I’ve always applied the passage in Galatians 5 to me as an individual. If I abide in Christ, and He abides in me, Jesus promises, I will bear much fruit — the fruit Galatians 5 describes. For Christianity is not mechanical, like other religions, but organic. Our fruit comes not from striving, but from abiding in the living Christ. All we need to do is abide, and then His life flows into us through His Spirit, producing the fruit of His Spirit listed in Galatians 5.
But I have come to see this also applies to individual congregations.
If they are abiding in Him and His Word, they will thrive.
If they let go of their grasp on the True Vine,
they will die.
Two years ago I received a warm invitation from a United Methodist Church in Columbus, Georgia to speak at their women’s retreat. My immediate thought was, “Oh, I’m going. I can bring them the good news!”
I jumped to the erroneous conclusion that being United Methodists, they probably no longer had a vibrant relationship with the Lord.
I live in Wisconsin, and my experience with the United Methodist Church in the north is that, for the most part, individual churches have drifted from their beautiful roots. They have removed songs about the blood from their hymnals. (Some have even removed their own Charles Wesley’s 2nd most popular hymn: And Can It Be?) Despite the overwhelming evidence, these churches no longer believe Jesus literally died and was raised again, but instead, that it is just a beautiful metaphor — telling us something like: “Cheer up, because spring always follows winter.” (Tim Keller quips: “Do you really think that message would have turned the world up-side-down?”) They pick and choose which parts of Scripture they want to believe, and are swayed by whatever the current culture believes. And because they are no longer abiding in the Vine, life is ebbing away. Much research supports this, but I thought I’d show you an article from a liberal newspaper, to show you that even their research supports this. (I can’t seem to give a link to it without them asking you to pay, but if you google Liberal Churches Are Dying and click on The Washington Post article, you’ll be allowed to read it. It is a fascinating read and a good warning to all of us.)
So I came to the wrong and prideful assumption that this church in Georgia had lost its roots and God was sending me to rescue them! However, my continuing conversations with Suzanne, the woman who invited me, began to make me wonder if indeed this church was abiding, alive, and vibrant. Could it be?
Yes! I found a group of women who loved the Lord deeply, grasped the gospel firmly, and were abiding in Christ. This is much more common of mainline denominations in the south than it is in the north, but now they too are facing formidable storms that could potentially result in their loosening their grasp on the True Vine and lead to their demise. In particular, the two issues facing the United Methodist Church (and this is true of other mainline denominations) are part of the LGBT+ agenda:
- Redefine marriage away from God’s plan (which is repeated 6 times in Scripture) of one man and one woman for life
- Ordain practicing homosexuals
The winds are fierce and those who resist are labeled as bigots. It was fascinating to listen in on the conversations of those preparing for the impending storm. The African United Methodist Church is conservative, and has regularly kept the North American United Methodist Church from going astray, but now the pressure is intense. The African Methodists ask the North American Methodists a penetrating question:
Centuries ago Christian missionaries from the north told us our practice of polygamy was wrong,
defiling God’s plan for marriage and His covering for the family.
So though it was hard and costly, we put away polygamy.
So why do you now come to us,
demanding we abandon God’s definition of marriage
and support gay marriage?
St Luke church in Columbus, Georgia, and her sister Methodist churches who are still abiding, are God’s remnant for what was once a beautiful denomination. We must pray for them and see them as a model of clinging to the True Vine when the storm winds blow. Pray they (and we!) seek the praise of God rather than the praise of man. Pray they (and we!) see the enemy’s lies, for Satan is intent on finding ways to loosen our grip on the Vine and getting us to throw away our only lifeline.
Truly, it was thrilling to me, after being so disappointed in the deadness of the north, to see this life! While many in the north would like to dismiss their southern churches as being un-enlightened, that would not describe the body I met. These were believers of depth, many sophisticated and cultured, yet not trusting in their worldly gifts. Their “vineyard” is laden with fruit and I heard testimony after testimony of those who had been the grateful recipients of that fruit. One woman at the retreat wept as she told me how she has been loved into the body of believers. She lives in subsidized housing and regularly invites her neighbors to the free dinners at St Luke Church provides for those in need. She said, “They don’t see me as any different from them — I am embraced as part of their family.”
I also heard wonderful stories of those in the gay lifestyle being loved by those at St Luke who hold to God’s Word yet love well, knowing we all are sinners. One practicing homosexual man who was invited into a home over the holidays said, “I will not stand to hear it said ever again that this couple are bigots.” We all struggle with various kinds of sin from birth, and we all need support to be set free, not enablement that keeps us in chains.
As I was praying about who might support filming a curriculum for my upcoming book: The Jesus Who Surprises, it was St Luke United Methodist Church in Columbus, Georgia, that came to mind. They sought the Lord on this, and then came running to help produce an amazing video that will be free online. It will go into prisons, to congregations that are not affluent, and to any who want it when the book is released this July.
I was overwhelmed at their response, but also, at God’s goodness in bringing us together, and bestowing one gift upon another on us. St. Luke has an incredibly talented cameraman named Justin who is passionate to serve the Lord. 21 women who had been through my study on Idol Lies signed up to do a crash course in The Jesus Who Surprises over the holidays so that they could be prepared to give individual testimonies on what God taught them. We were allowed to film the video in and outside of the historic W.C. Bradley buildings along the beautiful Chattahoochee River. The presence of the Lord was palpable, and we all sensed Him with us. We had storms on either side of the shoot, but it was clear and calm for the actual shoot. I want to show you just a few pictures so that you can marvel with me at what God did. And indeed, you are part of this, for you prayed, and God heard and answered.
