Saturday, July 25, 2015

Bearing Fruit and Growing--First Baptist Church, York, SC

Colossians 1:1-15
July 26, 2015
Central Idea: Focus on the process instead of the produce. 


The peaches are ripe, and that makes this a great time of year. My grandfather always said that you know a peach is ripe when it drops off the tree. Unless you have a peach tree in your back yard, you can’t get peaches any closer to ripe than at a South Carolina orchard or farmer’s market right now. Trees are heavy with fruit, and fruit stands are full, and that makes this a great time of year.

It’s something of a reach to think that when the apostle Paul wrote about “bearing fruit”  he was thinking of peaches. It’s a reach, but it’s not impossible. Peaches were cultivated in China thousands of years before Jesus was born. They were introduced to ancient Persia—modern-day Iran—hundreds of years before Jesus. The Persians introduced them to the Greeks and Romans who called them “Persian apples.” By the time Paul was born and traveled around the Mediterranean basin, peaches were known and grown all the way from China to Europe. One twentieth-century German biographer of Paul wrote that on the island of Cyprus Paul would have seen “big groves of fruit trees, oranges, lemons, figs, mulberries, peaches, and apricots” (Joseph Holzner, Paul of Tarsus [London: Scepter, 2002], p. 118). He probably did.

Four passages in the New Testament letters associated with Paul speak of fruit (Romans 7:4-5; 1 Corinthians 9:7; Galatians 5:22; Colossians 1:6-10). In the passage in front of us this morning from Colossians 1, we read of “bearing fruit” three times in five verses. In v 6, the gospel of Jesus Christ “is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world,” just as it has been “bearing fruit,” it says among the congregation at Colossae. And then v 10 says that leading “lives worthy of the Lord” can be characterized as “bearing fruit in every good work.” Unlike in Galatians 5:22 where Paul lists the fruit he has in mind—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—in Colossians 1 there is no inventory of the traits involved in “bearing fruit and growing” and of “lives worthy of the Lord.” So this morning, instead of focusing on the produce of the Christian life in “bearing fruit and growing,” I want to focus on the process of “bearing fruit and growing.” The process rather than the produce. What needs to happen for the gospel of Jesus Christ to bear fruit and grow in the world and in the church?

Most of the time, the first thing we notice in the process of bearing fruit and growing is that fruiting trees and vines begin to bud, and in the bud, there is a promise that fruit will be borne. The bud is not the fruit, but it’s the first evidence of the beginning of the process that leads to fruit. In Romans 7, another “bearing fruit” passage, Paul speaks of “new life in the Spirit” (v 6). At our baptism, Paul says, it is as though we are buried with Christ and raised with Christ “to walk in newness of life” (Romans 6:4). That’s the budding stage of faith and the Christian life. It’s the earliest sign of spring in our souls as we begin to grow in Christ.

But in fact, the process has been underway for a long time already by the time the tree or vine begins to bud. There is a lot of cultivation and care, pruning and watering and fertilizing, that is necessary to produce even a bud, much less fruit. That’s why we have to focus on the process, not just the produce; because if your processes are inadequate, if your cultivation and care is insufficient, you can’t succeed in bearing fruit and growing. That’s true in your personal life and your family life, in your life at work and your life school, in your life in your community and in your life at church. Cultivation and care are necessary to arrive at “new life,” “the newness of life” that is the beginning, the bud, of Christian faith and a Christian life. And in the bud there is a promise of fruitfulness to come.

As that newness of life grows, the bud opens and a flower blooms. That’s how it’s supposed to go. But the truth is, there are people whose Christian faith and life bud but never bloom. Maybe you know someone like that. They had an initial experience; they exhibited an early sign of life, they made a commitment to grow. But for one reason or another—an untimely freeze, an onset of some disease, a flood or a drought in their lives, whatever the reason—the bud died and the promise of faith was lost: Some people bud but never bloom.

But the bud that blooms opens into a flower, and in the bloom there is beauty. Early on, the flowers get all the attention. The Cherry Blossom Festival. The Apple Blossom Festival. The Orange Blossom Festival. The Cranberry Blossom Festival. The flowers get all kinds of attention. Because they’re so attractive, some people make the mistake of thinking that the flowers are the goal. The flower is not the fruit. An orchard of peach trees in full bloom is a glorious sight. But the beauty of the flower is not the end: The flower is only a means to the end of bearing fruit. The flower’s beauty serves the purpose of pollination, and pollination leads to fertilization, and fertilization leads to the setting of the fruit. That’s how it’s supposed to go. But there are people whose faith and Christian life bloom but never set. They are beautiful for a time; but in the end, they are unproductive: They are long on looks but short on fruit. Maybe you know some people like that, whose Christian lives look good, but they don’t really do much good. They bloom, but they never set.

