by Rev. Doug Gray
When I was in seminary, I was Assistant Minister at Jamesburg Presbyterian Church in Jamesburg, New Jersey. The church wasn’t famous or anything, but man, could they cook! My favorite part of the potluck dinners was when everyone had already been through the line, and it was time to get seconds! So I would eat pretty fast, keep an eye on the line, and bam! I was totally there for the best of seconds, because of course for some of the best dishes there weren’t seconds. Sad day! Our life is full of choices, and when there is something good, then it seems it disappears. Everyone had the freedom to choose, and lots of people chose Mrs. Hyack’s jello salad—oh man was it good!—so there wasn’t enough for seconds. We live in what is largely a free society—freedom of religion, free market economy, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly—and free is all good as far as it goes. But the promise and the challenge of our freedoms is that we can get anxious that we won’t have enough, and harder yet, our freedoms don’t help us know how to actually live. What is real freedom? What is our purpose? And how do we find those compelling, delightful yet elusive fruits of the Spirit Paul talks about?
First, real freedom is a choice. Billy Graham tells the story about a little child the was playing with a very valuable vase. He put his hand into it and could not withdraw it. His father too, tried his best to get it out, to no avail. They were thinking of breaking the vase when the father said, “Now my son, make one more try. Open your hand and hold your fingers out straight as you see me doing, and then pull.” To their astonishment the little fellow said, “O no, dad, I couldn’t put my fingers out like that because if I did I would drop my dime.” Real freedom is the chance to choose what it is valuable, to choose the boy over the vase, and to help the boy choose freedom over the dime. Paul writes, “You, my brothers [and sisters], were called to be free.” Real freedom is the power to choose to let go.
Second, real freedom lies in choosing the purpose of our freedom. One of the tough parts of living in the United States is that we have such amazing array of choices that we do not always know what to choose. Will we choose sitting in front of the computer, or gardening? Will we choose to buy all the cool stuff we can, or invest in changing people’s lives? Will we just meet the nebulous and momentary needs of our bodies and our emotional selves, or will we actually do something with our lives that touches others? Once a woman saw a father shopping with a fussy two-year-old in his grocery cart. “Be patient, Billy,” he whispered. “You can handle this, Billy. It’s okay, Billy.” The woman said to him, “I don’t mean to interrupt your shopping, but I just had to tell you how wonderfully loving and patient you are with little Billy.” The man replied, “Actually, my son’s name is Patrick. My name is Billy.” The Spirit is available to whisper to us thoughts of love and joy and peace and patience every moment of our life. Right now. All we have to do is stop, ask, and listen . Paul writes, “You, my brothers, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the sinful nature; rather, serve one another in love.” Why are we free? Are we free to do what Jesus would do, to be what God would have us be? If loving God is our purpose, then loving people is what we do. In our freedom, we ask Christ to be our purpose and the real freedom begins.
Third, spiritual fruits come to those who stay in the Son. So would you help me think about fruit for a minute? What’s your favorite fruit?
[Take response from the congregation.]
Ok so think with me for a moment about that favorite fruit of yours. If you want bigger or better fruit, how would you go about it?
[Take responses form the congregation.]
Sure, staying in the sunlight is important. Sure, adding water really helps. Ok, cultivating the soil is a good thing. The odd thing about fruit is that we can’t make fruit happen. We make bigger, better fruit by leaving it on the tree. Nourished by the tree, the fruit grows until it’s ripe, then we pick it, enjoy it, share it with others. If we talk about grapes, Jesus even said, “I am the vine and you are the branches…. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If someone remains in me and I in them, they will bear much fruit…This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”  God wants us to bear fruit! But remaining in Christ means letting go of our selfish and self-focused ways, choosing to let go of our need to control and win at everything, and instead choosing to make Christ the center and purpose of our lives, then God’s power starts to work in us, changing us. When I think of Billy and Patrick in the grocery store, I realize that Billy is allowing himself to be changed, coaching himself into becoming a patient father. In the same way, God doesn’t just want us to do loving things, or peaceful things, or kind things…God wants us to become loving, compassionate, peaceful, gentle, disciplined people.
Some people might have thought I was nuts, but I started inviting some of the other hungry seminary students to the potlucks at Jamesburg Pres. My buddies? They could pack it away just like me, which of course meant that there was going to be less of Mrs. Hyack’s jello salad to go around. But really the best part was that these beautiful people in the church loved on us. There was plenty of that to go around, and we never went away hungry. We got to go back for seconds and thirds and even fourths. In fact, when we were done for the evening, this church always gave us a bag of leftovers to give to the other hungry students, because they knew the seminary didn’t serve dinner on Sundays. We were very popular people on the hall! Later, I came to learn that Mrs. Hyack loved seeing us enjoy her jello salad, and she was always one of the people filling up the bag for us to take home. Capitalism, materialism, hedonism and consumerism left to themselves tend to make us more self-centered, and self-indulgent. Real freedom means we can escape all the boxes of the –isms, to choose to place ourselves in the hands of Christ, and to seek each other’s good ahead of our own. Of course, the best part of freedom in Christ is that we realize that life is like serving the best potluck meal: There’s no need for pushing or shoving, or insisting on having our own way. There’s always more of the best things—love and joy, peace and patience, kindness and goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. When we have real freedom and choose Christ, we will not get less but more. Indeed, the promise is that when we seek more for others in Christ, there will be more than enough for everyone. We will have to let go of the selfish ways and the stuff that ties us up, but we can help ourselves to the best God has to offer! But perhaps even better, we will have a chance to help others step up to the feast Christ has set before us, and can see that there is always second and third and fourth helpings of the good stuff.
 Ortberg, J. (2010). The me i want to be. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.
John 15:5, 8.