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Gratitude for “First Fruits”


1 Corinthians 15:20   Psalm 24:1    Exodus 23:16    Romans 8:23


I: — Megalomania is a psychiatric illness wherein the ill person has ridiculously inflated views of himself, regards himself absurdly self-important, thinks himself to be the centre of the universe, assumes that everyone else exists to serve him. Isn’t it good that we aren’t like that?

The truth is “we” are; “we”, that is, in the sense of collective humankind. The environmental crisis — critical in the sense that we can render our environment lethal — the environmental crisis demonstrates that a kind of collective megalomania has possessed us for longer than we think. Collectively humankind has assumed that the earth is ours to do with as we please; after all, the earth is “ours”, isn’t it? (It doesn’t belong to martians or moon-dwellers!) Then it is ours! In fact to speak of the earth as ours, to have precipitated the environmental crisis, is to give evidence that humankind, collectively, has a ridiculously inflated view of itself; we regard ourselves as self-important, the centre of the universe; we feel that everything exists to serve us. We are collectively self-deluded.

The ancient psalmist knew better. “The earth is the Lord’s”, he wrote, “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fulness thereof; the world and those who dwell therein. (The earth is the Lord’s; the earth’s fulness is the Lord’s; everyone who lives on the earth and is sustained by the earth is the Lord’s.) We are his; we don’t even belong to ourselves. It is both childish and silly for me to say, “I’m my own man”; even worse to say, “I’m a self-made man”. The earth is the Lord’s, everything in it and everyone upon it: all his.

Our Hebrew foreparents always knew this. One of their oldest festivals was the Festival of the Harvest. “You shall keep the feast of the harvest” (this is the command of God) “you shall keep the feast of ingathering at the end of the year, when you gather in from the field the fruit of your labour.” The Festival of the Harvest was a sharp reminder that the earth is the Lord’s, and this earth brings forth the food we need by his goodness and his providence. Obviously, our Hebrew foreparents were startlingly aware of several matters which we have managed to forget:


ONE: Because God is creator, because God has fashioned the universe out of nothing, it is his alone. Everything in it is his, whether mineral, vegetable, animal or human. Not only is it not ours to do with as we please, it isn’t ours at all.


TWO: Because everything belongs to God, our assumption that we have a right to it amounts to presumption. Our presumptuousness is a violation of God’s right, and God regards us as impertinent.


THREE: Because God, in his goodness, has created all things for our blessing, of his kindness he allows us access to his creation, even appoints us stewards of it.


FOUR: Because God is generous, his creation brings forth fruit abundantly, superabundantly. The first fruits which we offer to him are his pledge of more to come; in fact, they are the first instalment of the “more” that is already on the way.


FIVE: In recognition of God’s sovereign creativity, and out of gratitude to him for his blessing, we offer to him the “first fruits” of the harvest, in the language of our Hebrew foreparents; we offer the first fruits to God. Our offering of it is a sign of our offering ourselves to him in gratitude and reverence.


Some people tell us that if God is the author of blessing, particularly the author of the blessing of foodstuffs, then God has distributed his blessing very inconsistently, even unfairly. Just look at the pictures of children with bow legs, deformed ribs and misshapen skulls. These children have rickets, a vitamin-deficiency disease. We have seen the grossly distended tummies of children who are malnourished. Less evident at first glance is the brain damage of malnourished children, damage sustained in childhood which cannot be overcome in adulthood; these people are intellectually impaired for life.

Some people tell us that God is a sadist in view of the fact that hungry people (starving people, in fact) are not only hungry but tormented through knowing of the sumptuous foodstuffs which we non-hungry people have in abundance. But let us not blame God for this state of affairs. Remember, the earth is the Lord’s and the fulness thereof. The “fulness thereof” is full enough. At this moment there is enough food grown throughout the world to give everyone — without exception — 3,000 calories per day. (Most people need only 2,300.) In addition there are vast tracts of land that could produce food which are not under cultivation. We see the emaciated victims of hunger in India, and hope that a few dozen people of the millions there will get to Mother Teresa for a little tender loving care in their last hours. India, however, has the same number of people per cultivated acre as France, and France is the breadbasket of the European Common Market. With no more than existing agricultural techniques the land under cultivation at this moment in India could feed the entire world. Without strain the arable land of Black Africa could feed ten billion people, twice the world’s present population. Land already under cultivation in the world can support thirty-five billion people on an American diet, or 105 billion people on a Japanese diet, assuming no improvement in food-producing technology. Zaire has the lowest protein intake per person in the world; but Zaire has so few people per cultivated acre that its people could be drowning in food. The masses of Brazil are wretchedly underfed, yet Brazil has more land under cultivation per person than the USA. In South America the poorest people struggle to grow food on 45 degree slopes of rocky soil, while the wealthiest, owning the best soil, grow carnations for export as dining-room table decorations.

