Sunday, January 22, 2012

Life Signs - #3 A Life of Authenticity

Perhaps you've heard the spoken word video by Jefferson Bethke that’s had over 16 million hits on youtube.  It’s called, “Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus.”  Here are a few lines:

   What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?
See, the problem with religion is it never gets to the core
It’s just behavior modification, like a long list of chores
Like, “Let’s dress up the outside, make it look nice and neat”
But it’s funny, that’s what they used to do to mummies while the corpse rots underneath.
Now I ain’t judging, I’m just sayin’, “Quit puttin’ on a fake look”
’Cause there’s a problem if people only know that you’re a Christian by your Facebook.  

For the record, Bethke has clarified in a CBS morning news broadcast that what he speaks against is not religion, per se, but religious hypocrisy and that "what my generation wants is authenticity."  That being the case, there never seems to be a  problem identifying fake religion…but how to identify authentic religion – that’s the more important challenge.  How can we be sure that we are genuine followers of Christ, and not just "puttin' on a fake look" as Bethke warns?  John’s letter was written to help us recognize some clear signs of true Christian faith.  The third of these from 1 John 2: 3-11, is a life of authenticity in which we practice what we say we believe.

The fruit of authentic faith: obeying God’s commands.  How can we know that we know that we know we are God’s children?  How can we know that our own spiritual experiences are genuine?  John’s answer may shock us by its simplicity… We know that we have come to know him if we obey his commands (2:3 NIV), periodSome may object: We thought Christianity was about grace…not about our works? Remember the bumper sticker?  “Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven.”  Dallas Willard once pointed out that this bumper sticker implies that Christianity is only about forgiveness; and that it’s really not fair to expect anything more from a Christian!  We’re saved by grace, so it doesn’t really matter what we do.  Right?  Here’s the problem: there’s big room for improvement between “not perfect” and “just forgiven.”  And in fact, Jesus is much more hopeful about the transforming work of the Holy Spirit in your life and mine than this bumper sticker. Consider these verses...

  • John 15:16 - “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit--fruit that will last.”
  • 2 Cor. 5:15 - “And [Christ] died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.”
  • James 1:2 - “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”
  • Titus 2:14 - “[Christ] gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good  
Now many of us would assume that it takes Herculean faith to obey God, and that our problem is a lack of it.  I've even heard some excuse their lack of obedience by saying that "I'm just not a very strong believer.  If I had a stronger faith, I could obey God more."  In other words, "Only those who believe God can obey him."  Dietrich Bonhoeffer unmasked that self-deception in The Cost of Discipleship where he counters that “Only those who obey God can believe him.”  In other words, it is when we take God’s word seriously and obey his commands that we find his word trustworthy, and our faith in him strengthened. Only after Peter stepped out on to the water did he find that Jesus' word was trustworthy.  Only after placing your weight on the downhill ski, is the truth of your instructor's word validated. Some things have to be practiced before they can be believed. “Show me your faith apart from your works” says James, “and I by my works will show you my faith.” 

Olympic gold medalist Darrel Pace was to give an archery exhibition in New York City's Central Park, and the event received coverage by all the news stations. Shooting steel- tipped hunting arrows, Pace punctured bull's-eyes without a miss. Then he called for a volunteer. “All you have to do,” said Pace, “Is hold this apple in your hand, waist-high.” ABC correspondent Josh Howell took a bold step forward. He stood there, a small apple in his hand, a larger one in his throat. Pace took aim from 30 yards away as we all held our breath. Then THWACK-a clean hit that exploded the apple before striking the target behind. Everybody applauded Howell, who was all smiles--until his cameraman approached with a hangdog look. “I'm sorry, Josh,” he said. “I didn't get it. Had a problem with my viewfinder. Could you do it again?”  That reporter had faith… and he communicated it with his deeds. The fruit -- or evidence -- of authentic faith is obeying God’s commands; practicing his word; but how do we get to obedience?  What is the path we are to walk?  Jesus says, “I am the way...I am the route…follow me.”

The route of authentic faith: walking with Christ.  God not only gave us a world to live in that bears witness to his creative power; he not only gave us his commands, inscribed on tablets of stone…he gave us his Son, a living example in flesh and blood, to show us the way.  “This is how we know we are in him: Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did” (2:6 NIV).

It was not only Jesus’ death for us on the cross that saved us…it was his whole life too, and how he lived it.  Think of the cross as really representing three things about Jesus: (1) his life with arms open wide beckoning us to follow him and to walk in his ways, (2) his death, arms stretched out on the cross for our sins, and (3) his resurrection, because the cross stands empty to the sky…and he is risen. We need to take Jesus’ whole life seriously…and how he lived it, imitating his spiritual practices and habits.  No one would go out on a mission without training.  No one would go out on the field without training.  Jesus trained, spiritually, just as an athlete trains physically.  He spent time with the Father in prayer.  He knew the Scriptures, memorized them; walked with them.  He spent time in the synagogue, the center of worship.  He devoted himself to a close knit fellowship of his followers, like a Lifegroup.  He intentionally served others, helping and healing those in need. 

