An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Godly Living – Why Bother?

A sermon on Micah 6: 1-8; Psalm 15; Matthew 5: 1-12 & 1 Corinthians 1: 18-31 by Nathan Nettleton

When we filled out the questionnaires for the National Church Life Survey last year, there was one question that caused some consternation. I can’t remember the exact wording, but it was asking whether you felt you were fulfilling a duty when you attended the weekly worship service of your church. Generally when you are faced with a question about what you value or what motivates you, you want to have some idea what the questioner is getting at and what they are likely to make of your response before giving an answer, but with a questionnaire that comes in the mail, you don’t have that opportunity. I, for one, was apprehensive about just circling yes or no on that question. I wanted to be able to qualify or explain my answer. On the one hand I do feel that I have a duty to gather with God’s people to worship. Given all the favours God has done me, and given that our gathered worship is one of the essential functions of the community of God’s people to whom I have committed myself, then participation in the worship service is both the least I can offer and a reasonable expectation of me; so Yes, I do feel that I have a duty to regularly join in the gathered worship of the congregation, and Yes, I am therefore fulfilling a duty when I do so. But I certainly don’t want that answer being read as an indication that I get little else out of worship and that it is mainly a sense of obligation that keeps me coming.

The question of why we do what we do as Christian people is a live one. We all have a picture in our minds of how God would want us to live — and our pictures probably vary a fair bit — but others could easily ask, “Why bother?” It’s not usually voiced as “Why bother?”, but the dilemma of how far we can seek to conform our lives to God’s expectations arises in all sorts of ways. A friend recently told me about a church member who admitted that she could see that her support of attempts to keep asylum seekers out of Australia was incompatible with the teachings of the Christian faith, but she was still not changing her position either. Somehow she felt that she could continue to be a Christian and yet choose not to act on what she knew it asked of her.

The question becomes all the more pertinent when asked in light of the widespread Christian teaching that we are not saved by our works — by our ability to “do the right thing”. We are saved when we put our trust in Jesus the Christ, and it is a gift — something we have never deserved and could never earn. So if our endeavours to “do the right thing” have got nothing to do with how we come to be accepted by God, then why bother? Why bother, especially when trying to live by God’s standards makes one a misfit in the world and can make life more difficult than it otherwise need be? I saw a bumper sticker once that said, “Those who turn their swords into plowshares will be ruled over by those who don’t.” There is some truth in that. And you could do similar things with many of the moral teachings in the Bible. “Those who turn the other cheek will have twice as many bruised cheeks as those who don’t.” Etc. Etc. Etc. So why put yourself through that?

There are at least four possible answers to that question, and all four can be seen in the readings we have heard tonight. And perhaps all four are right, or perhaps the truth lies somewhere in the tension between them. I’m not sure, but lets explore all four anyway.

In the reading we heard from the prophet Micah, God is expressing a grievance over the people’s failure to live godly lives. The passage is expressed in the form of a courtroom drama where God lays out the terms of the dispute before witnesses. In a nutshell, God’s argument is, “After all I’ve done for you, you owe it to me to live the way I ask you to to.” God goes back over the history of Israel and highlights the points at which Israel has been in desperate trouble and God has stepped in and rescued them. In light of this retelling of the history of their salvation, the people then ask, “What then can we offer to please the Lord?” What would be a fitting gift in return for all God has done for us? And the prophet answers saying, “You already know what God requires of you because God has already told you: to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God.”

So Micah’s answer to the question about why we should bother trying to live by God’s values in an ungodly world is that we owe it to God because of all that God has done for us. Now that might not be a terribly inspiring answer, but it is a hard one to argue with. For me it is just like that question on the National Church Life Survey. “Do I feel like I am fulfilling a duty when I endeavour to live a godly life?” Well, yes, if I look back on my life and see how much God has done for me, I do feel indebted to God and so I do feel that I have a duty to do whatever God asks of me in response. But doesn’t that reduce the whole of the Christian life to a matter of obligation? Well, on its own it might, but I don’t think Micah’s answer is the be all and end all, and it certainly doesn’t sum up what motivates me to try to follow the example of Jesus.

