Bible passages from the book of Acts are recommended for our consideration each year at this time. After Jesus’ resurrection on Easter and his ascension into heaven forty days later, his disciples started telling his story and sharing his teachings, to people in and beyond Jerusalem, eventually resulting in the formation of Christian churches. So on the Sundays following Easter, we often review the stories of their doing that – and those stories are found in the book of Acts.
One thing the book of Acts emphasizes is that the early church grew, as the story of Jesus was told. It grew in numbers, and it grew in faith. “Growing in numbers” is a concept we pretty easily understand, though it’s not quite as easy a thing to actually do as we would like. “Growing in faith” is a little more ambiguous phrase: what all does it mean, to “grow in faith”?
The letter to the Hebrews, one of those letters written to an early, developing Christian Church, this one made up of Jewish people, tells us one thing it means: “By this time,” it says, “you ought to be able to teach the faith. But instead you are still stuck, on the basics – like a little child still drinking milk who should have moved on to solid food by now. Let us go on,” the people are exhorted, “leaving behind the basic teachings, not laying over and over again the foundation.” It’s time for you to move ahead, progress, grow in your faith.
Like a student still practicing addition and subtraction when they should have moved on to algebra and geometry; like a reader re-reading their second-grade textbook for the fourth time, when they should be up to fifth or sixth grade level now; like a person in their tenth month on the job still acting like a trainee; like a 23-year-old who keeps riding a bike because they’re afraid of learning to drive; a Christian should not decide they can stay put and just review the basics over and over again. There’s always more we can learn, more to do, progress to be made. “Let us go on,” keep growing in our faith.
Other New Testament verses reinforce the point, and shed a little light on what it means. II Thessalonians 1:3: “We must give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters, because your faith is growing, abundantly, and your love for one another is increasing.” I Corinthians 14: 20: “Brothers and sisters, do not be children in your thinking.” The Gospels of John and Matthew both link progress to one’s knowledge of Jesus’ teachings; after one knows the story of Jesus and professes faith in him, one is expected to move on and become familiar with what he taught: “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments. Those who keep my commandments are those who love me.” (John 14: 15 & 21) “Make disciples of all nations,” he tells the disciples, “baptizing them and teaching them, to obey everything I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28: 19-20) Our job as Christians is not simply to be saved, and consider ourselves a finished product, but then to progress, to learn and do what Jesus wants, to keep becoming better Christians.
There are several forms this progress takes:
- The first, we’ve just seen, is to become ever more familiar with Jesus’ teachings, and with the Bible. A Christian who is familiar with about then Bible verses, and keeps repeating them to him or herself, and never bothers to read the rest of the book . . . well, has a pretty clear starting point for how they can grow in faith: get to know the rest.
- Working on how to apply the Bible to one’s daily life is a second way: taking what’s in the book and putting it into practice; ethics; doing what Jesus would do.
- Getting stronger in payer, through practice, is a third way. I hope that someone who’s been a Christian for thirty years says other things to God besides “God is great, God is good,” and “Now I lay me down to sleep.” We make progress by practicing speaking and listening to God.
- Having confidence in our faith, a firm belief that it is true, is a fourth way. The more we come to church, and discuss our faith, and put it into practice, and see that it works, the less likely we are to keep regressing to the “Stage One” question “Could this be true?”
- Being able to put what we believe into words, to tell someone else what Christianity is, is also growth in faith. And if we need to, we can always practice, with the people here around us.
- And putting the gifts God has given us to work, instead of hiding them, using our talents, whether that be serving as a church officer, Sunday School teacher, choir member, puppeteer, committee member, Fellowship time provider, hospital visitor, greeting card sender . . .
The “Mission Yearbook” once gave an example of someone who grew in faith, once she had the chance: In her native Cuba, Yusimy Hernandez was discouraged from proclaiming Christ by her government and culture. Certain celebrations had to be hidden, behind curtains and closed doors. Upon moving to Louisville, Kentucky, she could have had the perfect excuse to keep quiet, keep to herself: that’s the only kind of Christianity she had ever known. But in the next few years she took full advantage of her opportunity to be a Christian-in-public now: helping new Cuban immigrants get oriented to this country, coordinating a Spanish-language class for expectant mothers, teaching in the nursery. She was still learning, with the children, some of the Bible stories she could never hear before, but she never used that as an excuse to not profess and live out her faith. She put her God-given talents to work.
