As we explored the concept of excellence on Sunday morning we discussed three arenas for excellence - work, worship, and relationships and discovered three pathways to pursue it - purpose, persistence, and passion. Today I want to add one more arena and another pathway. So we turn to Second Peter chapter one.
Peter is out of his mind in this text. I don’t know how else to make sense of what he says there. Peter says that we have been called to the glory and excellence of God! Even more than that Peter says that not only has God called us to His excellence, He has promised to make us like Him, and what’s more is that He will do it by His power (2 Pet. 1:3-4)! Peter then lists several qualities that we should pursue, even as God works in us so to speak. First among them, and perhaps a heading over the entire list, is the Greek word Arete. Arete is variously translated, “virtue”, “moral excellence”, or “excellence of character”. We must pursue excellence in the arena of our character and we must do so through purpose, passion, and persistence. We set as our goal partaking of the divine nature (2 Pet. 1:4; purpose), we apply all diligence to this goal (2 Pet. 1:5; passion) and we are constantly growing and increasing in this (2 Pet. 1:8, persistence). But there is a fourth pathway that we must pursue as well if we want to achieve moral excellence. Before we get there, however, we must meander a bit to consider why we need to walk it in the first place.
It is extraordinarily difficult to persist in moral excellence when we are constantly bombarded by, confronted with, and involved in forces that would weather our moral fortitude. As the wisdom writer aptly asks, “Can a man carry fire next to his chest and his clothes not be burned?”. The answer, is a resounding and obvious “no” and yet too many of us live like moral pyromaniacs. Our clothes are burned and our hair is singed and of course, nothing smells quite as bad as burnt hair, literally or metaphorically. Sometimes we play with fire intentionally, but most of the time we find ourselves dancing too close to its warmth without ever meaning to fall in. “I didn’t mean to”. The paragon of pardon. The most excellent of excuses. As an older friend of mine often tells his teenager when they utter the revered rationalization, “well, you didn’t mean not to.” Ah. There is the rub. Moral excellence, like staying away from fire, must be intentional. How do we intentionally avoid the flames which lick at the stature of our moral character and threaten to burn the whole edifice down? We must starve the fire. We must remove the fuel source. We must… Get a new metaphor… Not the most eloquent of transitions I know (it is certainly no fire pole).
Jesus, the master teacher picked the most magnificent metaphor here, a truly excellent example. When describing the process of growth to His disciples Jesus spoke of the necessity of pruning (John 15:2). I’m not a master gardener but pruning seems fairly counterintuitive at first glance. “Why would I cut anything off a perfectly healthy plant?” Because Jesus, the master teacher, and master gardener, knew that cutting off certain portions of the plant were entirely necessary if it was going to do more than just survive. If a plant would flourish and thrive it needs careful cultivation and proficient pruning. The same is when it comes to my moral excellence. I may be a healthy enough plant, perhaps I’m even bearing some fruit here and there. I may not commit major sins. I may have buried some real character flaws. I may be a relatively upstanding guy or gal. But I don’t want to settle for healthy enough, or some petty fruit on occasion. Mediocrity and complacency have no place when my purpose is to partake of the divine nature and passion and persistence are the paths down which I walk. I want to thrive in my moral character. Or at least, I ought to want to. And so prune I must, as the Word sheds light on leaves that bear too heavy. Certain relationships and recreational activities need to be rent and gotten rid of, certain pastimes need put away, certain situations need shunned or sidestepped. Sometimes I must prune because the activities, relationships, situations, etc. are harmful. More often though, I must prune because while the things I am involved in are not outright harmful they are not particularly helpful either (1 Cor. 10:23). And when my purpose is glorify God in everything I do (1 Cor. 10:31) and to become like Him (2 Pet. 1:3-4) I need to make sure the things that I am doing are helpful to that end.
And so let us consider our lives, and the ways in which we walk. Let us pursue pruning as a pathway to moral excellence. (Note: while beyond the scope of the present article pruning can also be a valuable tool to pursue excellence in the arenas of work, worship, and relationships as well).
