|Living What We Say We Believe
February 7, 1999 / John 6:35-51
There is a bakery about a mile from my office. When I drive north on Franklin Road in mid-afternoon, nobody has to tell me my location when I come to it. Words arenít necessary. The aroma of fresh bread tells me where I am.
When was the last time you got a whiff of fresh-baked bread? Did it make you salivate? Did it make you sense a hunger that had not been in your consciousness until the aroma triggered it? Nothing smells quite so good. And Iíll just bet that bakery advertisers wish their billboards, slick magazine layouts, and television spots could add the sense of smell to their visual and auditory pitches!
Jesus: Bread of Life
Jesus once said, "I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty" (John 6:35). And people caught the aroma. They noticed something about Jesus that was different from the teachers they were accustomed to hearing (cf. Matt. 7:28-29). Men and women came to him and were filled to complete satisfaction. Just as Jesus had promised: "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled" (Matt. 5:6).
But Jesus returned to heaven, and for a while there was no bread. In His absence, though, he made sure the world would not go hungry.
He left the recipe for his life in the Scriptures. And He left His Spirit to blend its truth into our lives ó flour and sugar, raw eggs and butter, everything. From there, the bare hands of circumstance were called in to knead the dough, a time of solitude was set aside to give the loaf a chance to rise, and the ovens of daily life were opened to bake it.
And once again, the aroma of freshly baked bread filled the earth.
The difference between the inscripturated word and the incarnate word is the difference between the recipe and the bread. As essential as the recipe is, it is not a recipe that attracts people most. It is not a billboard on the bakery. It is not a catchy ad campaign or colorful packaging or the promise of some prize inside.
It is the smell of freshly baked bread.1
We Are to Be the "Aroma of Christ"
Know what our generation needs? It needs the smell of the Bread of Life in its nostrils. It needs the aroma of Christ as an attractive fragrance to bring it to him. Such a fragrance would make people hungry, set their spiritual taste buds on Jesus, and entice them to eat ó and so to be saved.
It is the smell that entices the soul to taste, and the taste that entices it to eat. So often, though, instead of giving out bread to the hungry, we give out recipes.
The recipes come in all kinds of cookbooks. From Bibles to bumper stickers. From books to cassettes. From sermons to smidgens of advice. And all of them come full of words. Good words, many of them. Well-intentioned words, certainly. But words that have not been made flesh. Words that have not dwelt among us.
I wonder what would happen if one day all those words went away.
What if one day the entire body of Christ were struck dumb? Couldnít write a word. Couldnít speak a word. Couldnít even move our lips to mouth one. What then? What would be left?
And what would our lives say? What would they say about who we are and who our God is? What would they say about what we believe? If we were to take away the words, how much of the gospel could the world understand?
Would we discover that the world is illiterate? Or that our lives are illegible?2
Jesusí Challenge to Us
The easiest thing in all the spiritual world is to "talk the talk" without "walking the walk." I refuse the laughable defense of the modern churchís ineffectiveness in evangelism that says, "People donít want to hear the truth!" I think itís more complex than that. I think most of the non-Christian people around us are holding our words suspect until they see a concrete difference in our personal lives. They want to see our words enfleshed. They are waiting for our talk to become our walk. They are waiting for us to live what we say we believe.
They hear us say we are "born again" and belong to Jesus now. They hear us quote Paulís words about having our hearts set on the things of God rather than the things of this world. They hear us say we love our neighbors as we love ourselves and embrace the Golden Rule. So they are waiting for us to be different!
They are waiting for us to be less neurotic, less materialistic, less lustful. They are waiting for us to be more compassionate, more self-controlled, more joyful. They are looking at us to see less racism, less jealousy, less raging temper. They are looking to find more patience, more integrity, more that resembles Jesus.
They donít want us to hand them a recipe. Quote them some Scripture. Give them a Bible or bumper sticker. They want to smell the aroma of fresh-baked bread!
Precisely because the watching world has the right to expect this of us, Jesus told his disciples to be wise builders in their spiritual lives. "Everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice," he said, "is like a wise man who built his house on the rock" (Matt. 7:24). Just hearing doesnít count for much with him. Anyone who just hears him without taking his words to heart is "like a foolish man who built his house on sand" (Matt. 7:26). Do you remember the childrenís song based on Jesusí parable about wise and foolish builders? Do you recall whose house stood and whose went kersplat?
Christians donít get saved by getting their lives in order. Salvation is a gift that comes by grace. But people who really are saved by grace do exhibit significant change in their lives ó gradually, over time, with setbacks. Without the evidence of transformation, the claim that someone makes to be "regenerated" is simply false.