In the setting of the fruit there is potential for bearing fruit and growing. The process has moved from the promise of the bud to beauty of the bloom to the potential of the setting of the fruit that will grow and mature and ripen. There is nothing to compare with the maturity of ripened fruit on a tree or a vine or a Christian life. It’s not as showy as the flowering stage, but in the fruit there is fulfillment. Colossians 1 calls us all to the full maturity of faith and the Christian life when it says in verse 10 that “bearing fruit in every good work” is what living “lives worthy of the Lord” looks like. It’s not the bud with all its promise; it’s not the bloom with all its beauty; it’s not the set with all its potential. It’s the bearing fruit.

But there are people and churches who set but never mature. Everything was in place: They were ready to ripen, but they never did. Instead, they remained forever stunted, immature. For whatever reason, they didn’t grow. Something went wrong in their processes and they got stuck short of maturity. It is the fruit that is the fulfillment, and for whatever reason or reasons, they didn’t arrive at bearing fruit. 

And here’s the thing: Even when we’ve arrived at bearing fruit, we’re not done yet. Because as far as the plant that produces the fruit is concerned, the purpose of the fruit is to provide seed because in the seed is the future. It’s sad to say, but there are people and churches alike who mature in faith and the Christian life but never go to seed. They arrive at a place of maturity, but they never pass it on; they never scatter and sow and plant. It is enough for them to enjoy their own sense of fulfillment, their own sense of calling, their own sense of community. And that’s all they do. And so as they age and eventually decline—it’s called senescence in biological terms—there is no one in a generation to come to take up the faith and life and the church. You may like to eat seedless grapes and seedless watermelons, but in the Christian faith and life, if there are no seeds, there is no future. “Bearing fruit and growing” means going to seed every bit as much as it means budding and blooming and setting and maturing. It means passing it on, scattering and sowing and planting the gospel so that fruit may be borne by others. That’s the process we are called to live in faith and the Christian life.

I want to illustrate that process with three stories. Chances are, you’re not going to remember a word I’ve said in the last 14 minutes. But if you remember one of these stories, and that’ll do just fine. Jesus told the first story in the gospel of Luke. “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’ (Luke 13:6-9). That’s a story of the cultivation and care and patience the process takes for bearing fruit and growing.

The legendary preacher Fred Craddock told the second story about insufficient cultivation and care. “I went to see a lady in our church who was facing surgery. I went to see her in the hospital. She had never been in the hospital before, and the surgery was major. I walked in there. She was a nervous wreck, and she started crying. She wanted me to pray with her, which I did. By her bed there was a stack of books and magazines: True Love, Mirror, Hollywood Today, stuff about [celebrities and such]. She just had a stack of them there, and she was a wreck. It occurred to me, There’s not a calorie in that whole stack to help her through her experience. She had no place to dip down into a reservoir and come with something—a word, a phrase, a thought, an idea, a memory, a person. Just empty. How marvelous is the life of the person who, like a wise homemaker, when the berries and fruits and vegetables are ripe, puts them away in jars and cans in the cellar. Then when the ground is cold, icy, and barren and nothing seems alive, she goes down into the cellar, comes up, and it’s May and June at her family’s table. How blessed is that person,” said Craddock. Blessed are those who store up food for their soul and for the souls of others for when the winter comes.

The third story is also Craddock’s, and it’s a story that illustrates that even a little bit can be just enough to help us make it through. “A young woman said to me, during her freshman year of college, ‘I was a failure in my classes; I wasn’t having any dates; and I didn’t have as much money as the other students. I was just so lonely and depressed and homesick and not succeeding. One Sunday afternoon,’ she said, ‘I went to the river near the campus. I had climbed up on the rail and was looking into the dark water below. For some reason or another I thought of the [words], “Cast all your cares upon [God] for [God] cares for you.”’ She said, ‘I stepped back, and here I am.’ I said, ‘Where did you learn [those words]?’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Do you go to church?’ ‘No . . . Well, when I visited my grandmother in the summers we went to Sunday school and church.’ I said, ‘Ah . . .’” A word, a phrase, a thought, an idea, a memory, a person, a reservoir to dip into to see you through.

When the trees are heavy with fruit and the fruit stands are full, it’s the best time of the year—to put up the food your soul will need when the ground is cold, icy, and barren and nothing seems alive or when you see nothing but dark water below. Blessed are those who store up food for their soul and for the souls of others. That’s the cultivation and care, budding, blooming, setting the fruit, maturing, going to seed—and of storing it up for when you will need it.

Whether or not Paul was thinking of peaches as I am these days doesn’t really matter. Because the lesson for each of us in bearing fruit and growing—the lesson for ourselves, for our families, our workplaces, for our schools, our communities, and for our church—is this: Focus on the process, and the produce will come. Focus on the process, so that you may “be made strong with all the strength that comes from God’s glorious power, and . . . prepared to endure everything with patience, while giving thanks to the Father who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light” (Colossians 1:11-12).

May it be so for you. Make it be so for you. Amen.

Copyrighted © 2015 by Jeffrey S. Rogers. It may be copied or disseminated for non-commercial use, provided this notice is included. The author can be contacted at 02tlsjeff@gmail.com.