What Good is Faith?
Eighteenth Sunday After Pentecost
September 23, 2018
Scripture Lesson: Philippians 2:1-13
(adapted from The Message)
Today is the second Sunday in our six-week worship series called Spirituality 201. Using the numerical course designations from academia, the premise is that God is continually calling us to grow in our spirituality and we need to grow if we are to experience the fullest and most abundant lives possible. My hope is that, no matter where we are on your spiritual journeys, this series will help inspire all of us to grow to the next level. To facilitate this growth, it is invaluable – crucial, in fact – to do three things:
look back at the road we have been on
Examine our present state and appreciate how much we have grown, and,
Recognize the ways we still need to grow and make efforts in those directions
In this series, we hope to offer some wisdom and guidance for this journey we are all on. Today and over the next four Sundays, we will explore five areas of “Spirituality 201”:
Growth in faith and discipleship
Evolving in our life of prayer
Developing our gifts and offering them to build community
Finding meaning and purpose along with inner peace, and
Growing in our ability to express our faith in every aspect of our lives
My hope is that every one of us will be challenged by this series and, also, that we can all find joy in being on this journey together.
Let us pray: Loving Spirit, open our hearts and minds to your message of learning and growth. Help us to face each challenging new stage of our faith journeys and help us to see the pathway toward becoming the persons you desire us to be. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
Will faith save us from suffering and pain? No. Does faith promises us wealth or success? Absolutely not! But, does having faith in God change the character of our lives? Does faith enhance our ability to impact people and the world around us? Without a doubt. What good is faith?
God does not prescribe a particular path for us, but God does have a deep desire to see us grow and flourish. Rather than giving us a paint by number set, God gives us a blank canvas and says, “Paint me a beautiful life.” God gives us the freedom and the ability to shape the kind of life we will have. We have to show up every day and choose to paint and create on this blank canvas of life that we have been given.
In order to make the most of what God has given us, we strive toward spiritual maturity. We seek to move from Spirituality 101 to Spirituality 201 and beyond. No one is born with spiritual maturity. When Jesus gathered the first small group of followers, they were not fully-formed, mature disciples. They had all sorts of doubts. They often misunderstood what Jesus was teaching and doing. They had to spend years listening to his teaching, watching how he interacted with people, absorbing the values that he proclaimed. They learned how to pray and to worship and to love God and their neighbors. They learned to give themselves for others as Jesus gave himself. They learned to watch what he did and then to echo it. Right up to the end of his life he was teaching them.
Isn’t this true for all of us? When we are spiritual infants, our faith may be founded on belief or on seeking moral goodness. For some, it is about a desire to belong or a desperate need to feel forgiven or accepted as we are. But as our faith deepens, we have the potential to move to a place of deep devotion to God, of love of God, a place of a desire to experience relationship with God, and a commitment to serve God’s purposes in the world. In short, mature faith rises from a stage of focus primarily on ourselves and our needs to a place of love and commitment to God and our neighbors. We make a commitment to trust God, to practice our faith in action, and to grow in God’s Spirit.
All of this demands that, like the first disciples, we learn from Jesus. We read and listen to the stories of and about Jesus. We listen to his teaching, pay attention to his actions, and try to walk in his footsteps. We learn how Jesus called us to live. Then, we pray and listen carefully for guidance from God’s Spirit. We practice loving our neighbors and showing compassion to those in need. We learn how to forgive one another and to love our enemies and to pray even for those we have trouble liking very much. We commit to advocating, agitating, and working for a more just and loving world. Finally, we put in the hard work necessary to be in loving, worshipping community together.
What does it mean to follow Jesus? Probably the most basic task is to live out the great commandment: “Love God and love your neighbor as yourself.” As Jesus said, “if you have love for one another,” people “will know you are my disciples.” “Love,” as Jesus means it, is a big umbrella. Under this umbrella, we are called to love our neighbors…and our enemies. Jesus calls us to stretch out our hands to the outcast and the marginalized, to forgive seventy-times seven times, to humble ourselves and lift up those around us, and to share generously what we have with those in need. In other words, disciples strive to grow in the likeness of Christ.
None of this is easy. There are so many things that distract us or draw our attention away from God and from Jesus. We lust after every new toy that comes out – new iPhone or iPad or new model of sneakers or the new coolest fashions. We long to have more money or security or comfort or even power. We spend so much time worrying about what others think of us. We get anxious that we might be picked last when teams are divided in gym class. We separate ourselves from others over religion or race or class or perceived intelligence. We worry that we are not worthy of Jesus.
Moreover, this path to spiritual maturity we are on does not follow a straight line. When I was a teenager, I became a Jesus groupie. I carried a bible around for one year of high school. I loved my youth group. But as I matured, my faith did not. I became disenchanted – not with Jesus himself, but with the church that claimed him. I ended up leave church and becoming an atheist for 20 years. It turned out my faith was pretty shallow. Thankfully, I found my way back and, this time, I really fell in love with Jesus and grew to a whole other level of understanding, commitment, and relationship with God. Over time and with a lot of practice, following Jesus became a way of life. Eventually, I learned to invite God to inspire me and guide me in “painting a beautiful life.”
Danish philosopher and cantankerous Christian, Søren Kierkegaard, wrote that Jesus “never asks for admirers, worshippers, or adherents. No, he calls disciples. It is not adherents of a teaching but followers of a life Christ is looking for.” Will you follow? God’s calls us into loving relationship, but it is up to us to respond. If you commit to follow Jesus, I can assure you that you will come to have the most rewarding life possible – not because you’ll be rich or always happy or never suffer, but because you’ll feel deeply connected to the one who declares, “You are my beloved. With you I am well pleased. I love you and you are mine.”
What we have faith in and who we follow matter deeply for our individual lives and characters. They shape our priorities. They matter also for the character of our community and the shape of our world. Our commitments shape our impact on the world around us. When we act as disciples, we attract others to God through Christ. As we mature in our faith, we become ambassadors and messengers of God’s love, forgiveness, peace, and justice, and to build communities that promote these values in the world. That’s what it means to be a disciple – someone who seeks to build the kin-dom of God.
I admit that being a disciple is demanding. Jesus did not say, “Worship me,” “admire me,” or merely “believe in me.” He said, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23). I struggle with this daily. I struggle with having so much while so many around me do not have enough. Am I sacrificing enough? Am I giving enough of myself? I don’t always forgive, as I ought. Sometimes I have a desire retribution against people who commit horrible acts and seem to have no love in them.
Yet, I am convinced that is what God calls us to do: to strive to grow as committed followers of Jesus. God asks us to take our beliefs and values seriously and express them in the ways we act, in the relationships we build, and in the priorities we set for our lives. Throwing in our lot with Jesus ought to shape every aspect of our lives. The scriptures do not give us an exact prescription for how to live this life. They give us the example of Christ and invite us to struggle together to journey with Christ and share his love with others.
We all fall short of God’s desire for our lives. Yet, God calls calls us not to give up and offers to support us and share the journey with us. There is no better way I know than to struggling together as a community to express the values of selflessness, compassion, humility, courage, and love of God and neighbor – in other words, to be followers of Jesus. Faith matters. Discipleship matters.
Let us pray: Holy God, open us to your Spirit and help us to see the ways we still need to grow. Give us the courage, strength, and guidance to continue the personal and communal work we need to do to move to a new level.
Copyright © 2018 by Jeff Wells
All rights reserved.