Rhetoric and Real Life
A teacher was once trying to explain the meaning of "oratory" to her students. Tongue in cheek, she said, "If someone says that black is white, that is foolishness. But if that person says that black is white while bellowing like a bull, pounding on the table with both fists, and racing from one end of the stage to another, thatís oratory!"
Have we taken our "Christian cue" from such word smithing? Have we somehow succumbed to the view that mere words will pass for authentic Christian faith ó so long as we say those words with pious faces in church buildings, so long as we bow our heads reverently during the holy moments, so long as we feel occasionally guilty for the fact that we donít take holiness seriously?
Christians arenít perfect, although we are forgiven. Forgiven, however, Christians are energized by the Holy Spirit to follow Jesus. They are so grateful for their salvation that they serve him eagerly. They so hate and fear sin that they refuse to make peace with it. The yeast of Godís Spirit is working inside them, and the aroma of Christ is rising from them!
Donít fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! . . . Anyone who sets himself up as "religious" by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world (Jas. 1:22, 26-27, The Message).
What good is it, my brothers, if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds? Can such faith save him? Suppose a brother or sister is without clothes and daily food. If one of you says to him, "Go, I wish you well; keep warm and well fed," but does nothing about his physical needs, what good is it? In the same way, faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead (Jas. 2:14-17).
Both individuals and whole churches are sometimes ineffective teachers of the gospel because of our tendency to begin with words rather than life. Our sincere efforts at teaching are unproductive because they are not rooted in demonstration. We have not earned credibility in the eyes of the people we want to teach. We havenít done a very good job of living what we say we believe.
In families, classrooms, offices, and neighborhoods we inhabit, people are less inclined to listen to our lectures than to look at our lives. Without the actions appropriate to faith, they will consider our words empty ó and turn away from them. They donít want a recipe until theyíve smelled and tasted the bread of our authentic discipleship.
The "How-To" of Discipleship
Over these next several weeks, it will be my task to challenge you to take your discipleship seriously. I will ask you to do the following things:
1. Embrace what God has done for you in Christ. That is, I will challenge you to believe that the love and intention actions of God that led to Calvary were for you. I want you to accept the Good News of heaven without hesitation or unbelief.
2. Join this community of faith. I want you to declare yourself in terms of commitment to this body of believers. Iíll not ask you to confess that weíre better than anyone else or superior to any other place. Iíll simply ask that you make a serious commitment to using the resources this church provides you to the fullest for your spiritual nurture and service. You become a mature Christian the same way you become a good basketball player, a competent surgeon, or artist. You go to the community of people already about that task and enter their discipline and training. Reading a manual isnít enough.
3. Come out of your seclusion into fellowship. One of the things we want to offer you is a chance to make a few intimate friends in this church. Our small-group program is not for the "select few" or an elitist crowd. It is simply one way for someone who is part of this community and who celebrates Christ with us in communal worship to connect with a few people in a more personal way than can be achieved in a large gathering.
4. Confront any lingering sin that is weighting you down. Nobody is serious about Jesus who is living a double life. This series is going to ask you to confront the weakness in your spiritual armor through which Satan continues to harass and harm you. You will be able to take on this project because others care about you, promise to help you with the process, and hold you accountable in a loving-but-firm way.
5. Involve yourself in the sufferings of others. It is part of the genius of learning to be like Jesus that you care about and serve those who can give nothing back. Elderly people, Alzheimerís patients, people with AIDS, the poor, prisoners, addicts, homeless people, abused children, pregnant teens ó Jesus cared about and did things to help these people. And he said that any of these people we served in his name would be counted as service done directly to him.
6. Learn to be alone and quiet with God. Oh, yes! There will have to be constant times ó even occasional extended seasons ó of personal solitude and prayer, study and reflection. Believers donít run off their subjective feelings but by the objective guidance that comes from Scripture and deliberate seeking of God.
7. Let Christ take you to someone who needs him. Not every Christian is an evangelist. Evangelism is a special spiritual gift that is given to some, but not all, believers. Yet every Christian is called to be salt, light, and the "aroma of Christ" to others. There are people in your sphere of acquaintance and influence that Jesus wants to claim for his Father through your presence. Not your words, mind you, but your gentle influence! And you can learn how to participate with that purpose.
Imagine someone driving along rather absentmindedly. Someone in the car with him asks, "Whatís that?" He begins, "Why, what do you mean?" Then he catches the aroma! "Oh, that!" he says. "We must be passing a bakery. Doesnít that hot bread smell wonderful? Hey, Iím hungry! Letís eat!"
And thatís what I want to happen in the families, offices, schools, and neighborhoods where God has placed us. I want people to catch the aroma of Christ because we are living the things we say we believe. To sense the spiritual hunger God has built into their souls. To know Jesus and be saved.
1Ken Gire, Windows of the Soul (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House), p. 180.
2Gire, Windows of the Soul, p. 181.
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