Five Practice of Fruitful Congregations, Part 4 - Intentional Faith Development
We call him Savior and rightly so. Jesus is the lead actor in the drama of salvation. He comes among us to name and hate the presence of sin. He draws out the forces of evil into one concentrated place (Golgotha) on one day (Good Friday), (winner take all!), and let’s God decide. And after the metaphysical victory on the cross, Jesus comes to each of us, and in the wonderful words of Charles Wesley, “he breaks the power of canceled sin” (the war’s over, there’s just some minor cleaning up to do!) Beautiful Savior”.
We call him Lord and rightly so. Jesus’ resurrection on the third, is God’s singular vindication. When this man called himself God’s Son, he spoke truth. And from this point on he is “above all powers”. For Christians all the passionate monotheism of the Hebrew Bible, the prophets fight against false gods and idols, all that energy is now transferred to him. Jesus is Lord and there can be no other!
But before Jesus was Savior and Lord, he was Teacher. In the only snapshot we have of Jesus between birth and thirty he’s in the Temple, mixing it up with the lawyers and professors.… (FN: I don’t know if it’s the influence of the Sunday School movement in America, but I find this scene in the stained glass of many churches, including the second from left panel of our main window). The calling of the first disciples is a teacher enlisting students. Jesus will gather crowds on the mountain where he can be seen by large numbers, or on the lakeshore while he sits in a boat in the water. Remember what Stephen said last week about table fellowship. Jesus is always going to a meal, sitting down to a meal, or leaving a meal. Add this to that: most of those meals turned into teaching sessions where, after the table is cleared, Jesus did what good teachers do: takes you places in your mind where you would not have gone on your own, in this case, into the kingdom of God.
We’re looking at the five practices of fruitful congregations in this series. To repeat, they are: (1) passionate worship, (2) risk-taking mission and service, (3) radical hospitality, (4) intentional faith development, and (5) extravagant generosity. Today we are looking at “intentional faith development”. A fruitful congregation is filled with disciples of all ages growing spiritually. Let me unpack that by pointing to five behaviors of disciples of Jesus.
Disciples sit at the feet of Jesus – keep a teachable spirit. The gospels ask us to choose between two groups. The hoi polloi gathers in open spaces to sit at the feet of Jesus, mesmerized by his teaching, caught up in the drama of his stories, laughing hardy at his humor, nodding agreement with his arguments. Hours go by, they don’t notice, next thing you know they missed the chance to get home to supper before dark. While on the periphery of that crowd, hover the credentialed religious leaders, maybe stinging with teacher’s envy: Jesus gets 5,000 on short notice & I can’t get 10 at my weekly seminar! But certainly waiting/hoping for Jesus to make a mistake, some careless word they can report back to authorities. The gospels, especially Matthew ask: where are you in this scene? With the hungry students or the arrogant spies?
Disciples unlearn secular values; learn Kingdom values… Matthew’s gospel reports that people were amazed at the authority with which Jesus taught (7:28-29). This report comes at the end of what is called Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7. If you go over those three chapters there is one repeated phrase that jumps out at you: Jesus has the audacity to tell people, they need to forget or unlearn what they learned from others and accept the truth he brings… The key words are these: You have heard that it was said, but I say to you. You have heard that it was said, or taught humility is for losers, violence will have the last word, might makes right – but I say to you blessed are the humble, the peacemakers, the martyrs. You were taught a certain way to retaliate, get a divorce, say a prayer -but I say to you… A disciple lives in the energy of an exchange: things that don’t apply anymore must give way to new truths. The Apostle Paul calls it the constant “renewing of your mind” (Rm 12:2).
Disciples grow up. The Apostle Paul views himself as a parent of the churches he started or help to start. He can sound like a proud father: you are my workmanship in Christ. But he can also sound like a scolding mother. And that’s what we get in 1 Corinthians 3 where the church of Corinth is hurting because members can’t rise above their factions for a greater common good. Like a mother, Paul scolds them: “you know the way you whine, and criticize each other, and take sides was cute when you were a one- or two-year-old in Christ, but not so much when you’re 10, 15, or 20 years in Christ. You ought to be able to handle solid food by now but you’re still on baby formula! Grow up!”
Disciples become doers of the word. The full line comes from the book of James. “But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves (1:22).” James acknowledges there is an entertainment side to the use of language in church. There’s theatre in all good preaching and teaching. I remember seminary days; the chapel preacher was successor to Peter Marshall at New York Avenue Presbyterian Church. Deeper Scottish accent than Marshall’s. He wasn’t saying anything new or stirring, but way it put carried you away. There’s a music to the psalms; there’s a poetry to Isaiah; there are delightful twists to Jesus’ parables. We could listen forever. But if those words don’t impact our decisions, move us past status quo, don’t have a “so what?” they are not acting as the word of God which is a two-edged sword.
Disciples prepare to defend the hope that is in them. The line is from 1 Peter 3 and is addressed to believers who are in a hostile, anti-Christian environment of the Roman Empire. The Romans have lost patience with Jewish attempts at insurrection, so they’ve attacked Jerusalem and destroyed the Temple one final time in 70 CE. At that time, it was not clear that Christians were anything more than another sect of Jews, so they were swept up in that persecution. If you were arrested by the Romans, you had to be ready to distinguish your beliefs and stand by them: What do you mean the Messiah has come? Why do you call Jesus, Lord? While we don’t face that level of hostility, we face a storm of secular slander and misinformation. Only some disciples are called to be pro-active in speech, to teach, and preach, and engage in the public forum, but all of us are called to be ready to share the basic elements of our faith, to witness verbally to our faith, especially in response to the questions of others. To give the best answers we can when they ask, why are you a follower of Jesus? Why do you believe in the Holy Spirit? Why do you worship God in a church? Do you believe there is anything beyond this life?
Jesus wants to be our Savior and Lord. But he also wants to be the Teacher of students hungry to learn. A fruitful congregation has several good practices, and one of the most important is this: it is filled with disciples eager to sit at the feet of Jesus as the hoi polloi of old.