“But there have always been famines”, someone replies, “and God is responsible for the weather. Greedy, exploitative, heartless tycoons can’t be blamed for those aberrations in the weather which produce famines.” My comment here will be brief. India is one of the most famine-afflicted countries in the world. In 1870 the Suez Canal was built. Immediately India became a major exporter of wheat to England — while India’s people starved. (Their starvation had nothing to do with famine.) In the worst years of famine India has exported record quantities of grain. Plainly God has remained generous. The Festival of the Harvest should not be set aside, for God deserves to be thanked and honoured.

It’s clear that the fault does not lie with that earth which is the Lord’s; the fault lies, rather, with “those who dwell therein”; the fault lies with us. Humankind, collectively, is deadly. We are deadly. We deaden our fellow human-beings. What is the problem?


II: — We have a clue — more than a clue — when we look once more at the expression, “first fruits”; this time from the pen of St.Paul. “Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep. For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.” The problem, of course, is the Fall of humankind. There isn’t time today to explore thoroughly the biblical understanding of the Fall and all its consequences. In the time we have I can say only this much: in the wake of the Fall death is the ruling power of the world. Death is a power which infiltrates all things, undoes all things, brings all things to nought. God created all that is out of nothing; death reduces all that is to nothing. Death deadens. And in a fallen world, death dominates.

The acid rain which kills lakes is an instance of death’s domain. The economic crisis in North America is another instance. We must never forget that the economic “gravy train” which we have always enjoyed in North America has depended, historically, on the availability of cheap labour and cheap land. There was no cheaper labour than slavery — and what is slavery but a living death? There was no cheaper land than land taken at the point of a gun — and what is genocide but largescale death?

The racism which bedevils a fallen world is another instance of death’s domain. Racism says to someone, “You don’t exist humanly. You may exist bodily, in a sub-standard, sub-human way, but you don’t exist humanly.”

Death as dominant power can be profitable, as the tobacco companies demonstrate. As more and more people quit smoking the tobacco companies redouble their efforts to get teenagers to start. Adults who smoke invariably started in their teens. (Nobody starts to smoke at age 48.) As the North American market declines the tobacco companies intensify their efforts to have the poorest people in underdeveloped countries become habituated. Death is marketable.

With the example of tobacco-marketing in mind — that is, the engineering of death — it is easy to understand how death is engineered through food-marketing when there is food enough for everyone. Remember: according to scripture death is the ruling power of a fallen world.

WITH ONE GLORIOUS EXCEPTION! Jesus Christ has been raised victor over death. To behold him raised is to know that in him death has been bested. Because Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead, death has no dominion over him, and no dominion over his people. To be sure, death has not disappeared; it remains potent; but it is not omnipotent. Death is a defeated power which doesn’t have sense enough to give up, quit. It continues to lash out in its final, futile frenzy.

St.Paul reminds us that our Lord’s resurrection is a kind of first fruits. The first fruits are always a pledge of more to come, in fact the first instalment of something massive and grand. The “massive and grand” is the kingdom of God. The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the guarantee of God’s kingdom. And God’s kingdom is God’s creation healed.

Because God’s kingdom, God’s creation healed, is guaranteed Christ’s people are free to spend themselves in kingdom-work. Because we now see through that optic heart which Christ himself has healed in us, we are free to spend ourselves on those whom the world ignores or disdains as losers, not worth our time and effort because unable to advance us or enhance us. Chronically mentally ill people do not appear likely to advance my career or enhance me personally, at least enhance me in any sense that the world would recognize. Then why do I bother with them and why are they so dear to me? Because I see them through that optic heart which Jesus Christ has restored in me. I see them as only a hair’s breadth away from that glorious restoration to which they have been appointed in God’s kingdom. You recall the gospel-story of the deranged fellow who ran around in the Gadarene hills, naked, cutting himself with stones, saying over and over, “My name is legion, there are so many of us.” At the touch of our Lord he appeared before the townspeople seated, clothed, and in his right mind. In God’s kingdom that is the future of all who are like him now.

We who are Christ’s people are free to spend ourselves for any and all who appear hopeless, just because there is no hopelessness in that kingdom which is even now pressing itself upon us.

