If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3 NRSV)
My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:8 NRSV)
Not long after we moved into our current home, my wife Denise was looking through a few shrubs and things that were being sold off at a garden centre, and she picked up a couple of English grape vine cuttings for a few pounds.
We put them in patio pots, not expecting much to happen, partly because they had been sold off at the end of season and didn’t look to be particularly healthy specimens. In addition, the latitude at which we live is not especially famous for generating the kind of climate in which grapes are known to flourish. Even though southern England now has some successful vineyards, we’re just a bit too far north.
Sure enough, within a few months one of the vines had died off, but the other had grown a few shoots so, for a bit of fun, next spring we planted it in a sunny spot which was also sheltered from the wind.
Well, it did survive and began to flourish. About three years ago it produced a few tiny grapes. The next year, however, our vine went almost rampant. It took over one wall of the house and started climbing towards the roof. It produced many bunches of grapes hanging from it ready to be harvested.
They are still not the huge bunches that grow in France, Spain and Italy, but at last, after about 8 years, our vine is starting to bear real fruit. It has taken time, a bit of patience and some pruning, but the results are there to be seen.
In the first of these little reflections on the theme of Discipleship (here) we thought about the importance of “belonging” to a loving church family as an aid to our growth as disciples. In our second reflection (here), we considered that the practice of religion – doing and saying all the right things, following all the rules – might well be important, but it was of far less significance than growing in our relationship with God and each other.
We also saw that being a disciple was very much like being an apprentice – we are learning on the job, learning to become the people God created us to be, learning to be God’s people.
We are on a journey of growth, and we might say that we are on a journey of growing in God’s Grace.
But what is Grace, and why do we need to grow in it?
Grace is one of those words to which we attach all kinds of meanings, and which we use in a variety of situations.
It has become popular again as a child’s name at baptisms; we talk about people being graceful, when often we mean elegant; we speak of someone’s graciousness, thinking about their kindness and generosity of heart. Sometimes we use it to mean humility: we say “he had the grace to apologise.”
And, of course, the correct way to address an archbishop (the next time you find yourself in such elevated company) is, “Your Grace.”
But “Grace” in Christian terms has a very specific and technical meaning.
Grace is that which is a free, and completely undeserved, gift from God.
And so for Paul in his First Letter to the Church at Corinth, love, the love he proclaims to the Corinthians, is the greatest of all God’s gifts of Grace.
Sadly, over the years I have seen some ungracious things going on in churches, and I have to confess that, on occasions, I have been a part of them. I have seen Anglo Catholics stamping their feet because somebody hasn’t been called “Father” or some particular ritual hasn’t been carried out properly. Equally, I have seen Evangelicals insisting that others are not Christians because they don’t sign up to a specific ideology.
I have seen liberal intellectuals dismiss with contempt the humble faith of ordinary people; and I have seen Pentecostals who hang signs over their church doors telling people that you can’t be a member of their church unless you speak in tongues.
Name the denomination, name the church, and we’ve all done it – to our collective shame; God forgive us.
For none of this, nor many of the antics and attitudes which can affect the life of any church – none of it has anything whatsoever to do with discipleship.
Because discipleship is about growing in Grace.
It is about gradually shedding those attitudes and activities which cut us off from God and our neighbours, and growing in the self-giving love which is God’s most gracious gift to each of us.
And God knows we can’t do it all at once: that it might take the rest of our lives. That’s why being a disciple is not about being part of a holy club, nor a religious sect, but about being part of loving fellowship seeking a life-transforming relationship with God.
And in order to grow in love, and in those other gracious gifts which God showers upon us, we need to remain united to Jesus Christ, in worship, in fellowship and in the service of his kingdom.
So the analogy of the vine is a very helpful one. (Read John, Ch 15, verses 1 – 8) It is through our relationship with Christ: through our worship, prayer, study of the scriptures and acts of service and forgiveness – that we grow in grace to become more like the people God created us to be.
But, as has been explained so well by Rick Warren, its not all about us.
Being a disciple, growing in grace, is not a lifestyle choice as in following the latest social trend. It is about allowing the life of Jesus, the true vine, to flow through us to nurture and invigorate us. Therefore the analogy of being a part of the true vine takes us further still, because the purpose of our discipleship is to bear fruit as people and for God’s Kingdom.
Many years ago now, as I was anxiously exploring my vocation to ministry, a wise priest said to a group of us, “God does not call you to be successful; but he does call you to be fruitful.”
Our discipleship will not guarantee us success, but it will help us to bear fruit – for the benefit of others: in our homes, in our church family, in our neighbourhood, for future generations of Christians – for the poor, the sick, the marginalised, the abused, the forgotten – those for whom Jesus demonstrated his divine and gracious love.
The purpose of discipleship, the purpose of growing in grace through our relationship with Jesus Christ is not just so that we can feel better about ourselves – though it may do that. Nor is it so that we can be more holy, or more correct in our religious observances – though those things may well happen as a side-effect.
No, the real purpose of our discipleship is to share in the life of the Kingdom, with God and with each other, to grow into the people God created us to be, and to bear fruit for the Kingdom – fruit that will last, fruit that will hopefully outlast us.
Because that is how God is glorified.