We often think of Hebrews 10:24-25 as the text that commands us to worship on Sundays but this focus regularly misses the point of the passage…. In fact, we can never miss a worship service and still fail to fulfill Hebrews 10:24-25. That’s because the emphasis in this passage is on the command to consider how to stir one another up to love and good works rather than it’s application in this context - the need to assemble together. Unfortunately I know for myself that it is easier to check off an attendance box than it is to creatively and thoughtfully engage in provoking my brothers and sisters in Christ to faithfulness. Perhaps you can sympathize. But we must give attention to doing this and doing it well not only because God commanded it, but also because in His wisdom God knows we need it. We ought to be committed to one another and to encouraging each other to holdfast to and live out of our confidence in Jesus, particularly as we come together for worship. To do this we must be present not only in body, but in mind and heart on behalf of one another. Here’s one idea of what that might look like:
Intimate and authentic pre-worship interactions. Sometimes as we come together we may pray something along the lines of, “Help us to get rid of all earthy thoughts and concerns.” I get what is probably meant most times when we say this; if we are thinking about where we are going to eat lunch or who won the football game our minds and hearts are probably in the wrong place. But sometimes I think our insistence on attempting to clear our minds of ALL earthly thoughts hinders us from worshipping as we ought and encouraging one another as we should. Hear me out…
First, worship is about recognizing the worth and goodness of God. But these are not abstractions, nor is God’s goodness demonstrated in a vacuum but in the very lives of His people and on the plane of this world (James 1:16-18; Psa. 85:12). Thus to praise God’s goodness without recognizing how that goodness had been displayed in my life rings hollow. Nearly all the Psalms praise God for what he has done and is doing in the world and in the lives of the worshippers.
Furthermore, to extol God’s goodness in the midst of being keenly aware of my own suffering is to powerfully declare that God is worthy of worship in spite of my circumstances. This comes from faith and is at the same time faith building and is exactly what we see the psalmists doing both in psalms of personal lament and those intended for the congregation as a whole. But there’s an added level to this sort of awareness that I would like for us to consider.
When I am aware of how God has blessed you or how you are currently suffering I am better able to weep or rejoice with you in the context of worship. When together we sing, “The Battle Belongs to the Lord” with both our struggles and temptations in mind, we are mutually encouraged to keep on fighting. Or, as our eyes meet across the auditorium after you have experienced a deep and profound loss and yet continue to painfully but boldly sing the words of “It is Well With My Soul” I draw strength from your faith. Or, after we have prayed long and hard for many months about something that has been looming large in your life and God has finally answered that prayer positively, with renewed vigor we can sing “Count Your Blessings” or “In His Time.” We could keep going ad infinitum but you get the point. When we open ourselves up to one another, are transparent about both the good and the bad in our lives, and are aware of these things as we worship our worship is elevated to a higher plane and our ability to stir one another up in our assemblies has a manifold increase. How do we foster this sort of purposefully interaction?
- First, we must give ourselves the time to do so. If I don’t arrive until just before the opening prayer (or later!) I’m missing out on valuable time that I could be learning about your past week, your present circumstances your hopes and anxieties about the future. As a chief offender in this area, I get it. Things come up from time to time. But we must endeavor to wake up earlier, get ready quicker and/or leave sooner that we might make the most of this opportunity. To this end, we must also make and take opportunites outside of our assembly times to interact with one another on an intimate level.
- Additionally, we must give ourselves space for meaningful interactions. We are oft prone to focus on the mundane. Our conversations may often be crowded by the superficial. Let’s save the sports talk and the like for the lunch table as we continue to spend time with our brothers and sisters at lunch and use the time before worship to engage in the deep conversations that build solidarity and sympathy.
- Third, we must be willing to ask about each other’s lives and ready to listen to what they say, whatever that might be. Too often we fall into the habit of asking “how’re you doing?” but really meaning, “tell me that you are doing well so that I can be on my way.” (Again, the chief perpetrator here). We must embody the patience to sit and the attention to hear what our brothers and sisters might share with us. Further, we must demonstrate a trustworthy and humble disposition so that they feel at ease confiding in us that we will not betray their confidence or judge them for what they share.
