When I talk to skeptics about why they reject Christianity, their responses generally fall into two camps. One, which I’m not going to get into now, is that they believe the claims of Christianity are false. I have done a lot of work in this area and I believe that there is good evidence that Christianity is true and that there are solid reasons to hold to our core beliefs. But that is a message for another day.
The second reason is because of their experience with some Christians. You may have heard the claims. Christians are hypocrites. Christians are judgmental. Christians do not have integrity. There is much I would want to say about this, aside from what we are going to focus on in this message. The first is that even if all of that was true, that does not take away from the truth of Christianity or the fact that Jesus paid for our sins and rose again on the third day. Our desire to accept or reject Christianity should be based on the truth and not by how well we feel people are behaving as Christians.
Secondly, not all Christians are hypocrites. There are hypocrites represented in every worldview and tradition, including atheism. I have known many people who have lived out the Christian life and who just radiate with the love of Jesus.
Having said that, whether it is reasonable or not, people observe us and judge Christianity by how we live. I would suggest that this should not be our primary motive to live a Christian life, although we should take it into account. Our primary motive should be to please the God who has adopted us as children into his family. Still, if we can remove obstacles to faith for others, that is a good thing.
Before going deeper into this, I need to be completely honest. I know that there have been many messages on this topic that have led to legalism. Pastors have preached about what God hates and what God demands and people have walked away feeling like a failure and carrying the weight of their own weaknesses. My intention is to point us all, including me, in a way that leads not to guilt but to a desire to become better Christians.
Trees and Fruit
While there are some parts of the Bible that are difficult to understand, many of Jesus’ parables are very easy to understand. This is one of them. Good fruit comes from good trees and bad fruit from bad trees. If you want grapes, you go to a grape vine and not a brier. In the same way, good actions come from people who have goodness in their heart and evil actions from people who have evil in their heart. That all seems pretty straight forward.
Before digging a little deeper, it is worth noting that this idea of what we do as fruit is pretty common throughout the Bible. One of the best examples are the fruit of the Spirit as Paul teaches us in Galatians.
The idea of action as fruit makes sense and gets the idea across quite clearly. For one thing, fruit takes some time to appear. You cannot just plant a seed and expect a harvest next week. The tree also needs to be taken care of so that it will more likely provide fruit and a good amount of high quality fruit. When the fruit begins to appear, it takes some time to ripen before it can be enjoyed. Have you ever tried to eat a banana that was not ripe yet?
This really describes the nature of actions in the life of the believer. If we think of the seed being planted as the moment of personal faith, it takes time for that seed to grow into a fruit-bearing tree. I understand that many Christians have trouble identifying a moment of conversion, but that is not the point here. The point is that it takes some time for people to grow into what God has made them to be. For some people there is a very quick change that takes place and for others, it takes much more time.
The wonderful thing is that when we are developing as Christians, we do not have to and shouldn’t look to other people in comparison. Some people become Christians are immediately ready and eager to pray for three hours at a time. I don’t see that happening at any time in my life. What we should be looking for is what is appropriate for what is in our heart.
I need to make it very clear that I am not talking about earning our salvation or God’s love. It is all by the grace of God, accessed by faith alone. However, when we put our faith in Jesus, something should happen. Something should take place in our hearts. It doesn’t matter if we call it born again or something else. What matters is that there is a transformation of the heart.
But what happens if you are sure that you put your faith in Jesus and yet you are still doing things you wish you didn’t and are not doing things that you wish you were? What if the fruit is not what you want it to be? The truth is the speed of the appearance of the fruit of Christian living is not something we can predict. Notice what Jesus says, he says that the works come from where the heart is. What we need first is a heart check and not a weighing of fruit. What is your heart life? It is not about where you are at but about the direction you are going. You could be living on the outside a respectable and charitable life but in your hear you feel yourself getting colder and more hateful, then there is a problem. You could also be in a place where where you are struggling with some old habits but your heart is slowly warming in God’’s presence. The important thing is what direction we are moving toward.
What I want you to see is that is not about condemnation. Jesus is telling us that best way to get a heart check is look at our actions, specifically in the direction they are going. If there is no evidence of Christian behaviour, then we should be asking some hard questions. What is Christian behaviour? I’m glad you asked.
