of getting enough endorphins in your system. And there are many people who think that they’re experts at joy as a result, even though they’re doing everything but following Christ. But joy is not simply a matter of “feeling good.”

Pleasure depends on circumstances. It’s hard to feel pleasure when you are sick or when those you care about are in poor health or unhappy. Pleasure can be stolen just by eating the wrong thing. Bang your shin or trip in the parking lot or get a toothache, and that “good vibe” you were feeling is gone. A Christian’s joy is much deeper than that. Joy as a fruit of the Spirit can be found in any stage of life, in all circumstances—even when you’ve lost everything. Joy is present even in the midst of persecution and pain. Father Brown, a missionary with the Oxford Mission in Calcutta was renowned for the overflowing joy of his heart; he would often speak of hilaritas, “gladness of heart,” and it showed in his own life, arriving at his appointments laughing—even as he limped along with a painful, incurable disease.

Pleasures are inconsistent. What gives you great pleasure in one stage of life will not give you any in a few years. When I was younger, I loved to eat mushrooms; yet, at some point, I lost my taste for them. Similarly, when I was younger I enjoyed playing soccer; yet I lost my interest in that as I grew older, too. You could practically write your biography based upon what things held your interest at different points in your life. But joy is constant. The youngest Christian, a ‘babe in arms,’ knows it. It remains there in a Christian’s 20s, when life is most unsettled—college and dating and trying to start a career—and it remains their strength. It is there for those in the Christian’s 70s and 80s and 90s, as well, their refuge in retirement.

It’s also easy to have ‘too much’ of things which give us pleasure. Once we hit that point, what once attracts us now repels us. For much of my life, I have loved honey-roasted peanuts. Not just any, but specifically Planter’s honey-roasted peanuts in a tin—it just loses something when it’s in a plastic bag. I used to often snack on them, getting my fingers sticky with the mixture of honey and salt that comes with handling those peanuts. There’s often a tin or two of them at my house as a result. My wife went and bought another tin recently, and reminded me of it. She was surprised when I said I just wasn’t that interested in them anymore. I hadn’t really thought to say anything to her before then, because it hadn’t come up—but I’ve slowly been losing my taste for them.

Similarly, I used to get my mother to go with me and my brother to a Japanese restaurant that opened up in Muncie. We actually ate there fairly frequently. It was precisely that frequency which came to kill my mother’s interest in Japanese food. She came to much prefer Mexican food for a while after that, and I would often go along with her to Mexican restaurants…which resulted in me developing a bit of an aversion to Mexican for a while. Pleasure satiates. It’s easy to have too much. But joy never satiates. The old commercial slogan said, “There’s always room for Jello”—but we all know that even that is a lie. Only the Christian can say, “There’s always room for more.”

Pleasure is also shallow. It’s only “skin deep.” Pleasure can’t exist in the same room as the “hard questions of life,” like why people suffer and die or why life is so ‘unfair’—it has to ignore them. Pleasure is the Christmas party thrown by a family that doesn’t know Christ; a party without a purpose. But joy goes to the very core of our being. Joy is a smile that reaches the eyes and the heart as well as the lips. There may be times when joy is accompanied by laughter, by cheering and by ecstasy, the ‘emotional highs.’ But there are times when joy sinks into quiet contentment and peace. Pleasure is skin-deep—but joy? Joy goes to the very core.

Joy goes to the very core. It possesses the whole person.

The person with the joy of God in their hearts cannot worry. They don’t need books like Philip Yancey’s Where Is God When It Hurts? They don’t need to understand in order to believe, but like St Anselm of Canterbury, they say, “I believe that I may understand.” They believe it when the Bible says “God is love.” They also believe the Bible when it says that God is all-powerful. The All-powerful is the All-loving, and thus they cannot worry, because they trust that even when they are in the dark, God is still working in the world to bring about his purposes.

The joy-filled heart is also free of guilt. Christians from the newest, the ‘babe in arms,’ to the most spiritually mature (regardless of their age) are always aware of the wide gulf separating human beings from God. The spiritually mature are even more aware than the new Christian, in fact—they see their own sin more clearly who have. The most holy saint is painfully aware that all of his or her holiness is derived. “Though the darkness hide thee, though the eye of sinful man thy glory may not see / Only thou art holy, there is none beside thee / Perfect in power, in love and purity.”

