Luke 8:4-15, Colossians 1:3-14

I made a rather rash commitment last week – to take a photo every day in June of something in my garden, and post it on Facebook. And I have said so, on Facebook, so all my friends will keep me to it. I did it primarily to make myself stop, at some point each day, and simply enjoy the wonderful things growing, all at different stages, but many coming to their most beautiful point of growth at this time of year. Often I am rushing so much that I fail to notice the rose that has just bloomed, or the summer bulb shoot breaking through the soil, or the birds feeding their young, and I want to notice this year. I want to be more aware of the growth happening all around me, both of plants I have actively cultivated, and those that are growing with little or no intervention from me. My garden has good soil, as does much of this fertile area of middle England, and where there is good soil, healthy things grow.

Jesus talks about good soil in this much quoted parable of the sower, good soil in which seed grows and produces abundant fruit, and he uses the idea to illustrate how those who hear his gospel message, holding on to it as they mature, will grow healthily and bear fruit. Paul picks up this theme in many of his letters, like the one I want to unpack this evening, to the Colossian church.

Healthy things grow. In both plants and people, growth is a sign of health. In Christians growth is a sign of health too, and it’s why, in the visitations over recent weeks, I have been asking Churchwardens about what enables people to grow in the churches where they serve, partly to encourage taking time to pause and notice, notice people growing in their faith. Because though we rightly focus a great deal on ways of growing our churches by attracting in new people, we need also to make sure what we are attracting them to is healthy, is a community of growing people, of wholehearted disciples of Jesus.

But what is a disciple of Jesus?

A report being considered by the General Synod of the Church of England says this:

Jesus calls both men and women to be disciples: to learn from him, to pattern their lives upon his life, to follow him. The first disciples recognised that the Kingdom of God was drawing near in the ministry of Jesus. They were called to repentance and faith. They were invited into a community marked by a particular rhythm of life: the call to be with Jesus together and to be sent out. All are called: the poor, the rich, the sinners, the sick, the disgraced and forgotten, the lost and weary, the unclean and the oppressed, women and men, the young and the old.

To be a disciple is to be called to a life of learning and formation in the likeness of Christ . Jesus draws his disciples apart and teaches them the deep patterns, ethics and actions of the Kingdom of Heaven, the ways of prayer and worship, the principles of life together .
Yet to be a disciple is also to be called to live a distinctive life of witness and service, an apostolic life, sent into the world, to follow God’s call. Through the course of Jesus’ ministry the disciples are sent out in mission and return to reflect. This pattern of sending and gathering leads to the great commission of the disciples in the power of the Holy Spirit by the risen Christ.

GS1977 Developing Discipleship

The first of ten marks of a diocese committed to developing disciples in the report is identified as one where “A lifelong journey of discipleship and growth in Christian maturity is supported and modelled by all.”

So discipleship is about growth, ongoing learning of both the head and heart variety, constant maturing in our faith journey as we are formed in the likeness of Christ.

And discipleship starts with relationship. Many of us will have reflected on the Trinity this past Sunday, perhaps thinking about how through the work of Jesus and the enabling of the Holy Spirit we can know God as Father, and have a relationship with him. We build that relationship by communicating with God, by prioritising prayer – prayer in which we both speak and listen to him.

Discipleship is the process of becoming like Christ, and being caught up in his purposes. Wholehearted discipleship doesn’t just happen, it involves a decision, and a commitment.

Our commitments define us in so many ways. If we commit to becoming a disciple, a follower of Jesus, that’s a commitment to growing, not staying still. It may mean other priorities become less weighty. When we have choices to make about what we do with our time, our gifts, our money, we see what we are really committed to, and that can be quite revealing.

If we make serving God’s purposes the main thing, life changes. Being involved in God’s plan means being in constant touch with him, it means being equipped by him, trained by him, becoming more like Jesus so that we can do what Jesus wants us to do in the way Jesus wants us to do it. Discipleship is about life-long learning, together with other disciples, and putting into practice what we learn. Wholehearted Christian discipleship is hard work, it can be tough, it is also the most rewarding and fulfilling way to live.

If you think about any other area of your life, you recognise that it’s natural to learn and grow and become mature. Adults, those with more experience, do things in different ways from children. When we start our Christian journey, whatever physical age we are, we are spiritual children, and we need the sort of teaching and nourishment and protection that small children need. But small children grow into teenagers, and adults, and take on responsibility, and develop, and need different input. The Bible talks about milk for spiritual infants and solid food for the spiritually mature. We need to provide solid food for those in our churches to we make sure people are growing into wholehearted disciples of Jesus, and not just becoming nice ‘Sunday Christians’!

Paul prays for the new disciples in the church in Colossae, that they may grow, mature and bear fruit. And it seems this happens with a mixture of hard work from them, and gracious input from the Holy Spirit. As I look out at all of you, thanking God as I do so often for the hard working wardens of this diocese, conscious that many of you have been walking the walk of discipleship for a good long time, I pray that you will never stop growing. And I urge each of you to commit to growing, because it’s all too easy when you are fulfilling a role such as yours to miss out on some of the growth opportunities others experience, because you are so busy doing stuff for God, you forget to meet with him, and sit at his feet to learn from him, and to get to know him better.