The writer of the Psalm we read together gives an alternative answer. The Psalmist suggests that you should live as God requires because that is how you will be deemed acceptable to God. The Psalm simply states that the people who are welcome in God’s presence are those who walk with integrity, do only what is right, speak only the truth, keep their word, and steer clear of exploitative financial dealings. If you want to be welcome in the presence of God, according to this Psalmist, live up to these standards and you’ll be in; you’ll be saved. Now on the face of it, this view is at odds with the Christian teaching that salvation is simply a matter of grace based on faith and that our attempts to be good have got nothing to do with it. Now I’m not in the business of trying to reconcile every apparent tension in the Bible, but I don’t think it is impossible to hold these two together. It may be that we are saved purely by grace based on our faith in God, but that as the Apostle James said, faith that is not expressed in works is not faith at all but a hollow sham. It may be that if you say you trust God but you do not seek to live as God requires, that you are really just trying to con God and you are not really trusting at all. So the second possible answer to the question about why we should bother trying to live by God’s values in an ungodly world is that a commitment to doing so is an indispensable component of the faith by which we are saved.

The Apostle Paul did not tackle this question directly in the passage we heard from his letter to the Corinthians, but I think we can get the gist of an answer from what he does say. You see the question he is tackling is about what to do in the face of the observable fact that the message of the gospel doesn’t seem to measure up to the standards of wisdom or strength that people might be expecting. And that’s not a lot different from the question about why Christian living is not clearly smarter and more successful than the way the rest of the world lives. And Paul’s answer is that you can’t see the truth by looking at it from the outside. It might look weak and foolish, but if you commit yourself to it you will find that God’s weakness and foolishness are actually a whole lot stronger and wiser than the best the world has to offer. So the third possible answer to the question about why we should bother trying to live by God’s values in an ungodly world is that, despite external appearances, they work and your life will be better for living by them.

The reading from the Gospel according to Matthew gives us our fourth possible answer. In one of the best known of all gospel passages, we hear what are commonly known as the Beatitudes from beginning of Jesus’s sermon on the mount. In the beatitudes, Jesus is heard naming a number of actions or characteristics which might be considered morally idealistic — purity of heart, mercifulness, meekness, etc — or even undesirable — poverty, mourning, persecuted, etc — and declares that people who exhibit them are blessed, they have got it made. And why? Because, says Jesus, they will be richly rewarded for living by such values despite the hostility and immorality of the world around them. Some of the rewards described are capable of being interpreted similarly to Paul’s suggestion that such living will actually prove worthwhile in the here and now, but others are clearly a promise of rewards in the life to come. The last one, for example, specifically says “your reward is great in heaven”. So the fourth possible answer to the question about why we should bother trying to live by God’s values in an ungodly world is that at some point we will be richly rewarded for doing so.

To my mind, it is when we bring all these answers together that we can really hear them as great news. Why should we bother trying to live by God’s values in an ungodly world? Either of the first two answers would be more than enough. Living by God’s values may be an essential component of the act of trust that leads to salvation, and even if it isn’t, if God has graciously saved us for whatever reason, then we owe it to God to do whatever God wants. God could quite reasonably stop there and just say “Do it because I say so and you owe me,” but the really good news is that God is not like that. In an act of radically undeserved love, God goes way beyond that and promises to make it worth our while. As Matthew quotes Jesus to tell us, the rewards for God’s faithful ones will be extraordinarily rich when Christ brings all things to fulfilment. And as Paul said, even in the here and now, no matter how weak and foolish it may look to others, to us who are being saved this lifestyle proves to be THE way to live. We could spend all night unpacking examples of that, but there’s no need. Paul says you can’t defend it in theory anyway, you can only discover it by living it, so I’ll get out of the way so we can gather round this table where Christ gives himself to us to strengthen us to go out there and live it.


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