Tonight's session is the first in series of talks on the topic of the Fruits of the Spirit.
These attributes are described by St Paul in his letter to the Galatians. So before we explore tonight’s subject of love, I thought we might first look at Fruits of the Spirit, what they are and what St Paul was describing.
The Biblical text describes nine Fruits of the Spirit, all of which will be explored during this series of talks. They are: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control. All attributes or qualities which a person following the Christian faith should peruse. Throughout the Bible, righteousness is often described through the use of the metaphor of a tree and therefore the Fruits of the Spirit might be seen as the produce of righteousness. It is God who plants the crop inside of us, and it is our personal responsibility to allow it to grow and develop in order that the tree of righteousness can bear these nine Fruits of the Spirit.
Now, one of my interests, in my background within the field of Theology and Religious Studies, is that of the use of language and the impact that it has upon our beliefs. Interestingly Christianity is the only major world religion where the Holy Text is read in the vernacular, a person’s mother tongue, rather than the original language in which it was written. The obvious benefit of this is that the Holy Text of the Bible is far easier to access than the sacred texts in other religions (the Qur’an in Arabic, the Torah in Hebrew, the Bhagavad Gita in Sanskrit). However, if we look closely at the language used in the Bible, the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New Testament, we can often find misconceptions in the translation and understanding of a text, and the Fruits of the Spirit is one such misconception. In the original Greek text of St Paul’s letter to the Galatians, the word used to describe the fruits is karpos (καρπὸς). When directly translated into English this becomes the singular word ‘fruit’, rather than the plural ‘fruits’. A minor difference, but something which could matters greatly in our understanding of this topic. Is it to be understood that this is nine individual fruits with nine individual attributes, or one fruit with nine attributes.
So, I put the question to you: does it matter? Is it significant that this is fruit as opposed to fruits?
My personal gut feeling to that is to ask is St Paul describing nine
individual attributes or nine attributes which work together to form the overall
Fruit of the Spirit. Something which we will come to again later.
Now, let’s move on to tonight’s topic of love. What is love? It is probably one of the most commonly used words in the English language, both in speech and in writing. We might say that we love a particular book, or television programme (or dare I say it, a school subject!). Yet, we also describe love as the feeling between a couple in a relationship, or the spiritual connection between us and God. What I would like you to do now is to take the post-it notes you have on your table. As a group write one word on each post-it note to describe ‘love’. See how many notes you can get through and how many words you can come up with. We’re going to take a look at these in a moment.
The variety of words we have come up with shows the complex nature of love. It is an abstract concept that we can’t easily describe. How many times does the word love appear in the Bible? Any guesses? Well, if we look at the King James Version it is 310 times (131 in the Old Testament and 179 in the New Testament); if we look at the New International Version it is 551 (319 in the Old Testament and 232 in the New Testament). Why is there a difference of 241 between the two translations? It’s in that word translation! There is no one singular word for ‘love’ in the Greek language. Instead there are four different words which can be translated into English to mean ‘love’ and as such is it difficult to totally separate the meaning of each of these words. Eros can be used to describe passionate love of sensual desire and longing, it can mean ‘love of the body’. Philia is loyalty to friends and family, requiring virtue, equality and familiarity, philia can mean ‘love of the mind’. Storge is natural affection that felt by parents for their children. And finally agape, brotherly-love, charity, ‘love of the soul’. Agape is sometimes described as Christian love.
Let’s move now to think about the love that is described in the Bible. Love is a prominent theme throughout the Bible, particularly the New Testament and the love that is described by Jesus Christ. In his work published in 1847 Works of Love, the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard described Christianity as being unique among other religions in that ‘love’ is a requirement. When compared to the requirements of other religions (such as the following of 613 commandments in Judaism) the requirement of love might appear easy, but is it? What is the love that is described in the Bible? How many Biblical quotation can we think of that are associated with that word ‘love’?
