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Sunday, October 25, 2020

Build Yourselves Up...”

A sermon based upon Jude, 17-25 (CEB)
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday, October 25th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

A young country doctor was just getting started in his first practice. It was back in the days when doctors made house calls.    Late one night he got a call from a farmer who said, "Doctor, come quickly, my wife is seriously ill." Grabbing his little black bag he hurried out to the farm. The farmer met him on the steps, rushed him into the house, and upstairs into the bedroom where his wife lay sick. The doctor took a look at her, told the farmer to step outside and shut the door.

In just a moment the doctor opened the door and said, "Quick, get me a screwdriver." The farmer ran downstairs, got a screwdriver and handed it through the door. The doctor shut the door, they stood out in the hall wringing their hands; they could hear moans and groans.   In a minute the doctor was back at the door. He said, "Quick, get me a pair of pliers." The farmer ran downstairs, got a pair of pliers, came back and stuck them through the door. The doctor shut the door and they began to hear more moans and groans.    In just a minute the doctor came back and said, "Quick, get me a hammer and chisel." Well, by that time the farmer had had it. He said, "Wait just a minute, Doctor, what is wrong with my wife?" The doctor said, "I don't know, I can't get my little black bag open."

‘Dr. Jude’ doesn’t have that problem.  

To read this short, brief book is like opening up the doctor’s bag, taking out the stethoscope to listen and learn about some dark, difficult and challenging times in the early church.  

For if you read the first sixteen verses Jude (who was a brother to James, the Head of the Church, and both being brothers to the Lord Jesus); he pulls no punches in warning about those who leave the faith to live and teach falsely.  After naming them ‘people who go the way of Cain’ (v.11), Jude concludes, just before our text, that these are people who ‘pervert...grace’ and ‘deny the Lord’ (v.4)  “These are grumblers and malcontents; they indulge their own lusts; they are bombastic in speech, flattering people to their own advantage. (16 NRS).  Now, we have the ‘black bag open’ wide open.  Now, we see some ‘sick’ realities that were going on the days of the early church.   It’s definitely not the kind of situation you would have imagined  Jude even says it got so bad, that it seemed like it was the ‘last times’ (v.18).     

Of course, it wasn’t the ‘last times’, but it certainly did feel like it, at least to Jude.

During my own ‘early years’, one of my favorite songs from the very creative rock group Chicago, was their early hit, “Does any body really know what time it is?   The opening line was pretty heavy for a teenager. Perhaps you remember:

As I was walking down the street one day
A man came up to me and asked me what the time was that was
on my watch, And I said 
Does anybody really know what time it is, Does anybody really care.
If so I can't imagine why.   We've all got time enough to cry.

But it was the last line in the whole song that was the clincher: “We all got time enough to die.” 

Robert Lamm, the writer and singer of the Song, said it came to him when he walked up to a man outside a movie theater in Brooklyn and asked, “What Time is it?”, and the fellow gave this answer, “Does anybody really know what time it is?   That song became somewhat prophetic, when 8 years later, the lead singer of Chicago, Terry Kath, accidently shot himself while cleaning one of his guns.  

“Does anybody really, know what time it ?

It wasn’t ‘really’ the ‘last times’ for Jude or the early church, but difficult and dark times can certainly make you like it’s the end.   It some way,  the end is always near.

Hard times can also change your perspective and cause you to mature, to face the realities you wouldn’t ordinarily face.   And ‘facing realities and responsibilities’ is what this brief text in Jude is about.  But you beloved,”  Jude says,  “Build yourself up in the on your most holy Faith!” (v. 20).  That’s what you do, when ‘times’ are bad.  Like the other group, the Beatles sang:

 Hey Jude, Don’t make it bad.   Take a Sad Song, and Make it Better...”  The Beatles singing “Hey Jude”, is all many know about any Jude right?   But the Beatles weren’t singing about this “Jude”.  They were singing about John Lennon’s son, who was having a hard time with his parent’s divorce.  That probably felt like the ‘last times’ to him, too.   Hey Jude,...Take a Sad Song, and Make it Better...!  You can grow through this Julian.  That’s was the word in that song, and it’s the word in our text too.

