Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21
In tonight’s Ash Wednesday Gospel lesson, Jesus talks about four spiritual disciplines of the Christian life and how we should approach them. A spiritual discipline is a practice by which we surrender our lives to the Lordship and love of the God we know in Jesus in a particular way.
As children, if our parents truly loved us, we experienced being disciplined. (Christian parents are called to discipline in love, not punish in anger, by the way.) My parents taught me basic lessons of respect for one’s elders, consideration of others, and thriftiness by, initially, imposing discipline on me so that I would live out of these values. I didn’t always adhere to their expectations of me.
But usually, discipline imposed out of love eventually does have its effect until discipline imposed becomes discipline embraced as parts of the ways we live.
When we become adults, you know, we can become a bit self-indulgent. We slack off on self-discipline because there are few people who will tell us what to do, even when a discipline may be good for our health or our souls.
When I was growing up for example, my parents had strict rules about no snacking after school or before dinner. I lived that discipline for a long time, until just a few years ago. Now I graze too much. My waistline shows this breakdown in personal discipline. Like Saint Paul in Romans 7, I can say: “I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing.”
Now, eating without discipline may seem trivial, although we know that even if a Christian never reaches a state of “morbid obesity,” there are, speaking for myself anyway, spiritual implications to overeating. In First Corinthians 6:19, we’re reminded that what we do with and to our bodies is significant: “Do you not know that your bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God? You are not your own…”
In a very real sense, the ways we use our bodies--from overeating to engaging in sex outside of marriage, from binge drinking to driving ourselves to exhaustion for whatever reason--represent our futile attempts to grasp for the joy or the personal significance that only comes from God. And if we aren’t willing to voluntarily submit to the discipline of the gracious God Who, through Christ, loved and redeemed us before we even knew we needed His help, we are in rebellion and risk blocking Christ and life with God completely from our lives. The stakes then can be high for things we may count as trivial.
Please don’t misunderstand! We are saved from sin and hell by grace through faith in Jesus Christ alone. That truth is central to our faith and lives as Christians. Spiritual disciplines won’t save us. Only Christ does that.
But spiritual disciplines are means by which we open ourselves up to the saving work of Christ in every aspect of our lives.
Think of it in this way: Until you turn on your laptop, desktop, smartphone, or TV, you’re not going to see the Super Bowl, Game of Thrones or the 700th presidential campaign debate of 2016. Spiritual disciplines are the channels by which believers open their wills and lives to the grace and guidance of God.
Throughout this Lenten season, our midweek gatherings will focus on Reach Up, Reach In, Reach Out, the six words we use to summarize the mission of Living Water as a congregation and as individual disciples who are part Living Water.
To help unpack the meaning of those six simple words, in coming weeks, we’ll focus on six spiritual disciplines that God can use to strengthen our faith and to fulfill our mission and purpose as disciples of Jesus Christ. There are many spiritual disciplines; starting next week, we’ll look at just six foundational ones.
But tonight, Jesus speaks with us about four such disciplines of the Christian life:
- giving to the needy;
- fasting; and
- using all of your money in a way that honors God.
Discipline one Jesus mentions is giving to the poor. When we do so, He says, our motivation shouldn’t be to look upstanding and honorable to the crowd, but to give because it’s the right thing for those of us who have more to share with those who have less, whether anybody else sees it or not. God does give the world its daily bread. There's more than enough for every person on earth. It’s up to us who have been given more of it to share our excess to others, to even things out.
Jesus then talks about the discipline of prayer. In this case too, Jesus says, don’t pray to be noticed by others. If we play to the crowd when we pray, we get the very thing we’re looking for, the notice of the crowd. But we won’t be connecting with God, which is the real purpose of all spiritual disciplines. And prayer can be a joyous connection with God. When we pray to God in Jesus’ name, we become conduits by which His grace, love, and power enter the lives and circumstances for which we pray. It’s an awesome and humbling thing!
Jesus then talks about, “When you fast…” We’ve noticed on previous Ash Wednesdays the significance of Jesus not saying “If you fast…” He assumes that fasting will be part of the Christian life. Fasting as a seasonal discipline during Lent is fine, of course. But the real purpose of fasting is to remove from our lives all immoderate or even sinful behaviors that get in the way of our loving God, loving our neighbor, or being a faithful disciple of Christ. You can fast from anything--food, social media, excessive TV viewing. You can fast from particular sins with the intention of exorcising the habits that undergird those sins from your life forever, so that your fast from that sin is lifelong. But never should we fast, says Jesus, to get applause for our piety. Except when enlisting prayer partners or spiritual mentors in praying for you and supporting you in the pursuit of your fast, no one else should even know that you’re fasting. It’s your own connection to Christ, not someone else’s.
Finally, Jesus addresses the spiritual discipline of using our financial assets in eternal things. In this discipline, we honor God with our money. This isn’t necessarily about giving to a local congregation, though every believer is called to do that. And the adoption of this discipline doesn’t mean that we can’t sometimes use our money for fun things. Fun can feed our faith too, you know. But Jesus is saying, invest in things that last, eternally. According to the Bible, only one thing on this earth will last eternally, and that’s the people of God, the Church, the fellowship of believers in Christ. When you invest in people, whether by writing a check or getting involved in a mission project or telling a coworker about Christ, you’re seeking to help the people in whom you invest to know Jesus Christ so that, like you, they can enjoy life with God now and in eternity. Absent the investment of our time, our talents, and our treasures in people who need Christ, they will be lost for eternity in their sin.
Always, the measure of the worth and the power in our exercise of spiritual disciplines--whether these listed by Jesus tonight or those we’ll address in the coming weeks--isn’t whether the world notices us or not, it’s whether our motivation is to honor the God Who sent Jesus to die and rise for us.
Without that motive, our disciplines are meaningless.
With them, we become the humble means by which God makes disciples of Jesus Christ, starting with us.
More next Wednesday.