As we can see, love is a recurring theme throughout the teachings of Jesus. If we look back to the Fruits of the Spirit as described by St Paul, the attribute of love described is that of agape, brotherly love, Christian love. If we are to follow in the footsteps of Jesus, and fulfil the Christian requirement of love, we are expected to express agape towards our neighbour. And in many cases that isn’t always an easy task. However in order to succeed in our expression of Christian love we should look to the love, the agape, given to us by God. Agape describes the unconditional love God has for the world. As we move towards the festival of Easter, 1 Corinthians 13 describes God’s expression of agape as sacrificial, demonstrated by Jesus’ death on the cross.
As Christians we believe that because of God’s agape for humanity, He
sacrificed his Son for us, and this leads us to, arguably, the most important
verse in the Bible - John 3:16:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Yet, agape love is not an automatic reaction. Unlike philos, loyalty to friends and family, which is love by chance, agape is love by choice. God has given us the choice whether to love one another, or to not. As the Holocaust survivor and writer Elie Wiesel notes “The opposite of love is not hate, but indifference.” But in taking that decision to love, we are being accepted fully into the Christian faith where what sets us aside from other beliefs is that requirement of love. John the Evangelist wrote “Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”
In order to follow in the footsteps of Jesus it is necessary to accept this teaching. As somebody reminded me the other week, Jesus didn’t say “Love thy doctrine”, what he did say was “Love thy neighbour” and so if we are to accept that the crux of the Christian faith is love, then all of our actions should centre around that.
I am currently working as a trainee teacher at Church of England Secondary School. Prior to this having worked in a non-faith school, it is interesting to see how the Christian faith resonates throughout the culture and ethos of the school. Where I am currently working, the school motto, taken from Deuteronomy, is “Therefore, choose” emphasising that it is the student’s choice to do the best that they can do and to be the best that they can be. This even filters into the school’s behaviour policy and as such, when misbehaving, students are not told off for their behaviour, but reminded that they have chosen, they have taken the decision to act in that way.
What can we learn from this? Well, we have been given a choice by God and through the sacrifice of Jesus. If we want follow in the footsteps of Jesus then we must take that decision and allow love to radiate throughout our lives. Perhaps this can be understood more easily through the word of Mother Theresa: “Love is a fruit in season at all times, and within reach of every hand.” Or perhaps as Ghandi said “Where there is love there is life”. Furthermore, in a contemporary society where we live among people of different cultures, faiths and backgrounds, we can embrace the teachings of John Wesley, accepting that though although we might have different views and opinions, we all make up humanity. As Wesley said “Though we cannot think alike may we not love alike?”
If we return to where we began, looking at the Fruits of the Spirit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control; if we consider these as individual attributes they are qualities which should be admired, yet perhaps what we miss when we consider these as separate fruits is how these attributes link together. If we consider these to be one fruit together, rather than many, we can begin to understand how joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness and self-control all link together and it is through love. If we open our hearts to unconditional love, then surely each of these attributes will have the sustenance and ability to grow, develop and flourish.
Before we finish I want to share with you a quote from the opening scene of the 2003 film Love Actually. Over a screen showing people greeting one another, embracing, showing expression of love, the film begins with the narration:
“Whenever I get gloomy with the state of the world, I think about the arrivals gate at Heathrow Airport. General opinions started to make out that we live in a world of hatred and greed, but I don’t see that. It seems to me that love is everywhere. Often, it’s not particularly dignified or newsworthy, but it’s always there - fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, boyfriends, girlfriends, old friend. When the planes hit the Twin Towers, as far as I know, none of the phone calls from the people on board were messages of hate or revenge – they were all messages of love. If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaky feeling you’ll find that love actually is all around.”
And perhaps that is true, maybe it’s not only our role as Christians to show expressions of love, but also to embrace and acknowledge the love, through the work of Jesus Christ that is demonstrated to us each and every day. - Thomas Martin
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