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.

Loving Like Jesus (1 Corinthians 13:1-13)

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Central to the teachings of Jesus is the command to love. Matthew, Mark and Luke all tell stories of people who came to Jesus asking him which was the most important of God’s commandments. Jesus summarises the Old Testament law by replying that God wants us to love him with all our hearts, mind, soul and strength and to love our neighbours as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-34; Luke 10:25-28). John develops this idea in his gospel when he tells the story of Jesus giving his disciples a new command: to love one another as he has loved us (John 13:34). To make sure his followers get the point, John has Jesus repeating this same command twice more in 15:12 and 15:17.

Every book of the New Testament except one talks about what it means to love each other in the way Jesus taught at some point. The only book that doesn’t explicitly talk about Jesus’ command to love is the Acts of the Apostles. However, Acts has plenty of examples of how the early Christians loved each other in community and brought the message of Jesus’ love to the world. It is possible to read the entire Bible as an epic story of God’s love for people and the love it inspires for others.

While we might talk and read about God’s love for us in Jesus, we can still struggle with how that love looks practically in our lives. There are a lot of different ideas of how to follow Jesus’ teachings on love, and there are many ways we can show his love in our relationships. One of the most helpful passages in Scripture I have found that describes the love Jesus taught is 1 Corinthians 13.

One way this passage can help us love in the way Jesus taught is to read verses 4-8a with our own names substituted for the word ‘love’. Whenever I do that, it doesn’t take long at all before I start feeling very uncomfortable – usually around the word ‘patient.’ Replacing the word ‘love’ with our names shows us that we fall a long way short of loving people in the way Jesus wants us to. While this can make us uncomfortable, it’s not a bad thing because it shows us that if we are to live faithfully as Jesus’ followers, we need help to do it.

That’s where I read this passage again, but this time inserting ‘God’ for the word ‘love.’ We can do that because the Apostle John tells us that God is love (1 John 4:16). God is the source, the embodiment, the fullness of all love. By saying that ‘God is love’ john tells us that God is synonymous with love. When we read 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a from this perspective, it tells us a lot about the nature of God:

God is patient, God is kind. God does not envy, does not boast, is not proud. God does not dishonour others, is not self-seeking, is not easily angered, keeps no record of wrongs. God does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. God always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. God never fails. (NIV)

Even when we fail to love others in the way God wants us to, the promise of this text is that God never fails to love us. God is patient with us even when we lose our patience with others. God is kind to us even when we are unkind to each other. God is not envious, boastful or proud, but instead embraces humility to serve us. God does not dishonour us, but gives us the honour of calling us his children whom he loves and with whom he is pleased. God is not self-seeking, but seeks what is good for us even though it kills him on a cross. God is not angry with us and keeps no record of our wrongs, but removes our sin from us as far as the east is from the west. God rejoices in the truth of his grace and peace. God is always protecting us, always trusting us with his goodness and gifts, always hoping for the best for us, always persevering and hanging in there for us. Ultimately, God will never fail us because the story of the Bible shows time and time again that God never fails his people.

God loves us this way because of what Jesus has done for us. God loves us in the way 1 Corinthians 13:4-8a describes because he entered into our broken human existence, taking our humanity on himself in the person of Jesus. He lived the perfect life that we fail to live, loving people in the perfect way God wants us to. Jesus took our flaws, failures and everything we don’t do in 1 Corinthians 13 to the cross, putting our wrongs to death once and for all. Then Jesus rose to new life so we can live new lives united with him through the Holy Spirit. God loves us perfectly even when we fail to love the way he wants us to because his Son Jesus lives in us.

Paul writes that when he was a child, he spoke and thought and reasoned like a child. As he matured, though, he put away childish ways (1 Cor 13:11). This is the spiritual growth that God wants for all of us. The path to spiritual maturity comes through recognising that we fail to love the way God wants us to and finding God’s love for us in Jesus. As we repent of our failure to love by turning towards God who is the source of perfect love in Jesus, and trust in his love for us, the Holy Spirit works in us to mature us as Jesus’ followers. I know from personal experience that when we recognise our failures in loving God and people, and when we turn to God in faith, trusting in his love for us in Jesus, it can change us into people who have a greater capacity to love others on the way 1 Corinthians 13 describes, even people who are hard to love. When we are able to love each other as the Spirit enable us, then people will see that we are followers of Jesus (John 13:35) and God’s love enters the lives of others through us.

Just about everything I do as a pastor is to help people grow in their faith in God’s love for them in Jesus so they can become more loving people towards others. 1 Corinthians 13 has become crucial to my understanding of what the love Jesus taught looks like. In the end, when everything else we think is so important is gone, then these three will remain: faith, hope and love. And, as Paul tells us, the greatest of these is love, because that’s where we find the life-changing goodness of God.