Monday, July 27, 2009

My Goodness

2 Thessalonians 1:11-12

I’ve been cleaning up my office, trying to get it in shape for Craig before I go on vacation. Last week I found this little book—it’s a reprint of a little manual for proper behavior from back in the late 1800s. The title is simply: ‘Don’t’

Some of the rules have to do with table manners, like this one: “Don’t tuck your napkin under your chin, or spread it upon your breast. Bibs are for the nursery.”

Others have to do with personal hygiene. “Don’t cleanse your ears, or your nose, or trim and clean your fingernails in public. These should be done in the privacy of one’s apartment only.”

Some of the rules are downright strange: “Don’t have the habit of smiling or grinning at nothing. Smile or laugh when there is occasion to do either, but at other times keep your mouth shut and your manner composed. People who laugh at everything are often capable of nothing.”

Another says: “Don’t be over familiar. Don’t strike your friends on the back, nudge them in the side, or give other physical manifestation of your pleasure. Don’t indulge in these familiarities, or submit to them from others.”

Women come in for some special rules: “Don’t over-trim your gowns or other articles of apparel. The excess in trimmings on women’s garments, now so common, is taste little less than barbaric, and evinces ignorance of the first principles of beauty.”

And finally, the author decides it’s important to comment on women’s diets: “Don’t indulge in confections or other sweets. It must be said that American women devour an immense deal of rubbish. If they would banish from the table pickles, preserves, pastry, cakes, and similar indigestible articles, and never touch candy…we would see their cheeks bloom like a rose.”

Too often we define goodness—being good—with a list of things that we don’t do. Some of you will remember the saying—it might actually be a parody of a real saying: ‘I don’t drink, smoke or chew, or go with girls who do.’ I actually did go out with someone who tried some of my chew in my wilder days, but we’ll leave that for another time.

The point is that as we think about goodness as one facet of the fruit of the Spirit, we’re going to have to get away from thinking of it as simply following a list of ‘don’ts’.

11With this in mind, we constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling, and that by his power he may fulfill every good purpose of yours and every act prompted by your faith. 12We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.

On the front of your bulletin you’ll find the text that’s guiding us through this summer series. The fruit of the Spirit is a new way of life, redeemed through Christ’s work and empowered to live in a new way through the Holy Spirit. The ‘fruit’ here is singular—it’s a list of nine qualities or behaviors that work together as an expression of what the Holy Spirit does in our lives—how God’s spirit shows in us as we grow in faith and service.

Notice that these are relational qualities—the Spirit’s fruit teach us how to live with God and with each other—with family and friends and even strangers. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control—all of these together describe a radically different way of relating to each other.

But it’s still important to remember that these are a package deal—there’s no picking and choosing here. It’s all or nothing.

The fruit of the Spirit—shown in all nine of these qualities—is the result of us allowing God to show us how to live in a different way.

Today we’re going to focus on where ‘goodness’ fits into this package deal.

The apostle Paul was the founder of the Thessalonian church, which was in a major port city in Roman-controlled Greece. There are two surviving letters to this church community, and in this one there are two important themes that he’s trying to communicate.

The first has to do with the Hebrew idea of the ‘Day of the Lord,’ the day when God would come and complete his plan for the salvation of his people. There was a disagreement in the church about whether or not this had already happened, and Paul spends part of his time helping them to understand.

But the other part of the letter has to do with living honorable lives as followers of Christ in a culture that was hostile to the faith. That’s where our passage comes in. Paul is praying for the Thessalonians—praying that they will live and behave in a way that reflects their relationship to God—that their actions would flow naturally from their faith in Christ.

We’ve been talking about these nine qualities that Paul calls the ‘fruit of the Spirit.’ That’s what he’s calling his readers to in our text today.

Think about the image of the fruit of the Spirit. The fruit of anything is the product that comes from the blending of ingredients or parts into something new—it’s what comes from the actions and reactions of all those pieces.

An apple isn’t simply made up of ground up seeds, water and fertilizer—who’d eat that? An apple comes out of the process that takes a fertilized seed, the right amount of water and nutrients and sunshine, and grows them into something completely different—something new and useful and delicious.

That’s how we can understand the goodness that comes from God—the goodness that enters into us by his Holy Spirit—the Christ-like goodness that joins with our gifts and skills and personalities to become something new and unique and precious.

When we think about it that way, ‘goodness’ becomes so much more than just following a list of rules.

