Why do you follow Jesus?
We have our reasons, but the operative word is “follow.” Follow implies movement. Standing still is never an option in our relationship with Jesus. Time after time in the Gospels, Jesus runs into someone and says, “follow me.” And in following Jesus, ordinary people are transformed and used powerfully by God. Would you like to be used by God to make a difference? Sure, I think most of us do.
But that will require growth with God. The more you and I grow with God, the more God can use you. So I want to talk about growth and maturity today. As Cardinal Newman said decades ago, “growth is the only evidence of life.”
Recently many denominations have been meeting for annual gatherings. Our United Methodist denomination has been meeting and so have the Southern Baptists. A report from the SBC caught my eye this week. The report discovered that “Many of our churches have chosen to celebrate other things as the measure of success rather than believers following Jesus. We have drifted into a loss of expectation.”
Does that describe us here at Christ Church? Have we drifted into a loss of expectation? What do we expect from each other as we follow Jesus? Do we expect anything? Do we only expect that we show up on Sunday morning and put money in the offering plate? Is there more to following Jesus? Remember, growth is the only evidence of life.
On the flip side, I wonder if some of us believe that we have it all together and we don’t need growth and maturity with Jesus. This is just as dangerous and a loss of expectation.
Did you watch the Cavs lose, I mean play, this past week. Tough series. Golden State is strong. But more than what happened on the court, I was once again transfixed by the bravado of Lebron James. After last Sunday night’s game, Lebron had an interesting statement about himself…”I feel confident because I’m the best player in the world. It’s simple.”
That’s bravado! And maybe it’s okay for a sports star, but it can be death for a Jesus follower.
Growth is the only evidence of life. And each one of us needs to take the next step in spiritual maturity with Jesus. We can become pretty content to stand still in our relationship with Jesus. We can become too comfortable and feel that we’ve already arrived where God wants us to be. And maturity does not develop overnight.
When Pablo Casals reached 95, a young reporter asked him: “Mr. Casals, you are 95 and the greatest cellist that ever lived. Why do you still practice six hours a day?” And Mr. Casals answered, “Because I think I am making progress.” Our movement should be to make some kind of progress every day with God. So let’s look at 1Corinthians and talk openly and honestly about our current relationship with Jesus and what our next step could be.
Paul uses a couple of metaphors here: running and boxing. Paul compares our life with God and maturity to competitive athletics, and he urges us to win. To understand what Paul is talking about and what he is communicating to the Corinthian church, we have to understand the sports culture of the first century.
In the city of Corinth, there was a place called the campus. This was the old drill ground for soldiers. Over time the campus became a track and field playground. Young men would gather on the campus to play and exercise. Men would participate in foot racing, jumping, archery, wrestling, boxing, riding…
These sports developed out of the ancient Greek Olympics. The Olympics offered several different types of races from short distance to long distance. They also offered boxing which was one of the most popular events. There was also one special event called the pankration which was a combination of boxing and wrestling – sort of resembling MMA. It was violent and many times the athletes were in danger of being killed in the ring.
Paul uses this imagery to talk about the intentionality and training that goes into growth and maturity with God. When he wrote about running or boxers swinging wildly, the Corinthians knew exactly what Paul was talking about.
In this passage Paul gives us the rules of running: a lot of people run the race; only one wins; run to win. The rules are clear. And he goes on to make the point that the runners in the race in Corinth run for a crown that doesn’t last – a laurel wreath. Paul writes that disciples are running for a crown that will last forever. So what’s the point?
Well, as we read 1Corinthians 9 & 10 we get the picture of a man who is making his case in the strongest possible terms. Everything Paul does, every way that Paul is living is only for the message of Jesus. He has sacrificed, he has used all of his gifts and skills, he has traveled tirelessly been shipwrecked, beaten, arrested, ridiculed, rejected – all for Jesus and for the purpose of inviting people to grow with God.
Growth is not an option. Maturity is not for just a few. Growing in relationship with God is life! Our relationship with God will determine success or failure in every other facet of life.
Jesus is at the center of everything. And Paul emphasizes the work and training that must occur in spiritual maturity.
Here’s what we learn from Paul about growth and spiritual maturity:
1. It is not a game, it is a matter of life and death! Spiritual maturity is not about “what you do,” but about “who you become.” Its essence is found in conforming yourself to the character of God.
The essence of spiritual maturity does not relate to knowledge you gain or skills you acquire. Our goal, as believers in Christ, is not to learn or to do things. Rather it is to become the kind of person whose character imitates God.
Granted, in order to work on this goal we must gain knowledge and do actions. But those are only steps in the process of achieving the real goal – conforming ourselves to the character of God. Your spiritual maturity will advance only to the degree you understand and work toward this end.
2. It’s not easy, it requires training and commitment. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training.
Spiritual maturity must be intentional. Maturity is not automatic with the passing of time. The writer of Hebrews sadly noted, “… though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you the elementary truths of God’s word all over again.” (Heb. 5:12)
Millions of Christians have grown older without ever growing up. The truth is that spiritual growth requires a commitment to grow. A person must want to grow, decide to grow, and make an effort to grow.
Discipleship begins with a decision. It doesn’t have to be a complex decision, but it does have to be sincere.
When the first disciples decided to follow Jesus they didn’t understand all of the implications of their decision. They simply expressed a desire to follow him. Jesus took that simple but sincere decision and built on it.
Philippians 2:12-13 says, “… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.”
Notice that it says “work out” – not “work on” – your salvation. There is nothing you can add to what Christ did for your salvation. Paul is talking about spiritual growth in this passage to people who are already saved.
The important thing to note is that God has a part in our growth but so do we. We must make an intentional effort to grow.
Becoming like Jesus is the result of the commitments we make. We become whatever we are committed to – without a commitment to grow, any growth that occurs will be circumstantial, rather than intentional. Spiritual growth is too important to be left to circumstance. It needs to be intentional, not incidental.
Spiritual growth that leads to maturity begins with the kind of commitment described in Romans 6:13: “… give yourselves completely to God – every part of you – for you are back from death and you want to be tools in the hands of God, to be used for his good purposes.”
3. It has a goal. There is a finish line and winners circle. The goal is to be just like Jesus. In our Methodist history we call it “going onto perfection in love.” John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist renewal movement, clearly understood that every follower of Jesus must be moving forward. Accountability is crucial. Wesley cared so much for his Methodist Christians, that he created a system of spiritual maturity called the class meeting – or small group. Attendance in the small group was required for the Methodist. In the small group people were moving onto the goal of maturity – having the character of Jesus shaped within them – moving forward to be able to love perfectly and completely.
For Wesley, just as for Paul, spiritual maturity – discipleship, was not a game – it was life and eternity.
So let’s make our conversation about spiritual maturity – discipleship – very practical. What is going on at Christ United Methodist Church to equip every single one of us to take the next step of maturity? So that we can be just like Jesus – having his character shaped within. For discipleship to take root and for maturity to happen there must be an intentional process.