My friend Thomas Ward started a discussion with me via twitter about how one can measure faithfulness in following Jesus. This is the sermon rant that resulted from his challenge of factoring Matthew 25 into understanding measuring fidelity without falling into judging everyone by some standard of works. This this is long. Kudos to anyone who can last the whole thing. I’ll buy you a cookie… mmm… cookies…
When we talk of faithfulness, we are trying to encapsulate a fervent desire to stay true to something we believe in, to our commitments and vows, to the one we love. Mostly, we use it in relationship talk. We speak of remaining faithful to our lover, not going astray or having an affair, of keeping them as our most important priority in life.
This idea bleeds over into our talk about Jesus. In this relationship we enter with God, we want to remain faithful, we don’t want other things to take prominence and choke out our love for the God who has loved us in a way no one else can.
But how do we measure our faithfulness to Jesus? It’s not as if we can wake up every morning, pop the hood, and check our fidelity level. There is no power bar, no gauge, and it seems so intangible.In my history, I was told in verbal and non-verbal ways that fidelity to Christ was seen by what I did and didn’t do. If I was a faithful Christian, I wouldn’t look like the world. If I was a faithful Christian, I would read my bible and pray for a half hour at least every day. If I was a faithful Christian, I would go to church, get involved in church ministries, evangelize, clean up my life more and more and help others do the same.
If I was a faithful Christian.
Measuring my self against these kind of lists, I always find my self short. I mean, when is it enough? When have I proved that I am really, truly faithful? Will I stop waking up cranky, forgetting to pray? Will I take every and all small interactions and turn them into an evangelistic effort? At what point can I finely rest in my efforts, knowing that it is enough… See, the metrics we want to use slide us inevitability into the realms of working my way to be good enough. It’s tricky and tangled because they start in a good place. We start by wanting to do things out of faithfulness. Then it becomes something to prove our faithfulness, becoming finally the ways we measure fidelity in others.
This is a problem. Because the desire to see proof of our faithfulness can so easily mutate into the lie that we can do enough someday, it seems impossible to even try and examine our own hearts and actions, keeping the good and cutting out the slack. But we need to be aware of our faithfulness to Christ. We need to check ourselves and make sure we are letting him be our first love. So what do we do? How do we live in this tension? How can we be honest about the good areas and the areas that need to change without becoming obsessed with our works, and inevitability the works of others?
What are we really asking when we try to measure our fidelity to Jesus? At its core, I think we are asking, “Am I believing the Gospel?” Am I correctly understand and practicing this salvation message? Am I loving God with all my heart, mind, and body? We are asking, am I remaining right with God?
The whole of scripture points to one answer to this question: faith. This living, active trust in the promises of God, the work and person of Jesus… this orientation is the measure by which we are to gauge our fidelity to Jesus. Do I have faith? Do I believe? Or, to put it into my words, am I living in the hope of salvation?
This life orientation of fully trusting that Jesus accomplished God’s reconciliation to us, opening the invitation for all to came and be made right with God, each other, your self, and all of creation… this trust that he is going to come again, set all that is broken right, make all sadness and pain untrue, and thus show the salvation he has promised to the world… the presence of this true hope in our lives is to be the litmus by which we test fidelity in our lives.
It isn’t some vague abstraction, and while I can’t offer you a cup of hope (unless you count coffee and/or beer), I can say this: this great hope we are offered, when you begin to believe it, and lean in to believe in more, it will change every aspect of your life to the point that the way you live will never be the same.
I want to walk through Matthew 23-25. I think it sheds some biblical light on the difference between a spiritualism morality that is trying to prove it is faithful enough, and a life that lives in and out the hope of salvation. Matthew 24 is addressed to the disciples, the people committed to following and learning to be like Jesus. The conversation starts of with their comments about the beauty and greatness of the temple. Jesus tells them that this temple is not going to last, it’s going to fall so badly that not one stone is going to be left on top of another. It is destined for utter ruination.
The disciples seem concerned at Jesus’ words. Isn’t the temple the dwelling place of God, where his throne on earth is? Isn’t it the center of worship, glory, power, and faithfulness for the nation of Israel, for God’s chosen nation?If the temple falls, what is going to happen to them and the promise of God establishing his eternal reign and crushing the enemies of Israel under his feet? Their question of, “When is the kingdom to come?” is a plea for understanding, a request for comfort, a question filled with the longing to know that their faith is not miss-placed.
In the story of Gospel as told by Matthew, this question and the teaching that follows falls directly after Jesus’ proclamation of woe to the scribes and Pharisees. Matthew 23 ends with seven statements of Jesus that are a denouncing, a rejection, and a warning that with out repentance, these scribes and pharisees, these teachers, governors, and so called protectors of the word of god and the correct ways to obey it… without repentance, they will be ruined because they have multiplied the work and burden of the weary people of God. In stead of giving hope, love, rest, and comfort to the oppressed, the very things that the law of Moses that they were suppose to be faithful to called for, these religious leaders took advantage of the widow, the orphan, and the down trodden. They heaped rules and demands on everyone, drawing people further and further into moral and economic debt while securing their own gain and retention of power. What they called fidelity to the word and ways of God was nothing more than an abuse of position, trust, and people. Jesus calls them out for it in no uncertain terms.