And yet for all of that painful awareness of their inadequacy, the joy-filled heart does not dwell on that. Instead, it knows the relief of the death-row prisoner who hears at the last minute that his sentence has been commuted, the defendant who hears the verdict, “not guilty” at her trial. They are sinful and impure—but there is no condemnation in Christ Jesus. Only God is holy—but he fills us with his Spirit to make us holy too. The hymn speaks for them when it says, “Long my imprison’d spirit lay / Fast bound in sin and nature’s night / Thy eye diffused a quickening ray / I woke, the dungeon flamed with light / My chains fell off, my heart was free / I rose, went forth and followed thee.”

The joy-filled heart is painfully aware of his or her own sinfulness; yet the same heart is free of guilt. Because even though they know that God is holy, and that they are not, they do not dwell on that. Instead, they accept God’s forgiveness and trust God to make them what they cannot make themselves. Even if they find it hard to forgive themselves, they nonetheless accept God’s forgiveness, and dwell on that instead. As the saying goes, “They love heaven more who have seen hell.”

The person with the joy of God in their hearts is free of worry and of guilt. There is a third thing which the joy-filled heart is free of: fear. Many people go through life with the fear gnawing at them that their life is meaningless. They want to know the answers to the questions that we all want to know: Is there a God? Does he want to hurt me or help me? Is there meaning to life?

They want to be a part of a cause, of “something greater than themselves.” Yet they find all too often that these causes are transient, and they become disillusioned with them—it wasn’t “greater than themselves,” after all.

I read a study recently that showed that where there was a substantial increase in the number of people who identify as “not religious” or who do not identify as Christian, Buddhist, Muslim, etc. These people are the so-called “nones”—as in, “none of the above.” Yet this study found that despite the decline in religious affiliation, the percentage of people who believed in a God or in a “Higher Power,” and who prayed, remained much higher. The “nones” are afraid to follow Jesus, but many of them still want to find meaning in life, which they are attempting to find through such groups as the Juniper Path, which offers space for discussing issues of life-after-death and of personal transformation and accountability.

They seek to find meaning in life because they haven’t found it. And they won’t find it with these “personal transformation” businesses, either. But the Christian is free of that fear—he knows in whom he has believed, and because the God who reveals himself in Jesus Christ knows him and is known by him, he has found the meaning to life. Built upon that foundation, joy fills his heart. “All realities sing—and nothing else will,” as the poet Coventry Patmore wrote.

The Christian knows God’s love and his miracle-working power, and she cannot doubt. Even in the midst of the worst life has to offer, he still trusts that “God’s in his heaven; all’s right in the world.” A ship may be caught in a terrible storm, with sailors terrified that the ship will sink and they will all drown. Yet the Christian says with St Paul, who endured precisely that in the book of Acts, “Be of good cheer, for I believe God.” Christians are ‘of good cheer’ for that reason alone—they believe God.

John Wesley is famous for remarking of his followers, the early Methodists: “Our people die well.” As Christians, it doesn’t just matter that we’ve started the race, or how we’re running the race at present. It also matters how we finish the race. The secret, of course, to dying well…is living well. The joy-filled life, the life filled with the joy of the Holy Spirit, is the very essence of ‘living well.’

The heart filled with the joy of God is less easily tempted by envy or by hatred, by lust or by greed. Joy is part of the armor of the Spirit, and a heart filled with the Spirit’s joy just doesn’t find reason to envy or hate anyone. She would rather give away that joy she has found in Jesus. That “joy down in her heart” doesn’t go away on the deathbed, either.

When the English missionary Temple Gairdner was dying and in a great amount of pain, people who came to visit him were often struck by the great joy which seemed to emanate from him. Even in the midst of his great pain, it seemed more like he was already in heaven than that he was slowly dying. When he finally passed away, his son looked upon his face, still emanating joy even in death, and said, “Your joy no man taketh from you.”

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Tradition!

