It is not fashionable to preach about Hell or even to mention it. It is fashionable in modern religion to make the Church safe for warm fuzzies, for feel good religion. It is not fashionable even to mention death in church anymore. Is that not ironic? The one context in which we learn how to face death without fear, church, has become a venue in which we are supposed to avoid all mention of death. That time will come, when there will be no death, for Christ shall come again. But, if we are to arrive safely at that destination, risen with Christ in glory to die no more, we need to prepare.
Hatred and wrath are also on the list. Indeed, the Epistle reading we heard today is followed by these words, as the last two verses of the chapter: "If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit. Let us not be desirous of vain glory, provoking one another, envying one another." And, there is more on the list, including such things as heresies and witchcraft- by which the King James translators meant occult practices (seances, fortune telling, and other forbidden practices, that I hope no one here dabbles in. The danger in those things includes demonic possession).
Here too we see the need for the remedy. We are told to avoid all these sinful things. But never forget, this comes to us in a larger context, one that begins by telling us that the solution is to walk in the Spirit. The larger context tells us more than not to hate or envy. It tells us to love one another, something positive, and that is more dynamic and radical than merely not hating. The whole context, remember, speaks of this remedy coming from the Holy Spirit.
If we really want to understand the meaning of today's Epistle reading, we need to see the contrast between "the works of the flesh" and "the fruit of the Spirit."
“Then saith he unto them, My soul is exceeding sorrowful, even unto death: tarry ye here, and watch with me. And he went a little further, and fell on his face, and prayed, saying, O my Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me: nevertheless not as I will, but as thou wilt. And he cometh unto the disciples, and findeth them asleep, and saith unto Peter, What, could ye not watch with me one hour? Watch and pray, that ye enter not into temptation: the spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak. (Matt. 26:38-41)”
It seems a simple task. Jesus told them to watch, to stay awake during His time of agony and prayer. They intended to watch and pray, but fell asleep because of the weakness of the flesh. "The spirit indeed is willing (in this case He means the human spirit), but the flesh is weak." How is the flesh weak? It seems, rather, to be quite strong. At times, it seems to have a power that grips and imprisons the human will. It seems strong indeed when someone finds it next to impossible to resist the flesh if certain properties are set in motion, such as lust, jealousy or rage.
"But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance: against such there is no law."
What is that? The list of sinful symptoms are "the works of the flesh," and the list of godly virtues are "the fruit of the Spirit." We need to understand the contrast between the flesh and the Spirit, and also the contrast between works and fruit. Works are man made. We produce things by what we do, and we call the result our works. In a positive sense, we may speak of the works of Shakespeare, the works of Mozart, the works of Rembrandt, and so on.
But fruit is grown. It is not produced only by human effort, but by its nature and the nature of the soil. It grows by the power of life that is within the seed, and that is planted in good ground. It is God Who makes things grow, and therefore Paul uses the word fruit to speak of God's grace working in us.
However, although the growth of fruit is not a human work, it is aided by the right kind of labor. Human labor consists of preparing the earth, tending to the growing produce, and reaping it at the right time. But, it grows by another kind of power, and human hands cannot make it. Now, we are given gifts and helpful instruction to live by. We are given the gifts of Prayer, Scripture, Sacraments and the godly fellowship of the Church. We are given, therefore, means of grace to cultivate the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives, and we must make use of them.
We must approach this based on what Jesus said:
“Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil; Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. Charity never faileth (I Cor. 13:4-8).”
We need the grace and power of that Mysterious Presence among us. We need the Holy Spirit to be active in us. And, we need to participate and find communion in that life and power that He alone gives. Otherwise, we cannot bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Today's Gospel reading teaches us what the key is.
The fruit of the Spirit cannot be made by our efforts, but we cultivate that fruit by cooperating actively with God. To walk in the Spirit is active, not passive. Each day we need to return to the Lord to give thanks. We give thanks by hearing His revealed word in the sacred Scriptures, by prayer, by the sacraments and by the fellowship of the Church. We are given grace, and our participation, fellowship and communion (all of which are summed up in the original Greek New Testament by one word, koinōnia) must be active, not passive. We should not sit back, passively, and assume the fruit will grow without our cooperation; for then the weeds would strangle it. The flesh would be overcome by every passion, and we would be lost.
No, we cannot make the fruit by our own hands; it grows by the power of the life within it. But, we can prevent its growth by failing to cultivate it, by failing to return to the Lord Jesus Christ to give thanks. Without Him we can do nothing. With Him, and by abiding in Him, we can bring forth much fruit. Our lives can become the blessed, holy and joyful fellowship with God that lasts forever, that proclaims Jesus, and that makes Him known to every person we meet, whether or not we say a word.