When I meet new people and they ask what I do for work, there are a few typical responses. The first is that people will tell me about their own faith. Those are good conversations. The second is just awkward silence. Maybe the person will say “oh, that’s interesting” and change the subject. But the third is what is always the most entertaining: people will tell me, in great detail, and with varying degrees of hostility, why they are not religious.
That’s fine. I listen, but I rarely give them the fight they are looking to have. But there’s one argument I hear often that I just never understand. People tell me that Christianity is all about the church trying to control people. They say faith is just about people telling other people what they cannot do.
That always entertains me because, as you know, if I tried to tell this congregation what it could not do, I probably wouldn’t be here very long. I suspect that is true for most clergy. That’s good. Because the job of the church is not to forbid people from doing things.
Instead, it’s about teaching Christ’s message. And it’s about sharing a Gospel that is not about control, but is about possibility. It’s not about making people prisoners of religion, but helping them to find freedom in God’s grace.
Today’s reading is about that. This passage from the Epistle to the Galatians. Paul had come to this community and he had taught the people there all about God, and Jesus, and God’s love for them. Paul had taught a Gospel of grace. He had taught them about Jesus, a man whose compassion and love for the world had transformed the world. And he had taught them about being his disciples.
And then, after he left to go on and start other churches, the Galatians had been on their own. And that’s when other teachers had come to the church. And they started telling the Galatians, “you’re doing it all wrong”. And there wasn’t a Bible at this point, because it hadn’t been compiled yet. But there was the law of Moses, the law that the Jewish community had followed for centuries. And most Christians at the very beginning had been raised in that law and saw that as the authority. The Galatians were Gentiles, and so they didn’t know about it. And so these new teachers were saying to the Galatians, “the law clearly says this is what you should do.”
And so, this church that had been taught about grace and about Christ’s love by Paul, all of a sudden was adopting the ways of their new teachers. And they were doing things like arguing about whether they should all get circumcised, and whether or not they had to prepare their food a certain way. And it was causing a rift in this new church.
Paul hears about it, and he writes this letter. And this letter is probably the angriest letter that Paul sends to any of the churches.. He tells the Galatians, “look, I know the law”. Paul had been a lawyer, he had been raised in a family that followed the law, and he had been so committed to it that he had even persecuted the early church before his own conversion. He even says, “look, I was a zealot”. And he tells them this to show them that if anyone is going to say to them “Scripture clearly says” or “the law clearly says” he would know better than anyone.
Paul was speaking to a church 2,000 years ago. But, his words could just as easily speak to churches everywhere today. Because that misconception I talked about early on, about people who think religion is about control? That didn’t come from nowhere. There are indeed churches who teach Christian faith that way.
But Paul tells us that that’s not what following Christ is all about. Instead he talks about faith as getting free. He lists a number of things that can hold us back: anger, fighting, jealousy, idolatry, and more. And he tells us that those are the things that make us less free. They hold us back. They tie us down.
Instead, he says, we are called to turn away from those things. Not because someone is making us, but because when we do, new life is promised to us. Paul talks about how the Scriptures condemn these things because they “enslave” us. They don’t tell us not to do these for no reason. Instead they give us warning signs to help guide us in a better direction, and out of captivity. They unchain us.
In other words, this faith is not about being controlled. It is about learning how to turn away from what controls us.
Paul even gives us a way of knowing that we have been unchained. These are the directional signs that tell us we are going the right way. He talks about something called the “fruits of the Spirit”.
Here’s the list of those fruits: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
In short, things that almost all of us wish we had, and wish we exhibited to others.
Nothing on that list is about control. These fruits of the Spirit are the fruits of freedom. These are the signs that we have given ourselves, not to the law, but to the Gospel. They are the good and outward signs that Christ is growing within us.
And, like any fruit, they are signs that we have been planted in good soil.
I didn’t realize how much soil mattered to producing good fruit until I lived in Vermont. One of my favorite places to go fly fishing there was a stream in the Green Mountain National Forest near where I lived.
It was way out in the woods. And as you followed the dirt roads further into the woods, you would pass these old cemeteries filled with those who are long dead and whose descendants have moved on. There was this old schoolhouse, unused for a hundred years, sat on the side of the road. The once lively towns have been officially dissolved by the state. The bitterly cold and rocky terrain simply proved too difficult to live in, even for the heartiest of Vermonters. And that’s saying a lot.
But if you drove a little further, there was an orchard full of apple trees. Some farmer planted them in the 1800s, and they still bear fruit. Today they are allowed to remain because they provide ready food for the bears and other area wildlife to eat.
I am always amazed by that. Long after human beings gave up on the land and moved on, somehow those same acres manage to bear fruit every fall. The people who planted it, and their children, and grandchildren even, are all dead. But the soil is not. It feeds the trees, and each year a bounty comes once again.
That’s the power of good soil. It is always capable of rejuvenation and growth. Because of good soil in our lives, what is planted in it can remain a source of blessing for others long after our life is over.
It’s the same way with the fruits of the Spirit. They grow in us because first we cultivate good soil. We make room in our soul for God to plant these things, and if we give them good soil, they will grow. They will be the fruits of our spiritual lives. They will be the organic byproducts that come when we choose another way. They are signs of our freedom.
That’s one reason why I believe cultivating good soil is so important. It’s one reason that I’ve invited you all to join me on the New Testament Challenge this summer. I’ve been encouraged to see how many of you have taken me up on that. That’s wonderful because that means that together we are cultivating rich, spiritual soil.
It’s also important because this morning we are once again celebrating a baptism in our church. Scarlett is going to join the larger family of God, and we are going to make promises to help raise her in the faith. Like every young person here, she needs people who bear these spiritual fruits in their lives. We are called to be her examples of faith.
And so, may we bear good fruit. Not because we have to. Not because anyone is telling us we must. But because Christ’s love and grace have touched us so deeply that we can do nothing less. Amen.