‘The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.’ (Galatians 5 v22)
In those verses from Saint Paul we see a quick sketch of what might be called Christian character. Most of the gifts of the Spirit are what you and I might call decent human behaviour. Who could be against kindness or patience or faithfulness? Indeed this list of virtues is close to a similar list commended by contemporary pagan philosophers, especially the Stoics.
The fact that few if any members of the royal family are good examples of these virtues does not stop us from admiring and giving thanks for the way that the Queen has lived, as closely as anyone, within this framework of virtues, coupled with an unparalleled sense of loyalty and duty, stronger than any other head of state in our time.
The Queen, in her 1975 Christmas message said, ‘His [Jesus’s] simple message of love has been turning the world upside down ever since. He showed that what people are and what they do, does matter and does make all the difference…. It does matter therefore what each individual does each day. Kindness, sympathy, resolution and courteous behaviour are infectious. Acts of courage and self-sacrifice …are an inspiration to others. And the combined effect can be enormous…. We may feel powerless alone but the joining efforts of individuals can defeat the evils of our time. Together they can create a stable, free and considerate society.’
But of course what Paul is trying to do, for those early Christians and for us, in presenting us with this check-list, is to point out that ordinary Christians can aim to live by the same virtues as we see in Jesus himself, not least the interpretation of love as selflessness – and not as selfishness as it is so often lived out. These are markers for us in everyday life.
The most interesting feature in this list, which makes it different from other lists of virtues which were circulating back then, is that Paul includes joy as the second most important Christian virtue. No-one would accuse a Stoic, a rather dour, self-disciplined person, of being joyful. And sadly there are too many Christians who lack that spark which we call joy.
It’s not the same as enjoyment or happiness – nothing wrong with either of them of course. But Christian joy is the emotion which flows from thankfulness, and thankfulness is certainly the distinctive Christian attitude. Other religions focus on obedience or mystic spirituality or tradition or ceremonial; but for the Christian thankfulness is the distinctive core of our faith. To know that we are not ultimately engaged in finding God but that God has found us – that is our gospel and that is why joy is what God’s spirit gives. All the other virtues in Paul’s list imply an activity on our part; but joy is just about being, about living, knowing that God loves you.
And this Holy Spirit is what Jesus promised to his followers. It is as if he is himself with us, Emmanuel, although of course intangible and often elusive. The Holy Spirit is not just a name for anything vaguely spiritual or other-worldly. Our understanding of the Holy Spirit is what Charles Wesley called ‘the spirit of Jesus returned to his home’. Or as Brian Wren puts it, ‘no longer bound to distant years in Palestine but saving, healing, here and now and touching every place and time’. That is why the core message of Peter and the apostles that Pentecost was to proclaim that Jesus was alive and not only alive but able to give life to all believers. Pentecost is the fulfilment of Easter as the Body of Christ is reborn and let loose on the world.
So Paul’s list is very down to earth, inviting us transform everyday life into an opportunity for faith and hope and love. And joy.
There is plenty to celebrate, even in today’s troubled and troubling world; the Queen’s long reign is one opportunity for a party. But, as she and Paul and every preacher would want to remind you, God’s spirit is for everyone, for every day, and for ever.
Thanks be to God.
Revd Peter Brain