Facets of Faithfulness, I: Love

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May 26, 2019

Facets of Faithfulness, I: Love

Passage: Galatians 5:1–26

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The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.
There is no law against such things.  —Galatians 5:22–23

Paul’s Letter to the Galatians might be the most important document in the history of the Christian Church, at least for Protestants. It deserves our attention, and in weeks to come I’ll tell you more about it, but I have to be short today, so let’s zero in on that passage I read a moment ago.

Paul here distinguishes between the works of the flesh—what life looks like when we’re left to our own devices—and the fruit of the Spirit—what life looks like under the sway of God’s Spirit, God’s Ruach, God’s Breath, or God’s Gale.

“The works of the flesh,” says Paul, “are fornication, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealously, quarrels, drunkenness, carousing, and things like these.”

It’s a vivid and colorful list, a long list, 15 works of the flesh long, and when he’s finished, he isn’t even finished. At the end of the list he says, “and things like these,” etcetera, etcetera, and so on and so forth. Paul says, “I don’t even have time to list all the squalid things we’re capable of on our own.”

When he’s exhausted himself with his laundry list of fleshly works, Paul shifts gears and says, “On the other hand.”  “On the other hand, the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.”

The first thing to notice is that this second list, unfortunately, is shorter than the other, only nine as opposed to fifteen and more, and when Paul’s finished with his list he doesn’t conclude by saying “and things like these.” Apparently Paul thinks of it as an exhaustive, comprehensive list. It’s short, but it’s all you’ll ever need.

The second thing to notice is that the fruit of the Spirit is just that—fruit, not fruits; it’s singular, not plural. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience....”

It’s an interesting sentence: the subject is singular but the predicate is plural. The fruit of the Spirit is just one thing and it has nine parts. If you live in God’s Spirit you can’t pick the list apart. You can’t love without being kind and you can’t be kind without being generous and patient. It’s all or nothing.

In weeks to come, I’ll think with you about why Paul’s metaphor of fruit gets his point across so effectively, but to awaken my own sometimes dormant imagination, I like to set up parallel metaphors to those in the Bible. I’m going to be referring to these nine virtues given by Christ’s Spirit as Facets of Faithfulness. They’re nine facets of a single gemstone, one beautiful thing—the Christian life—with nine gleaming aspects.

So the list is short, it’s singular, and the third thing to notice is what’s listed first. That shouldn’t surprise us, for after all, this is the same Apostle who tells us elsewhere, “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, if I can foretell the future and understand all mysteries and know everything there is to know, but have not love, I am nothing.... Now faith and hope and love abide, these three, and the greatest of these is love.”

For this author, ‘love’ must and always will be the first thing that crosses his mind. For this author, love is and always will be the cardinal virtue, the prima inter pares, the first among equals; this is the facet of which every other is just a specific kind and pale shadow. Joy is love of the world, kindness is love of the neighbor, faithfulness is love of God, generosity is the love of sharing what you have with other human beings, patience is love which suffereth long, past all exasperations and beyond any tribulation.

But to understand why love is the cardinal virtue we have to know what Paul means when he uses the word. Love after all means many things to many people.

You can make love, but that’s just a euphemism for an earthy verb we’d rather not speak. I know a woman who loves Beethoven’s Seventh; I know another who loves the Bee Gees, hard to believe, but true.

I love van Gogh’s Starry Night because of the beautiful thing it does for my soul. I love Glacier Point in Yosemite because it might be the most stunning vista in the world. I love Michigan football but not so much lately.

But that’s not what Paul’s talking about here. The Swedish-Lutheran theologian Anders Nygren distinguishes between a value-recognizing kind of love and a value-creating kind of love.[1]

With a value-recognizing kind of love, all the value, all the worth, resides in the beloved, in the object of our affection: a lover, a painting, a landscape.

Do you remember how you felt when you first caught a glimpse of your beloved across a crowded room at a college party, or across the table at Starbucks thanks to Ok Cupid? You recognized value in her, or in him. That’s a value-recognizing kind of love, and it’s a good thing, but it’s not what Paul’s talking about here.

He’s talking about a value-creating kind of love. It does not find value; it makes value.

I love the way Marilynne Robinson talks about it in her novel Gilead: “Love is holy,” she says, “because it is like grace—the worthiness of its object is never really what matters.”[2]

Dr. Nygren puts it like this: “God does not love us because we are valuable; we are valuable because God loves us.”[3]

I know a man who spent every day at home with his wife for 35 years because most days she couldn’t leave the house for crippling arthritis and the even more crippling depression it cast over her soul. To care for her he quit his job and never went back. She didn’t have so much as a smile or a kind word to give him in return but he never left.

I know a woman who day after day, year after year, sat through long meaningless conversations with her Alzheimer’s-beset husband, until the disease finally stole him from her in the end. It was never easy, but it was never a question either, and she walked with him straight to the lip of the grave. Love is holy because it is like grace; the worthiness of love’s object is never what really matters.

Tomorrow is Memorial Day of course, when we pause to remember that freedom isn’t free; it’s purchased with blood and sacrifice; we take a day to honor them.

Also this coming June 6, eleven days from now, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Some of those guys who stormed Omaha Beach 75 years ago are still alive; just a few; they are 95 years old. This will be the last significant anniversary they will witness. In the next ten years, The Tribune will publish a story about the last living World War II veteran.

To live into those two occasions, I consulted my well-worn copy of Alex Kershaw’s book The Bedford Boys. Have you read The Bedford Boys, about Bedford, Virginia, population 3,000, which sent 37 young men to Omaha Beach at Normandy on D-Day, 1944?

They weren’t really soldiers. They weren’t particularly patriotic. Most of them had joined the Army Reserve during the Depression because it paid the princely sum of a dollar a day, but their humble little company was the spearhead of the entire Omaha Beach invasion. Of the 37 who went, 22 died on the beach, or on the way to Paris.

Three weeks before D-Day on June 6, the Bedford Boys along with two million others, were sent to containment camps in England to await the invasion, the largest deployment in the history of warfare.

The operation was so secretive that no passes were issued for any reason. Barbed wire encircled the camp. Armed guards would shoot anyone trying to leave. Everyone was sealed off from the outside world. Even the mail was censored.

John Nance one of the Bedford Boys, tells this story. “It was my turn to read the boys’ letters back home, to watch for any leaks. Once I came across a suspicious looking letter, with illegible words repeated over and over. It looked like some kind of code, which we’d been warned to look out for.”

Lieutenant Nance summoned the private who wrote the letter to his office. “This doesn’t make any sense,” said Lieutenant Nance. He became even more suspicious when the private looked uncomfortable and stared at the floor, shifting his feet, and turning red.

Lieutenant Nance told him again, “It’s just gibberish. It doesn’t make any sense. Why do you want to send this home?”  Finally the private looked up and told him, “My wife will know what it means.” The words “I LOVE YOU,” you see, were the only words the private had almost learned to write.[4]

You know, you could do a lot worse. If it’s the only thing you ever learn, if it’s the only thing you ever say, if it’s the only thing you ever write, if it’s the only thing you ever do, well, maybe that’s enough. Once you get this facet of faithfulness right, you could dispense with the other eight.

I won’t, but I could.

[1]Anders Nygren, “Agape and Eros”, in Eros, Agape, and Philia: Readings in the Philosophy of Love, ed. Alan Soble, (New York: Paragon House, 1989), p. 89.

[2],Marilynne Robinson,.Gilead (New York:  Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2004), p. 209.

[3]Nygren, op. cit., p. 89.

[4]Slightly adapted from Alex Kershaw, The Bedford Boys (Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2003), 93–94.