Here, too, is a ‘sad song’ and sad times.  This Jude, who is ‘a servant of Jesus...and brother to James’ (1:1) was probably a leader in the early church during some very difficult times, which seemed very much like the ‘last times’ too.   And in fact, in many ways it was the last time, at least for Jerusalem.  IN 70 AD,  Jerusalem was completly demolished by the Romans, the Jewish people were scattered around the world, and the Christians literally, as Jesus had advised, ran for the hills.  Now, again, this wasn’t end of the whole world, but was the end of their world.  And when world’s end, many, many difficult and bad things happen.

Now, you don’t have to become ‘Chicken Little’ to appreciate what Jude was saying about the ‘last times’ in this text.   People often wonder, especially in difficult times like when the Coronavirus was spreading like wildfire, and the Stock Market was in free-fall, is this the end?   “Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is?”  

Well, a lot of people claim it could be, don’t they?   

I read recently about how just before World War ii, the Nazi’s were getting guns and armies together to storm and take Jerusalem, after Hitler came to power.   If there was ever an Anti-Christ in the history of our world in recent times, it could have looked like Hitler.  Even his core message of a ‘1,000 Year Rule’ sounded just like the book of Revelation.  Hilter was actually intending to run all the Jews out of Jerusalem and take the capital and give it away to the Arabs.  He could have succeeded too, if hadn’t have been people risking their lives like my Father who landed in North Africa, attacked Hitler’s army and forced the Nazi’s away from Jerusalem to have to fight the Allied Forces North African Desert. 

I’m sure to people who fought in that horrible war, or who fight in any war, it can seem like the last times, and in some ways, in may be their last time.   But like one scholar once commented about all the ‘end of the world’ talk in the Bible, this is the only part of the Bible that has been misinterpreted 100 percent wrong, 100 percent of the time, at least, so far.  

The end has not come yet.   As one writer said, ‘the last came come again, again, and again, but they seem to never come.   Will the end come?  Well, even Science says the world can’t last forever, at least in the form it is.   This is certainly true.  What is also true, is the ‘end of the world language’ in the Bible always has something to teach about time, about life, and about having true faith in God?

This text from Jude has something very important to teach us too.  In verse 17, Jude moves from talking about people who are leaving the faith during hard, difficult times, to talking directly to those who remain true to their faith in Jesus Christ.    "But you, beloved..." he says.   “Remember”, (verses 17-19) how the ‘apostles’ predicted these kinds of things.   They told us how people what people would be like in difficult and hard times.  They told us how people would not only lose their faith in God, but people would ‘scoff’, mock and laugh at those who have faith.  Those very same people would deny our faith so that they could freely indulge in their own ungodly lusts.   They would be focused only on ‘worldy’ pursuits and completely devoid of the Spirit and if they came to church, they’d be trouble makers.  Wow!  Isn’t it interesting how ‘ending’, ‘transitional’, hard times are almost always the same?

While there much to understand about how difficult ‘times’  can be, the most important message in this text is ‘positive’.  Jude sees these difficult days also as days of great, new, opportunities for the church.  He repeats again, “But you, beloved”, even in these dark and difficult times,  ...YOU...BUILD YOURSELVES UPON YOUR MOST HOLY FAITH...” (v. 20). 

Do you hear what Jude is saying?   When times get difficult and dark the hopeful and prayerful work of God in us can now be magnified even more.  But this, of course, isn’t automatic.  In such difficult times, we still must continue to focus on our Faith.  We must continue to pray in the Holy Spirit, and most of all, we must keep “OURSELVES”  in the love of God; as Jude says,  looking forward to the mercy of our Lord Jesus that leads to eternal life...”. 

Do you see the great opportunity here?    When times are at their ‘darkest’, the church, the people of God, who continue to keep their faith in Jesus Christ, will begin to ‘shine like stars’ in the dark of the night.  Another New Testament text uses that exact language, but here, Jude implies it and Jude is even more specific in telling us ‘how’ we can shine.  We ‘shine like stars’ by building up our faith.  We shine by praying in the Spirit.  And we shine because we keep ourselves in the love of God, focusing on what on what God will do, rather than getting lost in what is happening around.  

