God Grows Things – Dan Teefey
Sermon text: 1 Corinthians 3:1-5
Last summer I gave a sermon entitled, “Who is Riverside?” We introduced several things. One was intentional discipleship, another was Discovery Hour, and a third was a full-time Youth Director. All of these things have become increasingly developed this past year. Though we chose not to institute a discipleship program, we did encourage you to enter into discipleship relationships with one another. Many are doing this. And some disciples have begun discipling others. Discovery Hour has grown. Though not everyone is taking advantage of this opportunity, those that are taking part have consistently reported that it is making a difference in their lives. Finally, we hired Becky Wellner as our first full-time Youth Director. Her dedication and ministry to our Jr. and Sr. High students has helped to solidify our priority of helping our children to mature into faithful followers of Jesus Christ.
This year we will have 5 sermons on Riverside and particularly who we want to try to be as a people of God. Visioning is extremely important for any group of people, but it is particularly important for a church because it is our communal discernment of what God wants to do with us. Proverbs 29:18 says, “where there is no vision, the people perish.” The word “vision” there is not just some goal, but it is revelation. Where there is not foundation upon God and his revelation, Word to us, we will perish.
Now much of what I want to talk about over the next few weeks is not unique to Riverside, but is general. They are emphases that should be important to all churches, to all Christians. But we will talk about unique attributes about Riverside and aspects of Riverside's history that uniquely characterize who we are and what God can do with us.
Over the past several months I have been spending a lot of time assessing in what areas Riverside is strong and in what areas we struggle to be fully who God wants us to be, not just as a group, but also as individuals. And I have searched the Bible for language that would be helpful in talking about our vision.
Every day I park in the parking lot outside and I get out of my car and I walk towards our building and I see our sign. Other than the time for our service, there are two important things on it that tell the world who we are. The first is our mission statement. It says, “working together to help people find and follow Christ.” Good stuff. Very simple, but hard to argue with. The second thing on our sign is our name. Riverside. And I would ask myself, what does the name “Riverside” have to do with helping people to find and follow Jesus Christ.
And so I searched my Bible. How do we articulate who we are with the Bible as the basis of our understanding? And what I found was a wealth of agricultural language that describes our spiritual journey. Most of us understand that the land that is next to a river, that is river side is some of the most fertile land anyone could have.
When I was growing up in Mt. Sterling, which you may have learned more about if you saw my blog post this week, it was located in between two rivers, the Mississippi River and the Illinois River. On both sides of Mt. Sterling was extraordinary rich farmland because it was on the banks of those two rivers.
Now I fully understand that when the founders of Riverside chose “Riverside” as its name that they were speaking more of its geographic location next to the Wabash River than they were of the theological implications of such an area. But part of what I want to encourage us to do over the next several weeks is to add some depth of meaning to not only what we call ourselves, but also to why we do what we do. I not only want to add depth to the ministries and decisions that make us a body of believers, but also add depth to the choices that you and your families make in your own spiritual lives. Ultimately it is deep roots that lead to fruit.
Jesus uses parables from nature and agriculture to illustrate the nature of the kingdom of God – the lilies of the field, the seed that grows by itself, the growth of the mustard seed, the four soils, the tree and its fruit, the laws of sowing and reaping. Some might say that Jesus used these examples because he was speaking to an agrarian society at the edge of the fertile crescent, and they therefore related best to such illustrations. But these illustrations are timeless and I imagine he would use the same ones again today. Such illustrations would make far less sense if used with something other than nature. The points don’t work the same with computers or cell phones. Nature, being crafted by God, helps us to see most clearly the characteristics of growth.
In Matthew 6, Jesus is speaking about worry and particularly about worrying about what clothes we are going to wear. He says, “see how the lilies of the field grow.” Watch, study, research how they grow and you will understand how God provides and you don’t need to worry.
