Scripture: Luke 13:6-9
One of the things that amazes me most about people is that we will make anything a competition. Seriously, anything. If there is some way to do the thing bigger, faster, or better than someone else then it will be a competition somehow. And if it is a competition, then there will be a group of people who take that thing very, very seriously. For confirmation that we will make anything a competition, we do not need to look any further than the world of competitive vegetable growing. This is absolutely a thing, and there are people who take it incredibly seriously. The United Kingdom for instance has a National Giant Vegetable championship. There gardeners compete in thirty-three different categories of vegetables. This includes cucumbers that can approach three feet. You can also find radishes the size of small children as well as cabbage that requires team lifting. Of course, this is not just some sort of British oddity. Across the pond we Americans get in on this too. Giant pumpkins tend to do particularly well in American climates and soil. The Wisconsin Giant Pumpkin Growers (which is not something I made up), has an annual competition and last year two gentlemen won with a pumpkin that weighs more than a ton. That pumpkin, incidentally, at 2,283lbs is still 359 pounds smaller than the world record holder.
The people who grow giant vegetables take it seriously because they have to. To make a vegetable a monster requires a lot of work. Obviously it starts with the right seeds, but award winning giant vegetables requires more than just planting the right seeds in the ground. These vegetables require ideal soil conditions, a lot of pruning, hyper-vigilance from pests, and near constant watering. The level of maintenance and care required to grow giant vegetables goes far beyond even how much normal gardening requires. The results of this effort though are literally enormous.
Growing giant vegetables requires a lot of extra effort, but all gardening requires some amount of maintenance and effort. There are a lot of people who find gardening to be an enriching and satisfying experience. I think one of the reason why growing vegetables brings joy is because it is a task where the effort we invest has visible and tangible results. We, quite literally, can enjoy the fruit of our labor. This connection is probably why Jesus was very fond of using produce related metaphors. The short, and often overlooked parable, we read this morning is just one of the many such metaphors we find throughout the scripture. All of these parables about fruit and vegetables touch on a couple of fundamental questions such as how should following Jesus impact life?
Lent is meant to be a time when we commit as both individuals and as a community to take our faith more seriously. If we are going to be serious about our faith, then we have to know our faith. To those ends, throughout Lent on Sunday mornings we are going to focus on the core beliefs of faith. We are going to focus on the core beliefs shared by Christians, as well as those ways the Methodist tradition uniquely emphasizes those beliefs. Today we are going to focus on a belief that is found throughout scripture, and it is one that John Wesley put a lot of emphasis on. Today, we are going to focus on spiritual fruit.
Again, the concept of spiritual fruit is one that runs deep through the bible. In Christianity today, and in Methodism in particular, this idea of spiritual fruit has taken on a deep meaning. It has moved from a simple metaphor to one of deep religious significance. Given that, it is vitally important that we define what is meant by “fruit of the Spirit.” This metaphor of spiritual fruit can be understood in two ways.
The first way that we can understand the Fruit of the Spirit is in the type of fruit the spirit produces. I do not know about you, but I learned all about this at elementary school church camp, where those counselors taught the song: “The fruit of the spirit is not a cheery, no the fruit of the spirit is not a cherry, if you want to be a cherry you might as well hear it, you can’t be a fruit of the spirit. Because the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness and self-control.”
This list of the fruit of the Spirit is found in the fifth chapter of Galatians. The idea presented there by Paul is that if we are living as faithful followers of Jesus then through the Holy Spirit then these fruit will be made manifest in our lives. Our hearts and souls will be fertile soil where these fruit can grow. Again, this is more than metaphor. Following Jesus as Lord and Savior should fill us with the Holy Spirit, and being full of the Spirit our lives should be transformed. Essentially, through the work of the Spirit in our lives we should become more loving people, more joyful people, more patient people, kinder people, and more faithful people than we were before we met Jesus. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control are the seeds that grow to create a vibrant and fruitful faith.
If the list of attributes are the seeds for various types of spiritual fruit that can grow in our lives, then good works are the tangible fruit that those seeds grow into. This is the second way to understand the concept of spiritual fruit, and it is a way of understanding confirmed by Methodist doctrine. Article X of the United Methodist articles of religion states, “We believe good works are the necessary fruits of faith . . .We believe good works, pleasing, and acceptable to God in Christ, spring from a true and living faith, for through them and by them faith is made evident.”
