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02.12.12 Passing through Gates, Matthew 7:13-23

by on February 13, 2012

Note: This is a rewrite of the message from 01.15.12. I think it is an improvement. I delivered it to the saints at Ascension Lutheran Church 02.12.12.

Summary Points

  • On the relationship between divine grace and human effort
  • Cultivating Christian culture, and its relationship to American culture
  • Some examples of Christian Culture
  • Three reasons we must enter through the narrow gate

Farmers understand better than most the relationship between divine grace and human effort when it comes to salvation. Farmers don’t pray over their fields and hope to reap a harvest in the fall. No, they clear their fields, plow them, enrich them, and seed them. Then they irrigate, weed, and fertilize their fields. In other words, they do a lot of work!

At the same time, farmers realize that the harvest depends on so many other factors outside of their control like temperature and rainfall—factors controlled by God. This is what the Kingdom of God is like, according to one of Jesus’ depictions. A man sows the seed, it grows though he does not know how, and when the grain is ripe, he harvests it. A harvest is made, God’s Kingdom comes, we experience salvation, from the collaboration between farmers’ work, and God’s grace.

Fruit requires cultivation. “Cultivation” comes from the Latin word colere, “to till or take care of a field.” Someone who cares for more than just his field is a colonus, and what he takes care of a colonia. To use the English equivalents, a “colonist” takes care of a “colony.” And none of this happens by accident.

When colere, “to take care of a field” is applied to our relationship with God, the word becomes cultus, which is the basis for our word “cult.” The technical definition of “cult” simply refers to religious practice.

Finally we get to the word “cultivate,” which refers to the way we till or take care of our identity, and one way to refer to our identity is by the word “culture.”

We can identify cultures and sub-cultures pretty readily. There is Colorado Springs culture, and there is a West Side subculture. There’s Christian culture, and there’s a Protestant sub-culture. There’s Protestant culture, and there’s a Lutheran sub-culture.

We also have a national culture. One theologian has identified eight characteristics of American culture: (1) Individual achievement, (2) Self-sufficiency, (3) Competiveness, (4) Being on the cutting-edge, (5) Productivity, (6) Efficiency, (7) Youth, and (8) Satisfaction of desire.

This is where being a disciple of Christ can get a little uncomfortable. One of the questions Jesus asks us out of the Sermon on the Mount is, “How closely related is our American culture to Christian culture?”

This might seem like a strange question. Many of us have never thought of questioning the way we do things in America. But if you’ve traveled overseas you know that the American way isn’t the only way. For example, “over there” they drive on the other side of the street. “Over there” their hot and cold faucets are reversed. That’s normal “over there,” but it’s a new culture for American tourists.

When Jesus tells us to enter through the narrow gate, he’s calling us to question our culture. All of us are walking through a gate, all the time. Sometimes we don’t even realize it because the gate is so wide. That’s our culture. “Over here, we drive on the right side of the street.” It’s normal to us, so we don’t even see it. We just walk through it.

Within this broad gate of American culture, is there a Christian culture—a narrow gate—which we as Jesus’ disciples are to seek and enter? What might it look like?

Methodist Bishop Robert Schnase has identified Five Practices of Fruitful Congregations? They are Radical Hospitality, Passionate Worship, Intentional Faith Development, Risk-Taking Mission and Service, and Extravagant Generosity. They are part of the Christian culture. (I invite you to search this blog for messages on each of these practices.)

The Quaker Richard Foster has written several books on the disciplined Christian life. Disciplines like meditation, simplicity, service, and worship make up the Christian culture.

The “Fruit of the Spirit” from Galatians 5—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control are part of the Christian culture. (I invite you to search this blog for messages on each of these fruit.)

It’s really important that we look for and enter the narrow gate for three reasons. First, our faithfulness depends on it. Jesus warns us against false prophets who are bad trees bearing bad fruit. We have to be able to recognize good fruit so that we’re not led astray. We practice recognizing good fruit by looking for and entering through the narrow gate.

Second, our salvation depends on it! Jesus says not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord” will enter the Kingdom, but only the ones who do the will of his heavenly father. If we do not bear fruit, we are at risk of being cut down like the fig tree in the passage from Luke 13:6-9.

Third, our witness depends on it. Just as false prophets are known by their fruit, so the world will know we are Christ’s disciples by the fruit we bear. If our Christian sub-culture doesn’t look any different than our American culture, we haven’t entered through the narrow gate. We’re walking through the wide gate, traveling along the broad road, and Jesus says this leads to destruction.

So let us reflect upon the many gates we encounter throughout our week. And let us, as Christ’s disciples, find and enter through the narrow gates, so that we may follow the true prophet, cultivate good fruit, bear witness to Christ, and harvest our salvation.

Questions for Further Reflection or Discussion

  • What might be a narrow gate that God has placed before you, an opportunity unique to you that may serve as a growth point in your spiritual life?
  • As we approach Lent, think of ways can you add obedience to God’s will beyond just worshiping God on Sunday. In what areas can you have faith and bear fruit?
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