That you bear much fruit…
And become my disciples
The Bishop of Plymouth’s devotional address for Forward in Faith Assembly
It is only when we bear fruit that we can claim to be disciples! How often I get that the wrong way round. Much of what drives my discipleship is the thought that at some point, later, I will bear fruit, I don’t see much of it being borne now, but that’s alright, it will get better later; at some point in the future when I have followed for long enough, or at a greater depth, or in a more faithful way – then my discipleship might result in some fruit. But the Father is glorified by the bearing of fruit which itself is discipleship.
Age of revolution
Tomorrow is the feast of St Teresa of Avila, born in holy week 1515 – she entered a Carmelite convent aged twenty-one to discover that the rule was not demanding enough and in 1562 she, having reformed the rule and tightened it up, began to live a new rule and created what we now know as the discalced Carmelites
She lived in an age that frankly was not very different from our own. It was truly an age of revolution both socially and in terms of faith; exploration was pushing at the borders of the known and understood… And just two years after Teresa was born Martin Luther had begun that which we now know as the Protestant Reformation. She was truly a child nurtured in an atmosphere of change and challenge – revolution and revolt – and these were things from which she did not seek to be protected. In fact the social and political melting pot of European life in the mid-sixteenth century provided Teresa with the baggage for her journey… into the heart and mind of God and it was also the luggage with which she returned.
Encountering the divine
But it was the encounter with the divine that made it possible for Teresa to make sense of the baggage with all of its conflict and tension, to make such sense of it that it might become an ordered set of gifts to be received afresh from the hand of the giver of life. It is said that Teresa was able to enter into the divine presence with her pen in her hand and thereby record for others what she had seen and heard. Her writings reflect in a very personal way the richness of her own encounter with her Lord.
For Teresa of Avila this surge of the heart and look towards heaven, this prayer, has far more to do with the vital reality of God here and now and in all times and all places than it does with a particular activity, liturgical form, or time of day. Teresa’s writings are about prayer …but first and foremost because they are about God and his dealings with us… and prayer is for her, the atmosphere which enables our relationship with God to develop and grow.
For her nothing was more real than God and his love and his providential care and concern. She not only lived for him, she lived in him and with him. Her greatness consists not in what she tells us about herself but in what she tells us about God. And she can tell us so profoundly because of her in depth abiding, her remaining… persistently, constantly and, we now know, eternally with him … being one with him.
The reality of the Kingdom, in its fullness…of life in its completeness…is in Christ. As the Word of God engaged with the people of his day he did so from his place of security and confidence – that is, his oneness with the Father and it is this unity with the Father which produces the fruit of the Kingdom. The fruit of God’s love is borne to the world as a result of the unity between the Son and the Father, a unity into which Teresa was grafted by the Holy Spirit in precisely the same way as you and me.
‘A precious price’
Our bearing fruit arises because we have been made one with God, and the deeper and more profound that unity becomes, the more fruit we can bear and the greater and deeper will be our resulting discipleship. Towards the end of Teresa’s life she said, ‘Oh my Lord how true it is that whoever works for you is paid in troubles! And what a precious price to those who love you if we understand its value!’
One of the significant moments in Teresa’s life, a moment of profound conversion, occurred as she was praying before a statue of Christ being scourged before his crucifixion. This was one of the pivotal events which led to Teresa changing from a rather slack observance of the Carmelite rule to a new expression for which she is now renowned. Pivotal moments are not unknown and feature quite highly in our discipleship at this moment. It might feel to some as if the part of the body to which we belong is being scourged and it is painful to both witness it and clearly to experience it. And my prayer for us at this time echoes the words of Teresa that we might understand the value.
Here the notion of abiding might be helpful. From an old English root it can mean an intensive time of waiting… Lord, thy word abideth… It can also mean something that has to be tolerated or accepted or submitted to or complied with… I can’t abide it!
But of course it also has, and I believe that this is what is intended in John 15, the notion of remaining and continuing in faithfulness and expectation. That by the power of the spirit we might receive afresh the grace to know that we are one… With the Father… And all who have a similar vocation. Of all Christian traditions ours is the one that must understand the prime call to this unity with God and in, with and through him all his people. It begins in our unity with him and the ways we have at our fingertips to deepen
this union must feature more and more in our devotion at this time. We must engage in our devotions in ways which emphasize our unbreakable unity with the Father. Some of the symbolic signs of this are fracturing and may come to breaking point but that does not alter the reality of our unity – it does, however, make it more important that we bear witness to it! Brothers and sisters, return to the Scriptures, to a profound engagement with their words that the word of God might be alive and active in, with and through you. Meditate upon these treasures that you might be drawn deeper into the mystery of the love of the Father. It is by a ready willingness to encounter this mystery that the seeds of the fruits of the kingdom are planted in the soil of our daily lives.
The seeds thus planted are nurtured and watered by our constant engagement with the ordinariness of our daily living when the fruits of our engagement with the living Word can flower in the service of his people. Like Teresa’s brothers and sisters we need to show off our feet! As Isaiah tells us, how beautiful are the feet of those who bring good news. The fruit of our reflection and meditation and engagement is indeed our discipleship and that discipleship has to be lived out in the nettles and the brambles and the pots and the pans of the workaday world in which we are set. For too long discipleship has been seen as preparation for engagement with the world. We above all people should be those who can engage with the poor and the downtrodden, the marginalized and the oppressed, the rejected and the discarded, and to be honest the distractions in recent years have got in the way. It might just be the time with Teresa to tighten up our rule. We must bear witness to the truth as we understand it and take courage and heart from the example of Ignatius of Antioch who exemplified the notion of becoming a disciple of Jesus when, on the road to martyrdom, he exclaimed, ‘Now I am beginning to be a disciple.’
Our common prayer
Teresa took the baggage of a world not too dissimilar to our own into the heart of her engagement with the Lord. Tomorrow we can do the same, taking all the baggage of change and challenge, revolution and revolt, division and destruction to the heart of the mystery. Coming away from that mysterious encounter with the one who is both the origin and the destiny of our unity and filled with his very life, could our common prayer possibly be that we might be one, that the Church of England might be one, that the Church of God might be one so that each of us can be fruitful and rejoice in our discipleship? ND