Organic Faith (Luke 13:6-9)

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Comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant might sound like a stupid thing to do. There are a lot of things that are obviously different about them. For example, an eggbeater is a machine. You turn the handle, which moves cogs which, in turn, rotate the beaters. It’s a simple machine, but it still involves a mechanical process which is predictable, controlled and results in a particular outcome.

A pot plant, however, is organic and not mechanical. It is alive which means it is less controllable than a machine and can grow in ways which aren’t always predictable. I can leave my eggbeater in the utensil draw of our kitchen and it will still work when I go looking for it. However, my pot plant requires constant care and nurture if it is going to stay alive, continue to grow and produce flowers, especially in hot and dry weather.
My reason for comparing an eggbeater with a pot plant is to ask whether faith is more like an eggbeater or a pot plant? Is faith more mechanical or organic?

It seems to me that we can at times taken a more mechanical view of faith in the church. We have tried to construct processes in the church which we expect people to move through and assume that they will result in spiritual maturity. When I listen to some church leaders, spiritual growth almost sounds like a production line which begins with baptism, moves through Sunday School or another form of children’s ministry, through to First Communion, Confirmation, and youth group into adult Bible studies or other programs that the church might offer. We can approach the Christian life like an eggbeater with a simple cause and effect relationship, thinking that if we do this event or run that program, then people will come out the end as mature Christians.

When I listen to the teachings of Jesus, however, I hear a much more organic approach to faith. Jesus tells lots of stories that use plants, trees and other living organisms to illustrate faith and the Kingdom of God. For example, in Luke 13:6-9, the gospel reading for New Year’s Eve, Jesus talks about a fig tree that wasn’t producing any fruit. Instead of applying a mechanical process to the fig tree, the gardener’s approach is understandably organic as he talks about digging around the tree and fertilizing it. The goal of both the owner of the vineyard and the gardener are the same: they both want the fig tree to produce fruit. The gardener understands that if that is going to happen, then he needs to nurture the tree, care for it and feed it. He does that with no guarantee of success. This isn’t a mechanical process where the production is controlled and the outcome is predetermined. Instead, the gardener takes a chance on the tree by investing time and resources into the tree hoping that it will grow into a strong, mature tree which will produces the fruit they are looking for.

How do we approach spiritual growth in our church? Do we try to put people through programs which are intended to produce predictable outcomes? Or do we take a more organic approach to faith, looking to nurture and grow faith in people? What might happen if we saw faith less as a process and more a longer-term growth? In our own lives, do we expect faith to happen as we go through the motions of a religious life? Or do we look to God to grow us by feeding and watering us so we can produce the fruit of faith in our lives? Are we then willing to be like the gardener from Jesus’ story in the lives of others, nurturing their faith so that it grows and produces fruit? Or do we rely on processes the church has in place to produce faith in people’s lives?

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When our congregation adopted our Discipling Plan of Connecting, Growing, Equipping and Sending, we deliberately chose an image with a young plant in it. We understood from the teachings of Jesus that maturity in faith doesn’t come through a process, but through organic growth. We want to be connecting people with the gospel in the same way that we plant a seed in fertile soil. We want to be growing people in their faith in the same way the gardener from the story wanted to grow the fig tree to maturity. We want to be equipping people to serve others in faith, producing the good fruit that God wants to see on his mature children. And we want to be sending people into the world, into God’s garden, to continue his work and to work with him in cultivating faith in the people we meet every day.

As people who live in a culture that has a modernist, mechanical mindset, it is easy for us to think that faith happens through processes and programs. We do need good processes and procedures for the sake of good order in the church, but real, sustainable, vibrant spiritual growth is a lot more like my pot plant than my eggbeater. My eggbeater is much more simple than my pot plant because it is easily maintained, produces a predictable result and I can leave it on its own for months and it will still work. Plants are much more difficult. They are unpredictable. They require more maintenance and care, especially when the heat is on. And there’s no guarantee that the effort we put in will produce any visible results.

Maybe that’s why Jesus talked about plants instead of machines. He understands that our faith is a living thing, that it’s fragile and needs constant care. But maybe Jesus also knew that the results are worth the effort. Jesus knew the beauty that is produced by a living faith, whether it is a fig we can eat or a flower whose beauty we can admire. As we end this calendar year, we can thank God for the ways he has continued to care for and nurture the faith within us and our loved ones over the past twelve months. As we begin a new year, it is good for us to remember that faith is organic. It is a living thing, and so needs to be cared for, looked after, nurtured, fed and watered.

This year, we will have the responsibility to take an organic approach to our own faith, making sure it is kept healthy and growing to maturity, as well as opportunities to care for the faith of others, nurturing them through the grace God gives and the love he shares in the gospel of Jesus.

