Making More Disciples: Green Shoots, not Shooting Stars
Holy Communion Service for Ascension Sunday led by our Minister
This sermon is taken from John 17, verses 20-26
Green Shoots, not Shooting Stars
It was a very cynical, embittered female academic, in an episode of Lewis, who told one of her female students that her bright, charismatic but somewhat unreliable boyfriend was a “shooting star, dear. They light up the night sky; they are exciting and amazing. But what are they, really? They burn out and turn into useless lumps.” She had had a very bad day.
Jesus, with slightly more tact, once said that not everyone who called him “Lord, Lord,” with fervour and passion would necessarily be living in the kingdom of God. It was not about what you said but about what you did. It was not so much about fervent passion as about consistent growth. Effective Christian disciples are green shoots, not shooting stars.
The church in which I grew up made it clear that we should all have had a dramatic conversion experience by the time we were 11 or so. We should have turned from our wicked ways and made a decision to follow Christ. My problem was that, having led a sheltered life in a Christian home, I had not had many opportunities to be wicked. I had been taught to pray for as far back as I could remember. I had been reading the Bible since before I went to school. I had been at church two or three times a week. What precisely did I need to convert from? I was not helped by the fact that our congregation loved dividing the sheep from the goats, speculating on who was really “saved, “and who was not. And since I had no dramatic conversion experience to share as my testimony, I believed that, in the eyes of those people, I was in the unsaved camp. This made me all the more withdrawn; tormented by self-doubt, so not particularly kind to others or forthcoming in the church, not much of a disciple at all, really. Maybe they were right, and I was not saved……
It took me years to work this out. Yes, you do have to make a conscious, deliberate decision to follow Jesus. We are free-thinking beings with minds and hearts and souls of our own. Jesus is proclaimed as the Son of God- God in a human life. You cannot ignore a claim like that. Nor can you accept it simply because your parents told you to. You either accept Jesus as Son of God or reject him. But this is a decision we need to make every hour of every day. Because every hour of every day we are challenged either to do things Jesus’ way because we believe he is Son of God or to take an alternative route. Many people do have dramatic conversion experiences to share; they are genuine and inspiring to hear. But most of these people will also admit that this momentous point of decision was only the first step and that accepting the saving grace of Jesus Christ, Son of God, for yourself will be an ongoing process, transforming your life and the person you are day by day.
What does it mean-to live as one who knows themselves to be “saved by grace?” It is about getting up each day believing in yourself because you trust that God believes in you. It is about looking at the world with hope because you trust that is how God sees it. It is about being able to forgive because you trust in God’s forgiving mercy for you. It is about never giving up on life because you trust that God will never give up on you. It is about never giving up on people because you see them as God’s children. It is about treating the natural world with respect as God’s gift to us. It is a whole-life experience; a whole-life growing process. If I, as an eleven year old, had a sin from which I needed to be saved, it was that of rejecting the green shoots of faith which my parents and my church had helped to plant because I imagined that Jesus insisted on my being a shooting star.
In this prayer of Jesus, he started off by summing up his own ministry. What has he tried to do? He has tried to show the world what God is really like. He has tried to teach and to be the truth of God. He has inspired men and women to follow him and to learn from him. Now he is praying for these followers because soon he will have to leave them.
He cannot predict what they will be. He cannot control what they will become. They are living green shoots, each of which will grow in their own way and receive both nurture and attack from different quarters.
He is also praying for those who will come to faith in future years- people like us. Each generation will pass on their faith to the next and each generation will have something new to offer both to the previous one and to the future one. The faith community Jesus is leaving will have changed beyond recognition in two thousand years. How can it be kept safe? How can the green shoots be enabled to grow?
His prayer is focussed very much on unity. “May they be one as we are one.” This verse can be read on many different levels.
First, it has become the “rallying cry” for Church unity. It did not take long for the Christian church which Jesus left behind to start dividing and sub-dividing. It took the best part of two thousand years for church unity as opposed to church division to appear on anyone’s agenda. There is still not a lot of church unity-as in Christians of different traditions worshipping together, sharing their buildings, sharing their clergy… But there is, I would say, far more Christian Unity. Because now, rather than keep endless arguments about theology and ecclesiology and constitutions going, Christians are accepting that, as free human beings, we will never all think the same, yet still as followers of Jesus we can work together in His name for the good of the world. So, we have Foodbanks and Street Pastors and Shelters for the Homeless all over the country, set up and staffed by Christians of all denominations. Jesus prays for this kind of unity because, he says, this is how the world will know that I come from you, Father God. There is a lot of cynicism about Christianity in our country today, but few people will deny that, without these Christian initiatives for the needy, there would be a lot of people in far more desperate straits in our country today.
