Sermon given at Matins on Candlemas 2014
2 February 2014 at 10:00 am
The Reverend David Stanton, Canon in Residence
During this month of February I shall be delivering a series of sermons entitled “The Fruits of the Spirit”. The title is drawn from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians (5: 22-23) and encompasses such virtues as ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These ‘fruits’ are of course intimately connected with, and made possible by, the virtues that underpin them.
For example faith, hope and charity, coupled with wisdom, fairness, self-control and courage, are the fundamental building blocks from which the fruits of the Spirit emerge. The distinction between virtues and fruits can be a little confusing. The fruits of the Holy Spirit are the result of the virtues. For example the blossom on a tree could be seen as the virtues, and the fruits are what come from these flowers when all is ripe and ready for the harvest.
The sermon this morning will focus upon the fruits of “faithfulness and gentleness”. Faithfulness in terms of trustworthiness and reliability, both in our keeping of the faith, but also in how we treat others; and gentleness in terms of being considerate towards others, and being mindful of any sense of arrogance and self-assertiveness that may dominate our own characters.
Today is the Feast of Candlemas, celebrating the Presentation of Christ in the Temple at Jerusalem on the fortieth day after his birth. According to Jewish law, the firstborn male child belonged to God, and the parents had to ‘buy him back’ at this stage after his birth, by offering a sacrifice of 'a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons' in the temple. St Luke also tells us that in the temple, Simeon embraced the child and prayed the canticle that we know as the Nunc dimittis.
This morning’s reading from St Paul’s letter to the Romans picks up this theme by teaching us to present our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is our spiritual worship. St Paul teaches us not to be conformed to this world, but rather that we should be transformed, seeing clearly what is good and acceptable and perfect. He is at pains to say that we shouldn’t think of ourselves more highly than we ought to think, but we should support each other in the faith. Faithfulness and Gentleness lie at the heart of this teaching.
These works of the Spirit, these products of virtue, could well be described as marks of good Christian character, or characteristics of a good Christian life. I rather like the image given to us by Frances de Sales when he associates the fruits of the spirit with experiencing delight. He talks of a ripe and delicious fruit, plucked from a tree, as something to be enjoyed just as the person who unselfconsciously possesses these fruits is someone who is able to take pleasure in life. Similarly, when we lack these characteristics we become restless, discontented, morose and most probably unhappy. A sign that something is wrong with us.
When a tree is in good shape the leaves and branches are healthy in order to bear fruit, for the fruit is an expression of the whole tree. This analogy tells us that the spiritually healthy life isn’t just a matter of following a set of rules or performing certain duties for example offering turtledoves or pigeons in the temple; it’s a function of being healthy, of operating normally and with integrity. Faithfulness, infused with faith, allows the soul to be confident in what is revealed to be true. Simeon, who has been told by the Holy Spirit that he will not die until he has seen the messiah, has that confidence in faith. So too has Anna, who like the disciples who will follow her, is driven to bear witness to what she has seen. She is the first woman to fully proclaim the good news; she is the first in a prophetic line of disciples who will speak about Jesus to all who were looking for the redemption of Israel.
In spite of the fact that Simeon and Anna make just one cameo appearance in just one of the Gospels, they manage to demonstrate great faithfulness and spiritual gentleness. Just like them, we too have to live in faithfulness to Christ; to wait for him, to look for him, to know about him and to praise him. 'My eyes have seen your salvation' says Simeon. Simeon and Anna exude gentleness and faithfulness. They waited all their lives for the Messiah, and God was faithful to them.
The Gospels teach us that if we wait and look for Christ (just like them) God will be faithful to us as well. So how can we become faithful and like them and be ready for Christ? St Paul gives us the answer in his letter to the Romans, imploring us to be transformed, to do the will of God, to discern what is good and acceptable and perfect, and live together as the body of Christ. In his letter to the Colossians (3: 12-17) he takes this further by saying that as God’s chosen ones you are to 'clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience. Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful'.
If we want to live virtuous lives, to receive and enjoy the gifts of the Spirit, we have to make these words come true. Unfortunately this does not happen immediately, it needs to be worked at over a lifetime, and it requires commitment. Like Simeon and Anna, we have to pray, be faithful, and show compassion, gentleness and love to all whom we meet. We do well to remember that in some of his greatest moments Christ wielded his unlimited divine power with the exquisite control of his gentleness.