The passage we read this morning is similar. The community in Corinth was a mess. They were arguing over who they follow, Apollos or Paul. Ultimately, Paul says in verse 6, “I planted the seed, Apollos watered it, but God made it grow.” We have our role to play, but ultimately it is God alone that can bring growth. And that growth is not just numerical growth, but it is spiritual growth in our lives.
The examples that Jesus most often point to come from nature. He focuses on the inherent capacity of an organism to reproduce and survive. A coffee machine can make coffee, but it will never make another coffee machine. In nature, however, the order of things is entirely different: a coffee plant produces coffee beans, which in turn can produce new coffee plants.
And this must be our starting point for any discussion of vision in our church or in our personal lives. It starts with God. In the beginning there was nothing but God. We are nothing, if not by the grace of God. The founders of our denomination asked of every decision they made, “Where is it written” in God's Word. All our efforts, all our ideas, all our programs, whatever it is that we do is utterly worthless without God.
Do you know the difference between a toaster and grass? Do you know the difference between a cell phone and a bird? Do you know the difference between a robot and a tree?
One is a machine and one is a piece of nature. One is made by another machine or by a human and the other is made by God.
The difference between a robot and a tree is that no one would ever think of sowing electronics and waiting for them to germinate. We can't plant robot parts, water them, or harvest them. We can't make them grow. Robots are incapable of naturally growing. No machine, not even the most ingenious robot – is able to reproduce itself. With a robot, from the beginning, all pieces are in their final form and are simply assembled according to a step by step plan. All end products are identical and do exactly what they have been programmed to do.
God’s creation is different. God grows things. In nature, God does not do anything, but grow things. And when things do not grow, it is not because they are not supposed to grow, it is because something has happened to them. They are diseased or they have not been given sufficient food and drink . . . whatever it is, it is preventing God's growth power from working fully.
I think this is a helpful model for the church. If we understand the church as a robot then we can manufacture it. And the truth is that we can manufacture about as big a robot as we want. We can give it a giant church building or we can hire tons of staff or we can add program after program, whatever it might be and create a pretty impressive robot. But what we will find is that the robot has no life, it has no spirit, no natural movement. It will not grow on its own. It will never reproduce.
I believe that God grows things and our overarching goal for Riverside and our own lives should be that God’s natural growth potential is unleashed within us. Mark 4:26-29 says, "This is what the kingdom of God is like. A man scatters seed on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how. All by itself the soil produces grain—first the stalk, then the head, then the full kernel in the head. As soon as the grain is ripe, he puts the sickle to it, because the harvest has come."
All by itself the soil produces grain. That is not to say that we just sit there and God does all the work, but to say that God wants to change us, to transform us, to develop us, to remake us, to grow us . . . and when we foster a hospitable environment for God to work . . . He always works. When seed is planted in our hearts, when we are people of the word of God, when the conversations in our heads are conversations with God in prayer . . . God grows faith within us.
You can read the Bible every day of your lives, you can go to church every Sunday, you can say nice things to people, you can give money away to people in need, but unless you have a relationship with the God of the universe, each of those things will be shallow and without lasting effect. God makes them grow. Good intentions are not enough. God must be our motivation. Without God we may make some nice things, but we will have no real growth potential.
God has provided everything we’ll ever need for spiritual growth, yet we do not always make proper use of it. That is the real problem. Instead of using God’s means, we try to do things in our own strength – with much pulling and pushing. Ultimately whatever we conceive to be our work or the work of our church, these methods must be consistent with God’s plan or they are worthless.
If we first understand that knowing God is our starting point, then there are several things that characterize our faith journeys that are essential for us to understand.
First, faith is characterized by interdependence. All aspects of faith have some effect on other aspects. (The Wheel Diagram) Each part is perfectly integrated into the whole system. Our prayer life affects our study of the Bible. Our study of the Bible affects how we care for each other. Our caring for each other prompts us to communicate with God through prayer. Each of these things and countless others are integrated. They connect to each other and create a multifaceted system. We can't hone in on one thing and be completely satisfied.
