Sunday 10th January 2021
Reflection: Discipleship of the heart
Last week we considered the challenge to ‘Be more Jesus’. In other words, to be good disciples. Unfortunately, once we use words like ‘disciple’ and ‘discipleship’, some Christians switch off, perhaps because they think this must be about something difficult and complicated which only applies to special people. But being a disciple is in one important sense quite simple – it’s about being more like Jesus.
Having started the year with this theme, we’re going to continue with it for a few weeks, looking at different aspects of our lives and exploring how ‘being more Jesus’ affects them. This week it’s discipleship of the heart, and it’s about what motivates us to act. We’re going to draw a connection between three things: what we believe, which then shapes what our attitudes and values are, and which then flows out in our actions. For example:
I believe that the new vaccines will go a long way to halting the spread of the virus and will ultimately defeat it. Because I believe this, my attitude is one of readiness so that when the call comes I can act on the invitation and book and appointment to have the jab. Or a different and perhaps controversial example:
President Trump believes that life is all about him and his status in the world. His attitude is one of rejecting the truth and despising all those who do not promote his cause. His actions have often therefore been vindictive and destructive.
Paul’s letter to the churches in Galatia (modern day Turkey) draws out these three themes. He believes that Christians live by the power of the Spirit of Christ. This shapes their attitudes and values; they are led by the Spirit. This prompts them to act in step with the Spirit for the good of others and the glory of God.
Belief: we live by the Spirit
Many of the Galatian churches were experiencing significant conflict caused by a mean-spirited group of traditionalists. Their belief was that the Good News of Jesus was to be expressed by holding fast to all the rules and regulations of their rather narrow understanding of faith. They demanded that all the male believers were to be circumcised and some went as far as insisting that people without a Jewish heritage would always be second-class Christians and must stay at the back of the queue when it comes to God’s blessings.
Paul emphasised the opposite. Belief for him is about entering into a shared experience of the risen Christ living in each believer. You can trace what that means in each chapter:
- Galatians 1 – The Gospel is not about a man-made system of religious rules, but about a God-given personal encounter with the Lord Jesus Christ who gave himself for our sins (1:3-4 & 11-12)
- Galatians 2 – This encounter with Jesus is available to all and enables us to live by faith knowing that Christ lives in us. (2:20)
- Galatians 3 – We become children of God through faith in Christ, and this makes us one regardless of our human heritage (3:26-29)
- Galatians 4 – The Holy Spirit is the one who enables this status of being one of God’s children (4:4-7)
- Galatians 5 – This gives us freedom to stand before God without fear of a burden of condemning rules, and in this freedom we are enabled to serve one another and resist the desires of the sinful nature, creating fertile ground in which the fruit of the Spirit can grow. (5:1, 13, 16 & 22)
Attitudes – we are led by the Spirit
Paul’s argument is a straightforward one. We believe that the Spirit of Christ dwells within us and gives us the ability to live for God. As he resides in us, he shapes our attitudes and values. Paul describes these as ‘the fruit of the Spirit’ in Galatians 5:22-23. Apart from the obviously positive attributes of each piece of the fruit – love, joy, peace etc, three other things catch my attention.
First, the ‘fruit’ is described as a singular attribute: ‘the fruit of the Spirit is…’, not ‘the fruits are…’. All of the nine characteristics mentioned are part of the same fruit, so for example, no Christian can choose to be joyful, but not patient, or to be good but not self-controlled.
Second, one part of the fruit flows from another; so, as we grow in love, we tend to be more joyful, and more at peace. This helps us to become more patient, and that gives us space to grow in kindness. Being kind tends to draw us into thinking and doing good things. To be consistently good requires faithfulness, gentleness with others, and the strength to curb our selfish excesses.
Third, as Paul rightly points out, there’s no law against the fruit of the Spirit. Being a disciple is not meant to be a complicated thing, it’s a living experience of goodness growing from within.
Actions – we are to keep walking in step with the Spirit (5:25)
As the Spirit grows his lifestyle within us it is as if we are being invited to a tug of war. On the one side are the desires of the sinful nature which are already destined to fail (5:24). On the other is the fruit of the Spirit. We can let ourselves be dragged into the sinful team, or we can pull along with the Spirit. Joining the Spirit’s team does not leave us in a complicated place full of destructive demands, but involves some simple actions such as those listed in 5:26-6:10.
These include ditching conceit and giving up envy, helping others to find a way back to God, sharing the burdens of others, avoiding odious comparisons with others, not becoming tired of doing good and so on. We can either run around like headless chickens, generally being destructive as we sow selfishness all around, or we can grow as love-filled vessels of the Spirit, believing in what Christ has done for us, letting his presence shape our attitudes, and acting in a consistent, in step way, to the glory of God.
In your imagination, play with that picture of keeping in step… perhaps you can recall walking hand-in-hand as a child alongside a trusted adult. Remember how you stretched your stride to try to match the adult’s. Remember how sometimes you skipped together hand in hand down a gentle slope, or how as you struggled to keep up on a hill, your older companion pulled you gently up the path.
Lord, help us to keep in step with your Spirit. To dance alongside in love and joy; to stride deliberately in the direction of kindness and goodness; to order the rhythm of each pace of our lives so that we faithfully reflect the true freedom you have given us.