Make Every Effort: Participating in the Divine Life

This is the rough manuscript of a sermon that I preached yesterday (Oct. 11, 2015) at Saint Peter’s Church. The audio can be heard here.

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.

For this very reason, make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, mutual affection; and to mutual affection, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. But whoever does not have them is nearsighted and blind, forgetting that they have been cleansed from their past sins.

10 Therefore, my brothers and sisters, make every effort to confirm your calling and election. For if you do these things, you will never stumble, 11 and you will receive a rich welcome into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. – 2 Peter 1:3-11

The opening lines of 2 Peter are describing the process and the reason for Christian spiritual growth. It’s talking about this journey that all followers of Jesus necessarily have to go on, that takes us from immaturity, to maturity, foolishness to wisdom, selfishness to unselfishness – from worldliness or godliness.

Because this journey, is the purpose of the Christian life: it’s the journey of our transformation. We talk about this a lot at Saint Peter’s, this goal and vision of being a church of connection and transformation, but it’s one thing to about that – to say that’s who we are – it’s not always very easy to actually do it. So that’s the question this morning: what is spiritual growth, why does it matter, and how do we make every effort to experience it, to realize it in our lives as a community of faith?

The early church father and theologian, St. Athanasius, was famous for saying, and many other Christian after him said this, that: “God became human so that human beings could become like God.”

In other words, so we could grow in godliness. Not so that we could be like God in terms of God’s power, but God’s character.

We could describe it this way: Spiritual growth is

“the gradual process [Long Obedience in the Same Direction!] by which a person is renewed and unified so completely with God that he becomes by grace what God is by nature.” – Fr. David Hester

And the Bible talks about this journey from life on our own, to life with God, as life in Christ, life in the Spirit, life in the Kingdom of God sometimes. And here, Peter calls it “participation in the Divine Life.” This is an interesting way to put it.

The second letter of Peter is one of the latest books of the New Testament, and so there’s a good chance that this word participation was being borrowed from a little bit of Greek philosophy — which just means it wasn’t as much of a Jewish idea. To participate in something, is not to yourself be in charge of it, Rather you’re benefiting from something that someone else has initiated and made available to you — you’re partaking in it, but you’re not in control it.

So it’s a really helpful word to help describe what’s going on when we experience spiritual growth. It’s like we’re plugged in, we step into the flow of God’s spiritual stream rather than that of our strength and wisdom.

Something else that’s very encouraging at the beginning of the letter of 2nd Peter: It tells us that, with the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, and his goodness, his character, we already have everything we need for this kind of life — for this participation!

“His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness.” 2 Peter 1:3

Personally, I sometimes I have a hard time believing this — that we have enough knowledge. We’ve just finished the second week of our fall classes that are going on right before the worship service, and in the faith and personality class that I’m leading, I was just telling everyone about how my personality tendency is to always think that I need more information, that I don’t know enough, and I need to study and understand more before I can act and live effectively and productively. So I hesitate, and remain too long in the comfort zone of gathering knowledge so that I feel more competent, so that I sound more competent, which is where I get my superficial sense of security and control.

Now, not everyone is stuck in their head like me. Some of you all are doing-centered, or feeling-centered, and thinking is not what holds you back. Maybe it’s your busyness or some of your emotions that have that have power over you and that distract you, and prevent you from stepping into the divine life.

It is true, though! We already have the knowledge that we need to grow into godliness and spiritual maturity when we know our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

But why is spiritual growth such a big deal? The passage this morning states that 4 [God] “has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires.” – 2 Peter 1:3-4

Spiritual growth is important, then, because if not, we will not be able to escape the corruption caused by evil desires.

Now on the one hand, I don’t think it takes much convincing for us to recognize that the world is corrupt and full of people with evil desires. Perhaps we’re even feeling overwhelmed by that right now, with the news of yet another shooting in Oregon, the on-going war in Syria, or simply the death of a 10-year-old girl who was practically part of our church.

But on the other hand, when it comes to our own desires and nature, this is a pretty heavy statement. Are we really so corrupt? Are our desires evil?

In verse 9 from today’s reading, it says that if we find ourselves having evil desires, if we don’t have these qualities that God is giving to us (goodness, self-control, perseverance, godliness, mutual love, etc.), it’s because we’re nearsighted and blind, and it’s “we’ve forgotten that we’ve been cleansed from our past sins.”

But this is not necessarily that easy to understand. What does the death of a First Century Jew have to do with us, today? This is the very question that we ask in Alpha at the beginning of the course: Who is Jesus? Why did Jesus die? And why does it matter to us? And I can’t do the question justice right now, but the Bible is very helpful.

