Michael Barrett presents the second of our series about our church’s Mission Statement: We Grow in Christ by personally maturing in faith and bringing new people to Christ. Among other things, he explores the meaning of Jesus’ statement about separating sheep from goats – a passage that has been terribly misinterpreted through the years.
Growing in Christ
Reflection on the Congregation Church of Northridge Mission Statement
“To Grow in Christ by Personally Maturing in Faith
and by Bringing New People to Christ”
The second part of our mission statement calls for us to grow in Christ and we strive to do that by personally maturing in our faith and by bringing new people to Christ.
This morning’s reflections concern the import of those promises.
How do we open ourselves to that growth process?
What are the important things we need to learn to mature our faith?
Where and when and how are we to apply and to enhance the lessons we are given?
There are a plethora of pathways available to help us grow our faith – prayer devotion, the study of religious texts, participation in faith-based workshops, seminars, or classes, and conscientious attendance at Sunday services, to name but a few. All may be effective.
This morning, however, let us focus on a few of the many examples in which Scripture advises us about growing our faith. Because the entire Trinity – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – is deeply involved in the growing
of our faith: just three instances will be considered – one in which we find our Father seeding the foundations for that growth, one in which Jesus schools us in that growth, and one in which the Holy Spirit helps us express and sustain that growth.
The Father’s Seeding The Importance of Foundations
How do we open up ourselves to be receptive to the cultivation of our spiritual growth? For a moment, would it be fruitful to consider the desired intentions, the product, of the Father’s design before setting off?
Our Creator, through the prophet Micah, provides the very foundations, the first seeds, for growing the faith we seek to enhance. Micah speaks directly of God’s hopes, expectations, and directions.
He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. (Micah 6:8).
The foundations – the spiritual seeds:
Foundation 1 — Act Justly:
Act – Justice is something we practice and something we do. We do more than just hoping for it, more than just complain about the lack of it, more than shelve it for later consideration. We act.
The Meaning of Justice – The Scriptural sense of justice is singular and different than how some of us might define justice. In the Word, God’s justice is about restoring healthy and healing relationships.
Rev. Carol J. Dempsey writes that justice occurs when we balance our own personal good with the needs of the common good in order to restore community. In this sense, in Scripture there can be:
Communicative Justice – which restores relationships between members of a community.
Distributive Justice – which restores relationships in the community by a fairer distribution of goods, benefits, and burdens.
Social Justice – which allows communicative and social justice to flourish by establishing social structures that maintain the opportunity for such.
Foundation 2 – Love Mercy (Hesed):
Hesed – this term denotes the practice of a loyal love. A Love that is more than affectionate. It is a love that is kind, a love that is faithful, and a love in which covenantal promises are motivated and driven by that love and not by fear. Hesed is a love both passionate and ethical.
Mercy – Hesed is a caring and compassionate love that is linked to mercy. Who needs mercy? Who deserves mercy? Again, in the Scriptural sense, we find orphans and widows (later expanded exponentially by Jesus). We find mercy’s direction to include the most vulnerable, the most oppressed, and the most hopeless. To grow in faith is to open the ears of heart seeking to treat with love any person that is being treated less than as a child of our Father.
Foundation 3 — Walk Humbly with Your God (Halaka):
Halaka – Walking humbly with our Lord. This is careful walking. Attentive walking. This is not shuffling along with our eyes downcast focusing on our shoes. This is circumspectly walking. This is walking, not just talking. Growing in faith is a journey. We keep walking on this pilgrimage listening for God’s voice, seeking God’s guidance and affirming God’s truth because we know that on this journey God is our constant, truest and most intimate companion. The pilgrimage is life-long.
The Son’s Schooling – The Importance of lessons
No being has ever better exemplified living out a life modeled and molded on Micah’s words than has Jesus. Part of growing into our Father’s design is expedited by imitating the one who does that best – acts justly, walks humbly, and loves mercy.
What are the important things we need to learn to mature our faith? Most farmers will tell us that certain crops do better if they are directed or trained – planted in rows, staked, or wound through trellis. Growth needs to be directed or schooled. Jesus schooled us on all aspects of faith – through 127 chapters of Gospels and Acts, through 21 Epistles, and finally through a Book of Revelation. He gave us parables, sermons, and even several discourses.
What is the most important rule we are to understand in deepening our faith? Jesus was asked this frequently and He answers in Matthew (22:35-40) and in Luke (10:25-28, 20:29) and in Mark (12:29-30).
Of all the commands which is the most important?
Teacher, which is the greatest commandments of the law?
What must I do to inherit eternal life?
What is the most important thing for me to learn, to know, and to do above all else?
The most important one is this: Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One. Love the Lord God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. The second is this, Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these. Mark 12:29-30
By combing Deuteronomy 6 and Leviticus 9, extending Micah and adding our committed intellect, Jesus fashions the greatest commandment ever.
Lesson 1 pt.1 — Love God with Your All
In growing our faith we strive to lovingly give ourselves over to God – in heart and soul and mind and strength. We learn to devote our feelings, our devotion, our thought, and our energies to God’s way of life. We learn to love God comprehensively. We learn to love God because He loved us first. We learn to love God because of the magnificence of his self- given attributes – generosity, goodness, compassion, faithfulness, forgiveness, patience, and unconditional love.
Lesson 1 pt.2 — Love Your Neighbor as Yourself
This is not a codicil to the first. It is not a secondary commandment. It is inherent in the first part of the greatest commandment. We cannot learn and do one without learning and doing the other.
