Welcome back everyone to our big fall conversation we are having on Spiritual Success.  We have had a lot of fun with this so far, as we learn how God views a successful life which should be very encouraging to us, because as we now understand the difference between how culture views success and how God views it…which allows us to grasp an amazing truth!  And that is that we can all be successful!  This is huge, and has nothing to do with our accomplishments, our bank accounts, or our popularity, but has everything to do with living the life of a disciple of Christ, surrendering our will to God, and following God’s lead in our lives.  Do you remember that awesome definition of success that we got from Pete Scazzero?

“Success according to Scripture, is becoming the person God calls you to become, and doing what God calls you to do-in His way, and according to His timetable.” – Pete Scazzero

Embracing success according to Scripture is a game changer.  It truly frees us up, and can lead to so much joy, and peace in our lives.  Then after we started to understand how God views success and how different that may be culturally, we moved the talk to more practical ways on how we can walk in Spiritual Success.  That allowed us to really dive into how to live out this Christian life.  How to slow down to be with God, and what a true walk with God can look like.  This fall conversation has even given us the chance to talk about some of the more painful and challenging realities that we all face in life, which we were so excited to dive into with you over the last few weeks.  We looked at the realities of the limits we have in life, and the painful reality that we will all face grief and loss in our lives.  Those were some heavier subjects for sure, but they were so important for us to engage into because we all face these realities in life…and what have we learned about our Spiritual lives?

“There is no greater disaster in the spiritual life than to be immersed in unreality. In fact, the true spiritual life is not an escape from reality but an absolute commitment to it.” Pete Scazzero, EHS

So yes, we have walked through some important things and some heavier subjects, frankly some of this stuff just doesn’t get addressed enough in church, but we love you too much not to go there…even if it is a bit challenging or leads to a more intense Sunday service because it is reality, and we will all have to deal with these things in our lives.  Now today, the series is going to shift again, and I get to talk to you about the most important thing in our faith.  It’s something that we find all through our Bibles.  Actually, just for fun, I looked up how many times it is brought up in our Bibles, and in the NIV version it is brought up 541 times and what do I always try to remind you of?  When we study our Bible and we run into something that keeps coming up and is repeated, we need to pay attention…so when something is brought up a few times in Scripture we really need to pay attention because it is a big deal.  So, by that same thought, this would mean something that comes up 541 times in the Bible is REALLY IMPORTANT!  But before the big reveal on what this really important topic is, I wanted to start with a question and a bit of an exercise, so a little participation is needed.  Are you ready for my question?  Here it is…

What is the highest level of Spiritual Maturity?  How would you answer that?  I know, I didn’t give you much of a warmup for such a challenging question, but I want you to think about it and try to answer it for yourself.  For some of us we maybe didn’t have a great answer to that question but maybe we immediately pictured someone who we look up to as a mature Christian…well I can work with that, so let’s change the question and I will ask it again.

Who do you know, or who came to your mind when I asked you about the highest level of Spiritual Maturity?  Who is it that comes to your mind when you think about someone who is the real deal in their faith?  Now I want to take it a step further.  What would you say makes them the real deal, or someone who you view as Spiritually Mature?  I think this is a really important exercise, so what is it about them?  For some of us, our minds may immediately go to their knowledge of the Bible and of Spiritual things.  That is impressive and a positive to know someone who really studies Scripture and can quote Scripture, and really is well read and I think for a lot of us when we start thinking about the highest level of Spiritual Maturity we think of that knowledge.  For others, we may think of someone with a title inside the church.  Someone who serves, or teaches, or just has some kind of status or title that we view as important when it comes to Christianity.  And quite frankly sometimes, we see people as the elite of the elite of Spiritual Maturity because they keep telling us they are the elite of the elite of Spiritual Maturity!  So, I wonder if I didn’t just hit on how we would view someone who walks in the highest level of Spiritual Maturity…now here is what is really interesting.  We humans are drawn to many of the things listed above…they look good, don’t they?  But none of those things are what makes a person Spiritually Mature.  In fact, you can have a lot of knowledge of the Bible and look profoundly intelligent and holy, and speak with great articulation about Scripture, and still not be Spiritually Mature.  You can have a title inside a church and still not be reaching the highest level of Spiritual Maturity.  You can look like a Spiritual Success to those around you and still not be walking in Spiritual Success.