Jude is saying a lot here, but his major point is that we can still grow spiritually, and maybe even more so, when times are difficult.   If we will, if we want to, and if we will keep ‘building up’ our faith, we will ‘keep ourselves’ in God’s love, no matter what happens around us.   As the saying goes: ‘When Life gets tough, the tough keep going.”    
In comparison to what Jude is saying, can you think of a time when you ‘grew’ and ‘grew up’ even more in hard times, than in easy times?  I used to hear my mother tell story after story about how difficult times were growing up on a farm during the Great Depression.  But she also reminded me, just as many times, of the great ‘life-lessons’ she gained in those difficult times.  She learned to appreciate the ‘value of a dollar’.  She learned to appreciate the value of having family and staying in touch.  And she learned to appreciate learning how to trust God, no matter what happened.    These are not easy lessons to learn in life, and they are the kinds of lessons you mostly learn by experience.   
Jude’s final word about growing in ‘difficult’ times, is to remind us of another important responsibility we have, as God’s people, especially when times are difficult.   He says, in verse 21, that we are to ‘look forward to the mercy of our Lord’, and we are also to ‘have mercy on some who are wavering; (to) save others by snatching them our of the fire; and have mercy on still others...’ (21-23).    

Here, our major responsibility is to those among us who might be slipping away from the faith.  Jude says, we must ‘have’ or ‘show’ mercy on them, not becoming judgmental.  WE are even to ‘snatch them out of the fire’; that is the ‘fiery trial’ they are going through that might threaten their faith.   He even reminds us how we are not to ‘hate’ them, but we should ‘hate’ the sin, which he calls the how ‘the tunic’ they are wearing is defiled by ‘their bodies’. 

The language here is graphic, but it makes a valid point for the church living in difficult times.  We don’t only focus on keeping our faith, but we also focusing on helping others who might be losing theirs, even ‘grabbing’ them out of the ‘fire’ that could destroy their lives. 

The final message here is that the church still not only a message to hold on to, but it also has a ministry and mission during dark days.  WE have a mission to ‘snatch’ people out of the fire’ of these difficult times, by showing them the same ‘mercy’ God has shone us, learning how to focus on hating the sin, rather than being hateful toward the sinner.

That is very difficult to do, isn’t it?  But it might just be the most important way the church can grow in faith during difficult times.   We learn how to separate hating what sin does to people from hating people because they are sinners.  We learn how to show mercy toward those who are wavering, rather than judgment.  And most of all we learn that our mission and our ministry is to keep ourselves built up in faith, and strong in God’s love, so that we can ‘stand without blemish’  when Christ’s glory returns, whether in this world, or in the new world that is to come.

There’s certainly, a lot to think about here, isn’t there; especially in these times in which we live.  These are certainly, changing, transitional, ending times; but they could also very well be times of new beginnings and new opportunities.  As I said earlier, the end comes ‘again and again’, and as Jesus said, ‘It’s still ‘not Yet’.   I don’t know.  You don’t know.  The Bible doesn’t say.  No one knows, except the Father in Heaven, and Jim Baker, of course.

Did you see him on TV again, during the Coronavirus threat and the times of rising fears?  Jim Baker was on TV, trying to get people to buy some kind of Herbal Medicine based on Silver, which he said had worked against some forms of the Coronavirus.   I’m sure all kinds of people believed him now, just like they did when he took their money in Charlotte many years ago, and went to jail for it.   There are always those who will take advantage of you in difficult, dark, and dangerous times.

But Jude is a different kind of Doctor, opening up the ‘black bag’ of God’s promise, even in difficult times.  His RX is to keep ‘building yourself up in holy faith’.   Keep prayng in the Holy Spirit, and most of all, keep yourselves in God’s love, looking forward to God mercy in eternal life.   AND while you are doing this,  show some mercy to those who struggle.  Don’t walk on them with a spirit of superiority, but offer to walk with them, having ‘mercy’ ‘with fear.  

If you will follow this prescription,  Jude says, God will not only ‘keep you from falling’ in your faith, one day God will ‘make you stand without’ flaw, ‘in the presence of his glory’ and you’ll look back all what God brought you through with ‘rejoicing’.  Can you see ahead that far?  Jude does.  And he does this not in his own power, but in the ‘power and authority’ that comes through Jesus Christ our Lord, who was ‘before all time’, and is also there in the last time, no matter what kind of ‘last time’ it is.  Amen.