Roger Olson defines liberal theology as a paradigm where reason and experience are exalted above Scripture. Because Scripture is devoid of content until interpreted by a human being, liberal theology could also be defined as a paradigm where reason and experience are exalted above the Church’s tradition, or set in opposition to it. Because reason is tradition-based as well, liberal theology could be further defined as “a paradigm where the reasoning of those who are not regenerate is exalted above the Church’s tradition.”
Thus, a theological liberal would be someone who denies traditional doctrine or interpretations. The person who argues that modern science has “impartially” legitimated same-sex sexual attraction and because of this Scriptural prohibitions must be set aside exemplifies this attitude toward theology.

The issue of theological method comes down to the question, “Whose tradition?” Do we place authority with the Church, the people of God who have been regenerated and are in communion with God? Or do we place it outside of the Church, with those who utilize various other traditions to determine their place in the world and how they interact with the biblical text?

Scripture itself was formulated initially as traditions, first oral and later written, passed on from one early Christian community to the next. Tradition also determined which books would be canonized, though the canon itself would later help determine the Church’s tradition, that is, the Church’s interpretations and teachings which would be handed on to subsequent generations of believers.

But there is a real sense in which Scripture itself is tradition. It is apostolic tradition—which is to say, teachings received from the apostles and handed on to other believers, who eventually recorded them in written form—and tradition which the Church values for its connections to the apostles, and through them, its connections to Jesus Christ himself.

This does not take into account questions some scholars have raised regarding the authorship of a number of books of the Bible. Wolterstorff’s concept of “appropriation” seems particularly pertinent here—it matters less precisely who authored the text, and more that God has appropriated it for his own, saying in essence, “this text reveals something about me,” and the Church has recognized it.

In the end, whether we realize it or not, our knowledge of God is tradition-based. Reason is based upon an understanding of the world passed down from one person to another. The experience of assurance offers no new content, but instead outlines who can and should participate in shaping the tradition of the Church, and is likewise spelled out in the Church’s tradition.

The Church’s tradition itself is based upon teachings passed down from one Christian to another, and the Scriptures are likewise products of an oral passing-down which was eventually placed on paper. God’s self-revelation, or at least the record of it, is thus also tradition-based.

What is not realized as often, however, is that the methods utilized by theological liberals are themselves the products of tradition, and traditions with a short pedigree at that. When theological liberals engage the world, they likewise do so from within the context of a tradition, a passed-down set of teachings like any other, whether it be Rationalism, Empiricism, Deconstructionism or Queer Theory.

Our ability to make sense of the world is thus tradition-based. The only question is whose tradition we will follow. Even the Baptists, Calvinists and Pentecostals who decry “tradition” are themselves heirs to a tradition, and look to that tradition for guidance on matters of teaching and interpretation. Likewise the modern Liberal Protestant.

Whose tradition? Vincent of Lerins’ maxim says it best: “That which has been believed by everyone, always and everywhere.” Where there is a question to be settled within the Christian family, the appeal should go to the tradition of consensus Christianity—to look for a time when Christians were united in belief on the issue. A consensus in the present day would also have a measure of authority, but if that consensus did not exist in previous eras, it would still not be the consensus of the Church.

Sowing for a Harvest: The Crown of the Christian Life

There is a poem by Rudyard Kipling entitled “The Gods of the Copybook Headings.” (A copybook was a book of lessons used in British education in the early 1900s, often focusing on moral proverbs, common-sense sayings, and Bible passages, in case you were wondering.) In the poem, there is a stanza which reads,

When the Cambrian measures were forming, They promised perpetual peace.
They swore, if we gave them our weapons, that the wars of the tribes would cease.
But when we disarmed They sold us and delivered us bound to our foe,
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: ‘Stick to the Devil you know.’

“Give peace a chance” has long been a rallying cry in some circles of politics—even when it seemed extremely unwise. During the Cold War, for the United States to disarm and offer no opposition to Communist countries’ maneuvers on the world stage would have been disastrous, in many minds. Yet the desire to be known as a peacemaker, to “make love, not war,” as the old hippy protest went, is a strong one. We even see it today, with President Obama’s usage of diplomacy to try to prevent Iran from pursuing its ambitions to manufacture nuclear weapons. Given remarks made by the Iranian government, this deal is probably doomed from the start, at best. Even if it does get ratified by Congress, we have a fair number of hints that Iran won’t honor the treaty.