The disadvantaged child whom the conscientious schoolteacher sees for nine months and then will never see again; whatever kingdom-love and kingdom-truth she envelops the child in will not to be lost eternally, and therefore her time and energy and even anguish are never wasted. The homemaker who feels so helpless before the beaten neighbour-woman who wants advice yet doesn’t follow it inasmuch as she can’t seem to leave the husband who beats her; the homemaker who wonders whether her patient listening has point and weight and substance need wonder no longer. As a pastor I have often attended death-beds where the person I have gone to see is unconscious and breathing only four times per minute. But I don’t say to myself, “He is comatose and my presence is pointless; I have come in vain and might as well go home right away.” On the contrary, he should still be surrounded in the comfort of the One who is resurrection and life. Besides, the patient in the adjacent bed notices whether I care about the apparently hopeless; so do hospital visitors; so do the nurses.

Jesus Christ has been raised from the dead. His resurrection means that he is the rightful ruler of the cosmos; to be sure death has butted in and attempted to extend its domain. It is still a power to be reckoned with, but not a power to be feared. It is a power to be resisted, but not a power to stand in awe of, for it is defeated now and will disappear shortly. In the defeat of death the kingdom of God has come to the fore. The risen one is the first fruits of it. He is its guarantee. He is the leading edge of it. And his people are free to spend themselves in kingdom-pursuits which others may find ridiculous or silly; but we, Christ’s people, see through a restored optic heart. For us this kingdom is so substantial, so concrete, that it fills the horizon of our lives.


III: — And yet however strongly we believe this in our heads, it’s easy to get discouraged, isn’t it. I believe,with no shadow of doubt whatsoever, all that I have said about our Lord’s resurrection and the defeat of death and the coming kingdom of God and our living in anticipation of it. I believe it all in my head. Yet there are days when my step is slow and my heart is heavy and my zeal wanes. On those days I look again to another instance of “first fruits” and find myself refreshed and supplied with new vigour. In his letter to the Christians in Rome Paul says, “The entire creation is groaning; and we who have the first fruits of the Spirit, we are groaning too as we wait for the redemption of our bodies.”

It is plain the creation is groaning; the environmental crisis is its groan, at least one of its groans. You and I groan too, for we are frustrated that we have been disciples for so long yet appear so immature; we use proper Christian vocabulary about faith and hope and love, yet our faith seems fragile and our hope diminished and our love undermined by our residual nastiness. Is it all ever going to get better? Are we ever going to get the monkey off our back? Will the day ever come when a spectator sees the imprint of Christ upon me without having to be told that I am a Christian? Yes! The day is coming when I shall stand forth as that new creature in Christ whose newness is apparent instead of merely professed. One day I was wearing a necktie with the outline of several fish on it. A woman asked me why I was wearing a tie with fish-silhouettes on it. Now I was not having a good day on this occasion (in fact I was having a terrible day) and somewhat morosely I told her that my necktie was the only thing about me that was identifiably Christian. I trust I was exaggerating. Still, I know there are days when you feel like that too.

But we aren’t like this all the time. The apostle tells us that we, Christ’s people, are possessed of the Spirit, and the Spirit is the first fruits, the guarantee, of something bigger and grander.

For early-day Christians the Spirit — the pulsating, intimate presence of God himself, that surge of God within our own hearts — for early-day Christians the Spirit was that which rendered them Christian. If you had asked those people where they differed from their non-Christian neighbours and friends they would not have said, “Oh, we believe certain things which they don’t believe.” They would have said, “We have come to know a new relationship as our lives are taken up into God’s own life; deep down inside us our heart throbs with our new-found life in God. Before “God” was only a word, and a word we didn’t use very often. Now God is a presence we could no more deny than deny our breathing.” God intimate, God present, God indwelling is the Spirit. And it is our present awareness of the Spirit which is the first fruits of our completed deliverance when the residues of our sinnership are finally shed and we stand forth as men and women whose appearance no longer contradicts our profession of Christ.

This is what invigorates me on those days when my foot is heavy and my reputation is tarnished. My awareness of the Spirit within me is a pledge, even the first installment, of my final deliverance when I shall stand before God without spot or blemish.

Today is Thanksgiving Sunday. My gratitude was never greater than it is today. I want only to thank God for the first fruits which he has given us. Food in such abundance that his generosity cannot be doubted; the resurrection of his son from the dead in such power that death has been bested and the kingdom of God guaranteed; the Spirit within us in such assurance that discouragement over the slowness of our Christian growth can be put behind us. I trust that your heart swells with the same gratitude as mine.


                                                                        Victor A. Shepherd                                                                                       

  October 1992