Sermon for 05-27-12: “In Case of Fire, Part 4: The Fruit of the Spirit”

May 31, 2012

When we talk about our lives bearing the “fruit of the Spirit,” we’re really talking about a lifelong process of change called sanctification. The Holy Spirit changes us inwardly, so that we can become people whose lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Becoming this kind of person is surely the key to happiness in life. But it’s hard! As I make clear in this sermon, however, the Holy Spirit does the heavy lifting.

Sermon Text: Galatians 5:1, 13-25

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

This week, on sports-talk radio, one unlikely athlete in an unlikely sport was the main topic of conversation. I’m referring to Lolo Jones. She’s one of the fastest hurdlers in the world, and she’s competing this summer at the Olympics in London. She made news last week not for her athletic prowess or because she was involved in an embarrassing scandal, but because of something she told an interviewer on HBO Sports: This 29-year-old single woman is a virgin. She’s a Christian who is waiting until marriage to have sex.

Olympic athlete Lolo Jones made news in a good way last week.

All the sports-talk radio hosts were amazed by this. They were like, “Google her, if you don’t know who she is. She’s hot!” Typical guy-talk. What they really meant was, “How could this bright, attractive young woman, who seems to be so normal in every way, still be a virgin? She isn’t weird at all!”

Lolo Jones wants the world to know that it’s not impossible—or weird—to wait. It’s what Christians are supposed to do. It’s a part of what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus. Our sexually confused culture needs the witness of faithful Christians like her.

Jones said something in the interview that couldn’t have been less surprising. She said waiting was hard. It was harder, she said, than training for the Olympics. It was harder than graduating from college. It was, in fact, the hardest thing she’s ever done.

To which I say, “Of course it’s hard!” You know what else is hard? Loving people. That’s often hard. And you know what else is hard? Being joyful. Being peaceful. Being patient. Being kind. Being generous. Being faithful. Being gentle. And, as Lolo Jones would surely agree, having self-control. These virtues are hard.

Please notice I’m not calling these virtues “fruits” of the Spirit. There are no “fruits” of the Spirit. And some of you are probably like, “What do you mean? Aren’t there nine different fruits—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control?” No. Paul isn’t talking about “fruits” of the Spirit, as if there were different kinds of fruit from which we pick and choose—“I really like oranges, but I’m not a big fan of bananas, so I think I’ll leave that in the bowl.” No! There’s only one fruit, Paul says. and here’s what it looks like. It has these nine characteristics. The point is, if we are faithfully following our Lord Jesus, a byproduct in our lives is that all these virtues will spring up together.

Unlike some of you, I’m not a gardener. My father-in-law, Orlando—he’s a gardener. He only grows a few things these days—tomatoes are his specialty—but back when Lisa was young, he used to grow a lot of things. When Lisa was a kid, he could feed the entire subdivision from his garden. One summer when Lisa was young, Orlando was traveling on business, and while he was away, he put Lisa, her brother Frank, and her mom, Anna Lee, in charge of the garden. They did not have green thumbs. One night when he was on his trip, a terrible storm blew through. And when they woke up the next morning, they discovered, to their horror, that all of the dozens of stalks of corn had tipped over and fallen to the ground! The wind and rain had knocked them down! What were they going to do? Orlando would be so disappointed! And it happened on their watch.

So Lisa, Frank, and Anna Lee spent hours in the garden that day, trying desperately to get the corn stalks to stand back up! Lisa tells me that they would mound up dirt along the sides of the stalks, in order to stabilize the base. And the moment they got them standing up again, one stalk would tip over and—like a domino effect—knock the rest of them down again. Lisa doesn’t curse now, and I’m sure she didn’t curse back then—but her mother tells me that Lisa had some harsh words for those corn stalks! She was pleading with them: “Please cooperate and stand back up!”

Alas, the hours they spent in the garden that day were in vain. These stalks of corn kept falling down. They had failed to take care of Orlando’s garden. He was going to be so disappointed.

The next morning, Lisa, Frank, and Anna Lee got up, looked outside—and guess what? The corn stalks were standing tall once again. Who knew that they would do that—on their own? Without any human intervention?

Well, God knew. He planned it that way when he created corn. And Orlando knew! When he got home from his trip, they told him what happened, and he said, “Yeah, that’s what corn does. It falls down; it stands back up. No big deal.”

Brothers and sisters, growing the fruit of the Spirit in our lives is a lot like this. Think of all the work that Orlando put into growing that corn—digging the soil, making composte, fertilizing the soil, seeding, watering, spraying for bugs… And later harvesting. Sweating in the hot summer sun, day after day. This work is the equivalent of what we Christians do when, for example, we forgo sleeping in or other activities on Sunday morning, get up early, and come to worship each week; or when we wake up earlier than we have to each morning and spend time in prayer; or when we make Bible-reading a regular part of our routine; or when we commit to a 34-week Disciple Bible study; or when we give up a week of vacation and go on a mission trip somewhere; or when we take 10 percent of our income and give it to the Lord as a tithe, trusting that somehow the ends will still meet at the end of the month; or when we give up a week in the summer to volunteer for Vacation Bible School, as people in our church will be doing next week. It’s hard work.

