Sunday Evening Worship – Faith, Family, Education Conference 2016

Sunday Evening Worship – Faith, Family, Education Conference 2016

Aug 29, 2016

Speaker: Michael Jordan

Dean of the Chapel at Houghton College

I was asked to speak on the conference theme, “Faith, Family, Education.” As a guy with ten years of pastoral ministry experience, with five kids, who currently works at a Christian college, it would seem that these are three words and ideals I care deeply about. And I do care about faith, family, and education — roughly in that order. In fact, I care so deeply about faith, family, and education that I worry sometimes about the future. Not because I think faith, family, and education are in danger of going anywhere: I think all three are safely with us to stay. But I do worry about how we understand faith, family, and education. If we understand faith, family, and education rightly, they can be central in a godly life.

But increasingly, I think we misunderstand faith. There is, of course, this passage from James 2: “So faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead. But someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith. You believe that God is one; you do well. Even the demons believe — and shudder. Do you want to be shown, you senseless person, that faith without works is barren? Was not our ancestor Abraham justified by works when he offered his son Isaac on the altar? You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was brought to completion by the works.”

Michael Jordan, Dean of Chapel, Houghton College

Michael Jordan, Dean of Chapel, Houghton College

What’s interesting to me in this passage is that we often understand works as simply demonstrating the reality of our faith: if our faith is real faith, we reason, it will express itself in works. That is undoubtedly part of what James is trying to say — he’s trying to challenge his readers to live out their faith. But he’s not just saying that you need to live out your faith; he’s also saying your faith is brought to completion by your works. That is to say, your works are a component of your faith. It’s not like you have your faith over here, your mental and theological and spiritual beliefs, and then this outward life of works that better be in accord with your faith. No, a life of good Christian works actually contributes to the faith you have.

Think of it this way: many of you have done missionary work of some kind before, either short- or long-term. You might go into missionary work thinking that this work is a way that your faith expresses itself. That is, you feel like you have this strong faith, this faith that puts Jesus at the center of your life, and it’s so important to you that you want it to be front and center, you are willing to leave your home to go serve God somewhere else. But what you find, when you get there, is that it actually is having a huge impact on you. Your desire to serve God — which is a good and righteous thing — propels you out into good works; but the fact you do the good works feeds back into you and makes you have a stronger faith than when you started.

This is the kind of faith I’m interested in if we’re talking faith, family, and education: not just a series of beliefs saying here’s what I think about God, here’s what side I’m on in the culture wars, here’s what I’m willing to die for — but instead, a faith that results in a fearless openness to letting God change you and make you new, make you into a different person than you would be without this faith. Faith without works is dead, not just because you show that your faith is insufficient, but because without works you keep your faith from being this living, vital thing that can change you and through you change the world. It’s not just that our works are an ornament to our faith, or proof that our faith is valid: the relationship between our works and our faith allows our faith to be something that blesses the whole world through us.

Which brings me to think about family. I think that we as Christians often misunderstand family in the same way we misunderstand faith. Perhaps one of the most famous passages regarding Jesus and the family is from Mark 3:31-35: “Then his mother and his brothers came; and standing outside, they sent to him and called him. A crowd was sitting around him; and they said to him, ‘Your mother and your brothers and sisters are outside, asking for you.’ And he replied, ‘Who are my mother and my brothers?’ And looking at those who sat around him, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.’”

When we think about family, we often think about people we share a special kinship with, the people we are closest to, the people that we have a special affection for. In modern Western culture, we think of the family almost exclusively in terms of emotional bonding. We can see this in many ways, even in the battle over same-sex marriage where the presumption is that a family has nothing to do with the gender of the members of the family, but the feelings and affinity they have for each other. The modern understanding of family is that my family is the one who supports me, who loves me unconditionally, the ones I can count on when the chips are down, etc. So we tend to interpret this passage in ways that reflect that. We assume that Jesus is saying, “Who am I really closest to in this world? Who are my real truest, deepest friends? The ones who do the will of God.”

Again, there is some truth in this for sure. But I don’t want to lose sight of the fact of what Jesus’ mother and brothers hoped to accomplish in this particular moment. This story is dropped into three different places in the books of Matthew, Mark, and Luke. As it appears in the book of Mark, Jesus’ ministry has taken a bit of a turn. Instead of simply garden-variety healing and teaching as it seems at the beginning, Jesus is now exorcising evil spirits. And this is getting people’s attention. We read that people are saying that Jesus is out of his mind, that he’s got a demon, that he is doing what he’s doing by the power of Satan. So we read this interesting passage in v. 21: “When his family heard this, they went out to restrain him.” Not “they wanted to talk to him,” or “they wanted to say how much they loved him.” But they went out to restrain him. They were going to bring him back home, to bring him out of the limelight, to bring him back to his senses. They were going, in short, to hold him accountable. That’s what families did in those days: they were not just emotional bonds but there was real teeth, real accountability to being part of a family. A family had the right and the responsibility to rein you in when you got out of control, no matter what age you were, no matter what you felt like you wanted to do or say with your life. And so when Jesus says, “Those who do the will of God are my mother and my brothers,” he’s not just saying, “Those who do the will of God are my favorite people;” he’s saying, “Those are the people that have the right to speak into my life.”