Jesus spent a lot of His time on this Earth trying to unravel the complexities of religion and confronting the people of that time who everyone would have viewed as the highest level of Spiritual Maturity. Did you ever stop and think about that?  These people that Jesus was in constant confrontation with, were the very people that everyone looked up to Spiritually, who had the most knowledge of their Scriptures, who had the titles, who everyone knew loved God, and were trying to serve and lead people to God hopefully, but end up being the very people that Jesus came and confronted, and warned us about.

Matthew 23:1 Now Jesus turned to address his disciples, along with the crowd that had gathered with them. 2 “The religion scholars and Pharisees are competent teachers in God’s Law. 3 You won’t go wrong in following their teachings on Moses. But be careful about following them. They talk a good line, but they don’t live it. They don’t take it into their hearts and live it out in their behavior. It’s all spit-and-polish veneer. 4 “Instead of giving you God’s Law as food and drink by which you can banquet on God, they package it in bundles of rules, loading you down like pack animals. They seem to take pleasure in watching you stagger under these loads, and wouldn’t think of lifting a finger to help. 5 Their lives are perpetual fashion shows, embroidered prayer shawls one day and flowery prayers the next. 6 They love to sit at the head table at church dinners, basking in the most prominent positions, 7 preening in the radiance of public flattery, receiving honorary degrees, and getting called ‘Doctor’ and ‘Reverend.’ 8 “Don’t let people do that to you, put you on a pedestal like that. You all have a single Teacher, and you are all classmates. 9 Don’t set people up as experts over your life, letting them tell you what to do. Save that authority for God; let him tell you what to do. No one else should carry the title of ‘Father’; you have only one Father, and he’s in heaven. 10 And don’t let people maneuver you into taking charge of them. There is only one Life-Leader for you and them — Christ. 11 “Do you want to stand out? Then step down. Be a servant. 12 If you puff yourself up, you’ll get the wind knocked out of you. But if you’re content to simply be yourself, your life will count for plenty. MSG

I have always found it interesting how Jesus tears down religion, confronting these leaders of the time, and how challenging and controversial that must have been to those who looked up to the religious leaders of that time and just how hard that would have been to accept for the religious leaders of that time!  But Jesus is constantly warning us about following the religious leaders like this…who if you really stop and think about it, could look a lot like the person we spoke of earlier, that we would view as the Spiritually Elite.  So, I find this fascinating, we read the Gospels and see clearly who Jesus was confronting, and we think about how terrible the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Teachers of the Law must have been, but then many of us Christians end up living out their life rather than the one Jesus challenges us to live…which is simpler and leads to true life change and that abundant life He came to give us all along.  It’s amazing but if we aren’t careful, we seem to be drawn towards the religious or after we come to know Christ and embrace our own Salvation and allow God into our lives…we begin to study, read, and gain knowledge, which can be a good thing…but it can end up leading us to act like the very people that Jesus confronted that we actually would think are the villains in Scripture!  And I want you to see why that is…it’s because in all the knowledge, and status, and layers of religion, we can miss out on the very essence of our faith…the thing that is mentioned 541 times in the NIV Bible…the very thing that Jesus is trying to help us understand as the thing that matters most…do you know what it is?  It’s love.

Jesus takes all the complexities of religiosity, all the details, rules, and tension points of our faith, and puts them aside and tells us to do two things and the rest will work itself out from there.  Do you remember that?  Ironically or not so ironically this very important teaching comes out in another confrontation with the religious leaders of the time who would never want our Faith to be this simple because it just isn’t good for business and would take a lot of focus off of them and their importance to people walking with God.

