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"Our Answer is God. God's answer is us. Through partnership we make our world better."
- Dorian Scott Cole

Teaching/Sermon Material

Spiritual Growth Part 3B

Discerning the Path

Portions Copyright © 1980 Dorian S. Cole

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In the previous article, we looked at the parallels in Christian development. In this article we look beyond the rudimentary ways in which the Apostles first communicated with God, to the mature walk of faith that developed as they had more experience.

  • Communicating with God
    • Getting sidetracked
    • The example of the Apostle John
  • The maturing walk of faith
    • The top line

Communicating with God

God leads each of us in different ways. We learn how to listen. Elijah knew well his God of power, but when Elijah felt alone and defeated, he couldn't hear God in the wind and earthquake. No doubt these only jarred his nerves like a gunshot to those fresh out of battle. Elijah heard God in the "accepting and tolerant actions" of God taking care of his needs, and the still small voice that spoke to him. He was recharged and ready to go fight the battles again.

As new children of God, we don't have a mature understanding of spirituality and guidance. We might as well toss a coin and try the result, or go see a movie or read a magazine (or Scripture) and let a voice speak to us. God can speak through the jawbone of an ass if he wants.

We learn. After a lot of practice, we begin to understand that the path of loving others is best. We understand that when love is not involved, or if love is displaced by hate, greed, personal ambition, and other selfish and temporal satisfactions, the choice we make hurts us.

We might like to think that we know all about love. We don't (I definitely don't). We like to erect walls around love that define it within the narrow limits of something that we can do, or the extent of our vision. Maybe love means just being kind to those who are kind to us. Maybe it means "paying it forward" once in a while. Maybe it means doing good things for just your family. Maybe it's limited to helping those who are in our community, or state, or just in the US. However we define love, even within narrow limits, it grows within us and encompasses more than we can imagine, if we follow God's leading.

Getting sidetracked

The Apostle Paul warned Timothy and us in 1 Timothy 1: 3-7 (NIV) to be careful about what we focus our minds on. We have to keep love at the top of the list. It is easy even for those who think they are religious or spiritual to sidetrack themselves in endless wrangling that makes others avoid us. "...command certain men not to teach false doctrines any longer 4nor to devote themselves to myths and endless genealogies. These promote controversies rather than God's work—which is by faith. 5The goal of this command is love, which comes from a pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith. 6Some have wandered away from these and turned to meaningless talk. 7They want to be teachers of the law, but they do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm."

We are often so eager to get it right that we forget about love, and start talking about "law." "Law, law, law - it isn't right to do this or that..." Penalties, penalties. Avoid all wickedness. Keep those people away and those people out, and don't even go near those people. If they are bad, they don't belong around us. If they look different, or are far away, let their own kind take care of them. If they want to be like that, two can play that game. Don't give to charity because that one wastes its money. Don't hand out money because some people make a good living on handouts - you're just getting taken. If they don't attend the same church, they don't believe the right things, so don't associate with them.

Christ walked among the sinners, tax collectors, the poor, the beggars, the foreigners, those with different beliefs, the diseased, the despised; and God turns not one of us away. Yet we build walls between our love and others. What is the measure of love? We all have a "depth of love" measure. But God's love doesn't end.

The example of the Apostle John

It's said that when the Apostle John was very old and had to be carried to and from meetings, he always said, "Little children, love each other."*1


The Apostle John lived longer than the other Apostles and died a natural death around 100 AD. Stories of him came down through history. It is very unusual to have a line of contact that reached back to the Apostles, since most of the writings we have date to around 300 AD at their earliest, and most are copies made after the Seventh Century. So the words of someone who knew someone who actually knew an apostle are a great treasure, and hold the promise of being reliable, although we know stories often got enlarged with the telling. Clement of Alexandria, a theologian and head of the Catechetical School of Alexandria, was born around 150 AD. He was not far removed from John and those who knew John, such as Polycarp (ca. 69 – ca. 155), the Bishop of Smyrna. So I give you this story from Clement.

We can spend our time arguing and condemning others, or we can just get on with it, as the Apostle John did in the following story from St. Clement of Alexandria, Who is the Rich Man That Shall Be Saved? (Paraphrased by me.)

The Apostle John is thought to have been exiled on the island of Patmos during the persecution of Christians under the Roman Emperor Domitian. When the Emperor died, John returned to appoint bishops for new churches. At one church he saw a young man who was strong, pleasing in appearance, and intense. John said to the new Bishop, "This youth I commit to you in all earnestness, in the presence of the Church, and with Christ as witness."

Finished with his duties, John left for Ephesus. The Bishop raised the young man, loved him, and baptized him. Then he relaxed his care. The young man in his new freedom fell in with a number of other rotten youth who corrupted him, first with a luxurious life style, and then with robbery. He liked this life style, and soon like a rock star on crack, went completely out of control, leading the group of bandits in savage and cruel crimes.