When it comes to spiritual fruit as a core belief there are three things to really unpack and highlight from that doctrinal statement. First, it states good works, the fruit of faith, spring from a true and living faith. The basis for this belief is also found in scripture, in yet another gardening metaphor. In the gospel of John Jesus tells his disciples: “I am the vine and you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit apart from me you can do nothing.” Our ability to do good in a meaningful, lasting way is completely dependent upon our faith which is a belief if in the saving grace made known by Jesus Christ. I should clarify what I mean here. Clearly, there are people who do not profess a belief in Christ that are capable of doing good and meeting the needs of those around them. However, when believers in Jesus, who are filled, with the holy spirit do good then it has potential to be meaningful and lasting in an eternal way. When we serve others, when we have compassion for others, and when we provide care for others from a place that is based in our faith then we connect people to Jesus.
This all comes together to create a beautiful image full of truth. Jesus is the vine, we are the branches connected to him. Through Christ, we are filled with the Holy Spirit which cultivates the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control to grow in our lives. These fruits of the spirit into the good works we do. A good tree produces good fruit, and when the fruit of our lives are good works that come as a result of our connection to Jesus then that is the best fruit. Those who are the recipients of our actions should get a taste of God’s goodness, grace, and love through interacting with us. Just like the analogy used in this morning’s scripture, all Christians should be fruit trees that produce a good fruit that reflects the goodness of our Lord and Savior.
The second element to highlight from the doctrinal statement is that through and by this spiritual fruit our faith is made evident. In other words they will know we our Christians by our love-but also by our joy, our patience, our kindness, our self-control, and the good works that are the natural result of those attributes. Spiritual fruit is the evidence that God is at work in us and through us. Recognizing the evidence of spiritual fruit as a confirmation of God’s work in and through a person’s life has deeply Methodist roots. John Wesley, being a product, of 18th century English culture was resistant to the idea of women preaching. However, as the Methodist movement grew he found that women were some of the best leaders of the classes and bands. Some of these women, full of the Holy Spirit, began preaching. The fruit was evident, hearts were changed, souls were saved, and disciples were made because of their words. Wesley wrested with his traditional understanding, but in the end he could deny the fruitfulness of their preaching ministry. He reasoned, it could only be fruitful if the Spirit were part of it. Recognizing this fruit as “an extraordinary call” and as “permission from God”, Wesley licensed Sara Crosby and Mary Bosanquet to be Methodist preachers in 1771. They were the first of many godly women, upon whom God had a special calling, to be ordained as preachers in the Methodist tradition. This continues today and we are blessed with many pastors who are women where the fruit of their work is evident.
The final element of the doctrinal statement to highlight is the beginning: “We believe good works are the necessary fruits of faith.” Notice it does not say the potential fruits of faith, it says the necessary fruits of faith. We are saved by faith and not by works, but as we explored last week our faith is meant to change us. Following Jesus as Lord and Savior is to transform us and as we are transformed, we then transform the world. If we are following Jesus then we are going to have compassion for others the way Jesus did, we are going to serve others the way Jesus did, and we are going to put others before ourselves. Again, the desire to do this should grow out of connection with Christ, it should grow by the power of the Holy Spirit through the spiritual fruit attributes, and it should reach fruition in our good deeds. If we are connected to Jesus then our spiritual fruit should be making disciples and transforming the world to be a more loving, kinder, and forgiving place. This cannot be understated, if we are not doing that, then we are not fully connected to our savior.
In the particular gardening analogy that we read this morning, that is the warning. The fig tree is not producing fruit, and it is in danger of being removed. However, this scripture also shows the patience that Jesus has with us by giving the tree one more year. This morning’s scripture has a bit of a sharp edge to it as it really causes us to ask ourselves tough questions. It causes us to ask ourselves what kind of fruit tree are we? Are we one that bears fruit or not?
The good news is that if we have an earnest and heart felt faith in Christ, then we can easily be fruitful. Much like the monster plants that win competitions, we can even bear truly enormous fruit. However, we are not going to do that by accident. Our lives will not bear fruit if we spend most of our lives watching a TV or scrolling down a phone screen. Just like gardeners are intentional about growing plants, and take purposeful steps to get the harvest they want, the same is true for spiritual fruit in our lives. United Methodist Bishop and author Robert Schnase writes in his book “Five practices of Fruitful living” that “The fruitful, God related life develops with intentional and repeated attention.”
So if you want to bear fruit, then bear fruit. Love others the way that God has loved you. Be patient with others the way that God is patient with you. Be gentle to others the way the man was in this morning’s scripture was by giving the fig tree one more year. If you consider yourself a Christian, if Jesus is your Lord and Savior, then not only can you bare fruit that makes disciples and transforms this world, you should be. May you do so, may you commit to intentionally doing good based in a charitable heart and Christian love for the benefit of others. May your faith bear much fruit, and because of you may others taste and see just how much God loves them.