In this sermon, based on 1 Corinthians 9:16–23 and Mark 1:29–39, our pastor, Rev. Ian Forest-Jones, reminds us there are rewards and blessings for the friends of Jesus. What must we do, and who must we do it with, if we want to enjoy them?
This sermon was delivered on Sunday, 4 February 2024.
Since returning from my annual leave, I have been highlighting in my sermons my renewed conviction regarding the singular importance of conversion and discipleship.
To help us understand what is discipleship, I presented a simple definition: “The friends of Jesus place our faith in him, live a Christian lifestyle, and build each other up to maturity.”
That definition contains three clauses which will make more sense when I expand them:
- The friends of Jesus place our faith in him because, through an encounter with the living God, we have discovered God’s story makes sense of our story. This occurs when we read the Bible, pray, and share.
- Compelled by the Holy Spirit, the friends of Jesus commit to living a Christian lifestyle by practising works of piety (acts of private devotion and public worship) and works of mercy (acts of compassion and justice).
- We humbly accept we cannot do this on our own, so the friends of Jesus build each other up when we gather for worship, fellowship, and connection, understanding that we mature as we discover sometimes we win, but mostly we learn.
From here on in, my sermons will expand on and highlight these clauses that we might mature into friends of Jesus. For instance, our scripture readings this morning make clear there are rewards and blessings for the friends of Jesus. They then beg the question: What must we do, and who must we do it with, if we want to enjoy those rewards and blessings?
To answer that question, when describing the difference between objective and subjective truth last week, I drew our attention to a significant verse in The Letter to the Hebrews:
Now without faith it is impossible to please God, since the one who draws near to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who seek him. (Hebrews 11:6)
That is a very challenging verse that succinctly indicates a key truth for placing one’s faith in Jesus. The key verse of our scripture reading from The First Letter to the Corinthians sounds very similar:
Now I do all this because of the gospel, so that I may share in the blessings. (1 Corinthians 9:23)
Paul the apostle not only believed God exists but sought to live his life in such a way as to please God because he had discovered the Gospel, the good news that Jesus is Lord!
Before you join the apostle in such a commitment, I am sure you want to know, before anything else, what are the rewards and blessings enjoyed by the friends of Jesus? From our scripture readings, we discover the rewards and blessings enjoyed by the friends of Jesus include purpose and power!
That all of us want purpose and power, and will do anything at all to get them, can be seen in The Red Bull Flugtag competition, a contest in which teams must build homemade, human-powered flying machines and pilot them off a 9m high deck in hopes of achieving flight.
Teams are typically comprised of five members: one pilot and four pushers to help gain initial momentum off the deck.
The flying machines must be entirely human-powered (no external energy sources or stored power). They must also be less than 8.5m and weigh no more than 205kg, including the pilot.
The teams are judged on distance flown, creativity of the craft, and showmanship. As a result, this contest is known for its creative designs, entertaining performances, and the spectacular, if often brief, flights (or attempts at flight) off the pier into the water below.
Don’t we all want a purpose to our life? For these teams, their purpose is to fly and to do so with style!
Don’t we all understand any purpose for our life is going to require effort and perserence —in other words, we need power? And there is certainly nothing wrong with getting a little help from our friends and enjoying ourselves along the way!
So how do we know the rewards and blessings enjoyed by the friends of Jesus include purpose and power?
Do you not know? Have you not heard? The Lord is the everlasting God, the Creator of the whole earth. He never becomes faint or weary; there is no limit to his understanding. (Isaiah 40:28)
Our scripture reading from The Book of Isaiah started with a declaration of God’s existence, that he is the Creator and that he is Lord over all, always. This is the good news! This is the Gospel! Do we believe this or not?
As Creator and Lord, God has proven himself, time and time again, that he cares for his creation and especially cares for his people. How does he care for his people?
but those who trust in the Lord will renew their strength; they will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not become weary, they will walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)
Our Creator and Lord shows he cares for his people by giving strength to the powerless, the weary, and the powerless. Those who trust in the Lord soar as if with wings, which is far superior and more reliable than the wings on the worthless and ineffective contraptions of the Red Bull Flugtag designs!