It’s easy to write off ‘peace’—especially ‘world peace’—as a pipedream. There are some people who talk sneeringly of people who have their heads in the clouds and think that “if we just all join hands and sing ‘Kum Ba Yah,’ the world will be a better place.”

Yet it has been said of the Christian life, of life in the Holy Spirit, that Love is the foundation; Joy is the Superstructure; and Peace is the crown. In many ways, the three are closely related—as are all of the fruit of the Spirit. Love, joy and peace bleed into one another. The fruit of the Spirit are one harvest, and all come from the same Source.

When people in American society speak of peace, all too often they simply mean “everyone playing nice together.” Very rarely do we think beyond physical violence when we talk about peace.
And yet in the New Testament, the word we translate ‘peace,’ eirene, means so much more. Actually, in Greek usage before the New Testament, the word really did only mean ‘absence of war’ or freedom from physical conflict. But in the New Testament, eirene—from which we get words like ‘irenic’ and names like ‘Irene’—takes on the meaning of the Hebrew word Shalom. It is no longer simply about physical violence or conflict; it goes much deeper. ‘Peace’ in the Bible is about harmony and about restored relationship, about communities in total harmony with one another. Other words that help describe it are ‘tranquility’ and ‘serenity.’ God and man, Jew and Gentile, slave and free—no class barrier, no ethnic or racial barrier separates humanity from God, or from one another, in Jesus Christ.

Importantly, in both the Old and New Testaments, the Bible says that God is the source of all peace, and the center around which everything and everyone is in harmonious relationship. We read in our passage from Isaiah today that “There is no peace for the wicked.” Peace and harmony do not belong to those who break the relationship between themselves and God by their sins. In the Old Testament, peace and victory were consequences of obedience and faithfulness to God, of right relationship with God—by contrast, war, defeat and humiliation were the consequences of disobedience and of betraying God by our lives, words and deeds, of broken relationship with God. The message of salvation because of Jesus’ life, death and resurrection is the “gospel of peace.”

To help us understand further what peace is, we can first start off by saying what it is not.
Peace is not escapism. Some people get through life by ‘fleeing the world.’ It is hard to argue against having hobbies and enjoying the small things in life. But for some people, they are completely unaffected by what goes on around them simply because they choose to focus on other things. It may be a video game or fantasy world; it could be the party they’re going to tomorrow or next week; it could be a trip they plan on taking in a month. For these people, they get by life by ‘not getting messy,’ by not involving themselves with other peoples’ concerns. Peace as a fruit of the Spirit isn’t afraid to roll up its sleeves to help someone, nor is it afraid to get its hands dirty.

Peace is not detachment or a mellow, easy-going nature. Some people detach themselves from the world and take refuge in the realm of ideas. Others are just by nature mellow, taking an attitude to life something like the Lion King’s “Hakuna matata,” which, as you know, “means no worries for the rest of your days.” When the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001, I was a sophomore in college. For many people in my generation, 9/11 was a wake-up call that the United States of America wasn’t as invincible as we had grown up thinking. I have to admit, though, that I wasn’t really all that affected by the news. That was in New York, and I didn’t know anyone who was involved; all my family were safely in other parts of the country than New York or D.C. I didn’t let what happened on 9/11 bother me. This aggravated one of my friends, and he asked me point-blank, “Do you care about what happened?” Whether it was detachment, or mellowness, my reaction to 9/11 did not reflect peace as a fruit of the Spirit. It wasn’t necessarily wrong, but it was not peace, either.

Peace does not depend on external circumstances. There are a number of things which can superficially seem like peace. But peace as a fruit of the Spirit does not depend on the environment in which we live, or on what is going on around us. The Christian’s peace is the peace of his or her Lord, who slept on when his boat was tossed about in the midst of a storm in the Sea of Galilee. Many people think that if they just had the right circumstances, the right thing, that then they would have peace. And yet, every single time, those who chase after peace find that they miss it. Some people go to the monastery in the hope of finding peace; others move from the city to the country in the vain hope that a change of their environment will help them to find peace. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the city or in the country; it doesn’t matter whether you live in the monastery or just off Main Street. It only matters whether you live in God.