Matthew 22:34 When the Pharisees heard how he had bested the Sadducees, they gathered their forces for an assault. 35 One of their religion scholars spoke for them, posing a question they hoped would show him up: 36 “Teacher, which command in God’s Law is the most important?” 37 Jesus said, “‘Love the Lord your God with all your passion and prayer and intelligence.’ 38 This is the most important, the first on any list. 39 But there is a second to set alongside it: ‘Love others as well as you love yourself.’ 40 These two commands are pegs; everything in God’s Law and the Prophets hangs from them.” MSG

So, Jesus seems to continue to confront the very people that most of us humans would say are the Spiritual Elite which would be confusing enough…but he also then takes away all the complexities of religion and simplified it all down to one thing…LOVE.  How awesome is that?  I want you to see this, not only is He continuing to help us, and free us to center on loving God, but He is also helping us understand that loving God and loving others are inseparable…and He is also continuing to expose the religious and the one thing they are missing, that somehow in all their knowledge and rule following they have forgotten or aren’t living out the most important thing, which is…LOVE.  This had to be frustrating for the religious to hear, who I’m sure would tell Jesus about all their accomplishments and all they are doing for God.  After all, why would they do all that they are doing if they didn’t love God…yet Jesus is helping them see that the very thing they are missing is love.  You can’t love God and not love others…they are inseparable.  So, let’s just say that Jesus knows what He is talking about, and let’s go back to the question I asked you at the beginning of this talk today…

What is the highest level of Spiritual Maturity?  The answer is love.  The highest level of Spiritual Maturity is to love as Jesus loved.  It’s so interesting what we humans view as important or successful or even what we view as a Success when it comes to our faith.  I don’t see us instinctively drawn to loving as Jesus loved but we are often drawn to the flashier things we spoke of earlier.  Those religious leaders that Jesus was in constant confrontation with were viewed as the Spiritual Elite of that time, and Jesus warns us about them a lot, because they are missing the very point of it all…which is love.  Our Bible tells us that, we can do a lot of amazing things, and without love…they are empty, it’s meaningless…which would be pretty frustrating to hear, if everything in your thinking about when it comes to Spiritual Maturity and success comes down to your actions, you know, what you are doing for God and not love.  Paul helps us understand that everything is about love.

1 Corinthians 13 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 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. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Paul goes on to talk about what love is, and what it does and doesn’t do which is so helpful.

4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. 5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. 6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. 7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 8 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. 9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.

Then Paul helps us understand that to grow up (to mature) is to love…

11 When 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. 12 Now 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. 13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love. NIV

It’s interesting right?  Because you may have been thinking how do we get to the idea of the highest level of Spiritual Maturity is to love?  Well, it’s because the Bible tells us that to grow up is to love, over and over again.

You know, when I realized I had this topic, I was pretty excited…because this is my passion, to try to unravel religion, to help people that are stuck in all the hurts, and complexities that come when we miss the truth in love and to help us see the clear, simplicity, and freedom of what Jesus taught for us all.  I also started to reflect over my life in the church.  Being raised a preacher’s kid means that I’ve seen a lot of good and bad over those years around church, and now involved in ministry for 20 years here at MRC, and I think it’s crystal clear to me that the very thing that causes the most pain and hurts and challenges for people around church is still our inability to wrap our hearts and minds around the simplicity of Christ’s message.  We still miss LOVE!  We talk about it, and know it’s all over Scripture, and know it’s what we are called to do, but we can miss love, and the freedom and peace that can be found as we live out this life of love, and just how relaxing it can be to remove all the hurdles and complexities of religion and focus on those two pegs that Jesus taught us that hold all other things in our faith together which are to love God, and to love others.  If we did this, we would live differently.  If we did this more and more people would come to know Christ rather than walking away from our churches.  If we did this we wouldn’t have people hurt and walking in rejection or distancing themselves from God because they ran into a Christian somewhere along the line, and walked away hurt, feeling judged, and deciding they would never want to be like one of those people…who may know Scripture…who may tell others they are Spiritually Elite…who may even look really holy, but are missing the key to all of this, and that is love.  Love is the highest form of Spiritual Maturity.