Building on the Foundation
We now move to the second parable. Again, Jesus is using imagery that makes sense. Houses that are built on a solid foundation are able to better withstand the storms that would destroy a building that was not. I remember as a child getting up one morning and noticing that our nice metal shed was not where we usually kept it, but was farther down the yard and on its side. Strong winds that night had ripped the shed out of the ground and sent it flying. What did my dad do? He hired someone to build a concrete slab where we wanted the shed and had a new shed firmly attached to its new foundation. As far as I know, that shed is still there.
Jesus tells us that is a picture of the Christian life. But what is our foundation? The foundation is not the church. As much as we should love the church, and by that I mean the people and not the building, Christians will always disappoint. Too many people have walked away because of being burned by people in the church. That foundation will crumble. Even our rituals and traditions are not good enough. They may give us comfort for some days, but when the storm comes we will be in trouble.
Jesus makes it very clear what the foundation is supposed to be. We are to hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice. This is the only foundation that will get is through the storms of life.
The first part is that we hear the words of Jesus. This requires that we make an effort to know what Jesus taught. While it is great that we know that Jesus died and rose again, we need to know more than that. The teachings of Jesus are not just an opening act to warm up the crowd before the real concert of Jesus’ death and resurrection starts. What Jesus taught is important and we need to know it.
What are you doing to know the teachings of Jesus? What steps do you take to become more familiar with the Gospels? I will say that what you get on a Sunday morning is not enough. You need personal study as well. I understand that people have different personalities and learn in different ways and that is why you should choose based on who you are. For me, I read a chapter from the Bible every morning and evening. I used to read more than that but this is what works for me. Don’t feel the pressure to read the Bible in one year. If you read the Gospels in a year, you will have done well. There are some great Christian books that can help you in this but don’t let them take you from the Bible. Anyone can write anything about Jesus, you will not know what is good unless you know the Gospels well enough to compare. With the internet you can find audiobooks, podcasts and even audio courses to listen to while you are driving, walking the dog or doing things around the house. There are some tremendous resources on YouTube that can help you learn. It does not have to be high tech. You can meet weekly for a coffee with a friend and discuss a parable. There is really no excuse not to learn the teachings of Jesus.
But it is not just knowledge that we are looking at. The part of this is doing what Jesus taught, putting his teachings into action. Eugene Peterson, translator of the Message Bible, wrote a book titled “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction.” That is a powerful image for what discipleship is.
Again, I’m not talking about how to become a Christian or to stay a Christian or anything like that. What I’m saying is that Christian discipleship emerges out of knowing the teachings of Jesus and putting it into practice.
Now I understand that the word “obedience” has some strong connotations. We may have flashbacks to expectations of obedience as children. Before we get defensive about Jesus asking for obedience, we should ask about his motivation. Is it because Jesus thinks religion should be both boring and harsh and so he punishes us by taking all fun away? When we look at what Jesus teaches, we can see that the life he has for us in this world is one that will benefit both ourselves and the people around us. Being obedient to Jesus should bring us to that point of abundant life that Jesus speaks about in the Gospel of John.
That is not saying that obeying Jesus will make our life easier. Assumed in this teaching about building our foundation is that there will be storms coming. The foundation does not prevent the storms from coming but it can prevent us from being broken on them.
So what is the secret of the Christian life? It is simple but it is not easy. The secret of the Christian life is that we learn what Jesus taught and we do it. How does this take place? In one way, the fruit should naturally come from having a relationship with Jesus. Don’t get caught up with how that new Christian is doing so much better than you. Look at your heart and reflect on how your actions are consistent or inconsistent with what Jesus is doing inside you. But there is another part of this which is simple obedience. Instead of worrying about the rules, ask yourself before an action or a word, is this loving toward God or loving toward people. If you know that you actions will disappoint God, then don’t do it. If you know your words are going to hurt someone, don’t say it.
What if you make a mistake or have a really bad day? Then you try to make amends and choose the better way. The point is that Christian life is not about living in fear of God and being hit by lightning when we mess up. The point is that we believe that basic creed of the Christian Church which is that Jesus is Lord. If Jesus is Lord and we have real relationship with this Lord, we do what he tells us to do. We do it not out of fear but because it is the right thing to do.