One More Year (Luke 13:6-9)

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In the house where we live there is one part of the yard which was pretty much just dirt and weeds when we moved in. Over the we have lived there, I have been slowly working on the patch to turn it into more of a garden. One plant I put in was doing well to begin with, but a couple of months ago it started losing its leaves and turning brown. I began to ask myself whether this plant was worth saving, or whether I should pull it out and plant something in its place which was going to do better in that spot.

I think most people who have worked in gardens would have been in a similar position to the person in Jesus’ story that we read about in Luke 13:6-9. He comes back time after time to see if his fig tree was producing any fruit, but it never does. In some ways, this is a pretty simple parable to interpret: the owner of the garden is God, and each of us is the fig tree.

This parable starts to get more challenging when we begin to ask what the fruit is that God is looking for in our lives. There are a number of ways in which we could interpret the fruit, but whenever I hear the Bible talk about fruit I think straight away of what Paul says in Galatians 5:22-23:

But the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against these things! (NLT)

The way I’m thinking about the fruit that God comes looking for in our lives, then, is that he is looking to see if our faith is producing:

  • love like Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13, especially for people who are hard to love or who don’t love us
  • joy, even in the most tragic or difficult of circumstances
  • peace in the middle of life’s storms, conflicts and uncertainties
  • patience with people who frustrate or annoy us
  • kindness towards those who are unkind to us
  • the goodness of God in everything we think, say and do
  • faithfulness to the promises we have made to others, especially when it’s easier to break our promises, and to God for all of his goodness and grace to us through Jesus
  • gentleness, even with people who may be rough or hostile towards us
  • self-control in situations when it would be easier to let our emotions or feelings get the better of us

This story gives us a way to understand what the Christian life us about. I often talk with people who tell me that being a Christian is about going to church, or bringing other people to church, or getting to heaven when we die. This story says to me, however, that when God looks at our lives, he is looking to see if we are producing these kinds of fruit. This is the purpose and goal of living as Jesus’ disciples – to be growing to maturity so we can produce fruit in our lives and be sowing this kind of fruit into the lives of the people around us.

This is a great text for the New Year because it gives us a chance to look back at the past year and reflect on whether or not our lives have been producing this kind of fruit in our relationships with others. Most of us will probably be able to see times when we have produced fruit like Paul describes. However, there are other times when we have failed to produce these fruit. We are all growing and maturing, like any plant in our gardens. Every living thing is continually growing and maturing. We have times when the fruit is plentiful, but also others when the fruit is more scarce. What is important is that we are growing, because when something’s growing, it means it’s alive.

The good news of this text is that the owner of the garden doesn’t cut the fig tree down or even leave it to do its own thing. Instead, the gardener steps in and offers to care for it by giving it ‘special attention and plenty of fertilizer’ (v8 NLT). This character in the story is Jesus himself who intercedes for us by pleading for us with the Father and then promises to care for us. Jesus is the one who feeds us with his love, nurtures us with his grace, provides for us in his mercy, and grows us as his people. I won’t grow the struggling plant in my garden by telling it to grow stronger. Neither does Jesus grow us by telling us what to do. Instead, by being born and living a human life for us, by dying on the cross and then being raised to new life, Jesus has done everything that we need to grow into healthy, mature people of God so we can produce the fruit that God is looking for in our lives.

Jesus grows us to maturity in his grace through the waters of Baptism and the word of forgiveness. He provides food and drink for us as he gives us his blood and body, his perfect and eternal life, in the wine and bread of Holy Communion. Through our connection with and participation in Christian community, Jesus is there by his Holy Spirit to care for us and provide us with everything we need to grow as his strong, healthy, fruit-producing body of believers. Jesus commits himself to us, just like the gardener in this story, in the hope that as we grow and mature in his grace and love, our lives will produce the fruit of a vibrant and living faith which our heavenly Father is looking for.

I decided not to pull out the plant that wasn’t doing well in my garden. Instead, I committed to take care of it and water more regularly. Now, its leaves are growing back and it’s starting to flower again. This is what God plans for each of us. Through the care his Son gives us and by the power of his Spirit, God wants us to be strong and healthy in our faith so that our lives produce the fruit he is looking for. We can’t do it alone – to be strong, mature people of God we need the grace and love Jesus extends to us through a community of believers. My hope and prayer is that we can all live in the forgiveness, goodness and new life of Jesus this coming year so that our lives produce the fruit our heavenly Father is looking for by the power of the Holy Spirit, and we can then sow the seeds of his goodness into the lives of others.