So, with the time I have left I would like to talk about what it looks like to love as Jesus loved, and to live out a life of true Spiritual Maturity.  So, we will talk through a few things, this list could be huge, but I wanted to hit some big things that Jesus taught and modeled on a life of love and discuss what may block us from living it out personally.  So, to get things rolling we will just start with this, it isn’t easy to love people.  Frankly it’s hard, and it’s messy, yet we are to love God and love others.  I often tell people if you are struggling to love others, just keep loving God and over time that love of God will flow out into the love for others, but it’s important, and what is interesting is, Jesus just keeps raising the bar on loving others which leads us into the challenge of loving others and our first challenge in a life of love.

We are to love others, even those that aren’t that easy to love.  It’s hard enough to love others, but it’s extremely difficult to love our enemies and those who hurt us, but it is exactly what Jesus taught.

Matthew 5:43 “You’re familiar with the old written law, ‘Love your friend,’ and its unwritten companion, ‘Hate your enemy.’ 44 I’m challenging that. I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst. When someone gives you a hard time, respond with the energies of prayer, 45 for then you are working out of your true selves, your God-created selves. This is what God does. He gives his best — the sun to warm and the rain to nourish — to everyone, regardless: the good and bad, the nice and nasty. 46 If all you do is love the lovable, do you expect a bonus? Anybody can do that. 47 If you simply say hello to those who greet you, do you expect a medal? Any run-of-the-mill sinner does that. MSG

This is so challenging, but Jesus tells us to love those who aren’t all that easy to love.  Can you do that?

What blocks us from living out this challenging lesson of love?  Well, I think for many of us, the hardest thing to do is to see past the behaviors of a person and look at their heart.  This is where we end up judging others right?  We focus on their behavior or issues and not their hearts.  Especially when someone hurts us!  We certainly don’t want to do the very thing that Jesus told us to do in those moments…which was to respond with the energies of prayer!  What do we want to do?  Hurt them back, which just makes a bigger mess, and we know the old saying, that hurt people hurt people, but we also must accept that forgiven people forgive people.  And just to challenge you in this area of the forgiven people forgiving people I will pile on with some Scripture here!

Colossians 3:13 Make allowance for each other’s faults and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. NLT

Jesus gives us the most intense challenge on forgiving others here in Matthew 6…

Matthew 6:14 “If you forgive those who sin against you, your heavenly Father will forgive you. 15 But if you refuse to forgive others, your Father will not forgive your sins. NLT

Wow, and Yikes!  I don’t know about you, but I want and need our Heavenly Father to forgive my sins!  While I know, it is easier said than done, loving the unlovable and forgiving those who hurt us is living out this life of love, this is what it means to be Spiritually Mature.

Living a life of love means listening, paying attention, and being present in people’s lives.  This is a huge challenge to people today, because we are just never where are feet are, but one thing that is inescapable is that Jesus really models well for us is that even in the chaos of his life and all He was walking through, the confrontations, the people, the mission He was on leading Him to The Cross…He was able to be in the moment with people, He would listen, love them where they were, and just engage them.  He was present in their lives.  There are many examples of this, but I often think about the story of the Rich Young Ruler, and how Jesus listened to his story, and then it says that He…

Mark 10:21 Looking at the man, Jesus felt genuine love for him. “There is still one thing you haven’t done,” he told him. “Go and sell all your possessions and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.” NLT

Jesus was on a journey, but in the middle of all the crazy around Him, He was present for people.  He paid attention to them, He listened and loved them and spoke truth to them.  Listening and being present is an amazing way to show love, so let me ask you?  Do you listen to people, do you pay attention and are you present in their lives?