In John 14:27, we read Jesus say, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives.” The peace Jesus gives has little in common with the world’s concept of ‘peace.’ The world’s concept of peace may well be escapism or detachment, tranquility or absence of physical violence. But peace as a fruit of the Spirit is supernatural, and comes from a connection with God. Peace is something which our friends, enemies and governments cannot give us. The Christian life may well involve us in conflicts with people who reject the Lord Jesus’ claim upon their lives; overseas, especially in Asia, Africa and the Middle East, Christians do in fact get involved in conflicts with Muslims, animists, Hindus and others who deny Jesus Christ’s claim on them. But even in the midst of their conflicts, even when they are killed and martyred for their faith, God’s peace is still a reality for them. It is not peace as the world understands it; it is far more profound. So then what can we say about how we can find and keep the peace which comes from knowing God?

The Christian’s peace is based upon belief—upon trust. The Christian reads the words, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me”—and obeys. We Christians are secure in the knowledge that Jesus has “gone to prepare a place for” us in his Father’s house, which has many rooms. The metaphor he uses here relates to being taken into a family by marriage. In the first century, the practice was for a man to take his new bride and bring her to live with him in rooms or a wing of his father’s house. So the Church is the Bride of Christ, and Jesus Christ himself is the Bridegroom, and his Father’s house is heaven. Even though Jesus left when he ascended into heaven, the disciples would not be abandoned. We can trust this, too.

The Christian trusts that even though we may now be able to make sense of why everything happens on earth, the universe is in God’s hands. As the hymn says, “This is my Father’s world; why should my heart be sad? / The Lord is king, let the heavens ring; God reigns, let earth be glad.” Even more importantly, the Christian can say with the same hymn, “This is my Father’s world, O let me ne’er forget / That though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”

God is the ruler yet! Human freedom is real, but it has its limits. And as God is infinitely good, and infinitely powerful, the Christian believes that God won’t allow something to happen out of which nothing good can come. We may not be able to see it now, but, the Christian trusts, we will see how it all works out in heaven. If God, as the Bible says, knows every hair on our head and is aware of even the death of a sparrow, then we can trust that God will watch over us too. Even when our businesses go bankrupt, our employers lay us off and our dearest friends and family exit our lives, we can trust that God is still at work behind the scenes, watching over us and caring for us, and at the end of our lives, he will greet us and take us to be with him in heaven.

The Christian’s peace is based upon embracing his or her Father’s will. For some Christians, the closest we get to peace is resignation to the will of God. In the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.” Yet when God’s will and our will do not align, we may be angry with God, we may rebel and turn our backs on him; but eventually, by the grace of God, we accept it. Resignation is better than rebellion, but barely. You can see it in the tone of voice people use when they say, “I’m resigned to it now.” If they had the power to change it, they would. But they don’t…so they’re only accepting the inevitable.

There isn’t a whole lot of peace in resignation. But beyond resignation, there is conforming to God’s will. Paul spoke of it briefly in Romans 8, “Those whom he foreknew, he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son.” To be conformed is to be molded, reshaped. It implies effort and adjustment, a slow and laborious transformation. The whole process of growth in grace that Christians talk about is a process of being conformed to God’s will. We can see it in St Peter and St Paul. Peter, a blustering, brash fisherman before Pentecost, becomes the calm, collected leader of the newly-formed Christian movement; the man who denied Jesus three times during Jesus’ trial later boldly stood up to the same religious authorities who had crucified Jesus and said, “We must obey God rather than men!” Paul, who had hunted down early Christians and had them tried for blasphemy, became the chief apostle to the Gentiles—the non-Jews—and a man who gladly “poured out his life” as an offering before God.

We see this conforming in St Augustine, too. In his youth, he was an immoral man who had a mistress and a son by that mistress. Even though his mother was Christian, his father had been a pagan, and Augustine followed after his father. He dabbled in various forms of pagan religion—until he converted. After his conversion, he became one of the greatest defenders of the Christian faith in history, a bishop in the North African city of Hippo and the author of several classics on spirituality, including the Confessions and The City of God.

But conforming has a certain element of stiffness to it. It doesn’t look quite natural yet. Have you ever seen someone who has had plastic surgery? Particularly if the surgery was getting breast implants, it becomes fairly obvious that ‘work has been done.’ In someone who has had any sort of plastic surgery, the area often just doesn’t move quite right.