Repentance Fruit (Matthew 3:1-12)

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We can often think of repentance in very negative ways. The call to repent can bring to mind a person standing on a street corner, telling people to turn from their sins because judgement is coming that will result in condemnation for all who are not living the right way. Repentance is often based on threats and can be motivated by guilt and fear.

When we listen to John the Baptist’s call to repentance in Matthew 3, we can hear him urging those who are listening to him to turn from a particular way of living. What is important is that John was talking this way to the Pharisees and Sadducees, the religious people of his day (v7). John was telling them that going through a religious ritual with no intention of making changes in their lives was worthless. Instead of thinking that they had no need to repent because of their religious goodness, they needed to produce the fruit that comes from a changed heart and mind in their lives.

This is a challenge to all of us. It can be easy for us, too, to go through the motions of turning up to church, saying a prayer of confession, hearing the forgiveness, without it making a difference in our lives. When John the Baptist calls us to produce fruit in keeping, he is saying that repentance will show in the way we live and relate to other people.

For example, during Advent we celebrate God’s gifts of hope, peace, joy and love through the birth of Jesus. This is a good time to look at our lives and ask whether we are producing the fruit of hope, peace, joy or love in our lives. If we are turning up to worship, lighting the candles each week, singing carols and other songs, but not finding hope, peace, joy or love in our lives, then we are not too different from the Pharisees and Sadducees who turned up to be baptised by John but were not willing to change their ways of living. It might sound harsh, but when John says that the axe is at the root of the tree, ready to cut it down if it is not bearing fruit (v10), he also warning us that God wants to see the fruit of hope, peace, joy and love in our lives.

What produces this fruit is turning towards God by trusting in the promise of his coming kingdom. Matthew writes that John’s message of repentance was the same as Jesus’ message at the start of his ministry: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matthew 3:2; 4:17 NIV). They both call people to turn to God and be part of his coming kingdom on earth. The coming Kingdom of Heaven is good news for us because Christ’s kingdom brings with it all the goodness of God in the person of Jesus. John and Jesus both call us to repent, to turn towards God, on the basis of the promise of God’s goodness coming to us in his kingdom. We can hear this call to repentance as the promise of something good and not just a threat of punishment.

With the coming of Christ’s kingdom is everything we need to produce the fruit God is looking for. If I am trying to grow fruit on a tree, the best way to help it produce a good crop is to feed it, water it, care for it and nurture it. God does the same with us by giving us what we need through Jesus to produce fruit in us. This is called ‘grace’. If we are lacking hope in our lives, Jesus gives us hope as the one who defeated death and whose life is stronger than anything that might try to take our hope away. If we are in conflict, either with ourselves or with others, Jesus’ reconciling work on the cross establishes peace between us and God which we can live out in our relationships with ourselves and with others. If we are lacking joy, the good news of Jesus’ birth, death and resurrection can give us joy as we live in the reality of God’s grace and love for us. And if we are finding it hard to love God, others or ourselves, the love that God show us in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection can inspire love in us for everyone who needs it. Whatever fruit we may be lacking in our lives, by turning towards Christ’s kingdom through faith, the Holy Spirit provides us with all we need to produce the fruit of repentance in our lives.

That is why John the Baptist calls us to repent. Instead of spending our lives looking for hope, peace, joy or love in ways that will ultimately fall short, he is calling us back to the one place where God provides us with everything we need to produce what he is looking for. Repentance is a vital part of the lifestyle of the follower of Jesus. It grows when we trust that God has everything we need for this life and the next and gives us what we need as an on-going act of grace through the coming of his kingdom in Jesus. Repentance is much bigger than turning up to church sometimes and saying a ‘sorry’ prayer. By participating in acts of confessing sin with sisters and brothers in Christ, and by receiving the forgiveness God has for us in Jesus, the Holy Spirit will continue to grow us to maturity so we can produce the fruits of repentance which God is looking for in our lives.

More to think about:

  • Do you tend to think about repentance as turning away from judgement & condemnation, or turning towards the hope, peace, joy and love Jesus brings in his coming kingdom? is the difference important? Can you explain why?
  • I have talked about some of the fruits of repentance as hope, peace, joy and love. What are some other fruits that grow out of turning towards Jesus & living in his kingdom?
  • The New Testament talks a lot more about repentance than confessing sin. In what ways are repentance & confession different? In what ways are they connected?
  • What is one aspect of your life where repentance (making changes) is hard? How can being connected with Jesus help you make changes in your life? (see John 15:1-8)
  • It can be a lot easier to pray a prayer of confession in church than it is to repent by confessing to someone that we have wronged them. Is there someone that you have wronged to whom it would be good for you confess to? How can this help establish peace in your life this Christmas?