- Finally, we must be willing to share ourselve as well. This ought to be a two-way street. Unfortunately the ideal of indiviuality impresses upon us an instinct to rely upon self, to keep our problems self-contained, and to draw back from others. The virtue of independence declares reliance on others among the worst of social sins. Pride, to our shame, prevents us from openning ourselves up to one another largely because we feel like if we do we will be exposed as fakes and outsiders. However, I have found in practice that when I have been vulnerable and transparent with the right* people that it allows them to take their guard down and share themselves as well. Trransparency creates reciprocity.
Let us share our lives and ourselves in intimate and authentic interactions so that we might better stir one another up to love in good works in out public assemblies.
Yesterday we looked at the book of Hebrews, a sermon in written form designed to fortify the faltering faith of certain members of the Jewish Christan community by encouraging them to keep Jesus front and center in their lives. We narrow our focus now on 3 verses near the end of this great "word of exhortation". As the Hebrew writer shifts to his final instructions, it seems significant that he begins by talking about how we ought to treat others (Heb. 13:1-3). Facing hardships of various kinds, especially persecution (10:32-34), people have a tendency to turn inward. When our problems become big, and bad, and bold our compassion, concern, and charity wane. If 10:24-25 is any indication, this is exactly what happened. Thus, the writer begins with the general exhortation to continue in brotherly love and then presses on to two specific applications of what that looks like.
We must make extra effort in these situation to care for one another, even when that requires great sacrifice on our part. It is easy, or at least easier, to sacrifice for people we know. It becomes much more difficult to sacrifice when we are called to do it for people we don’t know. You don’t know them, their character, or their intentions. Perhaps they will use you. Quite possibly they may not have your best interest in mind. They might even be trying to deceive you, hoping to turn you over for their own selfish gain. Showing hospitality to such strangers is potentially dangerous and deadly, especially in times of persecution. And yet, that’s exactly what we are called to. To open our hands, our hearts, and our homes. In doing so the Hebrew writer says that we may be entertaining angels unaware. The idea here is one that was common to Judaism, that angels, as God’s ministers (Heb. 1:7, 14; Psa. 104:4), often dwelt in and among God’s people and reporting back to God (Zech. 1:10-11; Job 1:6-7 - this conception is much more fleshed out in the Jewish literature from the time after the OT leading up to and through the first century). We hear the concepts of “hospitality” and “entertaining” and perhaps we’re prone to think of dinner parties and get togethers. While those things are a form of hospitality, they are hardly what the Hebrew writer has in mind. The idea is more akin to taking someone in, perhaps a traveler on a long journey, possibly someone without a home or on the run, attending to their needs in whatever way you can, sending them on their way with provisions for their journey (cf. the stories of Abraham and Lot give examples both of this brand of hospitality and interacting favorably with angelic visitors Gen. 18:1-5, 19:1-3).
Secondly, the Hebrew writer calls his readers to identify with and care for suffering members as those who are also in the body. That is, there is something common to the experience of being human (in the body) that we can empathize with hardships of others. Thus we are to remember those who are in prison as if we were in prison ourselves. The admonition to “remember” calls for more than mere cognitive action, it suggests visiting, sitting with, and perhaps providing for those in prison (Matt. 25:36; 2 Tim. 1:16; Heb. 10:34). Rather than shrinking back and turning in we must continue to look out to the needs of others.
It is in continuing to love one another in ways like these that helps to make suffering and tragedy bearable. Therefore, let us love and encourage one another as long as the day is called “today” (3:12-14; 10:24-25).
Overwhelmed and grieved to the point of exhaustion Peter, James, and John slumbered when their master and friend needed them most. “The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak”, Jesus lamented. As He often does, Jesus blends the “spiritual” and the “physical” together so thoroughly that the two are no longer two separate entities which never touch, but rather, they are overlapping domains which affect one another to the point that what happens in one domain is representative of the other. What was happening in their physical reality, failing to stay awake, was representative of a deeper spiritual reality. Thus, Jesus says, “watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation.” Notice that the problem was not a willingness or desire to do the right thing. Jesus admits that they wanted to do the right thing, and yet still failed to do it.
