Sunday, April 29, 2012

2012 Annual Report

My annual report as delivered to Clinton First Church of the Nazarene April 29, 2012.

In Galatians 5, the Apostle Paul gives us a taste of the fruit of the Spirit; that well known list of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control.  We often think of these as a list of Christian virtues, characteristics which good Christian people should strive to exhibit.  To be sure, these are the kind of attitudes and practices we would expect to find among disciples of Jesus.  However, I think we sometimes become so enamored with the list itself that we rush over Paul's chosen metaphor for this list without giving it much thought.  That is to say, I think it is significant that Paul calls these qualities "fruit of the Spirit".

Consider how a fruit tree goes about bearing fruit.  An apple tree doesn't try really hard to bear fruit.  It doesn't just keep working at it until it makes a good apple.  No, making apples is simply what it does by its nature.  It is a natural by-product of its existence as a healthy apple tree.  What an apple tree does work very hard at is seeking the life giving elements which will sustain its existence.  It is continually putting down deeper roots to find water and nutrients.  Its branches actively seek out the sunshine needed to convert those nutrients into usable energy.  One might even say that the apples tree's whole existence is consumed and defined by the search for these life-giving elements.  Without these things, the tree will wither up and die.  With them, it will produce fruit as an effortless out pouring of what it is by its very nature.

I think Paul means to communicate the same thing about these qualities he lists when he calls them fruit of the Spirit.  As Christians, it is not our task to seek the fruit of the Spirit.  We are not called to try really hard to be loving, joyful, peaceful, etc.  In fact, if you've ever just worked really hard at being patient, you may know from your own experience that is one of the fastest ways to make sure you become more impatient.  No, our task as followers of Jesus is not to seek the fruit of the Spirit but to seek the Spirit.  We are to be a people who are continually becoming more deeply rooted in the Word so that we might drink from streams of living water; a people continually branching out in the ways of the Spirit.  One might even say that our whole existence as the people of God should be consumed and defined by this single task of seeking the Spirit.  For without the Spirit, this tree will shrivel up and die.  With the Spirit, it will produce the Spirit's fruit as an effortless out-pouring of what it is by its very nature.

What I'm saying here is nothing new.  In fact, several of you have heard me say this very thing on a number of occasions.  However, my confession to you this morning is that as much as I have recognized this on an individual basis, I have failed to fully grasp its significance for us as a church body.  As I look over the goals and emphases we have had in past years, I recognize that in many ways we have sought the fruit of the Spirit rather than the Spirit.  We have focused on things like outreach, discipleship, serving others, and greater inter-generational fellowship.  These are not bad things.  They are, in fact, very, very good things.  They are precisely the kind of fruit we would hope to exhibit as the Body of Christ.  However, I don't think it is our first task to seek those qualities as a church.  Our first task as the Church is to seek the Spirit.  Really, our only task as the Church is to seek the Spirit.  We are called to seek the Spirit and trust that Christ will build his Church.  Only then will we produce the kind of fruit we were created to produce as the people of God.

So how do we seek the Spirit?  There are a number of ways - what we typically refer to as the spiritual disciplines - things like prayer, meditation, service, study, worship, solitude, and confession.  These all have their place in the Christian life. They all are means of seeking the Spirit so that the Spirit's fruit might grow in our lives.  However, we find in Scripture two disciplines which were often combined when the people of God desperately needed the Spirit of God to move: prayer and fasting.  

Fasting is a way of humbling ourselves before God.  It is a way of confessing that we are completely dependent upon God, that the Spirit of God is our real source of sustenance.  When we fast, we are saying that we hunger and thirst for God's righteousness more than we hunger for our next meal.  

Perhaps you are wondering to yourself how fasting will enable us to be better at outreach, discipleship, service, and all the other things we are about as a church.  How is fasting going to help us grow as a church?  The answer is that it won't.  That's not its purpose.  Its purpose is to confess that we can't grow the Church.  Its purpose is to confess that we can't disciple, reach out, or serve without the Spirit.  We can not be the Church without the Spirit.  Fasting is a confession that if the Spirit of God doesn't sustain us then all of our best efforts will not produce an ounce of fruit.  It is a confession that if we fail to seek out the Spirit then we will be nothing but a tree that withers and dies.

So I wonder this morning how hungry we really are for God's Spirit to move among us?  We say we want God to do miraculous things among us but are we hungry enough to go hungry?  Here is what I would suggest.  We have four weeks until Pentecost; the Sunday on which we celebrate the gift of God's Holy Spirit to us.  Could we engage in a church-wide fast of one meal a week for those four weeks until Pentecost in anticipation of the Spirit movement among us?  I know that some will be limited in their ability to fast due to age or health conditions but I beg you not to use that as an excuse to avoid fasting entirely.  If you can't fast a whole meal, will you pray and seek out advice about what you can fast?  And can these four weeks until Pentecost just be the beginning, a way of jump-starting our spiritual lives together?  I don't believe fasting until Pentecost guarantees anything for that particular Sunday.  This is not a way of manipulating or controlling God.  This is simply a way of getting us started into a new practice together.  It is my hope and prayer that after Pentecost we will continue to engage in regular fasting throughout the year as the Spirit leads us.

As for prayer, there is already no shortage of opportunities for corporate prayer in our fellowship.  Prayer meeting will resume on Wednesday nights next Wednesday (May 9).  We are continuing to have our prayer service on the first Sunday night of each month.  There is also the morning prayer times at 9:30 on Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays for those who don't have to work in the morning.  If we are a church that believes in prayer, a church that believes in the power of the Spirit then let us show it by taking part in the opportunities that are already before us.

One of the most consistent themes of Scripture is the propensity of God's people to rely on their own strength rather than God's.  I believe this continues to be one of the greatest temptations for the Church today as well.  May we be a people who signify our complete dependence upon God through prayer and fasting.  May we hear these words of Jesus from John 15 this morning.

"I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser.  Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.  Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you.  Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.  I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.  If anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.  If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.  If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and abide in his love.  These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full."

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