This is part of a series of sermons at St. Thomas' largely based upon Tom Wright's book 'Virtue Reborn.'
What would you say is the best known chapter in the Bible? My guess would be 1 Cor 13. It’s the chapter so often chosen by couples to have read at their wedding. But in fact it has nothing to do with weddings, apart from being about love, that is. Paul writes about love in the context of addressing the Corinthians’ desire to show just how spiritual they are. They think the way to show that you’re spiritual is to exercise some spiritual gift, especially the gift of tongues. Well, in ch. 12 Paul discusses the various gifts of the spirit, suggesting a hierarchy of gifts where tongues is way down the bottom. But then he goes on to suggest an even more excellent way to show how spiritual you are. That is, by demonstrating the Christian virtue of love, to which he adds faith and hope.
And from the description he gives it becomes clear that first of all this isn’t just a rule to obey or a principle for life but a virtue that will take a lot of work to develop. He lists a series of characteristics that go with or are absent from love. “4Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth. 7It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” You hear that sort of list and you think, “You’d have to be a saint to live up to that wouldn’t you?” Well, of course, that’s the point, isn’t it? This is a list for saints; that is, for those who have been set apart for God’s kingdom.
So how are you shaping up in your growth in love? Are you always patient and kind? Never insist on your own way? Never irritable, or resentful? Personally, I prefer not to take that test, because I know I’d fail. There are some things I have difficulty in believing or hoping for, some things that I find very hard to endure and the other bits are so hard to do consistently.
That’s why love is a virtue: because it takes a lot of practice; because it’s a language to learn; a musical instrument to master; a long journey to be taken on foot, a pilgrimage.
I assume you realise that I’m talking here, not about the sort of romantic love portrayed in our popular media, but the sort of self-giving, godly love we see exhibited in the life of Jesus, who gave up all he had to bring us salvation.
This sort of love, this agape love, is one of the things that will never wear out, if I manage to master it. It’s a characteristic that provides a real anticipation of what it will be like to be made truly human once more. This sort of love gives us a taste of life in God’s kingdom, when the last day dawns.
Paul ends the chapter on love by contrasting the transitory nature of spiritual gifts with the permanence of the three great Christian virtues, faith, hope and love. He says prophecies and tongues and words of knowledge will pass away: because they’ll be redundant when Jesus returns to take us to be with him.
You know in some places people still put a huge value on these gifts, like tongues and prophecy and words of knowledge as though they show a person’s spiritual maturity so much better than the ordinary disciplines of Christian living. But Paul is saying no, the ordinary disciplines of love and faith and hope are the ones that will last; that’ll prepare us for life with God.
He says it’s like the way a child prizes their favourite toys, their marbles or their dolls; but then one day they grow up and become adults and those childhood toys are forgotten, replaced by adult interests. But if now we work on lasting virtues we’ll never lose them. I heard a musician being interviewed during the week about her guitar playing and she said that she started playing guitar at the age of 5. Now she’s playing with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. The things she worked on as a child were skills that would last.
But that leads us to the question of how do we develop these primary virtues of faith, hope and love and all the other Christian virtues that go with them?
Well we begin to see the answer to that question when we think about the way the Holy Spirit helps us, not with gifts, but with fruit.
In Gal 5:16-26 Paul addresses this question in the context of the Jewish law: He says “16Live by the Spirit, I say, and do not gratify the desires of the flesh… 18if you are led by the Spirit, you are not subject to the law.”
Now he isn’t saying we can ignore the law, rather that if we live the way the Holy Spirit leads us to live then we’ll fulfil the law without realising it. But how do we do that? Well he shows by a series of negatives then by a series of positives.
First he says we should not gratify the desires of the flesh. For Paul “the flesh” is that which is opposed to God and which will in the end corrupt us. In the end the flesh will be destroyed and only the spiritual will remain. Look at the list he gives of the sorts of behaviour that come from the “flesh”: “fornication, impurity, licentiousness, 20idolatry, sorcery, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions, 21envy, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.” You can see why he says we should get rid of these things can’t you? He hardly needs to add “those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” But he does because it’s that perspective of a coming kingdom that should motivate us to change our behaviour. It’s that perspective that makes us different from the rest of humanity.
If you think about it those sorts of behaviour are the way people try to divert themselves from the reality of a future life. If you submerge yourself in fornication, licentiousness, drunkenness and carousing you don’t need to think about future realities. If your mind is focused on your anger, on your disputes with your neighbours or your workmates, if you’re bottled up by envy and jealousy, you don’t have space to think about more permanent issues. And of course it works in reverse as well. If you only care about this life then why not do whatever you want to and just ignore the consequences?
But the result is that we become less than we were meant to be as human beings. We’re meant to bear God’s image but the desires of the flesh war against that intention, undermine it.
“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” That is, if you do those sorts of things the law will be satisfied. In fact the law would be very pleased if we all lived like that.
So should we expect that everyone who becomes a Christian would immediately begin to show that sort of behaviour, simply because God’s Spirit dwells within them? Of course not. We’d hopefully see some change but this is fruit we’re talking about. Fruit only seems to grow all by itself. In reality it depends a lot on what the gardener does with the tree. I’ve had fruit trees growing in pots for years without getting any fruit at all. Then I planted them in good soil and they took off. I recently put some new plants in my garden but I haven’t yet seen any flowers or fruit because they’re still settling in, putting down roots.
