Testing the Fruit (Lent 2)
Readings Gen 3:1-7, Eph 2:4-10, and Matthew 7:15-20
In the reading from Ephesians we hear tell of the grace of God to revive us when we were dead in trespass – to bolster and raise us up to sit with Christ Jesus, a free and generous gift in which no human can boast. What glorious good news this is.
There are few places in scripture where this is expressed more compact, more emphatic, more exuberantly, and yet God has always been generous. Our reading from Genesis takes us to start of the story of God and humanity’s common history together. And what follows this passage is – most notably – the expulsion from Eden, and yet… that it is an expulsion (only!) testifies to God’s grace. Despite the transgression in the garden, despite the inability of the man and woman to accept the limits placed by God for their flourishing and future, despite the warning that death will come from this fruit… God does not bring death. There are consequences, but God holds back the fullness of their brunt. God even goes so far as to protect and offer presence and promises to the man and the woman who set themselves against God’s teaching.
The steadfastness of God presides across the gamut of scripture. Time and again, God offers grace and adoption, forgiveness and commissioning, life and love. God seeks to be in communion with us, to offer a way of life (that while it might have boundaries and torah, we have those so that we may all have life in abundance).
The question then, is how do we know when those boundaries, those rules, those limits are set by God and must not be breached… and when are they able to be tested and tried, adapted or let go? The serpent comes to Eve and says “did God really say…” In a similar way, the tempter comes quoting Scripture to Jesus in his 40 days in the wilderness.
There have been many times throughout history where people have come quoting scripture, where people have come saying “God said” and yet we commend those who pushed back. Anti-slavery abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights advocates have all been met with a call to stop and turn back, and that call has often been made via an appeal to Scripture, an appeal to the word and will of God. Those churches who have fought for the expansion of ordination to women and LGBTIQ folks, those who have sought to stand against Apartheid, churches that stepped out in faith to allow those who are divorced to come to the communion table – all have heard the phrase “did God not say”… all have been tested and tempted to retreat from the position by someone quoting from the Bible. How do we discern when those doing the quoting and testing are true prophets, are doing so in alignment with the Spirit of God? And how might we know when it is being done by wolves who would devour, by serpents who would turn us away from the good works God has prepared for us?
In the gospel reading Jesus offers this teaching about how to discern the goodliness and godliness of a teaching: look to the fruit! Jesus doesn’t recommend we try to ascertain sheep from wolves, true from false in the eloquence of speech, the correctness of doctrine, the number of followers, the longevity of a position, or levels of education. No, he says look to the fruit. A good tree bears good fruit and a bad tree bears bad fruit… and the good fruit is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
Are these things evident in the person, the community, the movement? If so, that’s a pretty decent sign (or at least a good first step into trusting) that those people/that person are performing the works of the gospel, are walking in step with Christ, are seeking first the kingdom of God. On the other side, if the community… if the teaching is marked by fear, threat, division, insecurity, anger, and an absence of joy and hope, then that is a sign that the fruit is bad, that – despite all the claims to faithfulness and unassailable perfection of interpretation and doctrine – that the teaching (and the community or individual it emerges from) is something to regard with caution and ought to be tested against the Spirit of generosity, love, and freedom who calls us into life.
Sadly, there’s no fool-proof, 100% infallible way of discerning and determining whether an interpretation or position is always on the side of God and God’s spirit; remember, the fruit looked good to Eve. And I’m certainly not saying “hey, we’ve got it figured out over here, it’s those people down the road (or in the past) who are the problem”… it is not easy, and we aren’t perfect.
We will do this best when we discern in a community which can ask hard questions and hold one another to account in love… always in love! We’ll do it best when we seek in all we do to embody and witness to the fruit of the Spirit. When we study the scriptures and pray together so that our very breath might be steeped in the story and presence of God. We will do our best when we can gather - as we do each Sunday- to confess our sins before God and one another; acknowledging that we make mistakes and lose focus. In doing so we grow, weekly, in humility and increase our yearning to return to the way of Christ. And – as we also do each Sunday following that prayer of confession – we’ll do our best when we soak up Christ’s word of grace, Christ’s word of pardon – when we sit in and celebrate the assurance of forgiveness offered by our God.
This draws us back to our readings from Genesis and Ephesians… God is the one who forgives, who revives us while we were dead in trespass, and bestows grace upon grace so that we might be raised up alongside Christ Jesus. God is the one who clothed the man and the woman as they set off on life east of Eden, who promised provision and presence despite their transgression. We are able to test and wrestle, and enter fully into the livingness of our faith and its scriptures – to push back when someone says “didn’t God say”, because we know that – even should we err in the pursuit of good fruit – God is merciful, God is gracious, God invites us back to the table where we may – once again… and again and again and again, receive what we are, and become what we receive: the body of Christ. The body of Christ: the perfect prophet, the embodiment of the fruit of the Spirit, the overcomer of temptation, by whose grace we have been saved, and in whom God has prepared for us good works which bear good fruit.
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