Goodness becomes that way we live differently because of what God has done for us.

Goodness becomes the way God himself works in and through us.

Goodness ends up being the best way we communicate the truth of the Gospel to a world that doesn’t believe it anymore, but needs to hear it anyway.

Earlier this year I met someone at a party. We talked for a while, and then the host came by and introduced me as the minister here. The guy looked at me and blurted out something about how the church had no place teaching morality to contemporary society, because it had done a poor job of it in the past. Now I think he couldn’t have been more wrong, but I understood his point.

We have a lot to say about personal and social morality—about ethics and goodness—we just tend to say it poorly. When we focus on the rules we miss the chance to talk about the radical, transforming power of God in our lives—of what it means to have the God who made us and redeems us and gives us hope—to have that same Savior living and working in us and through us.

That’s what it means to be good—to show that part of the fruit of the Spirit that we call ‘goodness.’

But I know this isn’t easy. Being an agent of goodness in a world that would just as soon trample you as allow you to help is a hard thing. This past week I was rereading part of Stephen Carter’s book called Civility—it was published in the mid-90s. Carter is a law professor at Yale who writes on issues of ethics and morality, and also faith and public policy. Listen to how he described this concept of goodness in the context of Christ’s command to love our neighbors.

“In both Christianity and Judaism, the ability of the human to love other imperfect humans is a symbol of God’s love for his creation. That is the significance of Jesus’ calling on his followers to love one another as he has loved them. The idea that we are called upon to love because God loves is more solid, more satisfactory than the competing secular moral ideal of compassion…And yet, whether our motivation for treating our neighbor well is religious devotion, secular moral understanding or even simple self-interest, the one thing that remains crystal clear is that loving our neighbor is hard work.”

That’s true, isn’t it? Loving our neighbor—being good—showing the goodness of God in our lives and relationships—that’s all hard work. But it’s also a key part of what it means to be a Christian—to be a mature and maturing disciple of Jesus Christ.

When Germany occupied France in WWII, the Nazis forced local governments to turn over all Jewish citizens so they could be moved to concentration camps. Most of the towns and villages complied with the order, but in the little village of Le Chambon something very different happened. A minister in that town led his congregation, which represented most of the community, to resist the order and hide hundreds of Jews from the Nazis. This wasn’t just a household here and there, but virtually everyone in town played a part in the conspiracy. For the people of Le Chambon it was more important to live out their faith than it was to preserve their own safety—even their own lives.

After describing the terrible risks those people took to save their neighbors—to protect innocent lives even when it would have been easier to let the Nazis have their way—after telling the story of how a group of French villagers came to be examples of good in the world, the author who researched the story said this:

“Goodness is the simplest thing in the world, and also the most complex—like opening a door.”

Being agents of goodness in the world can be a challenging thing—because it’s hard—because it can be complicated sometimes. Goodness is challenging, but let’s be honest—few of us will ever have to face the same sort of challenges as the people of Le Chambon. But still, it’s a core part of what it means to be a follower of Jesus—it comes naturally, even when it’s hard—it flows naturally out of our belief that Christ is who he said he is, and that he’ll do what he promised he would do. It happens when we open the door to living life in a different way.

One writer said that this kind of discipleship-based goodness “is the visible proof that a [person] has really and gratefully grasped the new opportunity for existence” as a follower of Christ.

What does that mean for us? What does it mean for us to grasp a new opportunity for existence? Do you feel like you’ve grasped that new existence in your own life?

It goes against our mindset to hear what I’m about to say, but I’m convinced that it’s not only true, but that it’s the only way true goodness and the rest of the Spirit’s fruit can be present and active and flowing from our lives.

Are you ready for this?

The only way for this to work is to remember that the fruit of the Spirit is the Spirit’s fruit and not ours.

This is one of those places—one of those times in our lives of discipleship individually and as a community of faith—this is one of those times where we have to acknowledge that only God can make this happen. It’s one of those times when we have to step aside and allow the Spirit of God to do God’s work in our lives.

My prayer for us not only during this series but always, is that we’ll be wise enough and faithful enough and brave enough to allow the Holy Spirit to work in us and through us to shape us into the people we were meant to be all along.

My prayer for this place is the same one Paul prayed for the Thessalonians:

“We pray this so that the name of our Lord Jesus may be glorified in you, and you in him, according to the grace of our God and the Lord Jesus Christ.”


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