The firstfruits of the Spirit

art 03What’s missing in your life? And how much do you hunger for it? Those questions came up Wednesday in our discussion of John Wesley’s faith and the roots of Methodism. Wesley knew there’s more to living well and attaining spiritual wholeness than the mere practice of religion. Like anyone who sets out on a spiritual path, he had a restlessness of heart that would be satisfied only when he rested in God.

According to Joseph Campbell, the great mythologist, “People say that what we’re all seeking is a meaning for life. I don’t think that’s what we’re really seeking. I think that what we’re seeking is an experience of being alive, so that our life experiences on the purely physical plane will have resonances with our own innermost being and reality, so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive.”

John Wesley was about as well educated as a person could be in eighteenth-century England. And as a priest in the Church of England, he could hardly have been better connected in the chief religious institution of his day. Yet still he was hungry to experience “the rapture of being alive,” and in 1838, thirteen years after his ordination, he experienced that rapture. In his journal he wrote:

“In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.”

John Wesley had studied the Classics and the scriptures; he had faithfully observed the rituals and disciplines of his religion; he had given his life to ministry in the church. Yet something essential was missing from his life, and he may not have even known what it was until it was given to him that evening in Aldersgate Street. Until then he had been practicing his religion; at that moment he harvested the first real fruit of his faith in God.

“Listen,” poet Mary Oliver asks, “are you breathing just a little, and calling it life?” Are you doing what seem to be all the right things in life and missing “the rapture of being alive”? Are you accepting only the love you think you deserve, only the love you think you’ve earned, and missing the radical, abundant, endless, transforming, totally unmerited love God offers? To put the question as St. Paul put it to the Ephesians, did you receive the Holy Spirit when you became believers (Acts 19:2)? Have you been born from above (John 3:7)?

Here are some symptoms – I’m going to paraphrase St. Paul – that might help you recognize that you have not yet been born from above, that you’re still living on the earthly plane of existence: repetitive, loveless sex; an accumulation of mental and emotional garbage; frenzied, joyless grabs for happiness; trinket gods; magic-show, consumer-oriented religion; jealousy and loneliness; cutthroat competition that depersonalizes others into rivals; all-consuming-yet-never-satisfied desires; out-of-control anger that harms or destroys relationships; divided homes and lives; small-minded, lopsided pursuits that throw your life out of balance; and things like these (paraphrased from Gal. 5:19-21 The Message).

But what happens when we receive the Holy Spirit and are born from above? Like an orchard in season, our lives naturally bear fruit – fruit like: genuine affection for others; an exuberance for living; deep inner peace and serenity; patience and perseverance; heart-felt kindness and compassion; gentleness and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23).

The firstfruits of the Spirit, Wesley assures us, don’t appear all at once; they appear slowly and grow over time – first a sprout, then a bud, then the fully ripened fruit (Mark 4:28). But while that’s happening, while our inner brokenness remains and we are prone to sin, we are not condemned. We continue to struggle with the seeds of pride and vanity, of anger, of passions out of control, and of wrong desires of every kind. Yet those impulses no longer have any power to separate us from God.

“There is now no condemnation,” Paul wrote, “for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free from the law of sin and of death. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:1, 38-39).

No remnant of sin within you, no distraction from your walk with God, no failure of will or of action, no shortfall of wisdom or character, no bad judgment, no squandered opportunity, no wasted potential, none of these can separate you from the love God has for you. None of these can cause God to value you any less. God has given you, has given all of us, that gift in Christ Jesus.

“As a father has compassion for his children,” the psalmist wrote, “so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust” (Ps. 103:13-14). God’s love for us is large enough, mature enough, generous enough to remember our human nature, to take into account our frailty, to make room for our mistakes, and to love us anyway.

If you’ve had a small child in your life, say of preschool or kindergarten age – Sheryl and I have had this experience – and that small child brings home a piece of artwork, what do you do? Do you offer criticism or critique? Do you suggest improvements in color harmony and composition and balance? Do you try to explain principles of perspective? Of course not!

If you’re worth your salt, you ask that child to tell you what’s in the picture. You won’t ask about the picture’s meaning or symbolism, but you may ask the child to tell you a story about the picture. And then you know what you’ll do. No matter how crude and unintelligible the picture may be, no matter how her skirt or his T-shirt got stained with paint or markers, you’ll stick that work of art on the refrigerator door and say, “My! What a great picture!”

That’s what God does with us. God remembers who we are, how spiritually dense and awkward and distractible and prone to mistakes we are. And God takes our best efforts, miserable as they are, and sticks them on the refrigerator door, and says “Well done!” and sits us down for some milk and cookies.

All the mistakes you’ve made with your life, they no longer count; they’re gone, erased, remembered no more. You’ve been given a fresh start; you’re born into a new creation where you and everything else have become fresh and new (2 Cor. 5:17). Remember that God’s love never ceases, God’s mercy never ends; they are new every morning, as sure as the sunrise (Lam. 3:22-23).

If your heart condemns you, remember that God is greater than your heart (1 John 3:19-20). Don’t be afraid to face in yourself what God has already faced and forgiven. Even if you find yourself overtaken in faults or failures, let God hear your grief; pour out your heart to God who is fully able to sympathize with our weaknesses (Heb. 4:15).

Remember that God loves you, that’s enough. Wait patiently for that day when God’s work in you will be complete, when God “will make you holy in every way” and keep you blameless in spirit, soul, and body for the Last Day (1 Thess. 5:23).

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