Trusting in the Lord, the friends of Jesus will run and not become weary, we will walk and not faint. We will certainly not crash and burn after just a few steps, nor will it matter if we looked good doing it.
The rewards and blessings enjoyed by the friends of Jesus include purpose and power when those around us are fainting and weary, stumbling and falling under the consequences of their sin. The free, full, and forever life Jesus promises to his friends is very much like soaring on wings, running without becoming weary or walking without becoming faint. Why kind of life do you want to live?
Develop Your Lifestyle Based on Works of Piety and Mercy
If, like me, you want purpose and power in your life, then you are probably wondering, as I once did, “What must we do, and who must we do it with, if we want to gain those rewards and enjoy those blessings?”
Both Jesus and Paul had purpose and power, yet both did something to gain those rewards and blessings. From their example, we learn to develop our lifestyle based on works of piety and mercy.
Despite the claims of this fallen world, we do not get a purpose for life nor the power to achieve it by searching our hearts or contriving it in our own minds. We find purpose and power in exactly the same way Jesus did:
Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, he got up, went out, and made his way to a deserted place; and there he was praying … he said to [Simon and his companions], “Let’s go on to the neighboring villages so that I may preach there too. This is why I have come.” (Mark 1:35–38)
Jesus found his purpose and his power through prayer, which is a work of piety, a practice by which we express our revererence for God and through which the Holy Spirit transforms our heart, our soul, our mind, and our strength (Mk 12:28–31). Works of piety can be characterised as personal devotion and public worship.
But prayer is not the only work of piety the friends of Jesus practice. There is also:
- Public worship of God
- Reading God’s Word
- Sharing The Lord’s Supper
- Family and Private Prayer
- Searching and studying the scriptures in community
- Fasting or abstinence
- Christian sharing
How does the Holy Spirit form us into friends of Jesus through these private and public works of piety? As was described by English author T.H. White (1906-64 AD), who was himself inspired by the ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus (ca., 535–475 BC):
Choices become habits, habits become character, and character becomes our destiny. (T.H. White, channelling Heraclitus)
Incorporating these works of piety into your lifestyle is a choice that will help you form habits, by which the Holy Spirit renews and reforms your character, which then becomes your destiny. That is to say the traits and behaviours that constitute your character are the driving forces that determine the course of your life. Who you are internally —our virtues, values, and consistent patterns of behaviour— matters more to God that what you produce and thus your character influences what happens to you in the long run, whether you are rewarded and blessed at the final consummation of all things.
Beyond their works of piety, both Paul and Jesus committed themselves to works of mercy, being acts of personal compassion and public justice.
In our scripture readings, Paul specifically described his conviction and practice of preaching. Jesus also stated this purpose was his own but we can easily see he did far more than preach as he travelled throughout Galilee. He also healed the sick and drove out demons (cf., Lk 4:16–21). Preaching, healing, and exorcisms are works of mercy arising out of Jesus’ compassion and his commitment to justice.
Preaching, healing, and exorcisms are not the only works of mercy the friends of Jesus practice:
- Feeding the hungry
- Clothing the naked
- Caring for the sick
- Visiting those in prison
- Sheltering the homeless
- Welcoming the stranger
- Serving the common good
- Sharing the good news
Through these, along with works of piety, the Holy Spirit forms us into friends of Jesus through our choices, habit, character, and destiny.
There is a danger here that is likely to cause resistance in some of you to this message.
Imagine you live in California and are watching television in the late 1970s. A neat middle-aged executive peers out from the television screen. “Hello,” he says, his face crinkling into a sheepish grin. “I’m from General Telephone.” Boos and hisses explode off-camera. “Now, I’m aware that General Telephone provides less than adequate service.” Plop. A rotten tomato slides down his chin. “But we’re spending $200 million in California this year on improving our service.” He is hit with an egg. “Cables, switches, personnel, everything.” A cream pie splatters over his face. “Thank you for your patience,” he mumbles through the goo.
In another commercial, a woman at a crowded cocktail party asks her husband to say something funny. “General Telephone,” he replies, and everyone falls into paroxysms of laughter. The punch line: “We know some people think our service is laughable, but we’re spending $200 million in California this year to improve it. What’s so funny about that?”