All ministries and cross-sections of the church must regularly meet with each other and collaborate on our common mission.
In what areas of your faith journey have you compromised? What aspects have you ignored?
Second, faith is characterized by multiplication. Nature multiplies itself and this principle of multiplication applies to all areas of church life too. Just as the true fruit of an apple tree is not an apple, but another tree; the true fruit of a small group is not a new Christian, but another group; the true fruit of a church is not a new group, but a new church; the true fruit of a leader is not a follower, but a new leader; the true fruit of an evangelist is not a convert, but new evangelists. We cannot simply ask ourselves, who have we impacted for Christ, we have to go one step further and ask who have we empowered to empower others. Not who have we given fish, but who have we taught to fish. Who have we trained and taught so that they can train and teach others?
In the Great Commission, Jesus call us to “go and make disciples.” The thought is that those disciples that we make will then go and make disciples of others and they of others and so on. We do not simply bring people to Christ, but we go one step further and train them to bring others to Christ.
We are able to check on the health of an organism by examining its fruit. We can do the same with our spiritual lives. In Matthew 7 when Jesus is talking about false prophets he says, “By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.”
Where no fruit appears in our lives or in the life of our church, then something is wrong.
One important point too, is that death can be a part of the multiplication process. If we are doing something that is not bearing fruit, if it is not working, we should let it die. We need not hold on to anything so tightly that we won’t give it up when it is ineffective. The church should do the same. If the block party is not achieving our purposes. If it is not attracting our neighbors and helping us to serve and meet them, then we need to stop doing it. We can’t become so tied to the “way we do things” that we lose site of the goals we are trying to achieve. Dead leaves provide nutrients for the soil, which helps feed plant life, including the tree from which the leaves fell.
What parts of your life need to die so that God can multiply through you? Who have you impacted for Christ that is now impacting others for Christ?
Third, faith is characterized is energy transformation. Romans 8:28 says, “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
The best example of this characteristic of faith is demonstrated in how organisms fight a virus. Viruses generally make us sick and are therefore bad. A few viruses, however, cause the body to counteract and strengthen its immune system. This is the principle used in vaccinations. Health destroying energies are transformed through the vaccination process into health promoting ones.
We have not really talked about it much, but for many of you that have been a part of the Riverside family for several years, far longer than I have, you know that Riverside has gone through some very difficult times. There was a lot of pain and distrust. And now for a couple of years we have experienced great harmony. We have experienced renewed vigor.
I believe this is an example of energy transformation. We take existing forces and energies – even negative ones – and we steer them towards God and participate in his transformation of them into productive movement.
Bad things happen to us and they will continue to. We can’t avoid them, but what we can do is to refocus that energy into something useful and productive, something that pushes towards God as opposed to away from him.
How do we find God at work even when things are not going well? How do we seek the good in each other and circumstances?
Fourth and finally, faith is characterized by symbiosis. Symbiosis is defined as the intimate living together of two dissimilar organisms in a mutually beneficial relationship. The church and our faith lives are not spurred on when we are in competition with one another or when we surround ourselves with people exactly like us.
Though we are different, we need each other. The interplay of our different backgrounds, our diverse gift sets and personality types, are mutually beneficial. They are in fact essential for us connecting with the complex and infinite character of God. As we connect with other people, all created in God’s image, we find encounter aspects of God that we need, but often miss because of our own preferences and traits.
Amidst this diversity God drives us to find harmony. To work together in mutually beneficial ways. Our culture calls this win-win solutions, but this is simply Jesus’ golden rule turned secular. “do to others what you would have them do to you.”
How do we work towards the benefit of not just ourselves, but others? What sacrifices did we make this past week for others?
Over the next several weeks we are going to continue to flesh out what it means to be a church and faithful individuals that connect with God’s growth potential in and through us, but God alone is our starting point.
Schwarz, Christian A. Natural Church Development. Emmelsbull, Germany: C & P Verlags-GmbH, 1996.