I don’t think we should go all the way back in time to this ancient conception of the family. But I do think it’s vital that if we’re going to talk about a healthy faith being one that changes our hearts, then we should also talk about a healthy family being one that has the potential of changing our hearts. The vision Jesus holds out both for the biological family and our church family is that these relationships hold us accountable, change who we are. Jesus seems to think that we don’t just belong to a church in order to express what we believe along with other like-minded individuals, but that we belong to a church in order to make ourselves accountable to other mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters who have the right to speak into our lives and to make us different creations than we would be otherwise. Just as I long for a faith that changes our hearts, I long for families that also change our hearts.

Is it too much to hope for education that changes our hearts? After all, the Apostle Paul himself says at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 8 that “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” In fact there are segments of the church that are still very suspicious of “book learning,” because there is the idea that those who get knowledge are most likely to become people who end up in love with their own wisdom and cleverness and out of love with the Lord. When I went to seminary, many people jokingly called it “cemetery” and told me to not get too much book learning.

Perhaps some of you have heard the same. I grew up Baptist, and I have a hunch that we had the same jokes as you, even if I did worship on the “wrong day.” ☺

At any rate, I would love to point you again to that passage in Paul where he says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.” It’s really quite interesting where that appears — you know where Paul says that? In the section of 1 Corinthians where he’s talking about whether or not Christians should eat meat sacrificed to idols or not. He says, “knowledge puffs up, but love builds up. Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;” that’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? He seems to be saying that “if you think you’re smart, you haven’t learned enough; you need more knowledge.”

In fact, he says, the most important thing is not any human knowledge, but what God knows: “anyone who loves God is known by Him.” And so Paul goes on and talks about everything is from God and going back to God, and we only exist because He has made it happen. And then he says, “it is not everyone, however, who has this knowledge.” Some people don’t know this yet, and they still think of idols as real rivals to God; they have a weak conscience because they lack knowledge. Because of this, Paul says, those of us who have knowledge, those of us who know more, should not impose a stumbling-block on those who do not have knowledge. We should not seek to impose our knowledge on others because when we do, we wound their consciences.“ I don’t want to do that,” says Paul, “so if food is the reason they fall, I will never eat meat because I love each of them and I don’t want even one of them to fall.”

Paul is not saying that knowledge is a bad thing — not at all. Knowledge is a means to know the truth. But he shows how real knowledge not only changes minds but again, changes the heart. Real knowledge drives us to our knees, says Paul; real knowledge doesn’t make us proud of ourselves but pushes us back to the mystery of our faith: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again, and forces us to realize that all of our knowledge only drives us deeper into the realization that we didn’t make this Earth, we didn’t make ourselves, and we surely can’t redeem ourselves. The smarter you are, the more you know you need Him.

Paul also shows how real knowledge builds empathy for others. Right after saying, “Knowledge puffs up,” Paul builds an elaborate theological argument. Paul demonstrates that he does, in fact, know something. But do you see how his knowledge not only drives him to his knees in worship, but also makes him realize how precious fellow believers are? Our church, the Wesleyan Church, right now is debating our stance on alcohol. I won’t go too far into it, but this passage is so important for our church right now because while there are people who think that loosening our stance on alcohol is the right thing to do, these people need to realize that those who oppose them are not their enemies but precious people of God whose consciences deserve respect and honor. Debates like this rack every church and convention; I don’t know what debates consume you or may even consume some energy at this conference, but this is an urgent word from the Lord whenever believers are in disagreement: don’t presume the worst in those who disagree. Real knowledge fills you with wonder at God’s power, but not only at God; real knowledge also fills you with wonder at the mystery that is your brother and sister, precious and loved, as eternal as you are and as loved by God as you are. So if we are to have education, let it be the kind of education that forms our hearts as it fills our minds. As we learn the liberal arts, the sciences, theology, business, sports and recreation, the arts and music, as we learn these things, let us learn in a way that drives us to our knees in worship of God and in empathy for our fellow human beings, especially those of the family of God.

Faith, Family, Education. Like all words, they can do a lot of good when they’re used in the right way and a lot of harm when they’re used in the wrong way. If we understand faith as just ideas about God, if we understand family as just emotional connections, if we understand education as just knowledge poured into our heads, we may as well pursue other goals than faith, family, and education. Pursued rightly, faith becomes a partner with works in changing our hearts; family becomes a structure that holds us accountable so that our hearts can change and grow; and education drives us to our knees in worship of God and awe of our fellow man so that our hearts can change. As you wind up this year of faith, family, education, may God use each to change your heart so that Seventh Day Baptists can bless the world as only you can.

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