The disciples hear this authoritative reprimand followed by Jesus words about the destruction of the temple, the seat of political and religious power of the scribes and pharisees So they ask, So, when will be your time to come into power, to establish the kingdom of God and the blessing of his people, to be Messiah. Implied in their question is the zealous request: “is it now? Can we begin the fight? Will we finally win against Rome, against the gentiles who trample our inheritance? Is now the time for revolution?”
“Therefore, you must be watchful.”
Jesus goes ahead and lays out what must happen before the kingdom is established in a ultimate, physical, eternal way. Before you see the Messiah come in power and wielding all his authority, these other things must happen. Yes, it will happen… but not yet. Jesus speaks three parables, telling us how to be watchful, to remain faithful as we wait.
- Diligently and wisely
- Wisely tending our lamps
- Wisely investing and using what has been entrusted to us.
All three of these stories ring with an unspoken, “do this so as to be not like the pharisees”. Jesus continues to proclaim that the way of the religious leaders, the abusers of power and the oppresses of the tired, will be called out, judged, and destroyed by God. There is no room for that in His kingdom.
At this point, Jesus begins to paint a picture for those who would follow him. The hope of Israel was wrapped up in the coming judgment of Yahweh, the Day of the Lord. On this day, the Lord him self would sit on his throne, visible to all. He would call the nations to account, and finally after a history of oppression and powerlessness, his people would be vindicated and glorified before all the gentiles. Only, the picture Jesus paints is not one of national vindication. He instead portents the Lord sitting in judgment over his people, calling the faithful to his right and the unfaithful to his left. The faithful and unfaithful are judged not by their heritage as the people of god, not by their spiritual works. Rather, when the Son of Man comes in Glory, when the kingdom is established, fidelity is judged upon how each life proclaims hope, gives rest, works toward the good that has been promised to come. The way Jesus judges fidelity in each of us is solely by the orientation of our hearts in belief (faith). The actions that are displayed, the fruit of the tree, are simply a witness for or against the hope that we claim to have. Faith and fidelity are often times shown in ways we don’t expect or think of. But the true orientation of our heart, our true belief or unbelief is reveled in the little things, the ways we either give rest and proclaim good, or choose not to.
Set in juxtaposition with the actions of the pharisees, the commendation of the ‘sheep’ is seen not as a congratulatory approval of works, but rather a movement of grace in the life of the faithful that sparks a difference in how they choose to live in the world around them and treat the people they meet, regardless of need, class, power, or lack there of. It is this heart orientation expressed in action toward those who need rest, aid, and love that God responds to, claiming them as his own.
Faithfulness to Christ has everything to do with what your life proclaims.
In the discourse Jesus gives to his followers on the Mt. Of Olives (Matthew 7.15-23) Jesus speaks of knowing a false prophet by the fruit they produce, by the result their life has on and in the people and world around them. Those who want to follow the Jesus way are called not to be characterized by religious or spiritual action (such as false teachers might be doing in the name of Christ), but rather by ‘doing the will of God’. Leading lives that look like Jesus, bringing hope, health, rest, renewal to the broken world and the downtrodden people. This is what being a disciple of Jesus is about. When the Pharisees accuse Jesus of allowing and teaching his disciples to break the law of Moses (Matthew 12.1-21) by picking grain to eat on the day of rest, Jesus responds by telling them that they need to go learn what God means when he says, “I desire mercy and not sacrifice.” Again, Matthew is pointing out that the letter of the law, the religious and spiritual action that people appeal to as proof of their fidelity and demand that others live up to to prove their fidelity, count as nothing before God. Religions action and duty (or the lack their of) says nothing of our fidelity. It is what our life preaches to the world that counts for everything. Are we preaching hope and rest found in the person and completed work of Jesus alone, or are we laying rules and regulations at people’s feet as a line they must tow?
I think that one of the hardest parts of this is the waiting. We want to see something immediately, some way of measuring our fidelity in this moment so that we can assure ourselves that we are ok, that we are still good enough and that God approves of us, is still happy with us, that he still accepts and loves us. This desire, this need we have to be validated, our depravity takes this need and leads us into a place where we take all that is good and necessary in this Jesus way (prayer, worship, listening to God and sharing hope) and pervert it into a measuring system for our own worth before the God who is Love.
What infidelity this truly is! This immediate gratification of spiritual worth, this bent way of thinking and orienting our heart will slowly lead us to become the very people Jesus speaks against and rejects in his forever kingdom that is coming. Our efforts to prove the greatness of our own fidelity to the God who accepts us as we are, our desire to prove we are good enough, will lead us away from the very thing we are truly seeking: rest, acceptance, hope.
Patience is the vaccination we need. Patiently, we wait for our hope to be reveled Patiently, we lean into the way of Jesus and lean on his life, his death, his resurrection, his promise to return, his totally gracious acceptance of us as our worth. Patiently, we keep trusting that he is working in us, changing us, forming us into his image and healing our brokenness, making the orientation of our heart one of love and hope. Patience forces us to realize that our faithfulness to Jesus will be gauged by our entire life orientation and the message we proclaim with our entire life.
So, are we proclaiming oppression in the form of a spiritual measuring stick, or are we proclaiming the only true rest that comes from the hope of salvation?