10. Spiritual Growth  Part of the Star Course - click here for the homepage

1 The Way

This is the last talk in this series. During these weeks we have all learned, explored, discussed and I hope advanced in the spiritual journey that we are all undertaking. The early Christians used the term 'the Way' to describe the Christian life. (Acts 9:2, 22:4, 24:14). This is particularly vivid in Mark's Gospel, which begins with "Prepare the way of the Lord" (Mark 1:2), in which Jesus is almost continually on the move, ending with the disciples who "went forth and preached everywhere" (Mark 16:20).

What have we seen on this journey?

In the first talk we asked the question: Who is Jesus? Was he just a Great Religious Teacher? The Authorities at the time didn't think so: they had him crucified because, as the records that have come down from that time in the Jewish tradition explain, 'he practised magic and led Israel astray' . Let's look at John 11:24-38. At this point they tried to stone Jesus, 'Because you, being a man, make yourself God.' Jesus clearly claimed to be more than a Great Teacher, to be the Son of God. We looked at the evidence for this, in his life, teaching and character.

Then we looked at Jesus' death on the Cross, and finally at his Resurrection, trying to address the fundamental question that Jesus asks us all: "who do you say that I am?". Jesus taught us that the fundamental purpose of life is to love the LORD your God and to love your neighbour as yourself. By his life, death and resurrection Jesus makes it possible for us to overcome all that prevents us from achieving our purpose. On the cross we see Love Calling to Love, Love Defeating Evil and Love overcoming death.

In the next two talks we looked at Faith, the Bible and Prayer. We then tried to penetrate more deeply into the central Christian understanding about the nature of God, the Holy and Blessed Trinity. Finally we have looked at the Church: not as a human institution but as the community of human response to God's initiative in Christ, reconciling the world to himself. Where do we go from here?

2 Foundation in Prayer and Love

The Way is a lifelong journey, centred in Christ who says "I am the way, the truth and the life" (John 14:6). It is the journey into God's Kingdom, where his will is done on earth as it is in heaven. It is the journey into love, where we learn to love the LORD our God and to love our neighbour as ourselves. It is a journey based on prayer. Let's look once more at the Lord's Prayer:

Abba - dearest heavenly father
Hallowed be the name of you
Come the kingly reign of you
Be it done the will of you
As in heaven, so on earth
Bread that we need for the day
Give to us to today
Also Lord forgive us our debts,
as also we've forgiven our debtors
And lead us - not into temptation
But deliver us from Evil.

The life that God offers us - the life of heaven, breaks into our lives on earth as His name is held holy and His will is done on earth as in heaven ­ when we have all offered our wills perfectly in love to God, and are following His will in loving our neighbour as ourselves. Jesus teaches us to pray for this. But Jesus also shows us that sin is inevitable (see eg Matthew 18:7-9, Luke 17:1-4, 1 John 8-10) and that we need to pray both for forgiveness and the strength to forgive, for avoiding temptation and deliverance from evil. In every moral decision we have a choice. We can either get closer to God's loving will, by loving the LORD our God and loving our neighbour as ourselves, or we can move further away. Being human, we often fail, and God forgives us if we repent sincerely. But there is temptation: we have to ask God to guide us away from evil, and even (because Jesus is supremely realistic) from opportunities to do evil.

You have heard that it was said, 'you shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.' But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the just and the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)

Note that the 'you' is plural. This is hidden by modern English but clear in the Greek and would have been clear in Hebrew or Aramaic. There are times when we are 'on our own' but Christianity is about individuals called together into a new community: the people of God, the Communion of Saints, the massive, world-wide, universal Church. There are about 2,000M professed Christians, and roughly one new person is coming to faith in Christ every second. There thousands of courses being run for new Christians in the UK alone, most of them based on the Alpha Course developed at Holy Trinity Brompton, but there is also the Emmaus Course developed in Wakefield Diocese, the Credo Course developed by the Church Union and of course the Star Course. There is tremendous growth of Christianity in places like Korea and China. Christians are called to be in some ways like trees, trees forming a forest that actually helps to change the spiritual climate. And all over the world, the forests are growing!

So, how does Jesus say in this passage that we resist evil? With love and prayer for the evildoers - not of course that their evil schemes succeed, but that they may turn from their evil ways. It is not that God does not care whether people are evil or good, just or unjust, but he loves each one of his sons and daughters, he died for each of them, and calls us all to love him.

Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For every one who asks, receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks the door will be opened. Or what man of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a serpent? If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him! (Matthew 7:7-11)

Compared to God we are all 'evil', as St Paul says 'All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God' (Romans 3:23). Yet we are given natural instincts of love toward our children, and our Father in heaven loves us, however evil we may be, better than any earthly father.

