Two weeks ago we explored significant changes taking place in the church in North America. An increasing number of people have become dissatisfied with traditional Christian teachings and many have drifted away from the church in search of other forms of spirituality. This discontent may be fueling a new reformation.
Last week we explored how the word faith has come to mean believing certain religious doctrines, and how, with the rise of science, what we are supposed to believe has become, for many, increasingly unbelievable for many.
In 325, the Nicene Creed became the official oath of Christendom. It states what Christians are to believe, but it does not contain a single word on how we are to live. If this initial creed was not established until the fourth century, what happened during the first 300 years?
The gospels tell us that Jesus gathered his first followers by inviting them to come along with him and see what happens. He "did not walk by the Sea of Galilee and shout to fishermen, 'Have faith!' Instead, he asked them to do something: 'Follow me.' When they followed, he gave them more things to do."1
With today's notion that faith is primarily about believing certain doctrines, you would almost expect to read in the gospels that Jesus called his followers into a classroom and said, "In today's lecture, I'll cover the immaculate conception and virgin birth. Future sessions will include "Being of one substance with the Father," and "Judging between the quick and the dead."
Christianity did not originate with a statement of faith. It began when Jesus invited people to join him in a life-changing adventure. He taught them, not with abstract theology, but by telling them stories about a sower who went out to sow seeds, about a Samaritan who saw a half-dead man in a ditch and cared for him, about a woman searching her house for a lost coin, about a rich man who feasted sumptuously but ignored the poor at this gate.
Jesus taught not only with words, he demonstrated how to live by embracing outsiders, by healing untouchables, by forgiving sinners, by stepping out of the day's routine to spend time alone with God, by confronting evil and by blessing children. And he commissioned those who followed him to perform the same deeds.
The story is told of a "man who died and found himself in a beautiful place, surrounded by every conceivable comfort. A white-jacketed man came to him and said, 'You may have anything you choose - any food, any pleasure and any kind of entertainment you desire.'"
The man was delighted and for days he sampled all the delicacies and experiences of which he had dreamed on earth. But after awhile, he grew bored, and he called the attendant and said, 'I'm tired of all this. I need something worthwhile to do. What kind of work can you give me?"
"The attendant shook his head and replied, 'I'm sorry, sir. That's the one thing we can't do. There is no work for you.'"
"The man answered, 'Well, that's a fine thing. I might as well be in hell.'"
"To which the attendant said, 'Where do you think you are?'"2
Life remains shallow if the focus is always on ourselves. We need something to do that will enhance the life of another and give us a sense of purpose.
Those who follow Jesus find that when they do the things he did, life is more satisfying than ever. Life is not simply one experience after another, life has purpose, life has direction. People who follow the way of Jesus discover deeper connections with others. They feel their souls cleansed and their lives transformed. They find great joy in simple things. They are buoyed by courage when times are tough. And they believe God uses them to shape a better world.
The chief teaching of Jesus is that we are created to love God, to love others and to love ourselves. When there is a breach in any of those relationships, life is out of sorts. That's why it is so critical for us to nurture a meaningful connection to God, to build strong ties with others and to develop a positive self-image recognizing ourselves and others as children of God. Harmonious relationships promote wellbeing.
When my life is more in harmony with the ways of Christ, I feel a sense of harmony with the world. When my life is out of sync with the ways of Christ, my life is out of kilter. I feel disjointed, anxious, rudderless and unfulfilled.
Many feel that if they just had enough money, life would be satisfying. They would feel less anxious and more secure. They would be happier and more at peace. Or, life would be easier if they could fix the person who is making their life miserable. Or, life would be wonderful if they had a better job; more pay and fewer hassles. Or, life would be better if they found the right mate or lived somewhere more interesting or if their children were more successful.
But what happens when the troubles never get resolved? Or when one gets resolved, another one rears its head? How do we find the harmony that makes life the rich adventure God wants us to experience regardless of our circumstances?
In our reading from Romans, Paul dispenses a strong prescription. In fact, in all of Scripture, I doubt you will find a more complete list of spiritual practices designed to help you live the abundant life God desires for you.
