To Be a Spiritually Literate Church

Can we talk? I am not impersonating the late comedienne, Joan Rivers. My question calls
us to be fully honest as we begin our journey to Easter Sunday. Our six-week pilgrimage through
Lent is an annual invitation to spiritual renewal that begins with honesty. As days ‘lengthen’
(lencten), the curtains of darkness are pushed back by an earlier dawn and a later dusk. Lent
proclaims the bright horizon of God’s hope calling us toward spiritual renewal. Can we talk?

Each week, as I study scripture passages for the following Sunday, I consider the intentions
of the writer and why these messages were presented to the original audience. I look at key words
and how major ideas in the passages speak to the 21st century. Questions ever before me include:
‘So what does this passage have to do with the ministries in daily life of the St. Johnsians?’ ‘How
is God speaking to us saying, ‘I think you should give that another look; you can become more,
you can be more, you can do more, you can mean more?’ Every week, your spiritual health and
the vitality and mission of St. John’s are being perceived through the windshield of my study.

One Sunday, James Forbes, then Senior Minister of The Riverside Church, a Baptist
congregation in New York City, broke into a rap in the midst of his sermon:

Wealthy getting richer – Poor getting poorer
Rats and homeless – Living in the sewer
Housing prices – Going sky high
Nothing to rent – And can’t afford to buy
Spousal, parental – System abuse
Sometimes you wonder – What’s the use
Now I don’t mean – To be uncouth
All I’m asking for – Is tell me the truth
What time is it, y’all – No time for foolishness

 

Welcome to Lent, a season for spiritual renewal. Can we talk?

Spiritual renewal is personal – individual. Yet, spiritual renewal is also communal –
congregational. The spiritual life of St. John’s is determined by your individual spiritual lives –
and – to some extent, the spiritual life of each of us is shaped by the spiritual life of all of us. Lent reminds us that, as part of the people of God, we are caught up in a conversation that began long
before we were born and will continue long after we are gone. Lent proclaims the bright horizon
of God’s hope calling us toward spiritual renewal.

After celebrating Jesus’ birth at Christmas, we asked, ‘What are we to do with this Jesus?’
So, for six Sundays, we focused on the God revealed to us by Jesus; a God of Commitment;
Calling; A Shalom Kingdom; Faithfulness; Reconciliation & Redemption; and Relational
Transcendence. Yet, Jesus reveals more than God to us. By the way Jesus lived, he reveals to us
spiritual practices showing us how to pursue a healthy relationship with God. As we follow Jesus,
we learn how to be spiritually literate. To be spiritually literate means more reading about Jesus.
To be spiritually literate is to apply Jesus’ life in our living.

Several of you know that Clarence Jordan, a wonderful Baptist, founded Koinonia Farm in
Americus, Georgia and influenced numerous efforts of racial reconciliation and service to the
‘least of these.’ One significant legacy to Clarence’s influence is Habitat for Humanity. Clarence
also translated the New Testament from Greek into a southern cultural language he called,
‘Cotton Patch.’ One day, Clarence was trying to persuade his lawyer brother, Bob, to join his
vision of Koinonia Farm by serving as his legal counsel. The KKK was shooting into Clarence’s
house at night and setting fire to his crops. Bob explained to Clarence, “You know my political
aspirations. Why, if I represent you, Clarence, I might lose my job, my house, everything I’ve
got.” Clarence retorted, “We might lose everything too, Bob.” And Bob said, “It’s different for
you.” So, Clarence asked, “Why is it different? I remember, it seems to me, that you and I joined
the Church the same Sunday, as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked me
about the same question he did you. He asked me, ‘Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and
Savior.’ And I said ‘yes.’ What did you say?”

Bob replied to Clarence, “I follow Jesus up to a point.” And Clarence asked, “Could that
point by any chance be – the cross?” And Bob said, “That’s right, Clarence. I follow Jesus to the
cross, but not on the cross. I’m not getting myself crucified.”