Past conforming, though, there is abandonment to the will of God. Accepting and participating in what God reveals as his will becomes second-nature at this point, and the stiffness vanishes. We see this in many Christians throughout history, but the Virgin Mary can speak for them all when she responded to the Annunciation with, “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord. Be it unto me according to your will.” At this stage, peace as a fruit of the Spirit has fully flowered in the soul. Where it seemed passive and perhaps wooden before, now the Christian seeks out God’s will and gladly participates, eager to see how God will work in his or her life.

The Sadhu Sundar Singh was once arrested for preaching the gospel in his native India. Convicted, they sentenced him to be left out overnight tied to a pole in the marketplace, with his body covered by leeches. When they came back in the morning, they expected to see him dead. But he was so calm and serene that they were convinced he was possessed by a supernatural power and released him immediately. Even though he was so faint from loss of blood that he had to crawl away, the Sadhu said that during that time he had “the most intense experience of inner peace.” God’s peace may find us wherever we are. The secret to it is simply keeping your eyes on Jesus—as Isaiah prophesies, “You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you.” Keep your thoughts on the God whom Jesus reveals, and then you will know peace.

Father of lights above

Father of lights above
And children of men below
Pour upon this world your love
And to us your lovingkindness show.
For apart from you our strength is weak,
Our lives frail, our spirits faint,
Our courage meek.
O grant us strength your will to seek.

Have mercy, O Lord, for our lives are passing mist;
Our best and brightest to the grave do go,
As surely as those whose lives have gone amiss.
Were not your mercies abounding, surely we would be captive to your foe.
Yet your love and mercy are without fail,
Overflowing our lives with grace;
The devil our foe struggles to no avail,
For your Spirit is our sword, our armor, our mail.

Sowing for a Harvest: The Gospel in a Word

Preached at Sugar Grove UMC, New Castle, IN on Sunday, April 12, 2015.

1 Corinthians 13:1-13, Galatians 5:22-26

St Mark 12:28-34

Have you ever heard this joke?  “You should never marry a tennis player.  To them, Love means Nothing.”  It’s something of a fault in the English language that “love” means so many different things.  When we find pleasure in a hobby, we say, “I love it!”  When we receive a gift from someone we care about, we say, “I love it!”  We use the word “love” to describe the relationship between a husband and wife, between a parent and child, between grandparents and grandchildren, between family members (between brothers, between sisters, siblings, and so on), between friends.  The Bible says David loved Jonathan, his friend, and that Naomi loved Ruth, her deceased husband’s mother.

We also use the word to describe the romantic attractions of two people involved in an affair.  We use the word to describe sexual desire.  When someone is infatuated and obsessed with another person, we say they are “in love.”  Some people excuse sin by saying, “Love is love.”  And this same word, we stretch to include the quality which motivated Jesus Christ to endure the cross.  We say with the gospel of John, “God so loved the world. . . .”  And we say too that we love God.  We say with one of John’s Epistles, “We love God because he first loved us. . . .”

There is a song that puts a verse from the First Epistle of John to music: “Love, love, love, love; the Gospel in a word is Love.  ‘Beloved, let us love one another; Beloved, let us love one another.’  Love, love, love, love…”

If you look at the Bible, you will find that the love of God for his people is a common thread tying the entire narrative together—first, Abraham and his family; then Israel; then Judah; finally, the Church.  In our Gospel lesson which I quoted a minute ago, Jesus himself says that the two greatest commandments are, in essence, “Love God; love your neighbor.”  In our Epistle lessons today, too, notice the way in which they overlap.

“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”  “Love is patient, love is kind.  It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.  It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.  Love never fails.”

And yet, we come back to what we mean by that word, ‘love.’  When the Bible talks about love, it actually has four different words that we translate ‘love.’  If you’ve ever read C.S. Lewis’ book The Four Loves, you probably know them.