I spent some time with a church member last week at a local hospital, and he was commenting to me about several things that happened while he was there that reminded him of God’s presence.  One of these signs literally saved his life.  Seventeen years ago, the last time he had been hospitalized with foot problems…he nearly died.  There was a nurse on duty at the time who saw my friend in distress…ran into his room, knew exactly what to do, and saved his life.  She was 63 years old at the time.  Now get this… last week, this very nurse, who just happened to be working on the same floor that my friend was on, walked into his room: she is 80 years old.  He instantly recognized her.  “This is the nurse who saved my life,” he was telling everybody. Here was a nurse who knew what to do when it really counted, because she had trained for it.  Too often we think that as Jesus’ followers we can just wing it…without any practice.  We can put on the clothing of a medic without any training and walk around saving people in the hospital; or put on the jersey without any practice, and play like we’re heading for the Super bowl. 

The Christian life isn’t like that.  We’ve got to train, like that nurse, or a seasoned athlete, we’ve got to train with Jesus, observe his life and imitate it, so that when the time of testing comes, we are ready to be used by God and, then, who knows?  We may be given the privilege of saving someone’s life…by literally feeding the hungry or by leading someone to Christ the Bread of Life. The fruit of authentic faith is obedience to God’s commands.  The route of authentic faith is walking with Jesus and…

The heart of authentic faith: loving as we have been loved.  Beloved (or “dear friends” NIV) I am writing you no new command…” (v. 7).  John has been speaking of the importance of obedience… and that message, if spoken in the wrong tone, could feel legalistic and defeating.  But John is careful to convey that the strong word he speaks, he speaks to those who are beloved.  John uses the word “agapetoi” (lit. beloved) six times in this letter and “little/dear children” seven times! 

Another way of saying this is that the call to obey is always given “in the hug.”  Jesus does not  hold us at arms length, saying “No hug until you get this right.”  He wraps his arms around us, grasps us with his love, and then says, “You can do this!  You are the salt of the earth, no go be the salt… You are the light of the world, now go be the light!”  You are loved…now go and start loving.  Only the hug, only his hug, can empower us to obey him…and above all to love him and each other wholeheartedly. One who has not been loved cannot easily love.  None of us have been loved perfectly in this life by another human being, but, as we read earlier, God does love us perfectly (v. 5) heals us with this love, and empowers us to love in the same way.  

Therefore, John says, Beloved, I am writing you no new commandment, but an old commandment that you have had from the beginning.”  Then again, “I am writing you a new commandment that is true in him and in you” (vv. 7-8).   How can this command to love be both old and new?

It is old because it was given long ago in the torah.  Deut. 6:5 says, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength.”  Lev. 19:18 says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  These are ancient commands from the torah, so why does John call them new? They are new in the sense that Jesus invested the command to “love” with a richer and deeper meaning in 3 ways…

  • First, the importance he gave this command was new.  Jesus took the two love commands and told us that they are the greatest commands of Scripture; that all of the law and prophets could be summarized in them.
  • Second, the quality of the love that he commanded was new… for he told them to love one another as he had loved them…sacrificially, selflessly, even to the point of laying down their lives for each other.
  • Third, the extent of the love he commanded was new…for Jesus told us not only to love our neighbor, but to love them regardless of race, gender, social position or background…a love that even included our enemies.
Therefore, John writes: “Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him” (2: 10-11 NIV).  Jesus astounded both his friends and his enemies as he actually practiced this sacrificial love right in front of them…a love that embraced the sinner and outcast, a love that touched the untouchables, a love that spoke the absolute truth even when it was painful, a love that said to his enemies, “Father forgive them” from the cross.
I began by reading from spoken word artist Jefferson Bethke.  He was talking about religion in the negative sense…fake religion, a religion without authenticity…a religion without grace or truth.  Father Claude Burns, a Catholic priest, decided to respond to Bethke’s spoken word poem about fake religion with his own.  He calls it: Why I Love Religion…and Love Jesus. Father Burns talks not about fake religion but about authentic religion…the evidence that God’s grace is operating in us, not a means to earn it…an active, living faith that is not content to sit on the sidelines but to obey God’s commands, walk in the way of Christ, and love those around us.  Here are a few lines…

What if I told you that Jesus loves religion
And that by his coming as man he brought his religion to fruition.
See what makes his religion great is not errors of wars and inquisitions
It’s that broken men and women can participate in his mission.
Sins of the Body and internal treason will never ever make me leave him
And that Jesus said “it is done,” is absolutely true
But he also gave us a mission with many things to DO.
Jesus says if you love me, you will Do what I command.
Go baptize in the name of the Father, Son & Spirit….in Every Land.

Heavenly Father, we praise you for the gift of your grace which we receive by faith; faith in the atoning work of Christ alone who cleanses us from every sin, and gives us the gift of everlasting life.  We praise you for the grace that accepts us where we are, but that refuses to leave us where we are; for the grace that purifies us as gold and silver are refined by fire.  Therefore we pray, Holy Spirit that you would reveal in us any inconsistencies -- in thought, word, or deed -- with the light of your truth.  Give us both the will and the power to walk as Jesus walked, and may your fruit  – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – be increasingly evident in our lives.  To this end may we come to authentically know you, love you, and serve you, through Jesus the Christ, our Lord.  Amen!

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