Wednesday, August 05, 2009

A Picture of Jesus

Eph. 4:1-16; Mk. 8:1-10[1]

You may be surprised to learn that those who study the development of faith in the course of a human lifespan have determined that there are some fairly common stages we all go through. Most of us begin with the stage in which we basically embrace the faith of our family and our church. We can be rather dogmatic and even arrogant about it—insisting that it is the faith that has been believed “everywhere, always, and by everyone.”[2]

The stage that follows is one in which we begin to question our religious beliefs and practices and go through a period of re-evaluation in which we make the faith we inherited into the faith we affirm. For various reasons, we begin to question the beliefs and practices handed down to us. Typically, I would say that such a “conversion” is triggered by a life experience, especially a crisis. This is a difficult process, and the results are by no means assured; but if a person can hold on to faith they will come out of that “dark night of the soul” with a stronger and more vibrant faith that they have made their own.[3]

It may sound like that is the pinnacle of spiritual maturity, something like what Paul is talking about in his letter to the Ephesians. But in fact, most of those who study faith development will say that there are several more stages beyond that! For example, there is a stage of faith where we learn to take all things religious less seriously, if for no other reason than that they are of human origin.[4] At this stage, the idea of different views about God doesn’t pose such a threat, perhaps because we become more interested in an authentic relationship with God. We can affirm our own beliefs, while at the same time allowing that the reality of God is big enough to encompass other, perhaps even seemingly contradictory, views of God.[5]

I would suggest that even this is not yet “full measure of the stature of Christ.” In fact, there is another stage, the stage that only the greatest sages and saints through the ages have reached—people like Mother Teresa and Mohandas Ghandi, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Dorothy Day. At this stage the very center of one’s being shifts from the self to God. Because of this, those who reach this stage are able to go out and serve the world with little or no thought to the outcomes for themselves.[6] At this stage one can see all people as children of God, and therefore one is concerned not just for the salvation of one’s own nation or fellow believers, but for the salvation of the world.

It seems to me that this sounds a lot like what Paul had in mind when he urged the Christians of his day to “live a life worthy of the calling you have received” (Eph. 4:1, NIV). Specifically, a “life worthy” looks like this: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:2-3, NIV). And just in case anyone missed the point that this life is one that should transcend all the lines that divide the body of Christ, Paul adds a theological rationale to his call to unity: “There is one body and one Spirit--just as you were called to one hope when you were called--one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph. 4:4-6, NIV).[7]

Imagine reaching a level of spiritual maturity where you are so focused on God that you can see all people as children of God, you can find truth in every point of view—even those that differ most from yours, and you can serve anyone and everyone because that is what Christ would do.[8] This is a stage of faith that most of us never reach. We simply cannot let go of our attachment to ourselves. We have too much of a need to be “right” so that we can prove that those with whom we disagree are “wrong.” Perhaps that’s why we can so readily identify with Jesus’ disciples.[9] Again and again the Gospels show us that Jesus’ own Apostles completely miss the point of his life and teaching. In the Gospel lesson this week we hear about Jesus teaching a throng of people in a deserted place and afterwards telling his disciples to feed the people. And they respond with “who me?” or “what are we going to feed them?” or “where will they all sit?” or “when will we find time to cook for them all?”

I wonder if the request Jesus makes is not just a pragmatic one. I wonder if he was trying to point his disciples to an important truth related to spiritual growth: the life that Jesus points us toward is one that is only attained by a commitment to service. One that says simply, “yes, Lord,” when we’re called to do something we didn’t expect to have to do—or even, “yes, Lord, if you’ll help me.” We can only attain to “the full stature of Christ” by following Jesus’ example of selfless love and sacrificial service to others. I think this also relates to congregational transformation: it is only when we become “a picture of Jesus” by serving the people around us with compassion that we can experience the quality of life that will enable our congregation to thrive.[10]



[1] © 2009 Alan Brehm. A sermon preached by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 8/2/09 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson, TX and at A Community of the Servant-Savior Presbyterian Church, Houston, TX. The title was inspired by Ben Harper’s song, “A Picture of Jesus” from the album Diamonds on the Inside, Virgin Records, 2003.

[2] This was Vincent of Lerin’s view of the faith that guided the catholic church in the medieval ages. See Robert M. Grant and David Tracy, A Short History of the Interpretation of the Bible, 80.

[3] I would be of the opinion that the vast majority of people fall into one of those two categories when it comes to faith. I would argue that this applies to all “faiths,” all systems of belief, including ideologies of all stripes—scientific, economic, philosophical, etc.

[4] Cf. John Caputo, On Religion, 34, 112-113, 117.

[5] Cf. Ronald Goetz, “Heresy, Diversity, and Grace,” The Christian Century (July 16, 1997): 653, where he suggests that we should all consider the possibility that “beliefs and doctrines that appear to us to be mutually contradictory may in truth be evidence of the glorious diversity of the spiritual gifts flowing from God’s love in Jesus Christ.”

[6] Cf. James Fowler, Weaving the New Creation, 102-15; See also the summary of faith development theories at http://prevetteresearch.net/dldoc.php?docID=36 .

[7] Although many in our day and time use those last verses to advocate a doctrinal or even institutional uniformity, in the context Paul is using it to support “keeping the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.” The unity Paul is describing is a spiritual unity, and there is no doctrine or institution that can fabricate the unity the Spirit naturally produces in the body of Christ when we’re “living a life worthy of the calling you have received.” See Marcus Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 488-89; cf. further, ibid., 465-66, where he describes God’s “oneness” as a “creative oneness” that is “the power to unify.”

[8] Cf. Barth, Ephesians 4-6, 471: “In basing her confession of her own unity upon the confession of God’s unity, the confessing church is forced to look and think beyond her own horizon.”

[9] Cf. David E. Garland, Mark, 316, “If we ask, ‘How could the disciples be so dense?’ we need immediately ask the same question of ourselves. The disciples saw dimly in a glass coated with the dust of traditional ways of viewing things and warped by the curvature of their own dreams and ambitions. The glass we look through is no different. We are no less in need of healing before we can see what God is doing, and it may not take on the first try.”

[10] Cf. Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 4.2:620: “The goal in the direction of which the true Church proceeds and moves is the revelation of the sanctification of all humanity and human life as it has already taken place de iure in Jesus Christ.” Therefore we are called to strive to live as a “provisional representation” of that final redemption, one that is effected in us by “Jesus the Lord, in the quickening power of His Holy Spirit.” See further ibid., 620-23; J├╝rgen Moltmann, The Way of Jesus Christ, 102.

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