Sunday, October 4, 2020

"Measured...By the Standard"

A sermon based upon Ephesians 4: 1-24 (CEB)
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, BA, MDiv, DMin.
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership, 
Sunday, October 11th, 2020 (Growing In Grace)

What did Jesus look like?  A few years ago, some scientist decided to create a computer image to depict what Jesus might have looked like.  Based on extensive historical and archeological research, he recreated what the Jewish male would have probably looked like.  What resulted wasn’t how artists have normally painted Jesus.  The true Jesus would have definitely not been a white, blond, blue-eyed, and Aryan.  Jesus was a Jew; a brown, dark-haired, bearded and fairly short Mediterranean man. 

When I watched that PBS special, several years ago now, it caused me to recall when in college, a preacher once told us how he thought Jesus would have looked.  He said, Jesus was everything perfect about a human being; He was the Arnold Schwarzenegger, or maybe the Clint Eastwood body type, perfect, well-defined body, and he was also everything else a human being should be,  as kind and polite as Mr. Rogers, and as spiritually aware as the Dali Lama, and of course, as the Scouts say, this of course means that Jesus kept himself “physically strong, mentally awake, and morally straight.   The preacher’s talk was very inspiring, but somehow I didn’t think that he was telling us what was most important to know about Jesus.

Well what was it?   What was, and still is the big deal about Jesus?   In the famous book, written at the beginning of the 20th century by the Christian Missionary Doctor, Albert Schweitzer, which was first published in German in 1906 and entitled Von Reimarus zu Wrede.  Then, 4 years later, it was published under it’s most famous title, “The Quest for the Historical Jesus”.  In conclusion to the monumental book, Schweitzer makes some concluding observations about how we all need to ‘see’ Jesus:

“He comes to us as One unknown, without a name, as of old, by the lakeside,
He came to those men who knew Him not. He speaks to us the same words: "Follow thou me!" and sets us to the tasks which He has to fulfill for our time. He commands. And to those who obey Him, whether they be wise or simple, He will reveal himself in the toils, the conflicts, the sufferings which they shall pass through in His fellowship, and, as an ineffable mystery, they shall learn in their own experience Who He is.”

Perhaps Schweitzer’s words point us in the right ‘spiritual’ direction to begin to understand what Paul meant in today’s Scripture from Ephesians, chapter 4, where were are given one of the most clear, biblical directives to how we should mature in our Christian Faith, by becoming like Jesus.  In verse 13, the ultimate goal of a Christian’s life is given,   “...until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. (Eph. 4:13 NRS).  Is there any better instruction of what a Christian should look like?   But still, it begs the question, Jesus says ‘follow me!’, and Paul says, be ‘mature’ like Christ, but what does this mean?     

Paul himself was probably unable to finish this letter.  He had just been ‘beheaded’ as a perceived threat to the Roman state.  So, whoever finalized this letter ‘from Paul’ (1:1), pictured Jesus primarily as a ‘gift-bringer’.  

Now, Jesus isn’t Santa Claus, but this text comes very close seeing him just like that.  In fact, in Europe today, which has been historically dominated by Christian traditions throughout centuries, still celebrates “Nicolaus” (St. Nick), coming with candy on December 6th, but it’s the ‘Christ Child’ who actually brings all the children’s gifts on Heilege Abend, Christmas Eve. 

This text isn’t far from celebrating something like that.  Quoting Scripture from Psalm 68: 18, a text that celebrates King David’s ascent to the throne, Paul uses it show spiritually, what Jesus accomplished by his victory on the cross,  when he, ‘climbed up to the heights, he captured prisoners, and he gave gifts to people (v.8).” 

Understanding the need to explain, Paul writes that this King Jesus, before he could ‘ascend’ and ‘climb up above all the heavens’ (10), he had to first had to go ‘down into the lower regions’?  That’s how Paul paints the picture of Jesus victorious death.  Before he ‘went up’, he had to ‘go down’!   Isn’t this the most magnificent truth of all?  Isn’t this the answer to every human prayer, that we might ‘be down’, but ‘down’ is the exactly the place, where we too, can start to ‘come up’ and ‘stay up!’.  