Perhaps this fact strikes you as all too familiar. You’ve been there before, wanting to do what’s right and failing miserably. You’re not alone (raises two hands and a foot). In fact, the apostle Paul, in describing himself at a point in his life pre-conversion, representative of all who find themselves outside of Christ, describes a similar struggle Romans 7:14-24. In so doing, Paul takes up this language of spirit (mind/inner being being used synonymously with the way Jesus used spirit) and flesh. Paul laments that he desires to do what is right but does not have the ability to carry it out (Rom. 7:18, 21-23). The problem was not his desire, but his ability shackled by the flesh. For Paul, the flesh - while related to physicality - points beyond mere physicality to a force of corruptibility and way of living that is contrasted with the Spirit (Rom. 8:1-5). It is a mode of existence devoid of and outside of the Spirit. Thus, Paul writes “You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you” (Rom. 8:9).
Being of the flesh is not a function of whether or not someone has a physical body rather it is function of what controls, animates, and empowers them. The answer to weakness and sin, is not the escape from physicality, but the transformation of it. We have been given new life by the Spirit which changes not only how we walk, but our ability to walk in the first place (Rom. 8:1-4). This gets to the Adam/Christ as the second Adam contrast we encountered last night in Romans 5. There is the old way of humanity in Adam, ruled by sin and destined for condemnation and the new way of humanity found in Christ, empowered by the superabundance of God’s grace and brimming with life. Paul has been developing and will continue to develop this point over the course of this letter. The love and grace of God mediated by God’s Spirit, is at work transforming our hearts producing the kind of faith in us that causes us to love Him, follow Him and serve Him (Rom. 5:5). He describes that on this occasion as our indebtedness to God who has called us to Himself as sons and daughters of God (Rom. 8:12-15). When I am fully aware of what God has done/is doing in me/for me by giving up His Son, I am able to set my mind on Him, tap into the power He bestows as my heart is transformed with my ability and actions along with them. Let us keep the Passion narrative ever before our eyes.
I end with the lyrics to the hymn Gabe led us in as we closed our time together yesterday morning:
1 When my love to Christ grows weak,
When for deeper faith I seek,
Then in thought I go to thee,
Garden of Gethsemane.
2 When my love for man grows weak,
When for stronger faith I seek,
Hill of Calvary, I go
To the scenes of fear and woe.
3 There behold His agony,
Suffered on the bitter tree;
See His anguish, see His faith,
Love triumphant still in death.
4 Then to life I turn again,
Learning all the worth of pain,
Learning all the might that lies
In a full self-sacrifice.
(John Reynold Wreford)
Yesterday we looked at Jesus' reaction to the death of His beloved friend Lazarus in John 11. When He saw the effects of sin as manifested in death, and the pain, grief, and emptiness that accompanied it Jesus was indignant and brought to weeping. It is a somewhat rare glimpse into the psyche and heart of Jesus/God and how they feel about a world riddled with and ruined by sin. But there is something remarkable about this reaction that Joe drew attention to which we failed to point out yesterday. It is the fact that Jesus knew what He would do, knew that Lazarus would rise from the dead, and that it would all get better in the end. Yet that doesn't erase the pain He felt in the moment or His visible and public lament.
Our Hope (not merely our wish, but our confident expectation) is that God will set everything right in the end, all wrongs will be righted, all that's ruined will be rebuilt. This gives us joy and reason to persevere. It helps us to get through the pain we face in this life. But it doesn't diminish it. If Jesus' response shows us anything, it is that it is proper to lament what is wrong in the world. It is not a lack of faith, or a worldly reaction/focus. Instead it is a confession, a recognition, that things are not what were intended to be, what they should be, or what they will be. It is the faithful response of God's people living in the here and now. When we encounter the brokenness of our world let us not become callous or unconcerned because "every little thing will be alright" but let us allow ourselves space and time to mourn it, and lament it along with our God as He mourns with us, as we await something so much better.