St. Athanasius of Mt. Athos / Fifth Sunday of Matthew, July 5, 2015
Galatians 5:22-6:2; Matthew 8:28-9:1
Rev. Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, one God. Amen.
On the fifth of July, we celebrate St. Athanasius the Athonite. This is not the same Athanasius whose theology won the day at the First Ecumenical Council in the fourth century but rather the tenth century monastic who is credited with founding monasticism on the Holy Mountain of Athos in Greece.
For his feast day, we hear the beautiful epistle reading at the Divine Liturgy from Paul’s epistle to the Galatians, verses 5:22-6:2. Let’s spend most of our time today contemplating the first two verses: “the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, self-control: against such there is no law.”
The great fourth century Latin Father of the Church, St. Ambrose of Milan, mentions this passage in his work, On the Holy Spirit. He uses it here not to give moral exhortations to his readers but rather as a proof of the divinity of the Holy Spirit. That is, he uses this verse as part of his argument that the Holy Spirit is truly God.
In the fourth century, great debates raged among Christians first as to whether Jesus Christ the Son of God is truly God and then later concerning whether the Holy Spirit was truly God. Although the Church had long believed in the Holy Trinity, including the divinity of the Son and Spirit, heresies arose that attacked the traditional doctrine which the Church had inherited from the Apostles. As a result, in the fourth century the theological language expressing this dogma of the Church came to be more refined. In this case, Ambrose is making the case for the divinity of the Third Person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit.
Here’s what he says about the Spirit:
But let us consider whether He has goodness in Himself, since He is the Source and Principle of goodness. For as the Father and the Son have, so too the Holy Spirit also has goodness. And the Apostle also taught this when he said: ‘Now the fruit of the Spirit is peace, love, joy, patience, goodness.’ For who doubts that He is good Whose fruit is goodness? For ‘a good tree brings forth good fruit’ (De Spir. Sanct., 1.5.62).
(The translation of the verse here as Ambrose quotes it is a little different, but it’s the same verse.)
So here’s the argument Ambrose is making: Look at the fruit of the Spirit. It’s peace, love, joy, etc. These things are good. And if the fruit is good, then the tree is good. Thus, because the fruit of the Spirit is good, that means that the Spirit is Himself good. And this is one way that the Holy Spirit is just like the Father and the Son.
He goes on to say that God is good, and so of course the Holy Spirit must also be good. All goodness comes from God, and so therefore we know that the Spirit is divine. And the proof of it is that the Spirit makes “good men” out of the “worst” (ibid., 1.5.64).
Now, there is of course no debate within the Church these days over whether the Holy Spirit is God. We believe that He is God, just as the Father is God and the Son is God. This is what the Apostles taught and what has been confirmed for many centuries. One can find so-called “Christians” elsewhere who do not believe this, but it is quite settled for the Orthodox and actually for most Christians everywhere.
But the linkage that Ambrose makes here from this one verse from St. Paul goes beyond the fourth century debate about the divinity of the Holy Spirit. And it comes right into our own experience as Orthodox Christians living in the twenty-first century.
How? Paul makes this observation a couple verses down in Galatians 5:25: “If we live in the Spirit, let us also walk in the Spirit.” So if we really do have the Holy Spirit within us by virtue of being sealed with “the gift of the Holy Spirit” in chrismation, then that means that we should be exhibiting this “fruit of the Spirit,” which is “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control.”
And if someone is not showing that fruit, then it is clear that he is not “walking in the Spirit.” So this is a test of our authenticity as Christians. Do I have no fruit or bad fruit? I am not walking in the Spirit. Do I have the good fruit as indicated in Scripture? Then I am walking in the Spirit.
It is not for us to judge one another, of course. God will judge us. Our father-confessor will guide us. But we should use this to examine ourselves. Am I exhibiting “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control”? If not, I need to start walking in the Spirit.
But what does it mean to walk in the Spirit? Is it just to try to exhibit all these fruits? Just try hard, and that proves you’re walking in the Spirit? No, that’s not how you get fruit.
To get fruit from a tree, it has to be planted well, watered, fertilized, pruned, and so on. In the spiritual life of the Orthodox Christian, he has to do the spiritual equivalents of these things.
We have to be planted in the Church by holy baptism and chrismation. We have to be watered by consistent, persistent prayer, both privately and as a community. We have to be fertilized by learning the teachings of the Scriptures and the Fathers. And we have to be pruned by asceticism—fasting, simplicity of life, and giving of our time, our abilities and our resources.
When we do those things, then we can expect the fruit.
But there is something even more profound here that we should not miss if we listen closely to what Paul is saying and how Ambrose is interpreting it.
We have seen how we can get this fruit of the Spirit through the spiritual traditions of the Church. But in order for us to be truly motivated to have this fruit, to walk in the Spirit, we should understand what is actually happening when we do so.
It is no idle phrase that doing all this is called “walking in the Spirit” and “living in the Spirit.” This spiritual life—notice it is called “spiritual” life!—puts us into direct contact with the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of God, the life-giving, creative Spirit.
Living the Orthodox spiritual life puts us into direct contact with God. And we are not just touching God but actually immersed in God. Thus it is said that we “walk in the Spirit,” that we “live in the Spirit.” These are not mere metaphors. This language points to a deeply mysterious reality whereby if we live the spiritual life correctly, we experience the very presence of God.
And it is that presence that changes us. It is that presence that causes the tree of our souls to grow and to bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Spiritual life in the Church is not to make us moral. Of course we will be moral if we are living the spiritual life. But the spiritual life is so much more than morality. The spiritual life is about attracting the very presence of God Himself into our bodies and souls, a presence that transforms and deifies us.
We can see from these teachings of the Apostle and St. Ambrose that the sense that many Christians have that spiritual life is just a sort of religious overlay that “improves” the earthly life really is foolish. Our goal is not to become “better” or “religious.” Our goal is to establish direct contact with the Holy Trinity, by walking in the Spirit, by living in the Spirit. And in doing so, we gain “love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faith, meekness, and self-control.”
To God therefore be all glory, honor and worship, to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, now and ever, and unto ages of ages. Amen.