And did you see in this month’s Newsletter, that message of loving support from the local Mosque, sent to us in response to the Easter Sunday attacks on Christians in Sri Lanka? Did you hear of the Christian man, who, in the wake of the attacks on Muslims in New Zealand, went to his local mosque and told the Muslim worshippers, “ You go in and I’ll watch while you pray.” Whatever our complex thoughts about other religions, surely we can admit that the fact we show loving respect to each other does at least dispel the widespread myth that religion is all about hate and violence.
Second, Jesus’ prayer is not only about Christians being kind to each other and kind to the wider world. It is about where that kindness comes from and how it is generated. The first and the most crucial prayer is for the followers of Jesus to become ever more united with God. Make them holy- that is, “whole people.” Keep them close to you- that is, walking daily in the light of God. “The glory which you gave to me, I have given to them.” The glory of God, in John’s Gospel, is the fullness of God, the visible reality of God’s presence. That glory was in the human life of Jesus and through Jesus, that glory is in us. It is one of the most awesome verses in the whole Bible. And what people most need to see in us is that daily, hourly, ongoing glory of the presence of God. That is what helps them to believe that there might just be a God after all.
Third, Jesus is praying for those disciples who together, will form the Christian community and together become his body in the world. Today our service is very much a celebration of the church, the local, visible faith community. We are inducting Elders, commissioning a Church Officer, reminding ourselves of what we stand for in the Statement of the Nature, Faith and Order of the United Reformed Church and celebrating Holy Communion, a sacrament which links us with the whole church on earth and in heaven.
It is a time to celebrate where we have come from, the many and various ways by which we have all arrived here in this place, with these people, on this day. It is a time to think again as to why we are here? What are we here for? And to pray that God will keep us strong in our faith and faithful in our commitment to his people.
So yes, once again we are back to “unity.” The Father sent the Son, the Son sends the disciples, through these disciples others will come to faith but only if each generation of disciples remains united with God, faithful to Jesus Christ and committed to each other. Today is when we all re-commit ourselves to the life, the work, the mission of this faith community into which God has brought us and to which Jesus Christ has called us.
We need to reaffirm our unity, again for the sake of the world. Not necessarily in bright smiles and big hugs. (Not everybody welcomes big hugs) but in our deep, ongoing and passionate signs of commitment. If we are half-hearted and unenthusiastic about our church, then why should anyone else be convinced that it is a good place to be? Why should anyone come here seeking the truth of God if we are not prepared to share it with them by spending time with them? Why should anyone hope to find new life in our church if we appear to be thinking more in terms of its’ death? Jesus prayed that we should be one as he was one with God the Father. Only if each of us wants more than anything else to encounter the true and living God in this place, are we an authentic faith community and what so many people want so much these days is “authenticity”- something real.
In my years of ministry, I have been privileged to work with many ordained Elders of the United Reformed Church and several Church Secretaries. All have been different but have had at least two things in common. One- they have thoroughly enjoyed their work. Not all the time but most of the time. None have regretted their ordination. Two-they have grown in their work. It has been awesome to see men and women grow in faith, in grace, in strength, in union with God as they have served. Yes, it has all involved hard work; a serious commitment; a lot of self-sacrifice; disappointments and frustrations along the way but their growing unity with God and with one another has been wonderful to see. For them ordination as an Elder, commissioning as a Church Officer has been a moving upward, not in any hierarchical sense (despite the fact that in some church traditions the Church Secretary has been seen as the next one down from God…) but I am talking in terms of moving upward in faith, coming ever closer to God.
Not everyone is called to be an Elder or a Church Officer but within the faith community there are many forms of service. And this is not me saying “your church needs you” but me asking you to think what you might need in order to come closer to God. “The glory which you gave to me, I have given to them.” How does that glory come to life and remain alive in you? How does that glory fill our church and keep it holy? Jesus prays that his followers may be with him, where he is. Is that about life after death? Or about life right here, right now? Most probably, both. So, ask yourself, in this service of commitment, what Jesus Christ might be calling you to, so that you may be where he is.
Just to finish- in the episode of Lewis I mentioned: that boy described as a shooting star did turn out to have green shoots of loyalty and courage that hopefully, with long-term, loving nurture would grow into something strong and reliable.
And we are also shown how a few green shoots of compassion and care planted by Lewis himself-without even knowing it- many years before have come to fruition in a young Police Constable, inspired by Lewis to offer himself to the force.
In the Holy Habit of Making More Disciples, it is never easy to assess how well you have done. The green shoots you plant do not always or even often grow up right before your eyes. But we are missing the point here. Holy Habits are for our good. They are what we need to do in order to come closer to God. Demonstrating God’s glory; following Jesus in the world; creating a committed and authentic faith community will bring us into blessed unity with God and then the making of more disciples, remember, is what the Lord does.