The fourth ‘love’ is agape.  This is the love of which we speak when we say, “God so loved the world. . . .” and “The first and greatest commandment is this, love the Lord …the second is like it, love your neighbor.’  It is the love of God toward all humanity, but especially the ones he has saved through his Son, and it is the love of Christians toward God, in response to God’s love.  It is the love of which we sang a few minutes ago in the hymn “Love Divine, All Loves Excelling,” and so we can call it, ‘divine love.’  When the Bible talks about “love” as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, it is this ‘divine love’ which it has in mind.  When the Bible describes “love” in 1 Corinthians 13, it is agape which it describes.

It has been observed that each of the other fruit of the Spirit in the list in Galatians depend upon love, agape.  You can see it in the description of 1 Corinthians 13.  Love is patient.  Love is kind.  Love does not envy—goodness.  Love does not boast—gentleness.  Love is not self-seeking, is not easily angered—self-control.  Love rejoices in the truth—joy.  Love always protects, always trusts—peace.  Love always hopes, always perseveres; love never fails—faithfulness.

It is tempting to view Christianity as simply a set of things to believe (or to say you believe).  And yet as United Methodists, we believe there is more to it than that.  John Wesley once said, “Orthodoxy, or right [beliefs], is at best a slender part of religion.”  If ‘believing the right things’ was not joined by ‘loving the right things’ and ‘doing the right things,’ then we were really fooling ourselves.  “Faith without works is dead,” as the apostle James puts it.

Believing the right things is important, like a living being having a skeleton or a building having a solid foundation.  Doing the right things is also important—but loving the right things has to come before doing the right things, and that is what shows that Christians have new life in Christ.  As Christians, we are filled with God’s Spirit.  Just as God has planted his seeds in our hearts, so the fruit which grows out of that is the “fruit of the Spirit.”  These qualities which grow out of life with God are all based upon love—divine love, agape.  It is not natural for a man or woman to love God.  The Methodist Articles of Religion say that humanity “of his own nature is inclined to evil, and that continually.”  The Heidelberg Catechism, another Protestant confession of faith, puts it this way: “We are by nature inclined to hate God.”

So what does it look like to be characterized by love, as the Bible understands the word?  We can see it in a Christian’s love of God.  We can see it in a Christian’s love for his or her neighbors.  And, following Jesus’ command in St Matthew 5 (“Love your enemy, and pray for those who persecute you”), we can see it in the way in which a Christian loves the people who would seek to hurt him or her.

I—When we look at it in a Christian’s love for God, we have to remember that this love doesn’t mean ‘fair-weather friendship.’  A Christian loves God more than anyone else, and more than anything else.  Many people say that they love God.  Some aren’t sure whether they love God or hate him.  Others only love God as long as they can love other things, too.  In vain, they seek to prove Jesus wrong when he says, “No one can serve two masters, for you will end up loving one and hating the other.”  And still others love God for the ‘things’ which God brings them, for the success they enjoy or for the happiness they experience.  Yet we Christians are called to love God not for the gifts he gives, but for who he is.  The Russian Orthodox St Tikhon Zadonsky can speak for all Christians when he says, “Christ loved me for nothing, and I must love him for nothing too.”  ‘It is not your gifts I desire, but You,’ we say.

But the Christian truly loves God.  Even when the circumstances of life force them to choose, they say with Joshua, “As for me and my house, we will serve the LORD.”  This choice doesn’t always come; yet when it does, the Christian knows how to answer.  Henry Martyn can speak for all Christians here.  He had it all—a brilliant academic career at Cambridge University, followed by wide-open possibilities to any of a dozen careers which interested him.  Yet God called him to be a missionary, and so he put all of those other possibilities aside and set himself to training to be a missionary to India.  And then it happened—he met a wonderful girl named Lydia.  They hit it off, and talked of getting married.  Martyn told her that he was called to India, and asked her to come with him; together they would do great things for the LORD.  She refused.  If he stayed in England, she would marry him; but if he went to India, he would go alone.  He went to India.  “My dear Lydia and my duty called me different ways.  Yet God hath not forsaken me…I am born for God only.  Christ is nearer to me than father, or mother, or sister,” he wrote.  It doesn’t always come to the Christian that they have to choose in such obvious ways between God and other people or things.  But the Christian knows how to answer it—there is only one love in a Christian’s life, and it is the love of God.  No other love is so important.