And Clarence said, “Then, Bob, I don’t think you’re a disciple of Jesus. You’re an admirer
of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and
tell them you’re an admirer and not a disciple.” Now, friends, brother Bob had an honest reply.
He said, “Well, now, Clarence, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn’t have a church,
would we?” And Clarence asked, “Do you have a church?”2

Can we talk? Most of us fit in Bob’s church better than we fit in Jesus’ church.

Jesus grew up listening to Psalm 119: “How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than
honey to my mouth! …Your word is a lamp unto my feet and a light to my path.” After forty days
in the dry wilderness without any food, Jesus responded to the temptations of the devil by quoting
verses from Deuteronomy. The devil recited scriptures to Jesus and twisted the meaning. Jesus
did not follow the ploy. In the early Church, they referred to the devil as, ‘the Old Deluder.’
Minister of Harvard University’s Memorial Church, Peter Gomes, pointed out that the Devil’s,
“most successful delusion to date is that he persuades very smart people that he does not exist.”3

These temptations of Jesus in the wilderness teach us three important truths about being a
spiritually literate church. The first temptation to Jesus was for him to pursue selfishness. A
famished Jesus could turn a stone into bread. He pursued the nourishment of God and refused to
use his power or authority for his own benefit while ignoring the needs of others. Jesus’ hunger,
after 40 days, was not more important than the hunger with which many suffer each day. We are
a spiritually literate church by looking not only on our own needs, but also on the needs of others.

The second temptation was for him to pursue duplicity. By allowing the devil to have
authority in his life, Jesus could have authority over all kingdoms of the world. The risen Christ
told his disciples, “All authority is given to me in heaven and on earth.” This second temptation
provided an easier path than the way of the cross. Yet, Jesus refused duplicity. For Jesus,
choosing the good or the better was not choosing God’s best. The will to will God’s will most
often will not lead you down the easiest of pathways. The word Christendom should have never
happened. It brings together the word, ‘Christ,’ with the word, ‘dominion.’ Those who preach
Christendom are doing the devil’s bidding. We are a spiritually literate church by being Actively
Faithful and Faithfully Active. Our mission statement will never read, “Servants of God; Rulers
of Human Kingdoms.”

The third temptation of Jesus was for him to pursue arrogance. Misrepresenting Psalm 91,
the temptation spilled forth from the Old Deluder, “Throw yourself down from this high place, for
it is written, God’s angels will not allow you to dash your foot against a stone.” Friends, when
our motives or our methods fail to reflect God’s character, we will find ourselves in a place that is
high and lifted up. Several years ago, I accepted the invitation to participate in a Baptist meeting.
I was there through the meal for which I had paid. But early in the program, I walked out when
they started presenting awards to one another and calling it ‘The Hall of Fame.’ Honestly, it made
me both angry and sick. We are a spiritually literate church by giving intentional attention and
discerning prayer to our motives and our methods.

Did you pay attention to the flow of Luke’s narrative? Immediately following Jesus’
baptism, he entered the wilderness. After forty days, he was tempted. Then, the devil left him –
but Luke says the devil will return at “an opportune time.” And, Jesus went back to Nazareth,
read Isaiah in his home synagogue and announced the Shalom kingdom of God. Jesus’ first
sermon went so poorly that his hometown congregation chased him out of town.

Basically, Luke is telling you that, on the day of your commitment to God, your life
became more complicated. Up until then, you could pursue selfishness, duplicity and arrogance.
But, now, you cannot just read stories about Jesus; you must apply Jesus’ life to your living. The
Good News of God is that the Holy Spirit was with Jesus and the Holy Spirit of God is with you.

In his painting, The Shadow of Death, Holman Hunt depicts the young man, Jesus, in the
carpenter’s shop. With the tools spread on the workbench, Jesus stands up and stretches as a
shadow appears across the floor in the shape of a cross.

Welcome to Lent! This season proclaims the bright horizon of God’s hope calling us
toward spiritual renewal.

Let us follow the spiritual literacy of Jesus by pursuing servant faith rather than selfishness;
singleness of heart rather than duplicity; and humility rather than arrogance. Amen and AMEN!

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