What blocks you from living this out in your life?  You can not listen or be present in someone’s life if you are distracted and multitasking all the time and you live in a world that is trying to keep you multitasking all the time.  The phone beeps and buzzes, the watch notifies you of the latest message, social media post, scheduling update…it’s a world full of distractions, and you can’t be present if you are doing 10 other things at the same time.  You also can not listen to someone if you are constantly speaking.  Scripture says this about listening and speaking…

James 1:19 Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. NLT

You can’t listen or be present with others if you are constantly talking!  Are you quick to listen or speak?

Living a life of love means being compassionate to the broken and hurting around us.  Listen, we live in a broken and hurting world.  We spent the last few weeks talking about the painful realities of life.  People are hurting and so busted up, and we are to put ourselves in their shoes, and be compassionate towards them just as God is towards us.

Luke 6:36 “You must be compassionate, just as your Father is compassionate.” NLT

What can block us from living this out in our lives?  I think the number one issue we have in this area of compassion is that we are not slowing down to be with God.  We don’t take the time to allow God into our lives to a level where we begin to experience a shift in focus off of us and onto Him.

Matthew 6:6 “Here’s what I want you to do: Find a quiet, secluded place so you won’t be tempted to role-play before God. Just be there as simply and honestly as you can manage. The focus will shift from you to God, and you will begin to sense his grace. MSG

Without this shift in focus, we can’t be compassionate because the only story or person that matters is me!  Without the shift in focus, we can lose sight of our own challenges and pain, which leads to a lack of compassion for others…because without God’s love pouring in and out of us, we just focus on ourselves!  Which is why we keep pushing you towards time with God!  Without it, we will never experience this life of love.  When we begin to spend real time with God, that shift in focus takes place, and the things that matter to God who is love, begin to matter to us.  This is why we challenge you to be with God before you do with God, because we need God’s love pouring in us to live out a life of love.

I wish I could keep going here, because there are just countless lessons on living out this life of love to dive into but we will stop with three, and I will just close with some questions.

  • When I asked you at the beginning of this talk to picture the spiritual elite or what the highest level of maturity is…what did you picture?  Was it love or something else?
  • When you look at Jesus and who He confronted and who He spent time loving on, what does it tell you about this life of love and what truly matters to God?
  • When you look at Jesus and how he unraveled the complexities of religion and made things so simple and clear, like asking us to love God and love others…how does that make you feel?  For some it is a relief!  For some it may be a little disappointing but think that through today.
  • What do you find yourself drawn to?  Is it the loud proclaimers of their Spirituality or the humble servants living out a life of love?  Ask yourself why you are drawn to one or the other.
  • How are you doing with loving those around you that aren’t all that easy to love?  We all have those people; do you respond with the energies of prayer?
  • How do you feel about the idea that hurt people, hurt people?  Are you ok with that?
  • How do you feel about the idea that forgiven people, actually forgive people?  Are you able to forgive those who hurt you?
  • Are you slow to speak and quick to listen?  Can you slow down and be focused and present with those around you?  What would it take to slow you down, so you could listen and focus?
  • Are you able to be compassionate?  Can you place yourself in someone else’s shoes?  Does what matters to God, matter to you?  If the answer is no, it’s time to start spending time with Your Heavenly Father and experiencing the shift in focus.

Remember in the end, the highest level of Spiritual Maturity is love.  Everything about living out this real life in Christ is going to come back to doing two things.  Loving God and loving others…Jesus ties them together, you can’t do one and not the other.  For so many Christians we make this about everything and anything but love which I believe is the missing piece to so many of our lives, and the very thing that makes this Christianity thing so much harder than it needs to be.  So, I want you to really look at your life today and ask yourself today what is blocking you from loving well, and take the time each and every day to be with God, who is love, to allow that love of to take hold in your life, and flow out of you into your choices, your priorities and your relationships.

The highest level of Spiritual Maturity is to live love as Jesus did.