One of the marks of a truly holy and holistic faith is its propensity for sustained growth across sustained attempts to quash it. Though this is a dangerous indicator to take on its own, it cannot be denied that the propelling-forward motion of the gospel has throughout history aided oppressed peoples in their battles and empowered them to resist spiritual and physical domination. Jesus himself gives us a simple test to discern good teaching from false ones: the bearing of good fruit. Good fruit – the ever-growing, bountiful, good and healing products of kingdom work being accomplished – is consistently put forward in the Bible as potential evidence for the real presence of God amongst a people or project.
One of the constant thorns in the side of the flesh of the body of Christ, Westboro Baptist, showed up in Portland during the recent Gay Christian Network Conference. A few Killjoy Prophets decided to make a sign (nothing kills a protest like boring signs) and spoke the language Westboro proclaims to be fluent in: the Bible. The sign, as shown on fellow Patheos blogger Marg Herder’s recent post, is an allusion to one of Jesus’ adventures in Mark 11:12-25 (PS – the sign says Mark 12, oops! We’ve only just begun honing our sign making skills. Look out for more at future events☺).
In this passage, Jesus, apparently hungry for some figs, approaches a fig tree only to find it bearing no fruit. In his anger, the fruit tree is cursed. A strange scene – Jesus cursing creation. In the next passage, zeal for God’s house consumes Jesus as he drives out those profiting from the Temple sacrifice system. In the final scene in this narrative, Peter exclaims that the fig tree has indeed withered, to which Jesus pretty much says, “of course! You just gotta have faith.”
While the notion that God loves figs is primarily a clever retort to Westboro’s most infamous slogan of hate, it’s also entirely true. Figs are the first seen in Gen. 3:7, where Adam and Eve cover their bodies with the leaves of fig trees. Figs in the Bible, as a general rule, represent the health of God’s relationship with God’s people. They are used in a similar way to grapes, which also represent the fecundity of the land. The three-scene narrative in Mark 11 can be made more clear when read alongside a passage like John 11:1-8, where Jesus explains that those trees (or churches) that do not bear fruit will be pruned and thrown into the fire. We believe that in our day, Westboro Baptist, with their consistent condemnation of all things “fruity,” faces a similar fate. Declining church attendance is far from the only marker of whether or not a community of faith is producing good fruit, but in certain cases empty pews do mean empty commitments to action and the kind of growth that the gospel consistently bears.
But this notion should really be extended far beyond Westboro Baptist, to all churches and Christian communities that exist today. While we doubt Jesus was advocating the popular suburban megachurch model premised on targeting hipsters, middle, and upper class folks to increase revenue (see: Mark 11:15-19), the Word is clear that God’s love does demand fruit to be born of it.
One of our members was able to attend to the entire weekend of conversations and opportunities to gather around the table at the Gay Christian Network conference, celebrating old friendships and breaking in new ones. There, Christians of different histories and disparate positions on a variety of issues gathered together as one body, to break bread and swap stories and worship our shared God. At times, there was strife – simple conversations weren’t immune from the normal cuts and bruises that generally accompany conversations between well-meaning folks from privileged groups and marginalized peoples. But even our most awkward or painful moments became pierced by authenticity, trust, and an openness to vulnerability that would come to characterize our time together. (Jeff Chu gave a marvelous talk on this that you canwatch online for a brief time – do so.)
Throughout history, healthy articulations of our faith have resisted empire, subversively grown and survived numerous obstacles to become something healthy and holy. The lives of conference attendees were filled with the sort of good fruit that only the presence of God can reveal. One possible explanation for this is that this group of believers – primarily LGBT Christians – have been told for years that their faith is empty, that they do not exist, that they cannot possibly bear good fruit.
And yet here they were, resisting and fighting for scraps of something that most of us take for granted. And the organization has been growing exponentially since its inception, and the Gay Christian Network’s conferences and projects have touched the lives of thousands upon thousands of people. The kind of growth experienced by attendees there is full of the movement of the spirit, uninhibited by the foul poisons of the tainted fruit central to failing and cruel organizations like Westboro, the Gospel Coalition, and modern ex-gay ministries.
Want to know if God is moving among a people or a project? Look around. Are strife and sadness being sown, are there heavy burdens being heaped upon your siblings? Or is there worship, communion, are there signs of peace, love, and all the good fruits of the spirit? Our churches should discern the signs of oppression in our communities, the signs of our times.
“And in the morning, ‘There will be a storm today, for the sky is red and threatening.’ Do you know how to discern the appearance of the sky, but cannot discern the signs of the times?” Matthew 16:3