This message started out when I was wondering why the church, generally speaking, with all the resources God has given it, has not, and does not, make a bigger difference in the world. When we bemoan the track that we see the world going down – especially tracks of selfish greed and violence, and a lack of care for the poor and vulnerable, this should cause us to think what we all might be getting wrong. As we read the Old Testament prophets, we see there a call to faithfulness and integrity – we can’t blandly call upon the name of the Lord while ignoring God’s precepts and ideals.
This is what Jesus is highlighting as well, at the conclusion of his ‘sermon on the mount’ (as recorded by Matthew). Look at verses 21-23. It is possible that we can claim to speak for God, or even that we claim to be acting in God’s name – but because of a lack of love, or lack of consistency, or because it is all more about ourselves than it is about Jesus … that it just doesn’t count for anything; it actually counts for nought! Maybe we don’t experience a better world, because so much is wasted, because we miss what is most important in God’s eyes.
Michael Green writes, “I fear that so much which passes for Christianity will be shrivelled up in the day of judgment, and be found to be bogus and worthless”. It could be that we, at times, are better at pointing fingers than confessing our own sin! Maybe, then, as I suspect, it is about the quality of our foundations – putting the right foundation in place (through which to be able to make the sort of difference we are called by God to make)! It is interesting that this dichotomy (or big difference) between how we see ourselves, and how God sees us, is resolved in our text by looking at “foundations”.
The verses that follow (24-27) would suggest that we can fail – because we don’t actually have the right foundation! Rather than building on mere sand, we need a strong, “rock”-like foundation – which can only be supplied by one person – and that is Jesus. And this is not just for individual benefit, but for the collective as well. We, together, need a living knowledge of, and deep connection with, Jesus. This, inescapably, includes obeying his teaching. Each house (referred to in this parable) may have looked okay in good weather, but when the storm came, only the houses with good foundations survived.
Like just about everything we build, our life needs to be built on a firm foundation. Otherwise we will just flop around in the wind or sink in the wet. We need to clearly know who we are, what we stand for, and what our purpose is in life. We need to be clearly established! Otherwise we will likely just float along, and before we know it, many opportunities have passed us by. “The man who follows the crowd will usually get no further than the crowd”. Some may just want a little manageable amount of Jesus – but surely this would be akin to only building on sand.
When Peter, later, correctly identified Jesus as, “the Christ – the Anointed One – the Son of the Living God”, Jesus said that the “church” will be built on this truth (Matt 16:18). This “rock” of truth would be the foundation on which the “church” will be built. If Jesus is truly the “Son of the Living God” (16:16), then of course everything starts, proceeds and finishes through Jesus. This is ‘best building practice’! For this had been a revelation for Peter straight from God, the most gripping revelation he could ever have had (16:17). “The rock is Christ’s own person and teaching, the only foundation for stable spiritual and social building” (J R Dummelow).
If we are to embrace that ‘circle’ of mutual humble servanthood towards one another, based on ‘agape’ love (that John talked about last week), then we will need to consider how firm a foundation we have in Jesus!? Do we just try to speak the right words, and act in the right way, without going deep enough into the far reaches of Jesus? In Jesus, deeply in Jesus, we can be transformed from the inside out, and become whole and real – and fully known to God! Who we are is being clearly defined!
There is surely a strong connection … between having a foundation firmly in Jesus and experiencing an intimacy with God. “Being Christian involves joining one’s own life, IN ALL OF ITS ASPECTS, to the person of Jesus, and, through him, to the Father” (Pope Francis). Or, as Paul famously puts it, “I have been crucified with Christ [meaning … I accept Christ’s transforming work on the cross for me]; and it is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:19-20). We are not perfect, and we will disappoint, but this should not deter us from seeking to point others in the direction of Jesus.
The crowd that day, that heard Jesus speak live [imagine that!] reckoned … that, unlike much of the religious talk of the day, and the hypocrisy often witnessed in that society – what Jesus was saying made absolute sense (v 29)! And what Jesus taught through that great ‘sermon on the mount’ (Matthew chapters 5 – 7), he lived; and for the concepts and ideals that he spoke about, he also died, such was their importance.
Ideals like: peacemaking, forgiveness, being salt and light, purity, honesty, love for enemies, sincere prayerfulness, generosity, faith, self-awareness, being non-judgmental, openness, fruitfulness. This is how to build a life! However, if we ever live in God-contrary ways i.e. harbour grudges, refuse forgiveness or fail to love, then Jesus may say, “I don’t know you”.
A Matter of Emphasis
Where else might we be going wrong? Where might we be building on sand instead of rock? It may be where we put the emphasis … rather than being totally wrong!? For example, why does God give each of us ‘gifts’ through the Holy Spirit?? To make us feel good … to make us superior?? No!! Paul teaches, in line with Jesus, that ‘gifts’ – each and every ‘gift’ – are given for “the common good” (1 Corinthians 12:7). We are given ‘gifts’ so we can work together with effectiveness and bless the whole. There is NO ‘I’ in team, the great coaches rightly say.
