The lectionary epistle reading this coming Sunday is from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, easily one of the most important books of the New Testament. Galatians 5, however, no matter it’s cross-stitched popularity, can prove quite problematic if it’s abstracted from the larger context of the letter.
When we hear Paul’s list in Galatians 5 as telling us who we should be or what we ought to do we replicate the Galatian error. In Paul’s terms, we twist this from Gospel back into Law: As a Christian, you should be generous. As a faithful follower of Jesus Christ, you ought to be patient and kind. Become more gentle and joy-filled!
That way of hearing turns this list into the Law.
This list is not the Law.
It is descriptive; it is not prescriptive.
It’s proclamation; it’s not exhortation.
They are indicatives. They are not imperatives.
Paul says: “The fruit of the Spirit is patience.”
Paul does not say: “Become more patient.”
To turn the fruit of the Spirit into aspirations or expectations of who you will be or what you will do as a Christian is to stumble back into the Law just like the Galatians.
As Paul said earlier, if the Law is in any way necessary for us to follow then Jesus Christ died for absolutely no reason.
To hear this list as goals or, worse, a code of conduct is to hear it as Law, and the Law, Paul says, always accuses, reminding you of who you’re not, what you’re lacking, how inadequate and imperfect and incomplete you are. As Law, this list just reinforces the message you see and hear in ads 3,000 times a day: You’re not good enough.
If it’s Law then this just accuses us because there’s always more money you could’ve left in the plate, there’s always someone for whom you have neither patience nor kindness, there’s always days- if you’re like me, whole weeks even- when you have no joy.
But this list is not Law and your lack of joy or gentleness does not make you an incomplete or inauthentic Christian.
After Paul describes the works of the flesh, the works we do—
Paul doesn’t pivot to our ‘works of faithfulness.’
Paul doesn’t say ‘the works of the flesh are these…but the works of faith are these…’
No, he changes the voice completely.
He shifts from the active voice to a passive image: fruit.
He says Fruit of the Spirit not Works of Faith.
You see, the opposite of our vice isn’t our virtue. The opposite of our vice is the vine of which we are but the branches.
When Paul speaks of our life lived in light of the Gospel, he shifts to a passive image.
What you do not hear in any vineyard is the sound of anyone’s effort.
Except the Gardener.
Fruit do not grow themselves; fruit are the byproduct of a plant made healthy.
To think that you’re responsible for cultivating joy and kindness in your life now that you’re a Christian is to miss Paul’s entire point- his point that, apart from Christ’s bleeding and dying for you, you are dead in your sins.
Apart from the grace of God in Jesus Christ you are a dead plant, but by your baptism you have been made alive such that now in you and through you the Holy Spirit can grow fruit.
This list is not the Law because the fruit of the Spirit is the fruit of the Gospel. It’s not fruit you gotta go get or do. It’s passive. It’s not what you do but what the pardon of God produces in you in spite of still sinful you.
In quantifying, life-hacking culture of constant self-improvement, this passive image of fruit might be the most counter-cultural part of Christianity.
It’s counter to much of Christian culture too.
On the Left and the Right, so much of Christianity nowadays is just another version of what’s on your Fitbit.
It’s all about behavior modification.
But what Paul is getting at here in his list is not the Law. It’s not about you becoming a better you. Tomato plants do not have agency. It’s not about you becoming a better you. It’s about God making you new. Joy, gentleness, peace and patience- these are not the attributes by which you work your way to heaven.
This is the work heaven is doing in you here on earth.