One of my favorite scriptures is in the 5th chapter of the letter that Paul sent to the emerging congregations in Galatia, in what today is central Turkey. This scripture talks about “the fruits of the Spirit.” Paul loves to make lists, and here he mentions nine “fruits of the Spirit” – “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.”
If you recall, during the Advent season we light candles for love, joy, and peace, the first three fruits of the Spirit here. Usually, we have a fourth candle for justice as well. But we never light one for the fourth fruit of the Spirit listed here – patience – and I don’t know the reason, so today I’d like to highlight patience. It makes sense, for if we don’t grow and develop patience, how do expect to grow the other eight fruits of the Spirit?
Patience is a very strange creature, for we are born to be impatient rather than patient, to the point that when someone shows plenty of patience, we say that person must be a saint, or an idiot. Learning to be patient is not an easy job because it seems to go against human nature and somehow it requires to unlearn to be impatient.
When a baby wakes up in the middle of the night because he is hungry or his diaper is wet, the baby does not lie there and think for a moment, “I know Mom and Dad are tired, so I’ll just wait until a more convenient time to let them know that I need something to eat, or my diaper changed.” No way! That baby cries impatiently and continues to cry until it receives the attention it demands.
Grownups are as impatient, if not more impatient than kids. Even our culture is contrary to patience. Right away! Not mañana! No wonder we go nuts if what we ordered from Amazon.com this morning is not delivered before tonight!
Last Sunday, you surprised me with tons of cookies and lovely cards and cash presents and kind words to celebrate my first anniversary here among you. Thank you, thank you, muchas gracias once again, my dear friends –but why should I wait a full year for a repeat? Even churches realize that folks are quite impatient. There is a church in Florida that advertises 22-minutes services. The sermons are only 8 minutes long. Now don’t get your hopes up – it is not going to happen here.
Paul’s congregations in Asia Minor had a similar problem even though times were different. They may have been more patient than us since they didn’t have internet, smart phones, cars, and airplanes. But they had a serious problem that was making them impatient, and Paul was losing his own patience. In those four or five emerging congregations, the Christians with a strong Jewish background expected the new converts — the so called “Gentiles” — to also embrace the cultural and ritual traditions of the Jewish community.
So, these new converts were expected to adopt circumcision and kosher foods and the strict observance of the Sabbat and a much more legalistic and ritual understanding and practice of their Christian faith than what Paul had taught them. Tempers were quite short –to say the least.
That’s why Paul tells them they must grow and nurture makrothumia. Two Greek words: makro, meaning “long,” and thumus, meaning “temper.” Literally, “long temper” as opposed to “short temper” – that’s what you need, friends, Paul tells his churches in Galatia. “Long tempers”!
Several Bible translations, including King James, render this Greek word as “long-suffering.” Others, as “forbearance.” The most familiar translation is “patience.” But here Paul is talking about something more than the day-to-day patience we are all supposed to master if we are to catch our fish like this cute kitty-kitty on the screen does [pointing]. For makrothumia is above else a calm endurance based on the knowledge that God is always in charge, always leading all the way.
Friends, when we let the Spirit grow and develop in us this calm endurance, this blessed assurance that God is leading all the way, our “temper” – our nature, our character, our personally, our disposition, our frame of mind, all that we are, our whole self — is stretched beyond belief. We gain a new perspective in life. Our fears and anxieties wash away.
And we gradually learn that nothing, not even our conflicting views on this or that, can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. How can you be the church — Paul asks his congregations in Galatia — if you are so “short-tempered” to the point that you cannot be loving and joyful and cheerful and welcoming as Christ wishes?
I once heard a wonderful spiritual leader say that when God’s “long temper” touches and inspires our lives, even the tragedies that break our hearts can become the basis for even more beautiful lives.
Which reminds me of that artist who went to visit an old friend. His friend was weeping, so the artist asked why. The lady showed him a beautiful handkerchief she had been given by her late husband. That handkerchief had a great sentimental value but had been accidentally ruined by a spot of indelible ink. The artist borrowed that handkerchief for a few days, and when he brought it back, the lady could hardly believe her eyes. The artist, using the inkblot as a base, had drawn on the handkerchief a design of great beauty and meaning. Now that handkerchief was more beautiful than ever.
That’s what makrothumia –true patience inspired by the Spirit himself – can do to you and through you, the apostle tells his congregations in Galatia. And the same can do to us and through us if we just let the Spirit touch and fill and mold and use our short tempers.
No wonder Paul places patience right with love and joy and peace and kindness and goodness and faithfulness and gentleness and self-control – for patience, together with the other eight fruits of the Spirit, can give us such a calm, blessed assurance that God is always leading our way.
One of our favorite hymns says it so well—
He leadeth me: O blessed thought!
O words with heavenly comfort fraught!
Whate’er I do, where’er I be,
still ‘tis God’s hand that leadeth me.
He leadeth me, he leadeth me,
by his own he leadeth me;
his faithful follower I would be,
for by his hand he leadeth me.
You may want to know that this hymn was born in 1862 during the Civil War, a time of great upheaval and hopelessness, and very short tempers. His author, the Rev. Joseph Gilmore, was a young pastor preaching in Philadelphia soon after his ordination. That Sunday he preached on Psalm 23:2 – “He leaded me beside the still waters.” The darkest hour of the Civil War, when everyone in America –also its congregations — seemed to wonder, “Is God gone for good from this nation? Does it make any sense to wait in the Lord?”
“It was then that I realized that God’s leadership is the one significant fact in human experience,” Pastor Gilmore wrote years later, “that it makes no difference how we are led, or whither we are led, so long as we are sure God is leading us.” Pastor Gilmore never thought of promoting his hymn, yet he let his wife send it to a local newspaper under a pseudonym, after which he thought no more about it. Years later he was invited to preach in Rochester, NY – and, oh surprise! That Sunday they sung “He Leadeth Me,” yet nobody knew who the author was, let alone that the author was their guest preacher.
But how do we grow God’s “long-temper,” God’s “patience,” God’s own makrothumia, you may be wondering? The answer is the same way we grow any of the other eight fruits of the Spirit. “Abide in Christ,” “stick with Christ,” “live a Christ-like life,” always welcoming and following the Good Shepherd who leads us through the most challenging and the most rewarding moments of life. “I am the vine, and you are the branches, and if you abide in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit, the fruit of the Spirit.”
I’m sure Jesus’s promise was ringing in Paul’s heart when the apostle wrote these words to the Galatians. Despite our own impatience and our own ‘short tempers’ we can learn to be patient like Christ if we abide in him and listen to his voice and share who we are and what we have with a genuine sense of love and compassion, as true children of God.