These vignettes appeared on Los Angeles television as part of a zany [campaign run by] General Telephone of California —which has since merged with other companies to become Verizon. By tacitly conceding the company’s mistakes, the [marketing department] hoped the campaign would win sympathy and understanding among the system’s many disgruntled users.
Local churches and Christians are often ridiculed for their attempts to live as Jesus lived, belittled for our commitment to acts of personal devotion, public worship, personal compassion, and public justice. This ridicule can be painful enough for Christians to avoid any public acts of worship and justice.
Having purpose and power as Jesus did means only that sometimes we succeed but mostly we will learn from our mistakes. In dealing with our mistakes honestly, we represent the kingdom of God in this fallen world more maturely with each attempt.
Our family, friends, neighbours, and associates may ridicule us for living a Christian lifestyle, but through these practices we gain the rewards and enjoy the blessings promised.
The rewards and blessings of purpose and power will be realised in your life when you commit to practising works of piety and works of mercy. Incorporate these into your lifestyle because you have placed your faith in Jesus and therefore want to do as Jesus did.
We Succeed and Learn Together
In our scripture readings, it sounded as if both Paul the apostle and Jesus our Lord talked as if what they did was all about them, that the things they did yielded rewards and blessings for themselves alone. But we need to keep in mind Paul was writing to encourage a specific community of faith, in a specific time and place, and Jesus was setting an example for his immediate disciples, as well as “for those who believe in me through their word” (Jn 17:20).
Rather than assuming the timeless wisdom of the Bible is for us as individuals alone, let us take seriously the aspect of our discipleship where we succeed and learn together.
It is too easy to approach placing our faith in Jesus and living a Christian lifestyle as an individual rather than a team sport. The importance of being ‘on team’, together in community, has been highlighted recently by author Aaron Renn in his newly released book, Life in the Negative World: Confronting Challenges in an Anti-Christian Culture.
Renn has long been known for his “Three Worlds of Evangelicalism” model describing the increasing culture war between Christianity and secular society. Within the story of American secularization, he describes three distinct stages:
- Positive World (Pre-1994)
- Neutral World (1994–2014)
- Negative World (2014–Present): Renn and others believe Western societies have come to have a negative view of Christianity. Being known as a Christian is a social negative, particularly in the elite domains of -society. Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good and the new public moral order. Subscribing to Christian moral views or violating the secular moral order brings negative consequences.
In his book, Renn expands on how evangelicals should start living in this “Negative World” by highlighting four themes:
- A Posture of Exploration: In the world at large, not just in the Church, we are in a time of rapid change and uncertainty. This calls for adopting a posture of exploration, with less reliance on planning. We are all in unknown territory and have to get more comfortable walking by faith rather than sight. Christian churches should already be well primed for this.
- Increased Focus on Being a Counterculture: Evangelical churches need to spend much more time self-consciously and intentionally stewarding the strength and health of their own communities, nurturing Christian moral values and behaviours.
- Minority Mindset: Evangelicals have too often liked to pretend that we are the “moral majority”. That’s certainly very implausible to say today. Evangelicals need to learn to act instead like other minorities have always acted. We have to create our own institutions and practices that demarcate and sustain community life, and be less reliant on the mainstream institutions of society.
- Raising the Bar on Church: As evangelicalism becomes more of a minority faith that requires an unpopular choice to embrace, this gives evangelical churches the opportunity to raise the bar for what they expect out of their members. Raising this bar will be crucial to having stronger churches.
His analysis is very interesting for it is true evangelical churches do not hold a privileged position in any Western societies, any longer. By developing healthy, functioning, and safe communities of faith, with members known for integrity, churches will exemplify the rewards and blessings of our Christian lifestyle, which will then draw people more readily to placing their own faith in Jesus.
Taking Renn’s advice, we need to focus on strengthening our community, so that we might mature our faith and lifestyle together.