I was reminiscing with my sister last week about how good the peaches were that we had in the back yard when we were growing up. We had an old tree that we’d climb on a summer’s evening and sit on one of the branches picking fruit from the tree and eating it. But every autumn my father and I would get out in the backyard and dad’d prune the branches of the peach trees while I collected the cuttings and threw them in the incinerator. It wasn’t a job I particularly liked but if we hadn’t pruned them those peach trees wouldn’t have born the lovely juicy fruit that we loved so much.
It’s the same with us as Christians. We need to put down roots into the soil of the gospel. We need to feed on God’s word so we can grow good fruit. We need to prune off those parts of our lives that are unproductive or counterproductive. We need to keep an eye out for the diseases and parasites that’ll ruin our fruit. Young Christians may need to be supported in the early years so they grow straight and strong.
And in case you think I’m making too much of how much work we need to do to produce this fruit, notice the last of his long list of fruit: “self-control.” Self-control is needed because to grow this fruit requires discipline and hard work. He adds: “24And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” There’s an element of death in the Christian’s growth to maturity, an element of merciless commitment to success. In Colossians 3:5 he says “Put to death whatever in you is earthly.” If there are things in your life that are at war with the Spirit put them to death. If we live by the Spirit, he says, let’s also be guided by the Spirit, not by those things that are at war with the Spirit.
I was talking to Ivy this week about the sorts of lifestyle Christians lead today and we asked the question, how different are our lives from those around us? Someone once asked, “If you were arrested for being a disciple of Christ, would they find enough evidence against you to convict you?”
This is the issue isn’t it? If you’re headed for heaven and you know it, shouldn’t your behaviour be different from those who have no idea where they’re going, who have no real concept of God? If we have those 3 primary virtues of Faith Hope and Love then the rest should flow naturally. Faith gives us the solid foundation on which to base our lifestyle. Hope points us to the future kingdom of God so we can begin to practice kingdom living here and now. And love is the spring from which most of the other fruit flow.
By the way, notice that all three of these are focussed outside ourselves. This is another place where our lives should be in great contrast to the rest of humanity. In a world where self-absorption seems to be the norm we need to be seen to be always outward looking. Can you see how this is so? Faith is centred in God, in what God, in Jesus, has done for us or has promised he will do for us. Hope looks forward to what God has stored up for us in his kingdom. Love, agape love, is by definition an outward focussed love, towards God and our neighbour.
Before we move on from the 3 virtues and the 9 fruit I just wanted to point out that when Paul speaks of fruit he does it in the singular. These are 9 characteristics that go together. It’s no good saying “I’m loving and joyful and peaceful but I don’t think patience is my thing, or generosity.” “I’m good at faithfulness and kindness but I find gentleness and self-control a bit too hard.” No, all the fruit are expected of every Christian, just as every Christian is expected to have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.
I mentioned earlier when I was filling out that metaphor of fruit being grown, that sometimes a young tree needs to be supported; a stake needs to be put next to the tree to help it grow straight and strong. Well God is very gracious to us. He’s actually planted us in a place with built-in stakes to support us.
Just imagine what it would be like to live in a place where the normal habits of life were those Paul describes as ‘of the flesh’; where immorality, anger, jealousy, factions, etc. were the norm. What would you expect a young person to grow up like? But then imagine growing up in a community where the normal habit of life is patience, kindness, gentleness, love, joy peace, self-control. What would you expect a young person to grow up like then? C.S. Lewis in his book “The Great Divorce” describes entering hell and discovering that it’s a normal looking piece of suburbia except that all the houses are empty apart from one here and there. He discovers that the houses are empty because people couldn’t bear living near their neighbours, because they were always quarrelling and fighting with each other, so they’d moved away from these other people who were impossible to get along with.
Sadly there are a few Churches like that. But there shouldn’t be, should there? We should be living examples of communities that work together to support one another in our growth to maturity, to full blown Christian virtue.
That brings us to our 3rd element, one body. In his letter to the Philippians Paul puts it like this: “1If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. (Phil 2:1-4) Then he goes on to say they should have the same mind among themselves that was in Jesus Christ who gave himself up for their sake. He says a similar thing in Eph 4: “1I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, 5one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all. (Eph 4:1-6)
God has put us into his church so we can work together; so we can love one another; so we can help the weak among us to become strong; so we can show to the world around us that his power can change lives. He calls us to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Notice that? The bond of peace is like the string that ties the young tree to something stronger to help it grow until it too is ready to support another.
How can we develop the 3 great Christian virtues and the 9 fruit in our lives? By making sure we bind ourselves together with others who are seeking similar growth in godliness. We’ll look at this some more in two weeks’ time.
The writer to the Hebrews says “24And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” (Heb 10:24-25) Our church life is critical in our ability to grow to maturity, to develop Christian virtue. Your presence here on a Sunday may be critical to the growth of some other person here. So when you’re tempted to skip our Sunday gathering remember that someone else may be depending on your encouragement in their Christian life, even if you don’t realise the effect you’re having on them; and this may be the week when they need it most.
Christian virtue, fruit of the Spirit and our unity as the body of Christ are a package deal. You can’t have one without the other. Each one builds on the other. And all three lead us towards the new creation. Next week we’ll discover that this new creation living has an apologetic thrust. As a church we become a missionary body proclaiming to the world that God is making all things new and the evidence for that is the way we live and grow together in holiness.