The ‘fruit of the Spirit’ that Paul talks about in Galatians – these aren’t individual medals … these are relational character traits – every one of them. Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control (Gal 5:22-3). These stand against all the negative and abusive character traits that are previously listed in Galatians chapter 5 (e.g. 5:19-21). All of life is relational – God designed it that way on the basis of the interactive experience of the Holy Trinity – Father, Son and Spirit. So surely, and this is my point, salvation is also NOT primarily individual nor personal, but rather collective.
When we receive Jesus into our life, we are immediately drawn into a Kingdom of believers and the Body of Christ. To over-emphasise personal salvation to the exclusion of community responsibility … misses God’s intention to build the new creation – to rebuild creation anew. We would tend to think too much of heaven, and not enough of earth (and the functioning of the church on earth). And to over-emphasise personal salvation, which the bible actually never does, does not critique the individualism and self-centredness so rampant in our society.
As an extension of this thought, Greg Laurie talks about how easily we fall into wanting a god in our own image. We want a god who will conform to our wishes and desires, who will fulfil our agendas; a user-friendly god whom we can easily adapt to our pre-determined choices. This is just like the people of Jesus’ day, who wanted a ‘Messiah’ who would act according to their plans and conform to their designs. And when Jesus challenged this notion – well we know how that turned out! Those who were stuck in this grace-denying mindset, participated in the crucifixion of Jesus.
The bible’s emphasis is ‘collective redemption’ – God’s Kingdom becoming evident on earth. This may start one life at a time, but can’t stay there long. While we still think as individuals, we see personal preferences rather than community needs. Thus, we tend to find fault, rather than giving preference to encouragement. Our opinions are the only opinions. But, we are being called out of individual ‘deadness’ into community life. And as we live out true community life in the circle of ‘agape love’, we actually have something worthwhile to contribute. Different perspectives shared in the right spirit … enrich us all.
We actually gain little by simply appealing to the self-interest in others. Unless people are drawn from individual thinking toward community thinking, they will not stay on the journey of faith. Those that want to move simply from one individual reality to another sort of individual reality … just for their own needs … will not likely look deeply enough to find a sufficiently sound foundation. Sadly, they will not easily sit in the church. And the world will remain the same. So, our emphasis needs to be biblical – making disciples who are prepared to be disciples and make more disciples.
One more example about emphasis. Please bear with me, and think this through a bit. Does sometimes saying that God is in control, mean, that we, even unconsciously, abrogate responsibility?! From the moment of our creation, God called us to be stewards of everything else God created. We have responsibility on the earth. We might prefer, when faced with evil, injustice and pain, to just wish that Jesus would come again and put everything right. That is our ultimate hope; but our calling is to be part of what God wants to do now, what Jesus has already made doable.
We haven’t yet fully realised the impact and possibilities of Jesus’ first coming! Why should God bail us out with Jesus’ second coming, when we haven’t yet utilised all the possibilities and power of his first coming, and his giving of the Holy Spirit to the church?! Perhaps if we more fully focussed on Jesus as the foundation of everything we do, the church would be less focussed on its institutional privileges … and more focussed on reaching the broken and lost. Jesus has called us and equipped us to make a difference right across the problems and challenges of society – education, health care, welfare, work and family.
Mark DeYmaz (founding pastor of Mosaic Church in Little Rock Arkansas) speaks of being willing to “labour in obscurity”, allowing God to exalt our efforts towards the redemption and transformation of a community – because it’s not about us but all about Jesus. Those who are being built on a firm foundation in Jesus … are released from their own battles with self, to humbly and quietly, but surely, plant the seeds of Gospel hope through encouragement … and therefore truly make a big difference.
Who do we serve? Ourselves? An institution? A political agenda? Or, others (in the name of Jesus)? When Rick and Kay Warren were participating in a discussion among global leaders about how to help the AIDS crisis in Africa, Rick pointed out that while there were only three hospitals in Rwanda, there were 700 churches. If those churches could be mobilized for basic medical care, it would make a huge difference in a suffering population. He further pointed out that there are villages with no doctors, grocery stores or electricity, but those villages have churches in them.
If we establish our foundation well in Jesus, then all the diverse aspects and demands of life can be integrated with good rhythm. Instead of life becoming chaotic, having a foundation in Jesus helps us put every component of our lives into good perspective. Jesus is not someone or something we have to balance with other priorities, but rather Jesus becomes the central focus point through which everything else gets analysed. And this, I believe, is the way to do life!
Ephesians 3:20-21 says: Now to him, who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine, to him be glory in the church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, forever and ever. Amen.