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Have we fruit?

To bear the good fruit of wellness, we must attend to daily disciplines and long-term practices of the faith. And that includes asking about the fruit we bear, says Nathan E. Kirkpatrick.

July 6, 2010

Colossians 1:1-14 : … so that you may lead lives worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, as you bear fruit in every good work …

Editor's note: Faith & Leadership offers sermons that shed light on issues of Christian leadership. This sermon was included in the Clergy Health Initiative's summer lectionary resource. Additional reflections can be found on the clergy health blog.

"Have they fruit?" Mr. Wesley asked of his would-be preachers. Could those who were seeking ordination show anything for their service? Was there at least one person who had found faith through the word they proclaimed? A single person whose spiritual practices had been enlivened by what they taught? A hungry person who found bread? A homeless person who found shelter? Was there any sign that the ministry exercised by this person was waking the world to the dream of God?

Have they fruit? It's not a bad question for would-be preachers, and as a denomination we've been asking it for more than 200 years.

It's also not a bad question for congregations to ask themselves. Imagine the discussion that would ensue at the next administrative board or church council meeting if the question were asked, "Have we fruit?" Imagine the conversation if the topic at the meeting became, "What evidence is there? What can we point to that demonstrates that the community in which we live is better, healthier and more faithful because of the presence of our church? Are our ministries making any kind of difference to our neighbors? Is the Spirit, through us, actually changing lives, deepening faith, seeding hope in this neighborhood? Or are we just taking up space on a corner in town, an antiquated placeholder on this block?" I imagine a lively scene as a congregation deliberates and discusses its missional role in its own context, all the while answering the question, "Have we fruit?"

Cautionary tales of churches that can point to no fruit, churches that have lost their way and whose ministries have grown stagnant, are legion. One that has stayed with me since I first read it is in Mark Nepo's book "Surviving Has Made Me Crazy." He tells of a town in New England in which a church had closed. Sadly, what the farmers of the community missed was the ringing of the church bells, not the ministries of the church. While asking, "Have we fruit?" might not have prevented that church from closing, it could have revealed that the church served no other role in their community than that of music-maker. You know similar stories.

But if the cautionary tales linger in our imagination, so too should the exemplary communities of faith -- the churches that are bearing much fruit and are themselves signs of hope in and for the world. In the beginning of the letter to First Church Colossae, the writers praise the church for its fidelity; the church there had earned a reputation as the kind of place that bore good fruit: "We have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love that you have for all the saints." A few verses later, they go on: "Just as [the gospel] is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world, so it has been bearing fruit among yourselves from the day you heard it." The writers are explicit -- if the question was asked of the Colossians, "Have they fruit?" the answer would be a resounding and enthusiastic yes.

Which makes it all the more profound that even as they praise, the writers of Colossians also pray for the community in powerful and passionate ways: "May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from [God's] glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks." This intercession is a subtle -- and not-so-subtle -- reminder that faith communities that today are bearing much fruit can quickly wither. We can abandon our best practices of compassionate ministry, forsake our disciplines of outreach and turn inward again.

Here, an analogy to health and wellness seems somehow fitting. The health we enjoy today, the wellness we have worked hard to achieve, can be lost to us if our discipline falters. Our weight can creep back up if we ignore what we know about proper nutrition and the importance of exercise. It is the daily discipline of good choices and the long-term practices of self-care that bear the good fruit of wellness.

So it is in our faith journeys. If our congregations are to emulate the faithfulness of the Colossians, if we corporately and individually are to keep bearing fruit that is salutary for the communities and contexts of our ministries, then we must attend both to the daily disciplines and to the long-term practices of the faith. In so doing, we are readying soil, planting seeds, pruning vines and bearing much fruit.

And the promise of the Scriptures? That as we do so, saints here and saints above will be praying for us, celebrating our faithfulness and rejoicing in the light of the love of God.