3 Building on the Foundations

Although the work that Jesus did on the cross is done once and for all, development in the Way is a lifelong process. St Paul says:

I bow my knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named, that according to the riches of his glory he may grant you to be strengthened with might through his Spirit in the inner man, and that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith, that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have power to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ which surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God. (Ephesians 3:14-19)

We must not be like the 'seed which fell on rocky ground' (Matthew 13:5), but rooted and grounded in love, in communion with our fellow Christians, strengthened through the Holy Spirit, with Christ living in our hearts. What does this involve in practice?

3.1 Discipline

It is very important that we have a discipline in the Way. (see eg 1 Corinthians 9:26). I find it very helpful to have a simple 'Rule' to guide me, which deals with prayer, worship, Bible reading and so forth. This Rule is discussed with a wise Christian friend and can be revised as I develop in the way. I don't always keep to it, but at least it gives me something to aim for. Only God can watch over our every action and only we can be responsible for our Rules, but having a spiritual friend who can advise us is a great help.

3.2 Prayer

Prayer, the loving communication with God, is absolutely essential. Don't forget to give God time to speak to you as well. Christians receive a great deal of guidance from quietly being attentive to God. Every day, in the way that is right for us, we should "bow [our] knees before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth is named."

3.3 Sacraments

God gives us the church and the sacraments as a uniquely precious way of getting closer to him. Jesus gave us the Eucharist as that which he wished us to do: "do this in remembrance of me". As Jesus says:

He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For my flesh is food indeed and my blood is drink indeed. He who eats my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him. (John 6:54-56)

By communion we can not only draw closer to God but to one another, growing together 'with all the saints' (which means with all the Church, not just with the people designated as Saints after their death). St Paul says that:

Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, because we all partake of the one bread (1 Corinthians 10:17)

Now the word translated as 'partake' metechomen also means belong to (as in Hebrews 7:13). Bread is made from grains of wheat harvested from many plants over a wide area, but which becomes a unity. As some of the earliest Fathers of the Church put it:

When the Lord calls his body bread, made from a collection of a large number of grains, he is pointing to the unity of our people. And when he calls his blood wine, which is pressed from a large number of clusters of grapes to form a single liquid, he signifies that our flock is made up of a multitude gathered into unity. (Cyprian of Carthage Letter 69 V, 2. St. Cyprian was born c. 200 and was martyred in 258)

As this broken bread once scattered over the mountains has been gathered together to make a single entity, so gather your Church together from the ends of the earth into your Kingdom (Didache, IX, 4 - This was probably written around 100 AD).

This has inspired a modern hymn:

Father, we thank thee who hast planted
thy holy name within our hearts;
Knowledge and faith and life immortal
Jesus thy Son to us imparts…

As grain, once scattered on the hillsides,
was in this broken bread made one,
So from all lands thy Church be gathered
into the kingdom of thy Son.

3.4 Bible Reading

We also need in our Rules to have a regular diet of reading the Bible. As Jesus said when resisting temptation: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew 4:4), and he is quoting Deuteronomy 8:3, thus making clear once more the essential unity of the Old and New Testaments. Again, it is wise to have some kind of clear discipline of Bible reading, so that we are not doing it because we feel like it but as part of the Way. We should try to read the Bible with the kind of Christian understanding that comes from the patterns provided in the worship of the Church.

3.5 Lifestyle

Finally, we must grow in the Way, not only with our lips and thoughts, but in our whole lives. Jesus was bitterly critical of people who wear their faith on their sleeves but not in their hearts and lives. "Not everyone that says to me Lord, Lord, shall enter the Kingdom of Heaven, but he who does the will of my Father who is in Heaven" (Matthew 7:21).

3.6 Perseverance

Jesus' own life shows us that the overwhelming experience of the Spirit in his baptism was followed by a time of temptation in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11, Mark 1:12-13, Luke 4:1-13). Christians must expect some experience of the wilderness and the desert in their spiritual lives. After all we are marked with the sign of the Cross, and are called to take up our cross and follow Christ. But the way of the Cross leads always in the end to resurrection and the joy of Easter.

4 Conclusion

Let's stop early tonight so that there is plenty of time for discussion. We can leave the last word to Jesus. Jesus is talking to his disciples at the last supper, and has just told them that they will deny him. But he goes on:

"Let not your hearts be troubled, believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father's house are many rooms; if it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And when I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. And you know the way where I am going."

Thomas said to him, "Lord, we do not know where you are going, how can we know the way?"

Jesus said to him: "I am the way, and the truth, and the life..." (John 14:1-6).