II—Yet the Christian’s love for God is also reflected in their love for other people.  The Christian never tires of loving people, and of putting that ‘right affection’ into ‘right action.’  John Wesley spent fifty-three years of his life on horseback, preaching the Gospel to soot-stained miners and everyone else, and dying practically in the saddle.  He was a millionaire by his day’s standards, from the sale of so many books and tracts that he had authored.  And yet he committed to living on £100 a year from the time he was out of seminary until the day he died.  He gave the rest away to the poor.  That’d be like Rick Warren, megachurch pastor and author of The Purpose-Driven Life, living on $40,000 a year and donating the proceeds of his book sales to charity to the tune of millions of dollars—and Warren does that, too.

Christians never give up on other people.  Some people serve others as long as they are receiving some sort of positive feedback.  But as soon as people question their motives, they give up.  Not so the Christian—the Christian’s motivation is not their praise or disapproval.

A man once went on a business trip, back in the days before cell phones.  He got drunk, and he lost his wallet to boot.  He was hungry, tired and miserable; but he managed to find his way to a Catholic church.  There, he was given a warm meal and a place to stay while he made arrangements to get home again.  He had no money, no identification, and he wasn’t even a native of the city or likely to come back.  He was wary of the church’s motives, and finally he asked a nun sweeping in the cafeteria in which he was eating, “Okay, what’s the catch?  Why are you helping me?”  The nun simply pointed to a sign hanging over the entrance.  It read, “Caritas Dei.”  For the love of God.

III—There was an unspoken assumption in Jewish teaching of Jesus’ day that “love your neighbor” only extended to your fellow believers.  That’s why Jesus turned it on its head in the Gospels, saying, “You have heard it said…but I say to you, ‘love your enemy and pray for those who despitefully use you and persecute you.”  Christians are called to have no enemies of their own making; yet there are those who hate God, and those who follow God.  Sometimes they are within the church herself: pastors and officials who are jealous of the nearness to God they see in the Christian.  Sometimes, it is within the family, as the Indian Christian known as the Sadhu Sundar Singh found out when he converted.  His family, high-caste Brahmins in India, were scandalized by his conversion, and they mocked him, belittled him, persuaded him, and finally disowned him.  Yet the Sadhu held them no ill will, and even as he spent his first night homeless, wet and rained on with just a New Testament in hand, he said that was his first night in heaven.

And sometimes the hatred and persecution comes from outside.  A few short months ago, the terrorists of the Islamic State martyred 21 Coptic Christians, beheading them for their faith—yet not one of those martyrs raised a hand against their persecutors, and the name “Jesus” was on their lips as they died.  Not one person denied their faith.

One of the more famous examples, though, comes from the 100s A.D.  The Gardener Saint of Sinope, Phocas, was known for his hospitality.  He lived just outside the city, and would often invite complete strangers in to rest a while before they completed their journeys.  Yet when the Diocletian persecution broke out, he was placed on the list, and two Roman soldiers were sent to execute him.  They approached the city, and he invited them in as he often did.  He asked them their business in the city, and they thought he was trustworthy—they were looking for a man named Phocas.  He was a dangerous Christian; did he know of the man?  “I know him well,” Phocas said.  “Let’s attend to it in the morning.”  So it was that his guests went to sleep for the evening, and Phocas went outside to his garden to pray.  He dug, partially because it helped him to think and to focus on his prayers to God.  If he ran, he thought, he could be twenty miles away before dawn, and then he could hide with other Christians until the whole thing blew over.  Yet that would put those fellow Christians in danger.  And did Christ run from his Garden of Gethsemane?  He continued digging.  What about the Roman soldiers themselves?  They seemed decent enough people, just trying to do their jobs.  Would they or their families be punished if he escaped?  Finally, he made up his mind.  He had dug his own grave.

In the morning, he told them.  “I am he.”  The soldiers were horrified at the idea that their orders were to kill such a kind man.  But he overcame their reluctance for them.  He was not afraid to die, he said.  And think of your families, and your duty.  “I have only love in my heart for you.”

William Sangster concludes the illustration in his book The Pure in Heart, “A sword swept, and all that was mortal of Phocas mingled with the garden he had loved so well.  That is how the” Christian “loves—with heart and mind and soul and strength; and their neighbors as themselves.”