The picture Paul is painting for us here, is something like imagining Jesus, as the Christ who brings us the greatest Christmas gifts ever.   This is the ‘spiritual’ result of what Jesus accomplished when he, by dying the ultimate death, by humiliating himself, and being fully obedient to God, went down to the lowest place of reality, grabbed hold of the lowest of the low powers that a part of our sinful human existence, and from there, as the King James so eloquently puts it, was able to ‘climb up’ and ‘lead captivity captive and gave gifts to people’ (8). 

You can’t describe Jesus and his accomplishment any more powerfully than this, as defeated king, who in his defeat and death, is empowered by Spirit of God within, to ‘get up’ and take ‘captivity captive’, so that he could spiritually, lead away, all the negative powers of human oppression, all the cruel enslavements, and remove all the barriers to true life away, in order to give us, who have faith in him the greatest gifts; the gift of freedom, not to do only what we want to do, but to be given the freedom to want to do what we should be doing, to be sent out, telling, sharing, caring and explaining what Jesus Christ has accomplished and given a great gift to us.   But what is this great gift?      

The great gift is that Jesus’ death has set us free, and given us ‘gifts differing’; some are to be apostles (sent out), others are to be prophets (to speak out),  others as evangelists (to share good news), others as pastors (to lead and care), and still others as teachers (to explain how).   These are the rolls and the tasks that have been enabled by Jesus’ death that frees us from our life enslavement, our tongue entanglement, our speech impediment, our love embarrassment, and our knowledge mismanagement.  ment.   Did you get that?  

The gift of Christ gives humanity a wonderful new enablement to do and bring good into the world, but this is still not the greatest gift the way of Jesus Christ has the potential to bring into our world.   Paul goes on to say why ‘captivity was led captive’ and why the ‘gifts’ of new kinds of free and filled people would be given to the world, so that in their work together, they would in turn,  equip the saints for the work of the ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until ALL OF US come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, TO MATURITY, to the measure of the FULL STATURE OF CHRIST.   Now that’s a big, long, sentence. Did you get it?  Let’s break it down:

It is spelled out like this:   God’s new leaders in God’s church;  apostles, the ones who were sent by Jesus, prophets; the ones who speak up for Jesus, evangelists, the ones who share about Jesus, pastors, the ones who shepherd the flock for Jesus, and teachers; the ones who instruct and disciples learners of Jesus, are all ‘gifts’ given to the rest of the church, to ‘equip’ God’s holy people (saints), for doing the ministry, that is serving others, so that the church body is built up, and everyone is in unity, working together for the same goal, gaining the same knowledge about Jesus so that we all grow up to be a mature and as much like Jesus as we possibly can be.  

This is the gift.  This is what Jesus went ‘down’ into the depths for, suffered for, overcame Satan’s power for, and why Jesus ‘came up’ out of that grave, not just to show us God’s power, but put God’s power in you, and to pull you up, and grow you up into becoming one of God’s growing, maturing and measurable children too. 

Don’t you remember, or perhaps you saw someone do it on TV; we did it for our daughter.   Every month, when she was growing up in her childhood, we had a ‘growth chart’ on the back of her door, and we would back her up to the door, and put a mark over her head, to show her how much she had grown.   It was always a remarkable, pleasurable and measurable joy, to see, in a certain amount of time, where she had been, and to think about how she was growing.  I used to have a saying, when I would pull her away from the door, and jokingly, but kiddingly sing;  “I’m gonna put a stopper on top of her, and I’m gonna stop her from growing up!”  Then I’d pick her up, turn her around and show her how much she had grown over the month before. 

That was a joyful time, to celebrate life, to celebrate growth, and to celebrate small steps toward maturity and development in her life.  But how do we ‘mark’ the steps of maturity for ‘equipping a saint’ for the ‘work of the ministry’, who is coming into ‘unity of the faith’ and maturing in the knowledge of the Son of God, resulting in be able to be ‘measured’ by the ‘full stature of Christ’.   How do we mark, chart, or measure that?

The ‘full stature of Christ’ is measurable in several ways, Paul says.  I’m not going to explain a lot of this, but only review it briefly, and then try to bring it together with a very real, human story of growth and transformation.

First, Paul says that a maturing Christian knows what they believe about Jesus and are no longer easily ‘tossed to and fro’ and ‘blown about’ by ‘every wind of doctrine’, teaching, trickery, and crafty deceitful scheme (14).