Paul begins where Jesus begins, with love. Paul says, "Let love be genuine" knowing that if you do not strive to love God, yourself and others, then there's no reason to go one step further Love must be the bedrock on which you build your life.
But lest we think Paul is going to dissolve into some soft-headed, utopian vision where all is bright and beautiful, he resorts to fiery language. He says, "Hate what is evil."
I don't know about your mother, but mine told me to strike that word hate from my lexicon. That was good counsel, because displaying such a strong negative emotion can ignite darkness within ourselves. But in this context, Paul has it right. We should hate what is evil - injustice, cruelty, deception, greed, spite, violence... We should be repulsed by evil so that we will resist it. God not only urges us to do what is right, but also to oppose what damages and destroys.
And in order that we not succumb to these dark powers ourselves, Paul immediately instructs us to "cling to what is good." Then, he lists the things that are good. He says to love one another with mutual affection, and to outdo each other in showing honor. Rather than trying to put ourselves above others, he encourages us to show humility by lifting up others.
Do you make it a point everyday to praise others? Think about someone who could really use a word of praise and then this afternoon or tomorrow do your best to lift that person's spirits.
Paul goes on to highlight the importance of service, patience, and rejoicing in hope. He says to contribute to the needs of others, to extend hospitality and to persevere in prayer. Do you say a prayer of thanks at least once each day?
Diana Butler Bass points out that in the first century, "Members of the (Christian) community were not held accountable for their opinions about God or Jesus; rather, the community measured faithfulness by how well its members practiced loving God and neighbor. Not offering hospitality was a much greater failure than not believing that Jesus was 'truly God and truly human.'"3
Paul also calls on us to do something that is nearly impossible for most of us to do. He says to bless those who persecute you. He's echoing the words of Jesus from the Sermon on the Mount when Jesus said, "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you."
Next is what I consider one of Paul's most beautiful lines: "Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep." What a marvelous motto for a follower of Jesus.
Paul isn't finished. He provides more practical guidance and spiritual wisdom: "Live in harmony with one another, avoid arrogance, associate with the lowly, do not claim to be wiser than you are." When someone hurts you and you feel like retaliating, don't! Instead, Paul says, "Focus on what is noble and do what is in your power to live peaceably with others."
Paul's practical guidance and spiritual wisdom serve as a blueprint for following Jesus. His list of spiritual practices that awaken us to God and shape our character. But they do something else. They help us to bring healing to our world. Living in unsettling times as we do, in which governments are overthrown, economies teeter, and extreme ideologies push for conquest rather than learning to live in harmony with those who disagree, it is vital for people of faith to play a key role in creating a better world.
Etty Hillesum was a Jewish woman who wrote about peace in one of the least peaceful moments of her own relatively short life. Imprisoned by the Nazis during World War II, she perished at Auschwitz on November 30, 1943. A year earlier, in September of 1942, she wrote this diary entry: "We have to fight them daily like fleas, those small worries about the morrow, for they sap our energies. We make mental provisions for the days to come, and everything turns out differently, quite differently... We must not allow ourselves to become infested with thousands of petty fears and worries... Ultimately, we have just one moral duty: to reclaim large areas of peace in ourselves, more and more peace, and to reflect it towards others. Because the more peace there is in us, the more peace there will be in our troubled world."4
When we follow Jesus, we engage in certain spiritual practices. These practices are not designed to convince us to believe certain things about God that we find difficult to believe. They help us experience God, they help us to live a life of purpose and joy and integrity, and they prompt us to mend our troubled world.
1. Diana Butler Bass, Christianity After Religion, (New York: HarperOne, 2012), p. 207.
2. Jack Kornfield and Christina Feldman, Soul Food: Stories to Nourish the Spirit and the Heart, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996, p. 134-135.
3. Bass, Christianity After Religion, p. 149.
4. Ann Spangler, The Peace God Promises: Closing the Gap Between What You Experience and What You Long For, (Grand Rapids Michigan: Zondervan, 2011),
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