“Moving Forward in Christ:
When Remembering Gives Rise to Examination”
Have you ever had anyone tell you that they actually liked taking mid-term exams? No? Good, because what I’m about to do will be a first in your lives! Maybe I should qualify it, though: I usually liked to take mid-term exams. I liked them because they were not the final exam! I liked them because I could see what I hadn’t learned. I liked them because I knew what to re-study and what not to re-study. And I liked them because they were a second chance in the making. I knew I could aim for better in the weeks that remained.
Even so, I dreaded the work that lay ahead of me. Did I really want to learn those lessons? What if I couldn’t master the subject? What if I fell prey to procrastination? Maybe I didn’t like those mid-terms as much as I thought I did. Maybe there was more fear and stubbornness in me than I realized. And maybe I even resented the less-than-flattering picture of my abilities that those mid-terms gave me. Kind of a strike to the ego?!
If I go back a few years earlier – let’s say to elementary school – there was a sort of mid-term exam that I feared even more than my grades. It came under the heading of “citizenship”, “social skills”, “behavior”, and “attitude”. My mid-term grades in elementary school assessed what I was learning. But these other categories assessed who I was becoming, how I was integrating knowledge into my choices. My parents always looked at the grades first, but the longest lasting conversations were always about my progress as a person.
Isn’t it funny that as we grow up we’re measured more by what we know and less by who we are? By the time we reach middle school, we’re assessed mostly by our grades. By the time we reach high school, it’s completely about the grades – unless, of course, there’s some sort of unusual behavior problem. And by the time we reach college or the workplace, nobody’s really allowed to tell us that we’re not the person we ought be. Now, either we give signs that we don’t want to hear it, or they’re simply afraid to point it out.
So here’s the unfortunate truth: Way too many people spend way too many years in attitudes and behaviors that are indifferent or hostile to the self-examination that leads to personal growth. Catch that? Let me say it again: Way too many people spend way too many years in attitudes and behaviors that are indifferent or hostile to the self-examination that leads to personal growth. By the time they get to the mid-point of life – the “mid-term exam” that comes when they hit the big 4-0 – many of their habits and attitudes are malformed. Their ability to receive honest, personal assessment is almost non-existent. They’ve put so much time and energy into living an unexamined life that there’s nothing left over for self-assessment and self-correction.
And this – this – is the primary failure in our society. There are so many who live so deeply within themselves that no outside influence is allowed to speak truth to them. And if no there’s no outside influence allowed to do it, it’s not likely that they’ll do it themselves. The Greek philosopher, Socrates, said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” He was right. All around us we see people who are indeed not living. They’re dying – spiritually and emotionally, they’re dying. The life that could’ve been theirs – the life that would’ve otherwise bloomed and flowered – has been choked off. They’ve insulated themselves against the exams of life. They’ve done it so successfully that there’s no growth – and where there’s no growth, there’s no life.
So much for the society around us. What about the Christian community? Do we fight the same battles? Do we do all that we can to avoid self-examination, too? Here’s where we might object, “No. I’m a Christian. I read my Bible. I say my prayers. I go to Church. I think about God and I kind of listen to him – even though I don’t really know what that means. And when I can and how I can, I do the best I can.” Okay, fine. But where’s the truth that’s found only in self-examination? Where’s the progress that arises from God’s challenges in our lives? Where’s the assurance that real assessment is taking place? Where’s the proof that God’s call to personal growth is being heeded in our lives? Maybe we should ask this question differently. Maybe we ought to find out why it is that God’s people are so often indistinguishable from the rest of the world.
I’d like to take an unusual risk this morning. I’d like to share a word of assessment that applies to each of our lives. Now, it will apply to each of us differently because each of us has lived different lives. But it will apply equally to all of us in powerful ways. And, since most of us in this Chapel are at the mid-point of life or beyond, it’s probably time for a mid-term exam! Turn with me, if you would, to the epistle lesson on page eight in your bulletins. Saint Paul is writing to people who are not only his brothers and sisters in the Lord, they’re his close friends. So, what he writes to them in today’s lesson becomes all the more powerful and poignant.
Paul calls them to examine their lives as Christians. He wants them to compare what they’re thinking and doing against the example that is being set before them. He says, in verse seventeen, “Brothers and sisters, join in imitating me, and observe those who live according to the example you have in us.” Why does he do that? Why does he point to an example of holy attitude and holy living? Well, we find out in verses eighteen and nineteen. He says, “For many live as enemies of the cross of Christ; I have often told you of them, and now I tell you even with tears. Their end is destruction; their god is the belly; and their glory is in their shame; their minds are set on earthly things.” Paul’s trying to speak truth into their lives. He’s trying to help them see the fruit of self-examination.
New Testament scholar, William Barclay, tells us that the people Paul speaks of in verses eighteen and nineteen – the ones doing things they should not be doing – are actually fellow Christians. They’re not pagans. Yes, some of whom were involved in the Gnostic heresy, but not all. Barclay says, “There were in the Church at Philippi men who whose conduct was an open scandal and who, by their lives, showed themselves to be the enemies of the cross of Christ. Who they were is not certain. But it is quite certain that they lived gluttonous and immoral lives and used their so-called Christianity to justify themselves.”