Second, a maturing Christians ‘speaks the truth in love’, and is determined to be Christlike in telling the truth about Jesus (15).

Thirdly, a maturing Christian promotes the growth of the whole body’, not only their own individual.  In fact, how they relate to the ‘whole body’ is what enables their own maturity.   As you make Jesus the ‘head’ and ‘knit’ yourself together with others in the body, sharing the work properly, bearing your load responsibly, you promote the growth and development of everyone in God’s love.

Fourthly, a maturing Christian does not participate in impure practices of the world around them, allowing the world’s fallen culture to dictate who they are or how they live.   A maturing Christian finds their own life in God, as they continually open their hearts to God’s light and then, through a constantly growing knowledge of Jesus Christ, are able to overcome all the dark ignorance, greed, hardness of heart and impurity of the world around us.

When you examine closely, the measurable ‘full stature’ of Christ, you do see a ‘body builder’ Jesus, but it’s not his own body he’s building?   What you do find here is a Jesus who is building, not himself, but who is building you up, through his own body, so that you can become the best kind of person you have the potential to become:
A person who growing up to be sure and firm in belief and trust. 
A person who growing up to learn and speak for truth, but always ‘in love’.  
A person who growing up to promote the whole, not just for themselves.
A person who grows and turns away from the impure practices of the world.

Can you picture a person like that?   Can you picture yourself still growing like that?  Can you look back at your life, and see not only ‘where you’ve come from’, but can you even begin to see, ‘what you are here for’, and ‘what’ glorious future God is fitting you inherit?   That’s the joy of growing up in Jesus Christ.  It’s the joy of becoming the new person Jesus’ love can enable you to become. 

If you haven’t watch this movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, which is about the work of Fred Rogers, the famous child’s TV program developer and director of, “Mr Roger’s Neighborhood”, you need to go out and rent it and watch what unfolds.   It will surprise you.  It is not surprising that the kindness and mannerism of Mr. Rogers is attracting attention in these days of ‘road rage’ and ‘drive by and mass shootings’.  America and the whole world, for that matters, needs to take a close look at what made Mr. Rogers ‘tick’. 

I don’t want to give the storyline away but the way the writer Marielle Heller developed the biography of Fred Roger’s life and work is one of the most powerful it’s one the most powerful depictions of moral, spiritual, and human transformation and maturity I’ve seen displayed by a Hollywood production in recent years.   What stands out is not only Roger’s kindness to children, but in this movie, it’s his creative dealings with a Magazine reported who had been emotionally injured by a cold, distant, carousing father, overcoming his anger and penned up feelings.   This happens all because Roger’s saw his anger and pain, acknowledge it, and responded with the redeeming power of genuine concern, listening, gentleness, and compassion. 

The story was based upon an article written for Atlantic Magazine, by a true-to-life reporter, who came to realize as he studied Fred Roger’s closely and surprisingly discovered that his kindness and gentleness was not fake, not preachy, or overly sentimental.   In the movie, the reporter’s life story is fictional, but it makes a true statement about the disarming and redeeming impact Roger’s genuine kindness and gentleness had on both children and adults.  

One remarkable moment is when the reporter is interviewing Fred Roger’s wife, Joanne.  In the interview he discovers that Fred is an ordain Presbyterian minister who starts each day off with Scripture reading and prayer, remembering to pray for people by name.  “He must be some kind of Saint”, the report remarks to Fred’s wife, but she responds, “He’s no saint, he’s a ordinary sinner just like everyone else.”  His moral authority stems from his empathy, not a sense of superiority. 

Could it be the world needs people like Mr. Roger’s, who doesn’t talk down to people, nor around people, but looks at them, considers them first, and listens, always applying unexpected gentleness and kindness?  It doesn’t seem possible that a timid, shy, often insulted little boy would have become Mr. Rogers, but he did, and he was.  All the challenges he had as ‘fat Freddie’ growing up, helped him find strength in his faith to make him the kind of adult children need, but the rest of the world needs too. 

Even though it goes unspoken most of the story,  you have to admit that true Christlike character of the Fruit of the Spirit; Love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and the rest are reflected in every single turn of Fred’s life and work.  Through childlike faith in Jesus Christ, we too can become people the neighbor we would all want to have in our own ‘beautiful neighborhood’.