But all we’re really doing, in Dr. Don Martin’s words, is stacking firewood, adding the kindling, and trusting that it will catch. The Holy Spirit is the only One who can make it burn.

Lisa, Frank, and Anna Lee couldn’t do anything on their own to save those corn stalks. But while they were sleeping—when they were doing nothing at all—voila! Problem solved. The corn stalks stood back up. It’s a amazing, isn’t it? Practically a miracle.

Do you dare believe that the Holy Spirit wants to work this kind of miracle in your life? Do you dare believe, in other words, that the Holy Spirit wants to change you into a more loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle, and self-controlled person? He does! In fact, this sort of thing happens all the time in the life of us Christians. Or at least it ought to.

I have a friend who is a faithful Christian and a breast-cancer survivor. And more than a few of her friends have noticed that since she underwent a mastectomy and radiation and chemo, she is, like, the most easy-going, optimistic, happy-go-lucky person in the world! It’s awesome. She was sharing a prayer concern with me recently, and I said, “So, are you worried about this?” And she laughed at me! She sort of brushed me off like it was the most ridiculous question ever. She said, “No! I don’t worry anymore. Life’s too short!” In a way, her experience with cancer taught her not to worry. But that’s not quite right… Through her experience with cancer, the Holy Spirit taught her not to worry. The Holy Spirit set her free from the sin of worry. And worry is a sin because it springs from a lack of faith. She is a more faithful person today than she was before cancer. And it’s because of the Holy Spirit.

Brothers and sisters, when we talk about the fruit of the Spirit, what we’re really talking about is the Holy Spirit changing us from within. There is an absolutely awful bumper sticker I’ve seen that reads, “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.” Have you seen it? I guess it’s a way of apologizing to the world for the many, many ways that we Christians fail to live up to the example of Jesus. And we need to apologize for that, I’m sure.

But, like most bumper-sticker theology, it’s really bad. Because while it’s absolutely true that through the atoning work of Jesus’ death on the cross, we are able to find forgiveness and reconciliation with God through faith, we are by no means just forgiven! John Wesley would roll over in his grave to think that anyone who calls himself a Methodist would believe that!

Being forgiven of our sins, while absolutely necessary for salvation, is just the beginning of salvation. If sin is a problem, then God needs to not only forgive us our sin, but actually solve the problem of sin in our lives. If sin is a problem, it would be less-than-loving for God to forgive our sin without giving us the necessary resources to overcome the sin that is still a part of our lives! If sin is a problem, then we are not fully and finally saved until God has gotten rid of sin in  our lives—completely! If we remain faithful to Jesus, he’s going to do just that, sooner or later. When we are on the other side of resurrection, God will make us into the kind of people whose lives are characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

But we don’t have to wait until then to get started on becoming those people!

When I was ordained a couple of years ago, the bishop asked me the same question that John Wesley used to ask his preachers: “Do you expect to be perfected in this lifetime?” Being perfected means being without sin.

There is one and only one right answer to this question if you hope to be ordained. Do you know what that answer is? Yes. Yes, I expect to be perfected in this lifetime. So you know what I said? I said yes! Do you think my fingers were crossed when I said it? I hope I wasn’t lying when I said it. What about Dr. Martin? Do you think he was lying when he said it.

The point is, we believe in the power of the Holy Spirit to change us. This process of change, which, in theological terms, is called “sanctification,” is the journey that all of us who profess faith in Jesus Christ are currently on.

I said earlier that this kind of change—this new way of living, this new orientation, this new outlook on lifewas hard. And it is. Change is hard. I don’t like it. I spent all day yesterday with some friends moving furniture out of my mom’s house—the house I grew up in. We’re going to have an estate sale and get the house ready to go on the market. And you know what? I don’t like it. For 42 years of my life, no matter where I was in the world, I always had this place on Peppermint Court in Tucker, Georgia, that was home to me. I could always go back there and think, “This is what home feels like.” I wish I could just preserve the house as a museum and visit it whenever I wanted that feeling, but I know I can’t. I’m instead about to close yet another chapter in my life. Change is hard. But it’s also good for me. And it’s necessary. And something good is going to come from it. I know that.

In the same way, the kind of changes that God will make in our lives are hard. But they’re good for us. And they’re necessary. And something good is going to come from them.

Besides, in the long run… You know what’s harder than changing? Not changing. Not becoming a person whose life is characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. You know—you just know—that the key to happiness in life is found in these words. You know you want to be that kind of person! If only it were possible! If only we could be those kinds of people.

Brothers and sisters, we can. And we will.

Holy Spirit, make it so.

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