Jesus does not say, “Love your neighbor as you love God.” Loving God is not the same as loving our neighbor. We cannot love both the same – we love them differently. Loving God with our all – puts some boundaries around the expansiveness with which we can aspire to love our neighbors. We cannot also give our all to both God and our neighbor. But, we can learn to love our neighbor even if they don’t love us. We can learn to love our neighbor even if their attributes aren’t particularly admirable. We can also learn to love ourselves when costing no expense to our neighbor.
Lesson 2 — The text does not say love your neighbor instead of yourself. The text reads love your neighbor as you love yourself. Jesus nowhere calls us to a life of self-loathing, self-doubt or self low-esteem. Every human being is due love.
Yes, inordinate self-love may lead to the idolatry of pride, selfishness, and self-sufficiency. We know that always putting our own prerogatives ahead of the health and well being of others may lead to conflict.
Yet, we may learn that growing in Jesus means that we can love others no less than ourselves because we realize that each of us is valued, cherished and loved by the same God. We can strive to love others as God loves each of us.
The Holy Spirit’s Inspiration – The Importance of Sustenance
Where and when and how do we to apply and to enhance the lessons we are given? In this morning’s passage from Matthew, Jesus provides a checklist of actions showing evidence of our growth in Him. But, we need to recognize that now, in our 21st Century lives; it is the Holy Spirit that comes into our lives to guide and nourish us in expressing, expanding, and sustaining our growth in Christ.
What is incredible about Jesus’s register is how many of them – feeding the hungry, providing water to the thirsty, inviting the stranger in, clothing the threadbare, looking after the sick, and visiting the prisoner – still are so desperate in need in late 2018. Jesus’ listing provides multiple gateways of the Spirit to inspire us still today. That reality alone testifies to the profundity of His catalog. But its far-reaching intensity impacts us powerfully today because we also realize three more things that help us sustain our growth.
Sustenance 1 — God is not Remote:
God is involved right in the middle and amongst life’s suffering. God so much cares about starvation, drought, homelessness, alienation, disease, lack of over clothes, and the imprisoned that He hopes we will grow into helping Him. God cares deeply about each of the least of us and hopes the rest of us will learn to be approachable, close, and compassionate.
Growing in Christ is something we learn by freely striving to give as an expression of the love of Jesus we hold inside – in our hearts, our souls, our minds, and our strength.
Growing in Christ is learning about how to treat others better.
Growing in Christ is about striving to see the face of Jesus in another’s face.
Growing in Christ is about valuing others not because they are wonderful, admirable or charismatic (most of us aren’t) and it’s not about valuing people because they have been abused or tortured or humiliated. We value others because we are learning that Jesus is with them too.
Sustenance 2 — Jesus’ Manifest is Equalitarian:
The deeds that Jesus prescribes are evenly available opportunities – rich/poor, old/young, progressive/conservative, female/male, gay/straight, however gifted or enabled; every one of us can do at least some of these.
Sustenance 3 – Small Deeds Make a Big Difference:
None of these deeds of love and mercy are elevated, eminent, or exalted. In themselves, they are not earth-shattering events or powerful miracles. They may simply mean the world to someone. And like that widow’s mite, they mean a great deal to Jesus.
That is because it is so often those little-unrecognized actions that bring new people to Him. We can bring new people to church in our car. We can bring new people to Jesus by simply living what we’ve grown to learn.
Saint Francis captured this sentiment perfectly when he wrote that the deeds you do may be the only sermon some persons will hear today and to always preach the gospel, and if necessary use words. The smallest deeds may often make the largest difference.
Growing in God’s Love
One final consideration of today’s reading is necessary. It would be remiss not to reflect on sheep and goats. We heard the most detailed description of the Last Judgment to be expressed in any of the Gospels. Matthew’s Jesus speaks words that are harsh, bleak, and unforgiving;
The immediate context: This is the day after Jesus has ‘cleansed the Temple.’ This is a day that begins with Jesus cursing a fig tree, having his authority questioned, realizing that a plot to murder him is afoot, is grilled mercilessly for hours in the Temple, ends up denouncing the scribes and Pharisees, laments over Jerusalem, foretells the destruction of Jerusalem, and now deals with his less than understanding and supportive disciples. Just saying . . . rough day.
Remember Jesus is our shepherd, our good shepherd who also said:
Your Father in heaven is not willing that any of these little ones should perish (Matthew 18:14)
Father forgive them (Luke 23:42)
And when I am lifted up, I will draw all people to myself (John 12:23)
Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am (John 17:24)
And surely, I am with you always to the end of the age (Matthew 28:20)
Ours is a Bible in which it is written over 360 times (365 times in some translations] do not be afraid or fear not. Consider the larger context.
Was it Jesus’s intention to voice in such a dread-filled terrorizing a message to shock and coerce us into a faith grown on fear and fright?
Or, was it perhaps Jesus’s intention to ask us to use this message to often and occasionally to use His words as a standard by which to evaluate, to assess, to test and to measure our own level of growth in Him. Do we need periodically, to refocus, to realign, to redirect, and to recalibrate our growth efforts?
To God, our lives have more meaning than we will ever be able to imagine or understand. God wants to save us and one of the ways he does that is by helping us grow in Christ.
The Rev. John Buchanan of Chicago speaks powerfully of God’s commitment to our salvation through our growth in Jesus.
God seeks to save us by bestowing the gift of life and the opportunity to grow into a truer, deeper, and more authentic life.
God seeks to save us by touching our hearts with love so that we can see and care for others who need us.
God seeks to save us by relieving us from obsessing about our own needs, and ourselves by instead, [caring for the needs of] others.
My sisters and bothers:
As we continue to strive to grow in Christ, please always remember, that as one, Our Creator, Our Savior, and Our Sustainer strive to help us learn that:
God wants to teach us that greatest lesson,
God wants to tell us that greatest truth,
God wants to share with us that greatest secret:
TO LOVE IS TO LIVE Amen.