by Pastor Tracey Leslie
Scripture: Galatians 5:22-25
Once a great lion, contented after a large meal, lay sleeping at the entrance to his cave. Suddenly, he felt a tug on his mane. Drowsily lifting his paw, he captured a mouse.
“Grrr...” growled the lion. “What is a miserable creature like you doing in my mane? I shall eat you up!”
“Oh no, your Majesty!” squeaked the mouse. “Please spare my life. I thought you were a haystack and I was merely looking for some nice soft hay to build my nest. Please release me and if you do, someday I may help you.”
The lion burst out laughing. He was so amused by the tiny mouse’s ridiculous suggestion that he felt he could not eat the little creature up. Continuing to chuckle, he drifted back to sleep, all the while thinking to himself, “What a silly little mouse!”
In the cool dawn the lion awoke, stretched himself, and, deciding it was going to be a fine day, went hunting in the forest.
But, alas, a party from the King’s palace had come into the woods looking for lions to trap and take back to the king’s royal garden. Soon they caught sight of the lion’s great paw tracks. Following him through the tall grass, they captured the lion and tied him up with strong ropes. Then, leaving him tied and helpless, they hurried off to get the cage in which they would transport the lion.
As the lion lay helpless on the ground, writhing in vain, struggling to get free of the ropes... he let out a mighty roar.
A short distance away, a tiny mouse lifted his ears. “I know that voice,” he said and scampered quickly away to where the lion lay prostrate on the ground.
“Pray, keep still!” squeaked the mouse. “I have a better way with ropes than do you. I will set you free!”
The mouse set his tiny, razor-sharp teeth to the ropes and began to gnaw through one rope at a time. Shortly before the hunters returned - even as they heard their voices in the distance - the mouse bit through the last rope and the lion was free.
Friends, today we are living in a “lion world” and it is a scary and deadly place where the loud and proud, large and in charge believe that the only way to live in our world is by being loud and aggressive and that those who are gentle and conciliatory have little to offer and may even be seen as a joke. Around the globe, power wreaks destruction; as it did again this week in France; as it did the week before in Dallas; and as it did a month ago in Orlando. Yet according to scripture, the Church is – and has always been – called to live in a distinctive way; exercising our influence by following the lifestyle of a 1st century Galilean peasant-rabbi put to death on a cross.
Over these past few weeks I’ve been preaching a sermon series to coincide with a study I’ve been leading on the “I am” sayings of Jesus in the gospel of John. Those identity claims – those “I am” sayings – reflect the nature and character of God in the Old Testament. In the Old Testament, God is the source of light. So too, Jesus proclaims “I am the light of the world.” In the 23rd Psalm, we’re assured that the Lord is our Shepherd and Jesus says of himself, “I am the Good Shepherd.”
But today’s “I am” saying is different. In John, chapter 15, Jesus says, “I am the true vine” and that particular claim does NOT coincide with the identity of God in the Old Testament. But don’t worry; Jesus isn’t attempting to mislead us because his complete statement is this: “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vine grower.”[i] In this scripture Jesus is teaching his disciples about the nature of the relationship, the interconnectedness between God the Father, Jesus the Son and us by using the metaphor of a grapevine, a staple of life in Palestine.
In the Old Testament book of Isaiah, God, through the prophet, compared the nation of Israel to a grapevine that he had planted in a fertile area and cared for meticulously. God was the faithful keeper of Israel, his grapevine. But even with all God did to help her be fruitful, it was a failure. The only thing the vine produced were wild grapes, bitter and unpalatable. You see God had planted Israel in the Promised Land and given her his Word (the commandments) to live by. With those resources, God’s people should have flourished. Their lives should have produced a harvest of righteousness. But that’s not what happened. God’s heart is broken when his people wind up producing bad fruit like idolatry, jealousy, envy, violence, oppression. That wasn’t what God had planted and that wasn’t the harvest God had been hoping for.
So God has no recourse but to find another way and – as we talked about last week – Jesus is the way. Jesus draws the branches together and enables them to become a healthy, fruitful vine.
This morning we heard verses from Paul’s letter to the Galatians. Paul, a well-educated student of Jewish scripture, knew of God’s hopes and expectations that his people might produce a harvest of righteousness. Paul elaborates on this fruit. It is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. That is the fruit that God has always desired from us and for us.
It was the early 50’s A.D. when Paul, this Jewish scholar turned Christian evangelist, was traveling through modern-day Turkey and became ill. The people of the region – not Jews, but Gentiles – welcomed Paul and cared for him. Paul, in turn, proclaimed to them the good news of Jesus, a Jewish rabbi who had preached a message of salvation and righteousness open to all. Paul proclaimed the gospel that we become righteous by placing our trust in the grace of God made available through Jesus. Paul made clear to them; there was nothing they or anyone could do to earn God’s grace, to earn God’s favor.
They received Paul’s message and the churches in Galatia began to flourish. But then, sometime later, other missionaries arrived and they claimed that there were things the Galatians had to do. Because Jesus was a Jewish Messiah, they would need to become Jewish first. Men would need to be circumcised; they would need to observe a kosher diet and celebrate the various Jewish festivals. And when word of this reached Paul, frankly, he was furious and here is why: because grace is a gift and if we attempt to earn it, we disrespect the gift and the giver.