Once again John was called to the Church. John asked for the charge left in the Bishops hands, the soul of a brother. The Bishop groaned, and in tears related that the young man was dead to God, a common bandit, holding ground right in front of the church with his band of thugs. The Apostle John tore his cloths and banged his head. He demanded a horse and rode straight for the bandits. He was immediately detained by them, but John didn't try to escape. He said, take me to your leader - this is what I came for.

The young man was waiting around, armed, but when he saw John he turned in shame to run from him. John forgot his age and ran after him. John yelled after him, why are you fleeing from your father - I'm not even armed. Don't be afraid - you still have hope of life. I would die for you if necessary. Stop. Have faith. Christ sent me.

The young man stopped and then wept bitterly. He embraced John, turned away from his life of crime, and was baptized a second time with his own tears. John stayed until he had restored him to the church, presenting him as an example of true turning away from a bad life to following God, and regeneration. More about this in the next section.

The maturing walk of faith

The walk of faith is not a clear line through the sand. It begins with the first step. Moses' walk began in confusion. Why would God want him to do anything - he was an accused murderer in Egypt and he couldn't speak well - so God wanted him to go stand in front of Pharaoh and make demands? In your dreams. Moses became the intermediary with Pharaoh and with the Hebrews (people of Israel) with God, leading them for 40 years in the wilderness and teaching them about God. Part of his duties were to create the administration for communicating with God. Prophecy was part of that.

Should we all become prophets as part of our spiritual path, as Samuel suggested? Is prophecy and end goal of a mature walk of faith? Would prophecy (which came through dreams and visions) continue? I really like the way the United Church of Christ puts it: "God is still speaking." and "Never put a period where God puts a comma." It really isn't our place to put words in God's mouth and say that prophecy is no longer. But will prophecy have the same emphasis as with the Major Prophets, or will it be more like the bands of prophets in the Old Testament, who went from city to city probably with songs and poems and tales about God and prophetic utterances during worship?

Paul advises the early church in 1 Corinthians 14:1 (NIV) "Follow the way of love and eagerly desire spiritual gifts, especially the gift of prophecy." He explains in 1 Corinthians 14:22 (NIV), "Tongues, then, are a sign, not for believers but for unbelievers; prophecy, however, is for believers, not for unbelievers." But prophecy is secondary to love. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:2, "If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing."

Prophecy fades with Christian maturity. Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 13:8 - 13, "Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears. 11When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me. 12Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known. 13And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love."

Paul doesn't say that there will never again be prophecies. He just simply indicates that where it does occur, it will fade. It fades with a mature faith. Love remains.

The Apostles had nothing on Moses. The Apostles called by Christ were mere fishermen. All they knew about were boats and nets, and how to survive being dirt poor. They had no formal education. They weren't teachers (rabbis), or lawyers, or politicians. God called them to build a network of churches in foreign lands, and to create the administration.

Like Moses before them, the Apostles didn't have a guide book on how to administer churches or communicate with God. At first these leaders were visited by God. Then they looked to easy methods, like throwing dice, to determine what they should do. Then they had visions that gave them major direction early on. And finally we see how Paul conducted his walk of faith - not in the surety of some absolute knowledge, but keeping a pure mind, making plans for journeys, watching for the people that God places there to assist with the work, and watching for doors that God opens so he was flexible to go where God called him. Paul talks a lot about love. Where there is love, there is God. Where love is not, God is not.

In the story about the Apostle John, John was an old and frail man by that time. He could have easily met his demise while chasing through the countryside on a horse into a territory controlled by murderous bandits, to see a young man who could easily kill him. John didn't go to the young man to scold him for his failures or to throw him out of the church or accuse him of crimes. John went to him out of concern for his soul, to tell him that God still loves him. And then John stayed on to ease the young man's path back to God. That is what love does. God is about acceptance. God is about reconciling people to him who have lost their way. God is about leading people to develop their full potential.

We get the message very confused sometimes. At one moment we do false recruiting, thinking that if we're just friendly with fake smiles and false care and concern for others, then people will join us. At another moment we rail about doubtful doctrines that condemn people and chase them away, while that endless wrangling chases away even the faithful. Those churches don't grow - they shrink. At another moment we often act like we are supposed to be the moral police, monitoring people and telling them how to live. Do we really get this far off message? Say it ain't so.

Consider the Apostle Paul, who was formerly the Jew, Saul, who hunted for the followers of Christ so they could be jailed and killed, to eliminate this Christian heresy from the land. Paul was the epitome of an enemy. Did God send a prophet to bring down lightning to kill him? Did God throw him into jail? Did God chastise him for what he was doing? No. God simply stopped him by striking him blind, and asked why he was persecuting Jesus. Paul had no reply.

God then sent Paul to the Christian Anani'as, against Anani'as objections of course, so Anani'as could minister to Paul's needs. He then sent Paul to be among the Apostles. What?! God brought the murderous enemy right to the Apostles?! Yes. God called Paul to be an Apostle and take the Good News throughout the known world, starting churches. Paul is thought to have travelled and started churches as far away as England. (There is some evidence from church remains that date to the second century and historical anecdotes.) From our perspective, Paul may have been the most prolific and effective apostle at spreading the Good News, but the early church would have happily seen him dead.

