PRAYER: Resurrected Savior, we rejoice that you have broken free of the grave and brought new life to us. Because of your resurrection, we can live without fear. Instead, we can receive and offer hope. Empower us to use the spiritual gifts you have given us that we can be your Resurrection people in the world and offer ourselves as an example of new life.
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you O God, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
What does being a Christian mean? How would you define it? In the culture in which Jesus lived, they were very much a legalistic society. There were rules that defined exactly what it meant to be a good Jew. You can find all 600 plus of those rules in the Hebrew scriptures. One of the problems that Jesus faced was that the rules – the law of the Torah – had become the be-all, end-all. For many, their faith, their religion had become all about following the rules… whether it made sense or not. They lost sight of why they followed the law and only paid attention to the fact that they had to follow the law. Period. There was no questioning of God. If God said that we have to wear our clothes a certain way, or that we weren’t allowed to eat certain foods, we weren’t supposed to question it – we are only supposed to obey it.
I wish I could say that the Christian faith has eliminated that mindset, but even today, there are churches and denominations of Christianity that are so hung up on legalism that they lose sight of the fundamental truth of just how enormous and all-encompassing God’s love is – for all of us. That’s why I very much appreciate Paul’s letter to the Galatians as he lists the fruits of the Spirit. Paul doesn’t focus on legalism, or on right or wrong belief. He doesn’t declare that our theological understandings must be precise and on point. He says that our Christian faith is defined by how we live out the fruits of the Spirit. What we do as Christians is more important that what we say or believe.
“The fruit of the Spirit,” he says, “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.”
In my younger days as I was exploring my faith in different ways, I was involved with a college minister who tried to convince all of us students who were going to his meetings that, as Christians, our number one job was to get other people to believe in Jesus. As long as people believed in Jesus Christ, that’s all they needed to get into heaven, and if they didn’t believe, then they would not get into heaven. It was as simple as that. He literally wanted us to go around all the dorms of the school knocking on doors and trying to convince everyone to believe in Jesus in order to save their immortal souls.
Even though I was a young kid, I struggled with the over-simplification of this. Why, I wondered, does God feel it’s necessary to flip a switch based on this one arbitrary belief. This campus minster would have us believe that a person could do all the good they could, could feed the hungry, could protect people from harm, but God would not find any of that compelling if this imaginary person just happened to believe something other than Jesus Christ. It just rang hollow for me.
Witnessing to our faith, according to that campus minister, was a sales pitch. It was – and I’ve thought a lot about this over the years – it was like one of those pyramid schemes where you have to go out and get people to agree to buy your product, and then as part of that, they have to go out and get other people to buy the product that they’re now selling as well. That is not witnessing to our faith. That’s retail sales at best.
People often have great anxiety and fear about witnessing to their faith because they feel they “don’t know the Bible” or they “won’t have the right answer” to a question someone has. They might feel anxious about the hard-sell of getting people to buy into their faith. Well, theology and biblical knowledge are important because being grounded in Scripture and tradition helps root a faith that could produce fruit. However, people are drawn to Jesus through the grace they see in our lives more than the amount of facts we can share.
Paul says that the fruit of the Spirit “is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” No where in that list is there anything about sales experience. Think about those things – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and think about where you see your gifts in that list. What of those gifts to people see when they encounter you?
The earliest copies of the Gospel of Mark end at Mark 16:8: “Overcome with terror and dread, they fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.” Mark’s original ending has always been a puzzle. Why end a gospel with fear and silence? The first readers of his gospel knew that the women ultimately did tell the resurrection story. They did not live in fear but allowed the power of the resurrection to change them. After all, if the women hadn’t said anything, then we wouldn’t be here today.
Paul in his letter to the Galatians states the same belief. Dying and rising with Christ changes us. The resurrection has changed everything. Paul reminds us that we now have the Holy Spirit within us and through the Spirit’s power, the fruits of the Spirit can be the reality of our lives. The only thing that can stop it is us.
In chapter five of Galatians there are clear echoes of the Deuteronomy passage that we read together. “I call heaven and earth to witness against you today that I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses. Choose life so that you and your descendants may live.…”. Moses reminded the people of Israel of their choice before they enter the Promised Land. Mark and Paul both seem to believe the same choice has been given to us. Are you going to embrace the resurrection and die to self and be raised with Jesus? Are you willing to really change at every level? Or are you going to keep living in fear?
Living in the power of the resurrection is for us a daily choice. God wants us as partners not slaves. The power of the Spirit is in us, but we have to allow the power to change us. The Wesleyan tradition understands the power of the Spirit to work in us, change us through various “means of grace” such as Holy Communion, such as reading the Bible, such as daily prayer, such as serving those in need. What are the means of grace that you embrace throughout your week? What are the means of grace this community of faith seeks out or provides each week? And how can you contribute to ensure that the means of grace that come from this faith community can be and will be shared outside of these four walls?
Our Lenten Series has been called “Questions to God” and it was based on a lot of those basic questions that sometimes we are afraid to ask, or maybe we’re afraid of the answers. We talked about questions like “Who is God”, “Is the Bible Reliable”, “Why do we go to church” and so on. On Maundy Thursday, we talked about the question of fear. Fear can drive us. Fear can kill us both physically and spiritually. Fear can paralyze us. But when we choose to live in the resurrection of Jesus Christ, fear is left powerless. We find ourselves looking deeper and more hopeful than ever before.
If we are to live as Resurrection People and use the fruits of the Spirit that Paul describes, then we must do so without fear. It is appropriate for people who live without fear to look to the future with hope. It is appropriate for people who live without fear to set goals for themselves and to plan for their future… with hope.
And so, this Resurrection Sunday let’s stop living in fear! Instead of looking around and lamenting what we don’t have, let’s instead take inventory of the fruits of the spirit that we possess and, in accordance with that, let’s plan for how the church will grow and become vital. Because a hopeful church can be a vital church. I want to encourage you to make a commitment to developing spiritual goals for yourselves. Daily prayer, daily Bible reading, participating in our Bible studies (Starting next week in the book of Acts, by the way), and focusing on – as an Easter people – bringing resurrection, bringing new life to the church by being the resurrection.
Throughout Lent, we talked about our questions to God. Well, here are some of my questions that we should be asking: If this church is to experience new life, How can I support that? If this church is to be the beacon of hope that we know it can be, How can we – all together – be supportive of that and encourage spiritual growth in ourselves?
Friends, the resurrection is not just a moment in history, it is a living existence we are called to be a part of and be transformed by into the very image of the risen Christ. Alleluia!
To God be the glory.