Because of placing his own faith in Jesus, the Christian lifestyle of Paul the apostle involved him travelling and sharing, encouraging conversion, and equipping discipleship. The purpose of his letter to the community of faith at Corinth was to encourage and equip them to grow in their faith and more faithfully live Christian lifestyles in such a way that they might mature together. His letter contains acknowledgements of their successes, but much more recognition of their failures. He shared with them his own experience of purpose and power in the hope they would focus on what brought them to faith, that it might bring others to place their faith in Jesus.
Jesus too talked as if what he did was all about him and his mission, but he called disciples precisely so that they would continue his work to extend the kingdom of God, calling others to place their faith in Jesus and begin living Christian lifestyles. Jesus set an example for his disciples and instructed them most often in how to “love one another”.
When we look closely at what they did, as compared to what they said, we learn from the witness of both Paul the apostle and Jesus our Lord that to gain the rewards and enjoy the blessings of purpose and power, we do so together, with others in community. Which is why we humbly accept we cannot live Christian lifestyles on our own. The friends of Jesus build each other up when we gather for worship, fellowship, and connection, understanding that we mature as we discover sometimes we win, but mostly we learn.
Commit to Community
This annual commemoration of Community Sunday is meant to encourage this aspect of our discipleship, that the friends of Jesus succeed and learn together. What then can we do to help make this a healthy, functioning, and safe community of faith, with members known for integrity?
The first thing I would like to encourage us all to do is commit to community. Whether to this community or to another, it is absolutely essential to becoming a friend of Jesus that you be worshipping, fellowshipping, and connecting with other friends of Jesus for the purpose of maturing in your faith and lifestyle.
Yes, there are works of piety and works of mercy you can do on your own, but your faith and lifestyle will be poorer for it. You will not have the wise counsel of those mentors who have gone before you in faith and lifestyle, and gained experience and wisdom they can share with you. You will not have peers with whom you can share your experiences and with whom you can test the timeless wisdom of God in these uncertain times.
You will sometimes succeed in your faith and lifestyle, but mostly you will mature as you share with others your joys and sorrows, your struggles and achievements, your questions and doubts, your certainty and answers. So commit to community!
Be Part of the Solution
Let me be painfully blunt for a moment: here at Narellan Cong we need people to be part of the solution, not merely point out the problems.
According to the Gallup StrengthsFinder personality assessment:
- Futuristic — I am inspired by the future and what could be. I am able to inspire others with visions of the future.
- Input — I have a craving to know more. I like to collect and archive all kinds of information.
- Strategic — I create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, I can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.
- Analytical — I search for reasons and causes, having an ability to think about all the factors that might affect a situation.
- Learner — I have a great desire to learn and want to continuously improve, being more excited by the process of learning, rather than the outcome.
What this means is I am off the charts for being able to find the problems within myself and within our community, and to find strategic solutions for those problems. I do not really need anyone’s help knowing what I have done wrong nor what we could have done better. So do not concern yourself with highlighting the problems —do feel free to be part of the solution!
For example, you can offer to join the Production Team. They have had a steep learning curve on quite advanced audio equipment, but we need people to help with controlling the presentation and the cameras. These are not onerous or difficult tasks but they do require people willing to learn and be available to support our events.
You can offer to join or even lead the Welcoming Team, which is a vital ministry for our church. It really needs people willing to go beyond shaking hands at the door to helping integrate guests into our community.
A final option I want to highlight this morning is forming a Benevolence Team. An important way we can care for and love each other is by offering our skills and talents and resources. As needs are raised, however, someone needs to know who can do what and to activate our shared resources.
Our Production Team, Welcoming Team, and a Benevolence Team are important ways of growing our community. Be part of the solution!
On this Community Sunday, let us respond to the call of God by recommitting ourselves to this community of faith…
Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from The Christian Standard Bible (Nashville, TN, USA: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017).
Paul Lee Tan, “5747 The Mia Culpa Campaign”, Encyclopedia of 7700 Illustrations: Signs of the Times (Garland, TX, USA: Bible Communications, Inc., 1996), pg 1292.
Aaron M. Renn, “The Three Worlds of Evangelicalism”, First Things website, Feb-2022, https://replug.link/c2de3980 (accessed 1-Feb-2024).