Philippians 3:7-15; Matthew 13:44-46

4th Sunday after Epiphany

St Barbara’s Church; 28.01.18

Rev Tulo Raistrick

Over the next few weeks we are going to be exploring a new series looking at spiritual disciplines.

I wonder what that phrase “spiritual disciplines” arouses in you. For some of us, the word “discipline” may bring to mind a strict school teacher, maybe with a cane in hand, ready to pounce on and punish the smallest mistake. Its hardly the most positive of images!

Think instead of a disciplined athlete. For them, discipline is about sticking to a commitment to train and exercise, to eat healthy food, to ensure they get enough sleep. For them, discipline is positive. It may not always be something that comes easily – there will be times when they wish they could just lounge on the sofa all day, rather than go out in the rain for a run. Or to eat junk food for the next month. But they have established various routines and commitments and activities which they know will help them achieve the goal they have set.

Well over the centuries, Christians have taken a similar attitude to their Christian faith. Christians of every generation have found that belief in God, growing in faith, doesn’t just happen. It requires commitment; it requires us to have the desire to want to grow in faith. And it requires us to actually take action.

The early church used to set aside the time from the end of Epiphany to Easter Sunday every year to focus on getting their spiritual lives into shape. Traditionally, Easter Sunday would be the day when people would get baptised and so for weeks leading up to that, the baptismal candidates would be receiving instruction on living the Christian life. The rest of the church would join in. It would be like a spiritual MOT, checking that their prayer lives, their relationships, their giving, were growing in line with Christ. It helped them to assess and helped them to grow.

Well from now until the end of Lent, that is something that we are going to do too. We are going to spend some time reviewing our own spiritual lives, and asking “how can we grow more in our love and faith?”

We are going to look at areas of life that over the centuries have always been central to the Christian life. So next week, we are going to explore the deepening of inner life, exploring prayer and reading God’s word. The following week, the first week of Lent, we will look at how confession can help us grow. And in subsequent weeks we will look at living generously, how we can live lives of simplicity and service; and at enjoying life, how to nurture a discipline of celebration and rest.

But you may be feeling, isn’t this for super-holy people, or for people who have more time, or people who have more energy and vim and vigour than I currently have.

The words of Paul cannot fail to inspire us – “forgetting what is behind and straining towards what is ahead I press on towards the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenwards” – but they may leave us feeling a little inadequate too. How can I find such passion?

And the words of Jesus in our Gospel reading – of the man who sells everything to buy the treasure in the field, of the merchant who sells all he has to buy the pearl – speak to us of how incredible it is to discover and follow Jesus, but also may leave us feeling challenged by the sacrifice and cost involved.

Well let me give you an example from my own life that I hope will encourage you.. This time three years ago if you had asked me to run from here to Earlsdon library I could not have done it. Half way down the road I would have found myself gasping for breath, pain shooting up my shins. I could walk, I could cycle – but I was just not made for running. In fact I probably hadn’t run much further than 200 years since I was thirteen.

Now three years on, I can happily run three miles two or three times a week, and once in a while I will run to Kenilworth and back. Not at any great speed, I’ll have you know, but considering where I was, it seems real progress. And such progress, I couldn’t have imagined before I started. Running may work for others, but not for me.

But a number of things helped me:

Motivation. I realised that I was getting unfit. I realised that I needed to change. Well, the next few weeks give us a good opportunity to take an MOT of our spiritual lives: to think about our prayer life, our engagement with God’s Word, our love for others. We may look and think: actually, I need to give that area of my spiritual life more attention. I really want to start to pray more regularly for my family, or for a particular need in the world. I really want to start being more grateful for things in my life. And sometimes, we may need to start by asking God to give us the desire to want to desire to change and grow. “God, please give me the desire of Paul, or of that merchant selling everything to follow you. Help me to know it is worth it.”

A second thing was having the right equipment. I got some running shoes which made running more comfortable. I didn’t need running shoes to learn to run. Some of the greatest runners of all time grew up running in bare feet in Africa. But it helped. Likewise, getting the right equipment for our spiritual lives can help too. That may mean getting a translation of the Bible that we find easier to read. That may mean identifying a quiet place where we can go regularly to pray. That may mean putting a post-it note by the kettle with a reminder to pray for someone.

A third thing that helped was having a guide. In my case an electronic one called “Couch to 5K” which helped me to gradually increase my distance and help me grow in confidence. It is hard to grow by ourselves. Receiving guidance is helpful. You may want to return to some prayer books or bible study guides you have used in the past and found helpful. You may find these sermons will act as a helpful guide, and in the next few weeks I will be producing a daily reflection by email and on handouts to help with this. And I know others who have found the guidance of a spiritual director inspirational – talk to me afterwards if you would like to know more.

And finally, the thing that helped most of all was having others to encourage me. Sarah started running at the same time as me, and was brilliant at keeping me going when there were times when I wanted to give up. And one of the things I love about the Coventry Park run is how encouraging people are. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are, it is the turning up, the trying, that people celebrate. As a church, we should be like that too. We should be encouraging each other to pray, encouraging each other in acts of service, encouraging each other in our giving and in celebrating God’s goodness. How can you encourage someone today? And who will you go to to receive encouragement too?

These next few weeks provide a wonderful opportunity to re-invigorate our Christian lives. Do think about what you will do, how you will engage. May God help us all to respond to his call.