The Bible talks about sin as something that finds its way into not only what is widely condemned as evil, but what is commonly praised as good. It’s something in us, but it’s almost much bigger than us. It’s like we’re trapped in a web of selfish desire. And it’s not limited to one moment in time or one place. Our sin crucified Christ in the First Century, but it still happens in the 21st Century.

The cross, is the world’s attempt, it’s our attempt – we’re connected to it across time and history — to keep our sin from being exposed. God comes into the world through Christ exposing sin and showing a better way, but we reject him.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his Letters and Papers from Prison, “God lets himself get pushed out of the world and onto the cross.” We say to him, we don’t want your way. We don’t want your nature. We want to keep ours.

But Even more than that, the cross is God’s refusal to accept our rejection of him.

The Gospel Story culminates in the cross, because that’s where humanity is at its worst, with all of its anger and hate, betrayal and violence, colliding with what humanity in Christ and in God can be at its best when it’s transformed, and when it participates in the Divine nature. And the resurrection is God’s confirmation that his love is more powerful than sin, death, and suffering.

You all know the story of Cinderella, and maybe some of you got to see the new Disney version of it that came out this year. It’s a pretty good movie, and most remarkably, at the end of the story, Cinderella forgives her stepmother, before leaving to marry the prince.

Cinderella-2015-offical-stills-cinderella-37816256-5760-3840But what’s the difference between Cinderella and her stepsisters and stepmother? Both of them suffer. They’ve both been treated unfairly in life. Cinderella loses her parents to illness. In the new Disney version, we learn that Cinderella’s stepmother is a widow.

I was especially struck by one of the opening lines of the movie, where the narrator says that Cinderella was different, because she saw the world not as it was, but as it could be. And she sees other people, not as they are but as they could be. She sees them for the image of God that they have in them, however buried it might be. And when it comes to her suffering, presumably, I think, because she’s been shown great love, Cinderella takes her suffering and allows it to be transformed rather than transmitted. Which is exactly what Jesus does on the cross, only on a much grander scale.

The Cinderella story can’t get so far as to tell us that God forgives has forgiven us, but for whatever Cinderella still seems to have the forgiveness of God in her. I think this just goes to show that human beings are longing and hungering for this kind of love. We just don’t know it most of the time. But the Cinderella story, which is a secular story, without fully understanding it or depicting it, seems to knows this longing and to have gotten at least of that transforming love of Christ.

In our Connect Group right now we’re reading this book called The Good and Beautiful Life. The author’s premise is that, as it says in our passage for today, Goodness in our life comes from knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  And when we look at his life, we see the good life.  And, when we look at his life, we see the beautiful life. And when see the beautiful life of Christ, when that it is good and that it is beautiful, then we also start to see that it is true.

It’s like there’s this little light inside of us that comes on when we see the true nature of God as revealed in Christ. We didn’t know it was there, and we wouldn’t have known if God didn’t ignite it in us by coming to us. But then it starts to grow.

Something in Cinderella caught a glimpse of this truth, of this beauty and goodness and love — maybe in the great love that her parents showed her. It gave her something to hold to. Of course that love always come from God, even if it is received through someone else.

We have to gaze upon the life of Christ though to be reminded of this, because we’re so quick to forget it. We’re so quick to forget how ugly and how undesirable sin is, and how beautiful, how good, participation in the Divine Life is! That’s why we get together in our groups and in worship, to look, to hear and to remember the both the weight of our sin, and the sin of the world that we’re a part of! And to remember, to look upon and hear again, the extravagance of God’s love that didn’t abandon us in our sin.

“Make every effort,” it says, “to add to your faith!” Again, just like participation, faith is a gift. It’s not something earned. But it is something confirmed, as we read in verse 10.

Some final practical things though: what does it take to see this in our lives?

Practically, we have to spend time with the Lord. We just do. Separate, solitary, undivided time. You can’t have knowledge of Christ if you aren’t making every daily effort to give time to him. There’s lots of ways to do that, different prayer practices, that take many forms. But the key is regular time.

The second thing you have to cultivate vulnerability in relationships. This one’s probably the hardest for many of us. I think it is for me. But we have to ask ourselves, have I given someone permission who’s close to me, and I have asked them to speak truth into my life, and tell me when I’m messing up? Or is everyone around me afraid to do that because of how I might react, or because of the distance I put between myself and them?

And thirdly, as Christians we have to assume a posture of submission to God’s will in the circumstances and necessary suffering in our life.  We stay committed to this process, to this journey and to this growth. You can’t bail when it gets hard. And obviously, the first two things will help to reinforce this.

And so we say together, let us make every effort! Because we’ve been cleansed from our past sins. Because we’ve seen the the beauty and goodness of God’s love in Christ, and we’ve also seen ugliness of that sin. In this we know all we need to know, to make every effort to add to our faith, to grow in godliness, to participate in the Divine Life. Amen.