We are as far away from Christmas as it it possible to be. But, and I know you are not going to thank me for this, I want you to imagine a Christmas Tree. Crammed full with beautiful decorations, sparkling and shining, lots going on… and then it is twelfth night. The Christmas tree decorations are taken down and stored carefully in a box. The tree itself is relegated to the curb side, or perhaps that goes up in the loft too. With Christmas trees, there is lots of show, but they do not last.
Now let’s consider our reading from Galatians. This wonderful passage which lists the Fruit of the Spirit; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self control.
Here, rather than having in mind the dazzling Christmas Tree, we would do better to call to mind an orchard.
In an orchard, particularly during the season when Christmas trees sparkle, there is not much of a spectacular show. But, cared for and nurtured, the trees in the orchard move through the seasons and go on producing fruit year after year.
Paul distinguishes between the two as ‘flesh’ and ‘spirit’; and this is all about identity.
We are born flesh, with our identity established by our human family, ethnicity, class, geography, education, and so on… And these are not all bad things, but they can be precarious.
By contrast, when we are born in Christ, our identity is rooted in God. We are renewed and restored. We move through death to new life. And that new life bears fruit.
I want us to notice that Paul makes another distinction when talking about flesh and Spirit. He talks about the works of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit.
In the flesh, we have to work for our identity. We have to behave in ways that keep us inside our tribe, we have to achieve certain things to progress, we have to conform to expectations placed on us by society. Our identity is earned.
Whereas, in the Spirit, our identity is given. We do not need to strive for the fruit, just as the apple tree doesn’t have to strive to bear apples – it’s just what it does.
And when we look at the list given in Galatians, we can see that.
You will know yourself, if someone is trying really hard to love you, it doesn’t feel a lot like love. At best you may get a sense they like you. True love comes out of who we are. It just is. It is not something we strive for.
Of course we know that we then have to invest in our relationships, we have to nurture them by making time, and so on, but in essence, the love is there.
Likewise we might consider generosity. If someone is trying really hard to be generous, that doesn’t feel like generosity at all. It feels begrudging. True generosity comes out of who we are. It just is.
Again, we know that we then have to be disciplined in our giving, we have to make conscious choices to allow our generosity space, but in essence, generosity is there.
Our identity in Christ does not rely on ourselves, on our hard work or achievements, our identity rests entirely in God, who, by the Spirit, affirms our identity through the fruit in our lives, both individually and as worshipping communities.
That is not to say that we no longer take any responsibility – we are called to align ourselves with the Spirit and, perhaps most difficult of all, to surrender to God.
This is the essence of discipleship; not striving, but resting in God and allowing ourselves to be guided by the Spirit in the way of Christ.
And when we do, we will see these qualities, we will see the impact our discipleship, our coming in line with God’s call on our lives, our resting in the Spirit, has on the community that God is building amongst us.
This fruit comes not like decorated Christmas trees – which do sparkle and look magnificent, but are not real. This fruit comes like the orchard – less sparkle, but deep roots.
Last Sunday Andrew Braddock came to share with us the recommendations that have come out of the review he conducted in our team. As we move into a time of considering the implications of these recommendations, it would be helpful to keep hold of this image of the orchard. It is not that we all need to be apple trees – there is huge variety within fruit trees, with different shapes and textures, colours and flavours. But, they all bare fruit.
It might be that the worshipping community you are part of, or in your own discipleship, it feels like it’s winter time at the moment. You may not feel there is much fruit going on… but that is not to say that the fruit isn’t coming!
The winter time is an essential part of the cycle. It’s a time to pay attention, to ensure healthy fruit comes in the summer. It’s a time to prune and fertilise.
It might be that the worshipping community you are part of, or in your own discipleship, it feels like it’s summer time at the moment. There may be an abundance of fruit! We celebrate with you – that is a very exciting season.
We are not to envy one another, and where we are in that cycle. Nor are we rivals – God provides plenty of fruit to go around.
As we discern together what God is calling us into, and particularly as we meet to talk and pray over the recommendations Andrew has brought, it is going to take faith to make choices that allow fruit to grow;
Finding Joy in our diversity, and celebrating that;
Resting in Peace, in living together and nurturing the Shalom that Andrew discerned we long for;
It will take Patience – this is not going to happen overnight;
We will need Kindness, to each other – preferring one another’s needs;
It will take Self control – when we are tempted to revert to ‘my patch’ thinking or hankering after a past that is no longer possible;
We will need Gentleness – when we disagree about the how and the when we make the changes that are needed;
It will take Faithfulness to our calling as disciples of Christ, proclaiming the Gospel afresh in our generation;
We will need Generosity to one another which will allow us to move beyond ‘silo’ thinking;
Above all, it will take Love. Love for God, for one another, for these communities, for those within and without our congregations… and resting in God’s love, knowing these are God’s churches.
Working through these recommendations is not going to be as simple as putting up a Christmas tree. It is going to be much more like attending an orchard. There will be some things that can be attended to in moments, but some of these recommendations will need careful nurturing over seasons.
That is going to take the discipline at the root of discipleship. Naturally we are attracted by sparkle, and indeed Christmas trees have their place, they help us celebrate which is important, but it is not the fruit.
Just like the blossom is not the fruit, as attractive as it is – if we stick with the prettiness of the blossom, we will not see the fruit mature.
We’re not alone in our longing for quick fixes and shine. In the Gospels we see that people were attracted to Jesus’ miracles; the extraordinary. But our Gospel reading today is a stark reminder to us that what Jesus calls us to is faithful, sacrificial discipleship. This is not glamorous, but rather a day to day living out of our calling as disciples.
So, as we consider the recommendations of our review, there will be much opportunity for conversations, and if we take those seriously, it will mean asking ourselves some hard questions.
Are we up for putting in the time, energy and dedication it takes to nurture this ‘orchard’ vision of our discipleship and worshipping communities?
Are we up for considering the long term health of this ‘orchard’ God has trusted us with?
Do we long for abundant fruit – even if we may not get to see it for ourselves – are we willing to invest now for the sake of the future?
Are we ready to make difficult decisions about what we need to fertilise, where we need to prune, what needs extra support…
It is tempting to go for ‘Christmas tree’ discipleship – quick fixes that bring a feel good factor – but I believe God is calling us to long term, sustainable, fruit focussed discipleship. And I believe that, with the help of God, the recommendations of the review give us some great tools to continue this work.