The Purpose-Driven Disciple

(Galatians 5.22-23)

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After twelve years in Britain I returned to the United States in 1996 to teach in a theological college. When I arrived the college was a-buzz—but not I soon learned because of my arrival. The buzz was because in the same year an American evangelical pastor, Rick Warren, published a book entitled The Purpose Driven Church. He subtitled it ‘Growth Without Compromising Your Message & Mission’. Whether in praise or condemnation, everyone was interested in it. Publicity for the book said, and still says, this:

The Purpose Driven Church shifts the focus away from church building programs to a people- building process. “If you will concentrate on people-building”, Warren is quoted saying, “God will build the Church”.

The phrase ‘a people-building process’ came into mind as I read today’s portion from St Paul’s Letter to the Galatians. That’s what St Paul turns his attention to in chapter five. He lays out a description of what life in Christ aims for; and what life in Christ aims for he calls ‘the fruit of the Spirit’.

I want for a moment to stick with St Paul’s idea of the aim of the Christian life. Remember that Paul, while a devout Jew, in adulthood a zealous Pharisee even, was born and raised in a non-Jewish, Greek environment. The Greek atmosphere of his youth, the Greek spirit to which he was no stranger, made much of the idea of aim or purpose. It was a strong, persistent feature of the way Greeks thought, namely, that everything aims toward a particular end or target; everything should honour its purpose. In thinking about human behaviour they thought this was especially so.

When St Paul wrote to the Christian congregations throughout what is now Turkey (then a thriving Greek-speaking province of the Roman Empire), he brings the notion of aim and purpose into the heart of what being a follower of Jesus the Messiah is about. He’s clear in this and other letters that followers of Jesus don’t simply carry on their habitual ways as Jews and pagans. Instead, their minds are ‘transformed’ (Romans 12.2); they aim toward a kind and quality of character and behaviour by means of which the mind and heart of Jesus shine through.

It’s important to think that one’s life has a purpose. But however others may or may not think that, for Christians it’s at the core of how we understand ourselves and one another.

To say ”I’m a Christian” is to say that my life’s purpose, my aim is ‘the fruit of the Spirit’. We have St Paul’s words precisely to remind us of this since we can easily lose sight of that purpose even as active and involved Christians. So much of our activity and busy-ness—‘building the church’, as Rick Warren puts it--can distract us from the key task of people-building, of being built-up as ‘living stone’ (to use another New testament image [1 Peter 2.4]). And the people-building task starts and ends with ourselves, with yourself, with myself.

On the back page of today’s Newsletter are words by Evelyn Underhill from her little book The Fruits of the Spirit. It’s a compilation of short letters she wrote and circulated to her prayer group. This is what she wrote to her prayer partners:

‘The fruit of the Spirit,’ says St Paul, ‘is Love, Joy, Peace, Long-suffering, Gentleness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Meekness, Temperance’—all the things the world most needs. A clear issue, is it not? To discover the health and reality of our life of prayer, we need not analyze it or fuss about it. But we must consider whether it tends, or does not tend, to produce just these fruits, because they are the necessary results of the action of God in the soul. These are the fruits of human nature when it has opened itself to the action of the Eternal Love: what the ‘new creature in Christ’...is to be like...A good gardener always has an idea of what he is trying to grow; without vision, even a cabbage patch will perish....’

Her reference to a kitchen garden is apt, since the soil in which we sow, grow and harvest spiritual fruit is the life we live every day. It involves sowing seeds in a sensible and timely way; watering the seeds; keeping pests away; weeding; and perhaps from time to time spraying; and growing a variety so that our spiritual ‘body’ is replete with nutrients.

What tools do we have to do this work?

    • Reading and studying the Bible, and other Christian literature;
    • Praying, with a range of prayers (thanksgiving)
    • Self-examination and repentance, and, if need be, seeking spiritual counsel & priestly absolution;
    • Working with a spiritual guide to support and help;
    • Worshipping regularly, and preparing for worship so that the time is well-spent and inspiring;
    • Becoming involved with a spiritual movement like Cursillo; or going on retreat, or on pilgrimage;
    • Fasting and abstaining (are Fridays any different in your weekly pattern?);
    • Charitable work and support toward others.

There’s something there for everyone to explore; something for every seeker after the fruit of the spirit to do so as to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good’ (Psalm 34.8).

Are any of those resources you’ve used? Just how is it that you’re progressing in the harvest of the fruit of the Spirit in your life? It’s rightly said that we don’t typically possess them all in equal measure. Nor should we be exclusive in limiting the ‘fruit of the Spirit’ to Paul’s list.

Still, there is a general order to Paul’s thinking, so it’s important that we aim chiefly toward what he puts first: love, joy, and peace. Love of course is the richest fruit of all, since love is itself (to change the image) ‘the eternal seed from which all [other fruits of the Spirit] grow’. Just what is this love which is the Spirit’s gift? Well, maybe the best way for us to discern that is by looking for its accomplices, joy and peace.

However we negotiate all that, the key thing is that we commit ourselves to harvesting the fruit of the Spirit. And committing ourselves to that means, as a consequence, using the spiritual resources at our disposal so as to bear this fruit.

Remember too that our word ‘fruit’ and ‘fruition’ comes from a Latin word which means enjoy. We call fruit ‘fruit’ becomes it feeds the body, engages our sight and smell, and makes life enjoyable. Well, the fruit of the Spirit makes human life enjoyable too; enjoyable because the fruit of the Spirit characterizes the new creation in Christ who is himself the first-fruit of the new creation. God wishes human life to be joyful by means of these spiritual fruits.

It’s no surprise, then, that the Body of Christ, the Church, is, well purpose-driven; purpose-driven in its aim to build-up each believer into the full stature of Christ, with all the means it has to offer.

In that sense we’re all called to be purpose-driven disciples. So let’s get on with it.

Amen.

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Preached by The Revd Dr Charles Miller, Team Rector

St Helen’s Church, Abingdon-on-Thames

June 30th 2019, The Second Sunday after Trinity