When I lived in Phoenix, I had a lemon tree in my front yard. And an orange tree in my back yard. So when I wanted to make some orange juice, or some lemonade, or just maybe make the house feel festive with natural decor, I had only to step out my door and pull some low hanging fruit from the branches. Many members of my church had citrus trees in their yard too. So certain times of the year, people would bring bags and baskets of fruit to church and just set it on the ground for people to take whatever they could carry. To this day, I sometimes pick up a lemon in the grocery store and think… really, they want me to pay MONEY for this??
I got used to living where fruit falls right off the tree and into your hand - some fruit, you don’t even have to work for.
In this passage from Galatians 5, Paul is talking about a kind of fruit that takes a bit more cultivating than a Phoenix lemon in January. He’s addressing the Christians of Galatia, where some of the teachers in the community have claimed that the law is the vehicle of God’s Spirit. But Paul says, the primary function of the law is to point out transgressions. He cautions the people against placing their ultimate trust in obedience to the law. Law in and of itself is not salvation- the law cannot give life. Only God can do that. To think otherwise is to enter into a kind of bondage, where the law of the land has far more power than it should.
Yes, some laws are necessary because humans have sinful natures, and are capable of perpetuating evil; but the law itself cannot be a vehicle of the Spirit. Often, when humans put too much trust in the law, then the law becomes corrupt and no longer about protection… it becomes about power, and is an idol unto itself.
Paul talks a lot here about the flesh, with a long litany of fun-sounding sins. (Fornication! Licentiousness!) Well, The Common English Bible translates sins of the “flesh” as simply “selfish motives.” So without getting too much in the weeds about particular transgressions, the bottom line is this: like any bad behavior, laws that are rooted in selfish motives, that seek to manipulate and control, are their own kind of evil.
When Jesus was around, he was often concerned that people were prioritizing the letter of the law over human interest or human need. Paul extends that teaching here. Law has its place and purpose, but as a disciple, your first job is to love your neighbor.
The Spirit is at work in that new community of faith, transforming the body of believers into a new creation—into people who are more loving, gentle, and kind. That transformation is not confined to particular laws or practices like being circumcised, or adhering to a certain diet…those are some of the ways that the people of God used to identify themselves. And those laws were important at that time. But, Paul says, in the way of Christ, the new law of the land is love; and the best way to honor it is to cultivate fruits of the spirit. By these fruits, they will be recognized as Christians; and others will want to join them, to get more of that good fruit!
The early church is learning that they are to be marked by the way of Jesus rather than their own selfish desires or need for power. They are to fulfill, if not the letter of the law, then the intention of the law—which has always about love of neighbors… “For the whole law is fulfilled in one word, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’” These are people who are called to freedom; not the freedom of self-indulgence, which is without love. But freedom from the weight of laws that only exist to protect the powerful.
Can you think of some laws of that nature? Laws that are meant to exert control over a group or class of people? Can you think of cases in which “the letter of the law” is without nuance, and completely without concern for the harm it might cause, the unintended consequences that will play out again and again in the lives of the vulnerable?
Not to put too fine a point on things, but…
Many of us are thinking today about restrictions on women’s healthcare that don’t take into account a woman’s medical history or circumstances, or risks to her safety and dignity. Laws that force a child into existence but care nothing for that child’s future security or care. Many claim these laws are rooted in love for the unborn baby; but in reality–and in practice, these laws will cause great harm to many vulnerable women, and by extension, children. These laws are going to affect how a doctor can care for a woman in crisis, and among other things, make it harder for a woman to find safety from an abusive partner.
If there is no freedom in the law, then there is surely no love there.
How about immigration laws that don’t consider that a person might be fleeing from mortal danger in their home country? Laws that separate families without regard for the trauma caused to children, without a plan for bringing those families back together? There is no love in that law. That is not freedom.
Then we have laws about guns… We have laws that protect the guns more than the victims, or future victims…
In many ways, we are still living with the consequences of some old laws, particularly Jim Crow laws… While the letter of the law no longer stands, the ripples continue to impact lives and communities to this day. Just like our children and our children’s children will be living with consequences of some of our current practices and priorities under the law.
