Sunday, November 15, 2009

Table works and table grace

Ephesians 4, 1 Timothy 4, Hebrews 5, Hebrews 12

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Last Sunday,
when we talked about membership and belonging at the table,
one of our scriptures was John 15: the vine and branches.
Christ the vine, we the branches.
Great image.
A beautiful organic image of the Christian life.
Attached to Christ, and to each other.

But like any good metaphor, it can be misused.
We could see it as an excuse to be passive in our Christian life.
If all life flows from God to us through the Vine,
all we gotta do is hang on and enjoy the ride!
Just let God do the work of growth and transformation.
There is some truth in that way of thinking.
All life is a gift of the amazing grace of God.
We are powerless to create life, to make growth happen.

But to think we have nothing to do
in this God+human equation
is just sloppy thinking.

So today, our scriptures complete the picture.
We just heard excerpts from three different letters
written by the apostles to the early church.
They were trying to steer the church away
from this sloppy theology
that had God doing all the work for them.

Remember that line
from the letter to the church in Ephesus:
But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up
in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.
We must grow up into Christ.
That’s worded as a command, an instruction.
So we have a choice in the matter.
We wouldn’t be instructed to grow,
if we had nothing to do about it.

And from 1 Timothy?
Train yourself in godliness, for godliness is valuable in every way,
holding promise for both the present life and the life to come.
Paul was writing to his apprentice Timothy.
He said, “Train yourself in godliness.”
That’s a pretty bold statement.
We can train ourselves to be godly?!
Like an athlete trains to be competitive? Interesting.

And from Hebrews 5?
God will not overlook your work and the love
that you showed for his sake in serving the saints, as you still do.
From the letter to the Hebrews.
Okay, so God clearly does produce the results,
the life and growth.
But God does not overlook the effort we put in.
Sounds like our work is a prompt, as it were,
for God’s action.
And the apostle goes on to say a couple verses later.
Be diligent. Don’t be sluggish.
Imitate the heroes of the faith.
They took risks. They acted with courage. Imitate them.

And in Hebrews 12
it says discipline—whether painful or pleasant—
yields the fruit of righteousness
to those who have been trained by it.

See, the apostles are calling all members of the church
to engage in a continual spiritual workout.
To exercise.
To train.
To strengthen their spiritual muscles.
This is literally what is being said here.
The Greek word in these scriptures,
when it says to train, to exercise discipline, to work,
is (in English letters), G-Y-M-N-A-D-Z-O.
It’s the very same Greek word used in gymnasium, gymnastics.
Greek-style athletics were well-known
to the churches getting these letters.
They knew what the apostles meant when they said,
“You want the glory of victory? Work for it!”

Yes, it’s the abundant grace of God that
produces the growth in muscle mass,
but our workouts with the barbells
have something important to do with it.
It’s not cheap grace, that’s for sure.

Knowing that diligent, disciplined training is involved,
makes it obvious why being church at the table is so important.
Athletes working together maximize their training potential.
As someone who enjoys bicycling,
I know that my average speed on a bike is consistently faster,
when I’m out riding with even one other biker.
In a larger group, I’m even faster.
In a gymnasium,
when people lift barbells, free-weights,
they often work with someone else,
called a spotter.
The spotter has at least two important functions.
They cheer on the weightlifter, help them push on beyond
what they can lift alone.
“Come on, lift! You’re almost there.”
They also protect the lifter.
When the lifter hits the limit, just before muscle failure,
the spotter prevents injury,
helps to catch the barbell, let it down slowly.

That what it’s like to work at spiritual growth at the table.
We function as mutual trainers,
spiritual spotters,
helping each other stay focused and disciplined,
pushing each other toward more growth
than we are capable of alone.
That’s what church at the table is all about—
helping each other, through Christian practices,
to be formed into the people God called us to be in Christ,
to be trained for godliness.

This kind of training simply won’t happen by osmosis.
You won’t get it just sitting in a pew.
You can listen, in rapt attention, to words from a pulpit (or table).
And I can preach till I’m blue in the face.
My words might help you think.
But they won’t help you do the heavy lifting.
We need to be in smaller communities of people
who will go to great lengths
to support and encourage our growth,
who will call us to account,
who will push us to the next level.

Training, at the table, creates an opening
for the grace of God to do its work.
There is no need to debate the relative merit
of works and grace.
We need both works and grace at the table.
We put forth the effort, by God’s grace.
We exercise.
And God’s grace produces the growth,
it completes our work.

Craig Dykstra has written on Christian practices.
He said,
“Practices of the Christian faith...are not...activities we do
to make something spiritual happen in our lives . . .
They are patterns of communal action
that create openings in our lives where the grace, mercy,
and presence of God may be made known to us.”

This is what table-sized church needs to focus on.
Your Sunday School classes,
small groups,
spiritual friendships,
wherever you gather with 2 or 3 or 20
in intentional, covenant relationship,
this is the task we are to be engaged in:
creating openings in our lives
for the grace of God to enter, and to do its work.

So what are some examples of practices at the table?
I could go on and on into the afternoon
talking about any number of Christian practices
we could engage in at the table
that would result in our spiritual growth.
I’ll mention just a few.

