We’ve looked at Deuteronomy 6:4-5—the “shema”—that Jesus called the greatest commandment in Mark 12:30. So we’ve listened and see it as the pathway for life.
It started with the “eyes of our hearts” being opened. So faith isn’t our moral self-improvement. Or our endorsement of doctrines. Or our working to achieve marks of orthodoxy. Instead we start by meeting God as a person. He called while we were still alienated: “dead.” Think of the very religious Saul before he became Paul! So we credit God from the start. He knows his own as those meant from before birth for “good works.” He entered history as Jesus, the promised Christ of the Old Testament. He was born in Bethlehem, lived in Palestine, and was crucified in Jerusalem. And then was resurrected after three days. He overcame sin and swallowed death for his beloved ones, and he calls us to love him in turn. He shares eternal life from his Father, and freely sends his Spirit as a seal of what’s to come.
This is a Vision of God as one who is immeasurably rich in his triune, spreading goodness. He elicits a wholehearted response—“all” of who we are—as Integration. Next, we looked at the combination of his “word” and “heart” in Life-to-life giving as his Nurture. Exercise followed as our daily heartfelt sharing of his love from one generation to another. Thus the acronym, “VINE”
The acronym brings us to what Jesus taught: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing” [Jn 15:4-5]. Change only comes about in one direction.
There’s nothing new here. Yet Christ’s call to “abide” is regularly spurned. The “narrow road” that leads to life isn’t nearly as busy as the wide road. The latter is busy with people who ignore him or try to use him. People who see him as a moral icon, a ticket to heaven, or as Aladdin’s lamp in hard times. Jesus wasn’t a manageable figure in Bible times, and he still isn’t today. He expects to be our Lord as well as our beloved companion. His combative truth was spoken in love. And it led to his crucifixion. So it’s only at the cross, and its death to the world, that we have a clear vision of Jesus and the Father. At Golgotha he gathers the church as his bride by inviting unreserved love, worship, and obedience. As our delighted response, not as a duty.
Total trust is another way to speak of faith. Only Jesus is wholly trustworthy. He knows all about us: our ungodly choices, our guilt, and our empty ambitions. He recognizes our stupid pride and unfounded anger. And he knows how to confront sin. He’s like a mother who cleans up smelly kids. After any scolding and scrubbing we enjoy a rich and lasting embrace. We don’t become clean in order to attract him. He draws us into his embrace, and then he works on cleaning us up by scrubbing us with his word. Until we’re holy and blameless.
We started this series by noting the huge growth of the early church. Thousands came to faith in Jerusalem within weeks of Christ’s ascension. Faith exploded. And three decades later an idol-maker in Ephesus complained that “all of Asia” [Turkey today] had turned to Jesus. This growth led the Roman Emperor, Nero, to blame the great fire of Rome on Christians. So many ordinary people disrupted old pagan ways that they became targets. Christian documents and secular Roman records report this growth. The cause? Reports of Christ’s resurrection, and the amazing sacrificial faith of his followers. Death lost its force in light of Christ’s power over death.
What can we learn? Many church growth movements today try to recapture early church growth through outward imitation. By preferring small communities, or by imitating “disciplines” of Bible times. But outward actions must start with inward change. The disregard for personal success and comfort, common in the early church, reflected Christ’s Holy Spirit active in souls. It spread from heart to heart among those who shared Christ’s love. This is what produced loving, missional communities. They shared in prayer, Bible reading, deep conversations, and common meals. And in sending out lots of emissaries to nearby towns to share their joy.
Missing in those early days were uniquely educated, paid leaders. Growth wasn’t produced by a hierarchy of professionals. Formal training eventually emerged, but in this liveliest era of growth the changes were all heart-driven. Elders were active laymen, recognized for their devotion to Christ, his word, and to others. Learning was informal and ongoing. Gifted leaders shared Bible content wherever and whenever they had opportunities. Sacrificial devotion to others prospered.
Here’s the point. Christianity always grows through an enthusiastic overflow of God’s love. It’s a love for others: heart-driven, transformative, and neighbor-to-neighbor. It only starts with a genuine encounter with Jesus. As in Paul’s famous meeting on the road to Damascus: “Who are you?!” he asked. And Jesus answered him, “I’m Jesus.” This answer changes hearts.
Let’s go back to the two major trajectories of Christianity: the “two roads.” The sharp contrast is obvious, even if there’s a risk of caricature at the margins. For many today faith is a social construct, based on training and sustained by consensus-based communities. Even if it displays elements of devotion, it’s ultimately the product of sophisticated expectations. Jesus has a functional theological role—as savior—and formal devotional routines surround his portrayals. But it lacks a deep, inside-out love for Jesus as a distinctive, steady impulse. It ends as soon as a given event concludes, goodbyes are said, and the doors are closed. It’s what cults can offer.
The second road starts with distinct conversion: in moving from darkness to light. It’s a felt relational response to God’s presence active in his own words. It is Spirit-based and affective: aligned with 1 John 4:19—”We love [God] because he first loved us.” Paul came to it by surprise, as an encounter—”I am Jesus whom you are persecuting.” It’s always displayed by life-change as described in 1 John 4 and in Galatians 5. The Spirit always bears his fruit.
The difference in these two versions of faith is cited in 2 Timothy 3:4-5. Real faith produces “lovers of God.” And the distinction comes as some only have “the appearance of godliness, [while] denying its power.” As in the shema, faith starts with love as a response to God. In a real encounter. He created us to “know” him. And, as we stated at the beginning of the series, to know him is to love him. And his people. While knowing lots about him doesn’t make a real or lasting difference.
The punchline is simple. If this love is something we already know and enjoy, share it freely. But if outward forms of religion shape our “faith” then it’s time for a simple prayer: “Jesus, I need you. Please open the eyes of my heart to your love.” He’s happy to respond! Because such prayers will have already started with his gentle invitation, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden.” The result is both eye-opening, and freeing. And with it the world will get to see the shema lived out in us! That’s exactly what happened long, long ago.