Bishop of Doncaster
Preached at Celebration of Lay Ministry 2017 – Luke 6
Posted by Bishop Peter Burrows on 22nd September 2017
My garden has a number of apple trees and this year an abundance of apples - both cooking and eating apples. I can’t tell you how many apple crumbles and pies we must have eaten this year already. Life can be tough sometimes you know, but someone has to rise to the challenge. But those who know me well will also know that my knowledge of gardening - let alone trees - could be written on the back of a postage stamp. However, while researching this sermon my attention was drawn to a number of quite interesting articles about growing fruit and particularly apples. I never knew it was so complicated. I just leave my trees and they grow and bear fruit of differing qualities.
All of the articles said, in one way or another, that to get fruit isn’t just an accident of nature, it takes a gifted grower, a lot of hard work and a refusal to compromise. To get good fruit each piece is treated with reverence and care. There is real love poured into everything the grower does and they say you can taste the difference.
If we want good fruit to be produced in our lives, it’s going to be the same sort of hard work. Good fruit from Jesus’ disciples is no accident. It takes a lot of hard work and a refusal to compromise - as those of you who’ve just finished studying know, and others will remember well. Your studying and formation for the various ministries you’re about to be licensed and commissioned for, is part of the hard work you’ve already started as you pour yourselves more fully into God’s mission exercised through your ministry.
And you will need to continue working and developing that because, just as a lush tree doesn’t always produce the best fruit - dare I say that a person who looks flowery and behaves like they are spiritually rich - may not in fact be all they seem. In Revelations Jesus warns certain Christians who are rich and wealthy that though they appear to have it all, they really are poor and destitute. It’s not how you appear or act that matters, its what’s in your heart that’s important and revealed by the fruit you produce.
But let’s be honest with ourselves, for most of us this won’t come easy and there will be times of dryness. I know this well in my own spiritual journey, there are times when I feel close to God and times when I’m less so, times when this is the most wonderful ministry in the world and times when being the welcomer at the back of B and Q (other hardware stores are available) seems more attractive. My spiritual adviser reminds me at times like that, that God has me on a long leash. Put another way, God knows what we need to produce fruit, he sends others to water our lives, he calls us to a rhythm of daily watering through prayers and reading scripture so that we can continue to be fruitful.
And we mustn’t forget the pruning. We all know the sayings you are what you eat – but also you are what you say, and the saying “speak little and learn much”. We get daily watering through the world of God but sometimes we would perhaps be best pruning our own words so that we only speak the best.
All of this is so that we grow into good trees so to speak, because when we grow into good trees we will produce good fruit. In the passage Jesus also refers to figs and thorns, grapes and brambles but to save us taking the gardening analogy too far, suffice to say that the point being made is that the type of plant you are, determines the type of fruit you produce. Jesus hints that some people are a bit like the thorns, they head off on a tangent sometimes even theologically. But they are tough and flexible and those who get too close may get caught on a thorn and can be hurt by sharp words which often keeps people away from Christianity rather than lovingly drawing them in.
Others are like brambles, they have good fruit, but it takes a skilful hand to get any of it. So for the most part human brambles impede the pilgrim who’s looking for the nourishment and joy that the good fruit brings.
But we should also remember this passage wasn’t given so that we could judge others. Christ taught to help judge ourselves. And this is important in terms of God’s mission. As disciples of Christ we’re called to help those who don’t know Jesus as Lord and Saviour, to come to him and see their lives transformed. But how are they going to do that unless we are ourselves good fruit and producing good fruit. Let’s be honest if we’re a thorn or a thistle we’re going to impede God’s mission and even our own effective ministry. Who after all wouldn’t rather have a grape than a thorn. Don’t we prefer figs to thistles.
And how often have we heard it said that you can tell a Christian by the fruit they produce.
So after all this we may well ask what is the fruit? You’ve no doubt heard the words Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary. These are often attributed to St Francis of Assisi. Undoubtedly, our actions speak volumes and often the fruit being worked out. But our words are also important and Christ wants to hear them. So don’t become a fruit inspector. Don’t go around with a little check list of Christian works which you think are necessary for people to have in order to be a Christian. Works can but rarely reveal the whole heart of a person. A person can be the nicest person in the world and do all sorts of good works such as community work, they can give all their money away and faithfully attend church all their lives. But it’s what they say that’s far more important than all that. And it’s in sharing their faith with others, through telling them and of course showing them how Christ has transformed their lives that others will also come to know him. And the reality is that if we don’t tell others about Jesus Christ no one else will do it for us.
You don’t need to talk about God and the bible all the time but if God and the world if God never enter your speech, others won’t hear about him and may assume that it’s because God doesn’t have a prominent place in your own heart and lives. Remember, our speech will betray us, it will tell others whether we’re good fruit or a thorn or bramble.
It goes without saying perhaps, but I will anyway, that one major place to listen to yourself and what comes out of your mouth is when you pray. Your prayers are a window to your heart. What do you pray for? Who do you pray for? How do you pray? Do you spend time magnifying God and praising his name and thanking him rather than just praying for the self - as important as that is also.
Thomas Fuller said “When the heart is afire, some sparks will fly out of your mouth”. So listen to the words of your heart and you may be surprised at what comes out of your lips and it will reveal the condition of your heart and your commitment to ministry, to the works God is calling you to do and the fruit of winning new people for Jesus Christ.
Jesus says in St John’s Gospel “I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be full”.
As we bear fruit for Christ through our words that will lead to joy and it’s a powerful reason for living a fruitful life.