At this time of the year when here in the UK the harvest is being gathered in, I thought it would be apposite to reflect on the ‘harvest of righteousness’ which Paul mentions in Philippians 1:
“I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ… And this is my prayer, that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God” (Phil 1.6,9-11).
Pastors, like their people, are called to keep on growing and developing in their walk with Jesus. In particular they are to grow in ‘love’, as they constantly seek the good of those in their charge; they are to grow in ‘discernment’, as they seek to nurture and to guide those in their care; and above all they are to grow in ‘grace’, exhibiting the kind of righteousness found in Christ, who emptied himself and became the servant of all.
That is a challenge for any pastor. But Paul, of course, wasn’t writing to pastors, but to a church. He wanted the members of the church to grow in love, discernment and grace. His concern was to see the life of the church at Philippi filled with the fruit of attitudes and actions that reflect the attitudes and actions of Christ (see Phil 2.5-8). This righteousness (in the sense of ‘righteous’ or godly behaviour) does not come to fruition overnight – it involves a process of growth. Walter Hanses, who believed that Paul’s metaphor here may have been inspired by “a poetic picture of a beautiful orchard” (see Psalm 1.3) commented: “A fruitful orchard does not happen in one day: it is the result of a long process of planting, watering, pruning and fertilising.
Paul prayed that his readers might grow more and more in love toward one another. Gordon Fee, an American Pentecostal scholar, commented:
The problem is similar to that occasionally experienced by families, where love is sometimes more easily shown toward those on the outside, who are known very little and with whom one does not have constant association. But actively to love on the inside, to love those with whom one is in constant relationship and where one’s own place in the sun is constantly being threatened – that can be another matter. (Gordon Fee)
As for growth in discernment, we live in a world where moral issues have become blurred and distorted – it is all too easy for our vision to similarly become blurred and distorted. Paul prays that his readers are given increasing insight to discern the difference between right and wrong. Finally, Paul prays that his readers grow in grace – i.e. they grow in right living, in living increasingly Christ-like lives.
However, it is not just a matter of us, by our own effort, producing fruit; rather it is about allowing God to do his work of grace in our hearts and lives. As Pau says, “I am sure that God who began this good work in you, will carry it on until it is finished on the Day of Christ Jesus” (1.6); later he writes: “God is always at work in you to make you willing and able to obey his own purpose” (2.13). God it is who bring about the harvest.
Or in the words of Bruce & Kathryn Epperly, who developed a pattern for ministry development based on this passage:
God’s transforming presence is most often subtle, gradual, and hidden, like the gentle growth of the mustard seed, until it bursts forth in moments of insight and clarity. Like all experiences of grace, one’s call to ministry is lifelong and embraces silent preparation as well as intentional cultivation. God calls pastors to grow in ministry in every moment and season of life.
Let me end by quoting the passage in Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase:
There has never been the slightest doubt in my mind that the God who started this great work in you would keep at it and bring it to a flourishing finish on the very day Christ Jesus appears… So this is my prayer: that your love will flourish and that you will not only love much but well. Learn to love appropriately. You need to use your head and test your feelings so that your love is sincere and intelligent, not sentimental gush. Live a lover’s life, circumspect and exemplary, a life Jesus will be proud of: bountiful in fruits from the soul, making Jesus Christ attractive to all, getting everyone involved in the glory and praise of God. (The Message)
I think you are right to stress our slow,gradual growth in grace- and I think it is important too not to keep measuring our progress, but to trust that our efforts (though limited ) are accepted and enhanced in some way…