There is no freedom in such laws; because there is no love.
When folks try to legislate faith into policy, that rarely ends well. We end up living under laws lacking in empathy, that seek only to control or maintain the power of a ruling class. The unintended consequences–or in many cases, the intended consequences– are devastating. We create systems of power that are in no way relational or authentic, and that contribute nothing to the communal good.
What matters, Jesus reminded his people, and Paul says again… is that we love our neighbors. That we place the greater human interest before the letter of the law, and let the law emerge from that place of love. If we did that faithfully, our laws would actually enhance community life. We would see fruits like comprehensive, compassionate healthcare for all; access to safe and affordable housing and childcare; fully funded public schools where kids could be free to be kids, without the constant threat of violence. Our borders could offer sanctuary for those fleeing violence, with swift vetting and integration programs, housing and employment services… Guns would be a privilege for those who could wield it wisely, instead of a right for anyone with a lust for power. Women would have less to fear in bringing a child into such a world; and their own welfare would be prioritized for a lifetime. We would have the most pro-life policies imaginable.
If we were concerned with loving our neighbors as ourselves, all of our spaces and systems would reflect, not a desire for power or need for control, but evidence of love; joy; peace; patience; kindness; generosity; faithfulness; gentleness; self control. That would be the harvest we could share with our neighbors in every aspect of public life, if we prioritized the cultivating of those gifts above all else.
And if we did that… well we wouldn’t need many laws at all.
Our job as disciples of Jesus is to make sure we are rooted in the Spirit; cultivating the gifts that reflect God’s presence to those around us, and yielding good fruit that is life giving for all.
When I was serving at Saint Andrew in Kansas, we took a group of youth and church folks to rural Missouri each year to spend the day working with the Migrant Farmworkers Assistance Fund. This program connects workers arriving in late summer for harvest season with vital resources and services — assistance with food, clothing, dental care, school registration and more.
We filled backpacks with school supplies; prepared boxes and bags of food; sorted toiletries; carried stuff to cars; and learned about the lives of these families who travel great distances to harvest the food that lands on our tables each night. It was good work. It was a good time connecting with and loving some neighbors that we often don’t see at all.
As part of preparing the food boxes, some of us were gifted with the task of sorting through the potatoes. As in, finding the rotten ones and removing them from the mix before bagging up the rest. Have you ever opened your pantry and known immediately that there was a rotten potato in there? Imagine that times a thousand. Feeling and smelling our way through these sodden plastic bags was an exercise in grace, and an utter assault to the senses. The awful smell, the slimy feel on your hands, the complete gross-me-out sight of them, once they’ve been extracted from the bag… But we did not want to let whole pounds of potatoes go to waste, just because there was one bad one in the bunch. Nor did we want a family to arrive at home and find one of these languishing in their food box, after working a long hot day in the fields.
So we sorted, and we tossed. Then we washed our hands compulsively and dreamed of the shower we’d take when we got home.
Later, as we were standing in the parking lot waiting to greet families, one of the farm workers came with a gift for us. The volunteers! Two large bags of freshly picked peaches, straight from the orchard. Perfectly ripe, round, and orange-y pink. A sensory abundance. I held one and inhaled for like a full minute. Let me tell you, that smell can redeem a whole day of bad smells.
As I watched happy children skip off with new backpacks and books and school clothes, I thought, there you have it: the life of faith in a snapshot of odors. When you cultivate the fruit of the Spirit, even rotten potato days come with a peach at the end.
What do we have to offer our hurting world right now, church? What is God calling us to cultivate, to yield, and to leave on our neighbor’s doorstep in abundant harvest? Do we have rotten potatoes? Or are we going to have ripe, fragrant peaches fresh off the vine?
Here is the good news… God has given us everything we need to dwell in goodness and life. Sometimes we have to sow, or dig, or water; but really, it is all low hanging fruit. Ours for the taking, abundance to share.