Gardening the Spirit

Tomato-PlantFor the first time ever, my wife and I have a successful garden. I am constantly in awe of what a miracle a garden is. When I think about the tiny seeds and plants we put in the ground which have now grown into massive vegetable and fruit producing plants, I am amazed. Because in the grand scheme of things, we really did not do much. All we did was create the right conditions.

We found an area to put a garden, got the soil, set up railroad ties to keep out weeds, planted the plants in certain spots. Now we make sure they get water and watch out for bugs. That is really about it. I assumed this was going to be much more of an undertaking. But just by creating these conditions, we now have a jungle of tomato plants, carrots, peppers and corn stalks five feet high. We harvested a radish bigger than my four-year-old’s hand. We have already plucked a round of jalepeños and new ones are forming in their place. It is a genuine miracle.

The current liturgical year has been going through Galatians. Galatians is such a powerful book. And if we really allow Galatians to speak to us, it has some harsh words to say about how we hold our traditions, what God thinks about rules, and the ways we tend to divide up the world. It can be a really challenging word to our traditional ways of doing things. Yet right in the middle is one of the most familiar lists for Christians: The fruit of the Spirit.

If you have grown up in church you probably worked hard to memorize the list for Snickers bars and stickers. But I think one of the most important words here is: Fruit.

Fruit is a result. When the Spirit is working in a person, the result is love, joy, peace, etc. Paul contrasts the results of the Spirit with the work of the flesh. As Mutlmann says, we cannot MAKE the fruit of the Spirit nor can we learn it. It is not earned or made, it is simply the result of something. That means, the fruit is not something I have to try harder to get in my life. I get more love, become kinder, have more patience and experience more joy when I open myself up to the work of the Spirit. I don’t try harder, I just let the Spirit do what the Spirit does.

Just like getting my garden to grow, I can learn to create the kinds of conditions for it to grow, but a lot of it is learning to sit back and wait. Let nature do her thing. This is how the work of the Spirit operates. I create the right conditions for the Spirit to grow and then I let her do her thing.

This is part of our job as Christians. Our job is to grow the Spirit. Not just in our lives, but in the lives of others. We often get caught up in trying to grow our church or our denomination or our particular ideology or theology. But this is not our job. Our job is to grow and spread the Spirit. And I think remembering that the fruit of the Spirit is a result is a big part of this.

Suppose for a minute you know someone who is not a Christian whose life reflects love or joy or patience. Where do these things come from? As I read this verse and think about fruit, I have to say they must come from the Spirit. If the Spirit is the source, and love and goodness is the result, I think we need to understand that the Spirit works in places we often write off as Christians. It means it is ok for the Spirit to be at work outside of our box.

Perhaps God is at work in all people. Perhaps even those who we want to write off as pagan or heathen or sinners or evil still have the capacity for the Spirit to work in them. Perhaps sometimes the Spirit works within people without them knowing it. Perhaps, when a person experiences or even embodies deep love or peace or kindness, they experience the Spirit of God whether they name it or not.

But as Christians we like to spend a lot of time regulating where there Spirit can and cannot be at work. Or we spend a lot of time worrying about who is in and who is out. But most of Jesus’ teachings come to change people’s concept of where and how God works and uproots their sense of “in” and “out.”

In Jesus, we see a human being completely open to the work of the Spirit. He is the perfect embodiment of the fruit of the Spirit. So if we want to learn how to live more fully into the work of the Spirit, the only way to see that in its fullness is to look to Jesus. Jesus is the Spirit at work fully, wholly, and totally in a human. So if we look at Jesus, we see the exact conditions for the Spirit to grow in the fullest ways possible.

So when people who are not Christians experience love and goodness and self-control, they experience the Spirit. And I have yet to meet anyone who does not want more love and peace and patience in their lives. Christians should be the best people to help others learn how to experience it. As Christians we should be radiating love and joy and goodness, and we can point people to the ultimate source of our patience and joy. Our job is to grow those things.

So instead of being people who act like we possess something the other dirty people do not, perhaps our job is to show people where the Spirit is already at work in their lives. Perhaps part of our task is helping people be more kind and gentle and loving. Perhaps part of our task is to be the kinds of people who are so patient or good or self-controlled that other people want to know how we do that. Then when people want more of these beautiful qualities, we tell them know this guy named Jesus. Because in Jesus, we see the perfect conditions for an abundance of fruit.

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