  • So I pray that in the year ahead, as you serve as wardens, you may be filled with the knowledge of God’swill in all spiritual wisdom and understanding. This means spending as much time in prayer as in service, it means listening for his wisdom, and allowing the Holy Spirit to guide and refresh you.
  • I pray, just as Paul prayed for those in churches over which he had some sort of oversight, that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, and be fully pleasing to him. That you continue to bring him joy as you grow as disciples.
  • I pray that you will bear fruit in every good work, fruit that comes from being planted in good soil, and being well fed and watered. Working hard does not necessarily lead to fruit, if the right growth environment is not in place – make sure it is!
  • I pray that you will be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power. You need strength to be a churchwarden, it’s a challenging calling. But we serve a God who promises to strengthen the weary. Make time to wait on him that your strength might be renewed, and pray for the fruit of patience as you endure some of the inevitable frustrations inherent in your role.
  • Most of all I pray that all the churchwardens of this archdeaconry will be characterised by thankfulness, that we together will be those who joyfullygiving thanks to the Father, who has transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, made us his kingdom people.

Quoting from that GS report again

Disciples are sustained in their on-going Christian life not primarily through courses but through worship, mission and community – through being with Jesus and being sent out. We grow in our discipleship through Christian witness at work and in our leisure, in our prayers and in our worship. Disciples are formed and sustained through experiences of difficulty and suffering as well as through joy. Formal Christian education plays a key but secondary role to this formation in the life of the Church through deepening engagement with Scripture and the tradition, through providing opportunities for reflection on Christian experience and through equipping the saints for the work of ministry until all come “to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ”.

Growth happens as we pray, and worship, and minister to one another in community, and as we reach out in mission.

God builds his church, and grows disciples, so that mature disciples can work with him to build his church and grow disciples, and so it goes on, and grows, and grows! Being a wholehearted disciple for each of us means fully playing our part in building God’s church locally, whether we are called as wardens, as priests, as ALMs or in the many other roles many here will play.

So I want to call us all afresh this evening to wholehearted discipleship, to a commitment to growth. To inspire us, let me share one young man’s understanding of what such commitment might look like. This man from Rwanda who was forced by his tribe in 1980 to renounce Christ or face death. He refused to renounce Christ, and he was murdered on the spot. The night before he had written the following commitment which was found in his room:

I am a part of the fellowship of the unashamed. I have the Holy Spirit Power. The die has been cast. I have stepped over the line. The decision has been made. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I won't look back, let up, slow down, back away, or be still. My past is redeemed, my present makes sense, and my future is secure. I am finished and done with low living, sight walking, small planning, smooth knees, colourless dreams, tame visions, mundane talking, chintzy giving, and dwarfed goals.

I no longer need pre-eminence, prosperity, position, promotions, plaudits, or popularity. I don't have to be right, first, tops, recognized, praised, regarded, or rewarded. I now live by presence, learn by faith, love by patience, lift by prayer, and labour by power.

My pace is set, my gait is fast, my goal is Heaven, my road is narrow, my way is rough, my companions few, my Guide is reliable, my mission is clear.

I cannot be bought, compromised, deterred, lured away, turned back, diluted, or delayed. I will not flinch in the face of sacrifice, hesitate in the presence of adversity, negotiate at the table of the enemy, ponder at the pool of popularity, or meander in the maze of mediocrity.

I won't give up, back up, let up, or shut up until I've preached up, prayed up, paid up, stored up, and stayed up for the cause of Christ. I am a disciple of Jesus Christ. I must go until He returns, give until I drop, preach until all know, and work until He comes.

And when He comes to get His own, He will have no problem recognizing me. My colours will be clear, for "I am not ashamed of the Gospel, because it is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes."

That is wholehearted discipleship! Probably as we don’t experience persecution for our faith, the temptation for most of us to be rather more ‘luke-warm’ in our living out of it than him, is constantly there. Most of us, if we are honest, would find it hard to sign up to a commitment as far-reaching as that of this young man, though some of us may be challenged to reflect on some aspects of it. I am always impacted by the phrase, meander in the maze of mediocrity! Constantly committing to growing in discipleship hopefully mitigates against mediocre living.

The Methodist covenant prayer, now incorporated into Common Worship, is probably . more familiar to many of us, and it expresses in a similarly powerful way the sense of dynamic, fruitful discipleship focussed in a life offered to God in response to God’s grace:

I am no longer my own but yours.
Put me to what you will, rank me with whom you will;
put me to doing, put me to suffering;
let me be employed for you, or laid aside for you,
exalted for you , or brought low for you;
let me be full,
let me be empty, let me have all things,
let me have nothing;
I freely and wholeheartedly yield all things
To your pleasure and disposal
And now, glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
you are mine and I am yours.
So be it.

And the covenant now made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven. Amen

As you prepare to be admitted to office, let those words ring in your ears. Remember that you are God’s. Remember that you stand before him as a disciple of Jesus, with all of us, seeking to mature and grow and bear fruit through his enabling, strengthened and empowered by the Holy Spirit, not expected to do it in your own strength.

In my prayers for you, Churchwardens, I always thank God,for I have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints,because of the hope laid up for you in heaven. I pray that you will experience good soil and will continue to bear fruit as you comprehend ever more fully the grace of God and his love for you.