Most of us are like Anani'as. We object to being sent such a mission: care of a dangerous man. We would rather stand back and shout platitudes and doctrine at others, and condemn them for what they do. But with experience in our walk of faith comes wisdom to know when and how to reach out and when to back away. The problem is, our own thinking is simply to always think the worst of others and always back away... even from perfectly harmless people.

People today have the advantage of skilled guidance in knowing who might be receptive and who is hard-core not receptive to Christ and love. We are much better at finding outside help to support us in dealing with the demons of alcoholism, drugs, mental illness, and family problems that split families. We are better able to note those who are too dangerous for some people to work with, and in determining who will respond to love, and who will only see love as a weakness, so love must come to them first through a relationship of respect. We are better at sorting out who will only take unfair advantage of generosity, and helping them enables the continuation of that attitude and behavior, as opposed to those who genuinely need help. God makes the sun to shine on everyone, but helping others should not be done naively. But it should be done.

We confuse a message of love with a message of doctrine and scolding. The smoke from the Hell-fire and brimstone preaching of the 19th. and 20th. Centuries still hangs in the air, clouding our view of love. God asks us to learn the ways of love, and we do that by doing - the first step leads to another, then another... and then we are interacting with others from love. Do sticks and stones and scolding and platitudes and rejection draw people to God? No. It is acceptance and love that draw people to God, through us. Like the Apostle John did for the young man, we stand by other's sides through the years.

People need both love and guidance. In the chapter of Acts just before God recruited Paul, the Apostle Philip was sent to meet a man coming from Ethiopia (Judaism was alive in Ethiopia). Philip met the man and found him reading from the Prophet Isaiah. Philip asked him if he understood what he was reading. "How can I," he said, "unless someone explains it to me?" (Acts 8:31 (NIV).) The passage the man was reading was about Christ. So Philip explained the Good News, the love of God, the sacrifice that God made for everyone so that everyone could be brought back into a close relationship with God.

The Bible is not easy to understand. We can get lost in the "who gave birth to who," passages. We can be scared off by the constant warring and "God is on my side" in the Old Testament. We can be confused by laws that make no sense. We can be frightened away by scenes of hell. It takes someone who understands the path of love, who has walked that path, to explain that the message God wants us to hear is that every single person on this earth is accepted in His presence, and is forgiven all if they will just ask. And that God will help them become a better person and reach their full potential. In Christianity, the path to follow is the path demonstrated to us by Christ - it is in this that we find our way, by following Christ, who was God's presence among us. God's love doesn't end - not in his tolerance for our failings, and not in the future. God's grace is always there.

The top line

We are used to thinking in terms of "the bottom line," or the line on a ledger that tells us if we made money, or the qualification line that tells us the minimum required. "What do we have to do?" I'm sure Christ got asked that question a lot - "What's the minimum we have to do to get by?" He told many that their faith had made them whole, or saved them, but he never told anyone that they had met all the requirements, except the repentant thief dying beside him on the cross. I don't think that God has a bottom line - we are at his grace. Like the thief, we all fall short of boundless love, but God accepts us anyway. But God has a top line. That top line is love, and it is so high none of us can see it.

Where there is love, there is God. Where love is not, God is not. Where God is, love is there. When love is displaced by hate, greed, personal ambition, and other selfish and temporal satisfactions, God is not in us or our actions. The path of loving others is the top line.

All through our lives we define love within narrow limits. Our vision is short and cloudy - not perfect. Yesterday its boundaries were our family, tomorrow our next door neighbor, and then the thief down the street who just home from prison, and then some unfortunate person on TV, then someone in another country. If we follow God's path, our vision of what is love grows - the boundaries continue to expand.

We like to say that Christ is perfect. He is the example set before us that is the path we should follow. We often say that our goal is to become perfect, like Christ. In that sense there is often the temptation to evaluate ourselves with respect to others and say that one person is more mature than another - he is closer to perfect - he doesn't sin. He doesn't spit on the sidewalk, and he gives to the local food pantry. Or maybe he has the gift of prophecy. Is that the bottom line - living by some moral code that we can express by "do and don't? Having some spiritual gift?

The spiritual path is not so much about perfection as it is about continually broadening our vision of the scope of love. If we are able to love better, then the boundaries may move - there may be a bigger job for us to do. That isn't up to us to decide - God calls, we respond. Perfection is not within our sights. God's love through us doesn't end - not our tolerance in other's failings, and not in the future.

Next: A look at my own spiritual journey, followed by a look at Mark chapters 11 and 12, which are about the place of government, individual responsibility, religion, and God in our lives. (See index in next heading below.)

Let's talk about it. Social Media and One Spirit Resources Blog below. - Dorian Scott Cole.












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