You will know them by their fruits
Short sermon for Trinity 8 2016 at St James, Colwall at 08.30
Romans 8.12-17; Matthew 7.15-21
Sometimes we Christians forget that we are inheritors not only of the new or second testament of God, but also of the first testament of God’s covenant made with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and the prophets. Our founder was a Jewish rabbi, and his greatest interpreter or presenter was Saul, a Jewish scholar in the Pharisaic tradition. When we left the synagogues nearly two thousand years ago, we left carrying the promises God made to our older brothers and sisters in the faith. Many of our rabbi’s teachings gain ready assent from our Jewish sisters and brothers and to-day’s gospel is just such a teaching.
God’s people are chosen not because they are the best of humanity, but simply because God needs people to work in God’s world. In fact, God does not seem to mind if the work is done by Jews or by Christians – or by Muslims, Hindus, Bahá'ís, communists, atheists – in fact, anyone. Rabbi Jesus had a way of putting this very simply to his disciples. He used a simple illustration that nobody could miss, nobody could claim was abstruse theology. He showed them what anyone in our Cider parishes could see for themselves. He said you don’t get good fruit off a rotten tree. A good tree will produce good fruit – although gardeners and horticulturists might add that a good tree improves with care and attention from a grower. In his illustration, Jesus makes plain that what counts is fruit, good fruit.
Good fruit comes from a good tree. The trees in Jesus’ example, are prophets. Prophets, you will remember, are not fortune tellers or people claiming to know the future. Prophets are people who speak out about God’s will for God’s children: some prophets are unreliable, some are liars, some are deluded, some are wicked and dangerous. Others are good prophets: they tell it like it is, they speak God’s word, they point to what is good and true, what makes for human flourishing and the care of our planet. Jesus seems to care little whether these prophets are Jews, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists or atheists. What matters is that they produce good fruit.
In our day, there is no shortage of people claiming to be prophets. All our political leaders implicitly or explicitly make this claim: they claim to know what makes for human flourishing, what is right for our people and for the wider world. Our novelists and poets, our film-makers and theatre directors, our painters and sculptors claim they tell us important truths about being human. Our school teachers and university lecturers, our economists, our healthcare providers claim that they see ways toward human flourishing. Every parent represents to their child a way toward human flourishing, to what is right and good and true. Heaven help us, our advertising industry claims to point to what is fulfilling for human beings on this planet and offers us video clips that inform us about how we can find fulfilment.
Jesus warns us that we need to keep our wits about us. There are today more prophets than the rabbi Jesus could have known, and they’re all around us. Now, more than ever, we need to sharpen our discernment. Don’t just read the label – whether the label says Dior, Marks & Spencer, Christian, Jewish, Conservative, UKIP – you have to use your God-given senses. Is this a good tree giving us good fruit? Or a rotten one that should be cut down and burned so as to stop the rot. Christians are lucky: we don’t have all the answers, of course. Like everyone else, we have to be grown up about this. But we are privileged to have reliable resources to help us. We have the wit and wisdom of our Church, its people, its worship, its teaching down the centuries, and we have a place to question, to argue, to think and to pray. So, let us open our hearts and minds to discern the good prophets, and let us keep our secateurs and axes handy for the others.