Summary: A naval officer once described his ship and crew as having a spirit that made it a happy ship. St Paul, in the fruits of the spirit defines the characteristics of the Church and its members.
While I was flat on my back, sick and feeling sorry for myself last Sunday morning I turned the radio on for a VERY short time. Ian McNamara played an interview with Kylie and Wesley Herron who were special guests at the launching of a new Royal Australian Navy vessel the patrol boat HMAS Wollongong. Lt Commander Herron was a commanding officer of the former HMAS Wollongong which had been decommissioned last year. Macca asked Commander Herron what his hopes were for the new Wollongong. He said that he hoped the new boat could carry on the tradition of earlier Wollongongs which were known for their spirit and heart. They were both renowned for being happy ships. Without this spirit, he said, these boats were only hulls.
I expect the sort of happiness that Commander Herron was speaking about was not the cruise ship happiness. Wollongong I saw action in WWII and Wollongong II was involved in patrolling Australia’s northern shores and intercepting those trying to enter the country illegally. No, he meant something much deeper. The sort of spirit that was most evident not when things were calm and peaceful but when things were rough. The sort of spirit that emerges in tough times when those involved know they are doing the right thing, are doing their best and trust those who are with them.
Like ship’s crews, like all groups of people gathered in a common cause, Churches can be said to have a spirit, an atmosphere, a culture that is distinctive. Atmosphere is a very good word to describe the spirit that develops in groups because those characteristics that make up the atmosphere can become invisible to those who belong to the group. What others describe as ‘spirit’ we would not necessarily equate with the presence of the Holy Spirit but we would aim to create a place in which the presence of the Holy Spirit was in some way discernable.
Part of the discernment process is to look for the gifts and the fruit of the Spirit. That’s why it is important to hear the feedback of those who visit. The visitor sees what the long time member often misses and takes for granted. Notice how much the term visitor has in common with visual – ways of seeing. It is also no coincidence that archdeacons were sometimes called the oculus episkopi, meaning the “eyes of the bishop”. It was part of their task to keep an eye on the churches, well maybe particularly the clergy for the bishops who could not be everywhere and whose vocation it is to “oversee” the churches.
St Paul, in his overseeing of the churches he helped to found, observed the Spirit at work among the people of God. He saw some remarkable characteristics emerging from among the ordinary people who made up the churches. These characteristics were not just a by-product of happy people getting together but were fundamental to life in Christian community. So fundamental were they that he termed them the very fruit of the Spirit. From Galatians 5.22-3, “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” It is quite clear though that he did not observe these qualities everywhere in the churches. His list was as much an encouragement to action as a commentary on what he observed among the Galatians. If all had been well in the Church he would not have had to remind them!
In the short time Jenny and I have been here we have heard some very encouraging comments from people who have visited us. “Uplifting worship” and “very welcoming congregation” are among the things visitors have said to me. Well we would never want to gloat over such comments but it is important that we embrace what we know to be good about our church because it is so easy to fall into breast beating about what we are not doing.
A church that exhibits the fruit of the spirit in worship, pastoral care and fellowship does not come about by magic word or formula. It is not automatically the case that a group that gathers and calls itself a church will be filled with love, joy, peace and patience. St Paul, as well as encouraging the church to godly life was also correcting the misconceptions and bad behaviour of those churches for which he felt a pastoral responsibility. As there are lists of gifts and fruits of the spirit there are lists of wrongdoings.
The most recent Melbourne Weekly Magazine carried an eye-catching cover photo. In a clear blue sky, above the spire of a cathedral, writing in sky writing were the words, “Jesus Rocks.” The tantalising leader for the article read, “Sky’s the limit for new breed of youth-friendly churches”. The opening sentence of Doug Hendrie’s article reads: “Every weekend without fail, thousands of people flood into “megachurches” around Melbourne. Chatting and smiling, they file into an auditorium- sized church, anticipating an uplifting performance.” The article informs us about those churches around Melbourne with congregations in the thousands and are attracting young people and growing. Which contrasts, he says, with “…the general decline of Christian churches across the country.” But also in the article is a response from Roman Catholic Bishop Christopher Prowse who raises an interesting comparison. The article then paraphrases the Bishop: