The Virtuous Circle audio (6MB)
We began our study of the Good Life, of Virtue, some two months ago with the story of the rich young ruler. Here was a man who wanted to know that he’d have eternal life when he died. He wanted Jesus to tell him some good thing that he needed to do to be sure that he’d get there. But instead Jesus showed him that the solution wasn’t a set of rules but a lifestyle change. His life needed to be spent following Jesus because he was the source of life. We also looked at the way Sully Sullenberger managed to land that plane in the Hudson River because of his lifetime of practice, of a series of small decisions taken over and over again so that when the crisis arose the right actions were second nature.
So today we come to the end of our series with the question still in our minds: how will we live so virtue, goodness, godliness, is second nature to us?
Well, we saw 2 week ago that that will involve the three great Christian virtues: faith, hope and love, along with the fruit of the spirit being exhibited in our lives. And we’ve seen all the way through that this requires hard work.
But is that true? Someone after my last sermon asked me how come it’s by hard work if it’s the work of the Holy Spirit? Surely if the fruit of the Spirit are the gift of God then they should be ours automatically?
The answer to that question is yes - and no.
It’s a bit like an old Jewish joke about a man who prayed every day that he’d win the lottery. Eventually he got so sick of praying with no result that he shook his fist up at the heavens demanding that God explain why he hadn’t answered his fervent prayer. “My son” God replied, “you need to come halfway to meet me. You could at least buy a ticket!”
Paul says the same thing in more serious terms in Phil 2:12-13. He’s just finished instructing the church to have the same mind that was in Christ Jesus, a seemingly impossible task for mere mortals, but then he adds: “12Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;”. This is something that we have to work hard on, to work out our own salvation. But at the same time he says: “13for it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13)
This is a team effort. We work hard, we practice godly living, but it’s God who gives us the power to do it, who changes our hearts through his Holy Spirit dwelling within us.
But having said that, there’s more to growing in this life of virtue than just hard work. As I said in the English congregation 2 weeks ago, God is gracious. He puts us in a church so we can grow together. And the way we do that, let me suggest, is through a combination of practices that we’re calling the Virtuous Circle. You may be familiar with the term “Vicious cycle”. Well, this is the opposite. A virtuous circle is a combination of elements that build on each other so that each circuit of the circle makes you stronger. The elements are: scripture, stories, examples, community and practices.
Because it’s a circle it doesn’t matter at which point you enter, providing you keep moving around the circle.
Scripture is at the top because it’s there that we find God’s revelation of his will for us; because there we find Jesus’ teaching along with that of the apostles. So the Scriptures are central to the formation of Christian character.
We need to have our minds transformed so we understand what it is we’re working towards and why it’s important. So how do we transform our minds? By studying God’s word; by letting his word do its work in us. As we read and study it we discover that we ourselves are actors in God’s great Story of Salvation. We’re part of a story that’s not yet complete but one where we know how it finishes and that allows us to prepare for that ending.
Scripture, as we read and study it, becomes habit forming and character building. It becomes that as it works its way into our hearts and minds. But it also trains us to listen to and learn from stories, the second element of our circle. As we read the Scriptures we discover the Big Story of God’s creation and redemption of the world. We discover the way he interacts with us human beings in a variety of ways. And of course much of what we find in the Scriptures is written in the form of narrative, of records of people and events.
In these we find great examples of godly people, of courage and faith and perseverance in the face of opposition. But we also find examples of great wickedness, of terrible judgement, of pride and vengeance and injustice. We also find repeated examples of God’s patience and loving-kindness; of his efforts to save the people of his creation from themselves; of his warnings to repent; his instructions for godly living. But most of all we find people caught up in the messiness of life in the real world; making the best of compromised situations; making huge mistakes and having to repair the damage they’ve done. We don’t have to look very hard at the great heroes of the Bible to see that for all their greatness they were all flawed in one way or another. So as we read these stories we discover the sort of behaviour that we should adopt because it pleases God; or that we should avoid because it doesn’t. This is what’s called wisdom – the ability to discern what makes for godliness, what works in God’s world and what doesn’t. Our reading today from Hebrews 12 takes up this idea. “1Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” (Heb 12:1-2) The great cloud of witnesses there are the people we read about in the Old Testament who persevered in faithfulness to the end. And he adds: “2looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” Our greatest example of perseverance is Jesus himself.
But of course the good examples of Christian behaviour aren’t only to be found in the Bible. We have them all around us in the lives of our fellow Christians. I’m sure can all think of examples of people who have been models for you of Christian living. Again this is a strong reason for being part of a church and especially of a small group within a church. It’s as we interact with each other, as we tell our stories, as we practise godliness together that we grow stronger. Someone comes up with an idea for outreach and we’re drawn into their enthusiasm for it. Someone else is experiencing difficulty in their personal life and we all gather round them in support and in prayer. Another person tells us of an encounter they’ve had with someone at work or at school and we’re blown away by the way they’ve been able to share their faith with that person.
The result of this is that it all works together to help us grow in our own practice of faithfulness and godliness.
Practice is an interesting word isn’t it? In English at least, it implies something that’s done repetitively, or habitually. These practices include our coming together for corporate worship, to sing praises to God, to share in communion together, to hear God’s word proclaimed. It includes our meeting in small groups to pray for and with one another. It should include our joining together to work in God’s service. For example, I know one of our small groups at least, includes community service as part of their small group practice.
Giving generously and cheerfully to God’s work here and elsewhere is part of our Christian practice, our Christian discipline, that we do as individuals but that works itself out as a corporate practice as we pool our resources to fund God’s work. Those of us who observed our Work for God Day this week were doing it as members of St Thomas’ not just as individuals.
And finally one of the most central things we do as a community at every level is to study the Scriptures together. This is because the study of Scripture reminds us that we’re not just some club doing strange things together. No, we’re part of God’s story. We’re living out God’s plan of salvation for the world. We’re on a pilgrimage to rediscover what it means to be truly human as we worship God, as we work for his kingdom and as we seek to pass on his message of salvation to the rest of the world.
Notice that Scripture is the thing that keeps the other four elements of the circle on track. Stories can go anywhere, examples can be misunderstood, communities can become inward focussed or heretical and practices can become merely empty rituals. But through the Scriptures that all changes. God’s Holy Spirit works through the reading, study and preaching of Scripture to shape our church culture, to correct, to chastise, to train us, to keep us on track and to remind us of God’s great love and grace shown in Jesus Christ.
And so the circle continues. As we go around the circle time and time again our character is reinforced and our behaviour becomes something that’s no longer forced but becomes intuitive, second nature, so we know how to behave in whatever situation we find ourselves.
Let’s pray that we’d continue on this virtuous circle for all of our lives until we finally get to God’s kingdom where we won’t need it any more.