Barclay goes on to say, “They turned Christian liberty into unchristian license and gloried in giving their passions full play. There were those who distorted the Christian doctrine of grace. They said that, since grace was wide enough to cover every sin, a man could sin as he liked and not worry; it would make no difference to the all-forgiving love of God.” This, my friends, is the fruit of an unexamined life. This is what happens when we profess one thing and then live, act, work, play, vote, talk, and teach something completely different. Does any of this sound familiar? It’s the same litany of heresies taking place in the Church today – taking place because of the break between belief and action.
Paul then reminds us, in verses twenty and twenty-one, “But our citizenship is in heaven, and it is from there that we are expecting a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ. He will transform the body of our humiliation that it may be conformed to the body of his glory, by the power that also enables him to make all things subject to himself.” So, in other words, Paul’s calling us to do three things: First, (in verse seventeen) he’s calling us to compare ourselves against a godly example – to conduct a self-examination, if you will; second, he’s setting before us (in verses eighteen and nineteen) a picture of what can happen if we fail to do that examination, if we fail to do away with the blind spots in our lives; and, third, he’s reminding us (in verses twenty and twenty-one) that we live and breathe and move in the power of Jesus – for it’s Jesus who has redeemed us and it’s Jesus who promises to make us holy as he is holy.
Beloved, the greatest danger facing us today is not found in the heresies that surround us, it’s the temptation to assume – to not examine and to find out – but to assume that all is well with our souls. No matter who we are – whether drug dealer or Church committee member – there are areas in our lives in need of God’s healing touch. Each of us needs to spend time in self-examination before the Jesus. Each of us needs to discover the areas of our lives in need of healing and transformation. Each of us needs to allow the infinite grace of God to do his work within us. That’s why, during this Lenten season, we’ve been called to return to the Lord with mourning and weeping. That’s why we’ve been called to remember – to call to mind – where we’ve been wrong.
If we should choose to not examine our consciences, then we must face the fact that we’re living a life of, what Bonhoeffer calls, cheap grace. But there’s nothing cheap about the price Jesus paid for us, is there? Pastor, theologian, and martyr, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writes that “Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without Church discipline, Communion without confession, absolution without personal confession.” He goes on to say that, “Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.”
The absence of self-examination means, then, that we are asking Jesus to save our souls without transforming them. We’re asking him to give us a ticket to heaven, but to not touch us in the process. It means that we’re seeking to meander rather than move forward on the pilgrim pathway. And how, in heaven’s Name, can we do that with a straight face? How can we possibly approach the Throne of Grace as if we’re in some fast food restaurant, saying, “I’d like a ticket to heaven, but hold the difficult work of inner transformation, please”?
The price Jesus paid was indeed costly, and so must our participation in his holy life also be. Bonhoeffer goes on to say, “Costly grace is the treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it a man will go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to buy, for which the merchant will sell all his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble; it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his nets and follows him. Costly grace is the Gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.”
If that’s not enough to spark self-examination within us, then perhaps we should consider both the warning and longing coming from Jesus’ heart. Look with me, if you would, at today’s Gospel lesson on page nine in your bulletins. Jesus has been asked whether only a few will be saved. He responds by urging the people to strive to enter by the narrow door – a striving that will, I’m convinced, include some time spent in mourning, remembering, and self-examination. Then he says this (beginning at verse twenty-five): “When once the owner of the house has got up and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then in reply he will say to you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’ Then you will begin to say, ‘We ate and drank with you, and you taught in our streets.’ But he will say, ‘I do not know where you come from; go away from me, all you evildoers!’”
Beloved, he will know us or not know us, you see, based on our intimacy or lack of intimacy with him. He will recognize us because we’ve taken the time to let him into our lives. He will open the door for us because we’ve lived daily in his Word, sought his counsel in prayer, availed ourselves of his Sacraments (including the Sacrament of Confession), because we’ve spent much time pondering the way of Christian life (in his Word and in the writings of his faithful teachers), and because we’ve surrendered daily to his love.
And if all this isn’t enough to convince us of the need for self-examination, let’s consider the broken heart of Jesus. Let’s consider his mourning over the fact that there are those who’ve shunned the life and transformation that he’s offered them. In verse thirty-four Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing! See, your house is left to you.” Jerusalem (the people of God) chose to assume wellness in their souls when, in fact, there was sickness. They chose cheap grace. And wrapped up in the words of our Lord are his thousands of years of offering to them the more excellent way, only to find rejection from them.
And so now we come to the point of personal decision. How is it with our souls? How are we each faring on the pilgrim pathway? Are we moving forward in Christ? Are we asking (from time-to-time, at least) the difficult questions? Are we ready to take our mid-term examination? I wish for us a life of wholeness in Christ. I wish for us a life in integrity in the Gospel, a life of self-examination and growth and unimaginable blessing.
In the Name of the + Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Let us pray.
Father, we talk about giving things up for Lent. And we do it casually, until we come to read your Word and understand the sacrifice that gave life to us. Father, send us home today to do the difficult work of self-examination, that we might draw closer to you and that we might be tools in your hand to draw others closer to you, as well. Let these words from your Word reverberate within us, let your holy Sacrament fill us and nourish the thoughts that you give us. We ask this in Jesus’ Name. Amen.