A month ago Justin sent me some footage he took of this site — of the river and the kayakers. I had no idea this would be the scene, and I immediately thought, What a wonderful picture of this beautiful but broken and perilous earth — and of how we need Jesus to navigate the rapids.
This beautiful brick room with great windows looking out at the river had been transformed: chairs brought in, foliage put on the wall, and anointed with His Spirit. We all sensed we were in a holy place, for He was there!
On the second day of the shoot, the women came into another building, individually, to share their stories of how God met them during this study. This is Suzanne with me and Justin, and I remember how she shared so poignantly on how fruit comes not despite suffering, but because of it. I cannot wait for you to hear the testimonies God gave to these women!
These two days of filming happened between two storms. I was scheduled to fly out of Milwaukee last Sunday, but a formidable snowstorm was to begin two hours before my scheduled flight. Many of you prayed, and I was able to get on a 5:55 A. M. flight instead, beating the storm! Then, shortly after we finished filming, a fierce windstorm hit Columbus, knocking the power out. That night Suzanne and the pastor’s wife, Mary Pat, had planned a dinner to celebrate what God had done. It was held by candlelight and was a most memorable evening, filled with love, joy, and the light which the darkness cannot overcome.
1.What stands out to you from the above and why?
Monday: The Wesley Brothers and The Gospel
Charles Wesley wrote so many beloved hymns, including Hark the Herald Angels Sing and And Can It Be? To prepare your heart, sing along with this, pondering the lyrics, letting them penetrate your heart. Watch for good theology as you sing.
2. Share two examples of good theology from “And Can It Be?”
In the free message by Tim Keller this week, you will hear how once both Luther and the Wesley brothers thought Christianity was “mechanical,” that character was achieved by striving rather than abiding. But then they were overwhelmed by the gospel — first Luther, and then the Wesley brothers in reading Luther’s preface to Galatians. (If you just joined us and would like to read it, you can find a paraphrase by Tim Keller here: this pdf,)
3. Read Galatians 5:16-18.
A. What two natures are in conflict with each other?
B. What does Paul tell us to do in verse 18? What do you think this means?
My friend Twila, who has memorized Galatians, Romans, Hebrews, and much more, and I have been discussing this. She articulates that we are free from all the Mosaic Law, including the Ten Commandments, for they have all been fulfilled in Christ. That doesn’t mean we are free to sin, but rather, we now live not by the Law, but by the Spirit. That Spirit, according to Romans 2:15 puts the moral law into our hearts. We are guided by the Word, but the One we obey is the Spirit, not the Law. And we obey the Spirit, not to achieve favor with God, but out of grateful joy, for we already have favor with God through the forgiveness bought by Christ Jesus.
4. What are your thoughts on the above?
5. Now, backtrack to Galatians 5:13-15
A. What is Paul not saying according to verse 13?
B. What principle can always guide us according to verses 14?
C. How is that elaborated on according to verse 15?
Tuesday: The Fruit of the Sinful Nature and the Fruit of the Spirit
6. Read Galatians 5:19-21
A. If instead of walking by the Spirit, we gratify the flesh, what kind of things does it lead to? List a few that stand out.
B. Why does Paul make the statement he does in verse 21? How could this be mis-interpreted?
7. Read Galatians 5:22-25
A. List the fruit of the Spirit.
B. Why do you think the Word says fruit instead of fruits?
C. Tim Keller, in the sermon you will hear over the next few days, says that if you don’t have evidences of all of the fruit, you may not have any. Why, do you think?
8. What do you think it means to “keep in step with the Spirit?” Give an illustration, if possible.
9. Pastor Beckham. of St Luke Church in Columbus, Ga, says we need to always cling to principle, but not to procedure. What do you think this means for making decisions in a church?
Wednesday-Thursday: Free Keller Sermon: How To Change
10. Listen to the following message over the next two days and share your notes and comments.
Friday: Reflecting on Keller’s Sermon
I remember taking home a planted seed from Sunday School as a child, and watching it to see if it would grow. It didn’t seem to, yet after days, I could see a little sprout appearing!
11. Fruit is gradual. You may feel you are not growing, but if you look back five or ten years, can you see growth? If so, where?
12. Fruit is inevitable! How can you see this promise in John 15:5?
What the Law does do is lead us to Christ, for we find we simply do not have the power in ourselves to obey the Law. The best we can do in our own power is a charade — stapling on fruit for the sake of a good appearance. Pretending to be peaceful, joyful, or self-controlled.
13. Fruit is internal — not brought about by mechanical external means but by the Spirit breathing life into us. Have you experienced this? If so, share something about it.
How intriguing that Keller said that if you don’t have evidence of all the fruit, you may not have any. Your evidences of some of the fruit may simply be evidence of a pleasing Meyers-Brigg nature, rather than the Spirit producing fruit.
14. Fruit is symmetrical. Do you see at least the buds of the various descriptions of the fruit of the Spirit in you?
15. What is your take-a-way and why?