Have you ever known those people that make it impossible to give them a gift? Aren’t they, well, infuriating? If you give them something, they feel obliged to reciprocate. They tell you how you shouldn’t have. If you try to treat them to dinner, they do an end run with your server to get the bill.
Retired Methodist Bishop Will Willimon writes of how hard it is for us to truly receive and accept God’s grace. When speaking of those with this incessant drive to reciprocate, he says, “I suggest we are better givers than getters not because we are generous people but because we are proud, arrogant people.”[ii] Willimon continues, “It’s tough to be on the receiving end of love, God’s or anybody else’s. [He quotes John Wesley:] Nothing is more repugnant to capable, reasonable people than grace.”[iii]
The apostle Paul clearly proclaimed that grace with any strings attached isn’t grace at all. Paul preached that there was nothing inherently wrong with the commandments God gave the Israelites. But they were misused and misinterpreted. They were turned into a point system, score keeping. People who obeyed them better than others inevitably became proud and arrogant and people who failed at obeying them were swallowed up in shame and discouragement.
When I was in the 4th grade, my teacher had a bias that boys were academically better than girls. I was seated next to a very bright young boy. One day, passing back an exam, my teacher accused me of cheating on my test because my score was the highest in the class. In front of everyone she noted how convenient it was that I had been seated next to George for that exam. I was mortified and mad and determined from that day on to keep getting the highest scores to prove she was wrong. She may have bolstered my academic performance but she did nothing to increase my love for learning and she certainly didn’t foster any goodwill between George and me.
The good news of the gospel, the grace of God made manifest in Jesus, is that we are more than forgiven; we are set free from shame before God; and envy and competition in our relationships with others. The apostle Paul knew that, for so many of us, “the fall from grace is not a plunge into horrible sins; but a decision to live by” those religious rules and regulations in an attempt “to justify ourselves before God.”[iv]
Bible scholar David Rhoads relates a story shared on a spiritual retreat:
My wife and I have a friend who was out to prove that no one could love him. He had a childhood full of rejection. One Christmas in his childhood, the grandparents who were raising him told him that if he did not lose a lot of weight by Christmas, there would be no presents. Sure enough, there was no Christmas that year for my friend.
In his adult life, he was an engaging person, but he managed to do everything he could to alienate people who befriended him – unannounced visits, requests for difficult favors, staying too long, and so on. In order to remain his friend, we had to set limits on his intrusions. Yet he continued, in his quest to find love, to prove we could not love him. One day in exasperation, we said to him, ‘Look we are your friend because we have chosen to be your friend, so there’s nothing you can do to make us your friends and nothing you can do to stop us from being your friends. So why don’t you just relax and enjoy our friendship?’[v]
Folks, the fruit of the Spirit of which Paul speaks can only be harvested from the soil of graciousness and thanksgiving. Otherwise, love becomes a tool we manipulate in an attempt to earn the approval of God and others. In a world where efforts to manipulate, control and dominate others seem to be multiplying at a rapid rate, the Church is called not to function like an organization with rules and hierarchy. We aren’t an organization; we are an organism. Jesus is the true vine; our heavenly Father lovingly cultivates and nourishes; and it is only through our connection to the vine that we bear the spiritual fruit Paul names.
I have a clergy colleague who shares the story of his life and call into ministry. A poor child, he was drawn into a small Methodist Church by the irresistible lure of homemade cookies and punch during VBS. As he grew and matured in that church family, he felt love and support. During senior year, a group of men in that congregation – knowing and understanding the financial constraints of his family – said they would like to pay the cost of his entire college education. But they would only do so if he attended the college of their choice for it was one that matched their theological bent. When he expressed his call to ministry, the same offer was extended for his seminary education. All expenses would be paid but only if he attended the seminary of their choosing.
Friends: that’s not love; that’s manipulation disguised as generosity. Those aren’t the ways of the Church; those are the ways of the world. The God who gives to us gives with no strings attached.
In just a few minutes, we will celebrate a baptism of a little boy, Kyle, who will turn three this week. Although Kyle is a bright boy and his parents and this church teach him about Jesus, if I were to ask Kyle to prepare a statement of his Christological beliefs, I don’t imagine it would be worthy of publication. And yet, the reality of God’s unconditional love and grace, truth be told, is probably no more of a mystery to Kyle than it is to any one of us. We cannot earn it. We cannot fully comprehend it. We can only receive it like a gift and, fortunately, children rarely have a problem with that. That’s the power in the symbolism of infant baptism. Children love to receive gifts. They don’t question how much it cost or claim that “Oh, you shouldn’t have,” or begin to fret about how to repay you. They merely delight in the gift.
Friends, the grace of God in Jesus means more than forgiveness of our sins. It means we have been set free from shame and the need to prove ourselves worthy. Receiving the gift of grace in Jesus, living from a place of intimate fellowship with God through Jesus, is the only way to live out a fruitful harvest of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
[i] John 15:1
[ii] Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent and Christmas. Plough Publishing House. 2001. Dec. 14: “The God We Hardly Knew” by William Willimon.
[iv] The Challenge of Diversity: The Witness of Paul and the Gospels by David Rhoads. Fortress Press. P. 49.
[v] Ibid, p. 48.
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