Some of these we’ve already covered in this sermon series,
like the practice of worship—
of sharing both the word, and the bread and cup,
and celebrating Christ’s presence in our midst.
or like the practice of witness—
whereby we let our common life be seen by others,
where we openly give witness to the gospel,
and let others witness us living out the gospel
in our particular communities of Christ,
or like the practice of biblical interpretation,
where all participate,
or the practice of mutual care.

We’ve talked about those already.
So let me talk about one that’s a little harder for us to do,
or even talk about.

What about the practice of moral and ethical discernment,
and speaking the truth in love to each other?
It’s apparent that the apostles assumed this would be happening.
But our culture does not approve of
this way of interacting with each other.
We value privacy and individual freedom,
much more than being formed in community—
especially if formation means we sometimes
call a community member to account for personal choices.

I just heard a good story about this from Lawrence Yoder,
who happened by my office on Friday.
He was telling about a small group he and Shirley were part of
in California years ago.
A certain husband in the group was talking about his struggle
to keep his hours at work under control,
and how difficult it was for him to leave at 5:00,
rather than stay and get just one or two more projects done.
And he said it was taking a toll on his wife and children.
Whereupon another member of the group leaned toward him
and asked him directly,
“Which is more important? your job or your family?”
“Well,” he said, “both are important to me.”
But the answer wasn’t accepted.
“Which is more important? your job or your family?”
The man hedged again.
“But . . . my job is the way I provide for my family.
They need me to be working.”
It was asked a third time.
“Which is more important? your job or your family?”
Finally, the man said. “Well, my family is more important.”
“Then you need to leave work at 5:00, and go home to your family.
Is it okay if I call you at work at 5:00 every day,
and ask if you’re ready to go home?”
“Well, yes. That would be good.”
Then a third man piped in and offered to help.
“I’ll call on Tuesdays and Thursdays,
and you call Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.”

See what was happening there?
This was a man in spiritual training. As are we all.
And this was a workout. His friends were being his spotters.
Helping this man push just a little harder.
Exercising his muscles.
I doubt they kept calling him at 5:00 forever.
Once those muscles got developed,
he could lift that weight easily without the spotters.
And I’ll bet he in turn was able to help support
the other group members with the weights they were lifting.

The more we share our lives with each other at the table,
the more we can encourage real spiritual growth.
But that kind of hard work is not possible
in casual group relationships.
It takes a deeper level of love and trust and covenant
that we have with only a small number of people.

But it doesn’t just happen.
Anymore than muscle development happens
sitting on the sofa pushing buttons on a remote.
We must be intentional about spiritual growth.
We need to plan for it.
We need to organize for it.

Several times I’ve been invited to participate in a discernment group.
Again, just recently,
when someone needed to make a momentous decision
concerning a job,
and was trying to discern God’s call.
This person shared the journey that brought them to this point.
And the rest of us around the table listened.
We asked questions.
We prayed.
We affirmed.
We cautioned.
But we did not tell them what to do.
Individual personal responsibility is not taken away,
when we open our lives to the discernment of a group.
We engaged in a communal practice of spiritual discernment.
We exercised our spiritual muscles,
and helped the person exercise theirs.

There are many other Christian practices made more effective
when we exercise them in mutual training,
with companions at the table.
Like the practice of sharing resources,
considering what we have—our money, property, time, talents—
as not our own, but gifts from God that we share.
Our ability to share is magnified,
when there are others that participate in the sharing.
Resources are passed back and forth between us,
and shared beyond us to those with greater need.

Or like the practice of observing Sabbath rest—
not just weekly, but daily rhythms of work and rest,
or even annual Sabbath practices.
We honor the Creator,
by resting and allowing others to rest from work,
and taking time enjoy God and God’s gifts.

Like the practice of peacebuilding and justice-seeking
in the name of Christ.
Like the practice of healing and forgiving
in the name of Christ.
Like the practice of being with the poor.

You know, anyone can do good works,
be a server, be a helper, be a missionary.
But can we build meaningful mutual relationships
with those who live in a world outside our own,
with those who inhabit a very different social space,
who are different economically, culturally, religiously?
That takes some spiritual muscle.
The kind that we need spotters to help us develop.
To urge us on.
To keep us from injuring ourselves or others in the process.

Maybe the one slogan to take from here this morning, is
“Spiritual growth. Don’t try this at home. Alone.”

Let us commit ourselves to have relationships in the body of Christ
that are robust enough
to engage in this kind of mutual spiritual training.
that strong enough to withstand the strain
that inevitably is part of growing new muscle.
No pain, no gain, is the saying in physical training.
I suspect spiritual training is no different.

And let us commit ourselves to the kind of practices
that create openings in our lives for the grace of God,
that make possible this collaboration
between our spirit and God’s spirit
that produces growth.

Turn to Sing the Story #39. A song by John Bell and Graham Maule
Speaks to a collaboration between Christ and ourselves.
Christ calls. We answer.
And then it becomes Christ in us, and we in Christ.

Will you come and follow me if I but call your name?
Will you go where you don’t know and never be the same?
Will you let my love be shown? Will you let my name be known,
will you let my life be grown in you and you in me?

—Phil Kniss, November 15, 2009

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