But let’s not fool ourselves here; the way of developing character, kindness, wholeness, and having a Christlike Spirit isn’t an easy way to live.   It can be rewarding, fulfilling, but it’s still ‘the way of the cross’.  In the movie, Tom Hanks and Fred Rogers made it look easy, but Fred said it wasn’t always easy.  It was a ‘discipline’ that was hard for him too, his wife said,

Putting truth and love together at the same time, as this text pictures too, is however, at the core of what it means to be a mature, complete, Christlike person of character.  What it takes to be and look like Jesus in this world, is never easy.   But this kind of maturity would give us better neighborhoods in our world, and make us better people.  

In the conclusion of Paul’s discussion,  he also says that we have to ‘learn’ Christ (v. 20); it’s not an automatic, natural way to live and we have to learn it as a ‘discipline’ too.   Paul’s discussion puts this way of daily discipline on display as a way of constantly ‘putting away’ our former way of life, and each day ‘clothing ourselves’ with the newly cleaned clothes of a Christlike way.  You don’t become Jesus, but you must constantly ‘take up your cross’ with Him.  Of course, we can’t be Jesus, and we’re not ‘saints’ in any extraordinary way,  but Paul still called all Christians ‘saints’ because we are called to keep putting Christ ‘on’ like new, clean, fresh clothes each and every day.  

This way and work of daily discipline is the way to maturity, as Paul says:
We mature into his ‘fullness when we ‘speak truth to neighbor, like we are members of
 the one another.
We mature into Christ’s fulness, when we are angry, but don’t sin by not letting
 ourselves go to be angry.
We mature in Christ, when we stop giving the devil room to work, and we try to work
 honestly every day.
We mature in Christ, when we say only the kind of things that ‘build’ each other up,
 rather than tearing each other down.
We mature in Christ, and we are like Christ, when try not to grieve the Holy Spirit, by
 putting away negative, malicious talk, and forgiving as we are forgiven.
And finally, we mature in Christ, because we try to imitate Jesus’ goodness and God’s
 holiness as God’s own children, living in ‘love’ as Christ loved us.

That’s quite a list, isn’t it?   It’s a tall order, and  it may seem daunting or impossible for broken people and sinners like us to ever contemplate becoming new people like this.  But Paul goes on to say, that especially when the ‘days are evil’ we must try to ‘find’ and live what ‘pleases the Lord’; not simply for the Lord’s sake, but for our own (5:9-10).
Ellen Goodman, a syndicated columnist, wrote an article about a friend of hers who was always "keeping his options open." It seems that this friend was allergic to making commitments. He viewed life as a huge buffet line. Consequently he compared people who made commitments to the person who filled his plate with rather ordinary fare at the beginning of the line and then when his plate was full came upon all types of interesting food which he liked better. Using that example to illustrate his philosophy of life, Goodman's friend let everyone know that he was "keeping his options open."

Ellen Goodman's evaluation of a friend, who was never committing to anything, and was always saying that that he was ‘keeping his options open, and only having his own kind of belief, was like a person "coming to the end of the line with an empty plate." It is impossible to build anything substantial without commitment to something beyond yourself.   Everything that is worthwhile in life requires the making of a commitment.   At some point you just have to take a plunge without always straining to see what lies on down the line. If you don't, you'll always come to the end of the line with an empty plate.

In this world where we tell people to not get over committed, to play it cool, to stay on balance, and to keep their options open, the words of Ephesians stick out like a stray horse that's wandered into our living room during a party.  The whole book of Ephesians is the writer, Paul saying: I have no other option: "I am a prisoner of the Lord."

It takes a mature person to recognize that life and love are gifts we are given to us so we can keep giving them away by putting ourselves at the disposal Jesus and his body, the church.    In a world like ours this is less and less a priority, just like unity is not often the desired end of competitive people. Building up the body of Christ through love and humility also seems like a stranger way to keep peace.  And who in our world actually measures growth and success in life, doing more than just the part we want to do?  

Peter Gomes, who was once the pastor to Harvard University, once commented that  "growth" is Saint Paul's picture of what it means to be a Christian.   A mature person, Paul says, puts away childish thoughts, and become people growing up ‘with a head’ because they have a head, who is Jesus Christ as Lord of their hearts.   Amen.