Another example comes from an interview I was part of: The Presbytery’s Committee on Ministry, on which I served, was speaking with a candidate to become a pastor in one of the churches of the Presbytery. He was describing his transition from being raised in an independent Baptist church to becoming a Presbyterian pastor. Now this is not true of all Baptist churches, but in his Baptist church, he said, the people never moved beyond discussing their own personal salvation. Every Bible passage they read, every Sunday School discussion they had, they related to “How does this affect my personal salvation? How does this impact my chance of going to heaven? Does this reveal anything that might endanger my being on God’s list, of ‘the saved’?” They never moved on, to those other things Christians are to care about: helping others, spreading the gospel, praying for others, feeding the hungry, addressing matters of injustice, cooperating with other churches on community programs . . .
Move on, already! If you’ve professed your faith in Jesus, and confessed your sin, you’ve been forgiven, and God’s grace has saved you. It’s done! You’re in! Now move on, to living the life that pleases God in response, not laying again the foundation: “But am I really saved? Am I sure? Maybe I should just pray for myself again…”
Four applications, today, of those passages that say we’re supposed to keep progressing in faith, not get stuck on the basics. The first has to do with church participation, at things like worship, Sunday School, and Bible study: If you portray faith as a light switch – it’s either “on” or “off,” you either believe or you don’t, end of discussion – you will easily find excuses to not participate in the faith community. “Yep, said I believed in Jesus, at the end of that 8th grade confirmation class. Now that’s done; I’m covered. I can send in a few bucks each year to maintain my membership, maybe show up at Christmas.” But if you take the Biblical view of faith, that it’s something that starts as a seed and continues to grow, always getting bigger, always trying to bear more fruit pleasing to God, then you’ll know: there’s always something more I can learn, about what the Bible says, about how to lead a Christian life, about how to use my gifts to please God. You’ll know that our Christian education never ends, that it’s not just for children. It’s time to move on, beyond the basics.
The second application is our attitude as we participate: Are you here to learn, to grow, to progress . . . or have you come as a self-appointed guardian of the faith instead, a watchdog, to make sure no one here ever says anything you haven’t heard before, no one complicates your faith? Some people do that, you know: decide at age 20, or 40, or 68, that they know the whole Christian story now, and that their job now is to make sure no preacher or teacher or participant in a a discussion ever tries to say anything new or different, that they haven’t heard before: make sure they never introduce a new interpretation of a Bible story, no matter how well they can back it up Biblically; never find a new application for Bible teaching – “hey, we could put this verse to work in the way we do that”; make sure no one ever has a new idea about how to do something here, like worship, or involving the kids, or fellowshipping together. Well, if someone is putting all their energy into policing, guarding, shooting down all suggestions . . . how can they at the same time be open to learning, growing, developing? How can they move on, beyond their set of basics? With what attitude do we participate?
The third application is a pretty simple one: Notice that the verse in Acts didn’t say: “growing in numbers, and insisting that those members over there keep growing in their faith, but not me.” No, it’s each person’s responsibility to keep their own growth going, not just to talk about the failure of someone else to progress in the way we think they ought: “Oh, should she be wearing that to church?” “Isn’t that child old enough to stay through the whole service?” Haven’t you adopted my opinion yet?” Growing is not a transitive verb, something you do to other people: “I’m going to grow you.” Growth is something we monitor in ourselves.
And the fourth application is a little story, about growth and relationships. As Sherry grew up from child to adult in her church, faithfully attending Sunday School, then Youth Fellowship, then the adult programs, her fondest memories were always of her second-grade Sunday School teacher, Mrs. Milliron. Sherry remembered everything Mrs. Milliron had ever taught her, every learning game they ever played in class, was terribly disappointed, even twenty years later, when Mrs. Milliron had to move out of the state to be where her daughter could look after her.
So when Mrs. Milliron had to leave, Sherry took it upon herself to keep the Milliron ideals alive. She dedicated herself to the Milliron version of Christianity. Mrs. Milliron had taught her the basic Bible stories, like Jesus in the manger, and David and Goliath, and Noah bringing exactly two of every kind of animal onto the ark. She had taught rules of Christian behavior, from fundamental Biblical standards like the Ten Commandments to her own opinions, such as if a person ever has an alcoholic beverage, even as a wedding toast, “they aren’t really a Christian.” She had passed along principles of Christian leadership, from how the New Testament said elders should act to her belief that pastors shouldn’t be married, because, she said, “none of the disciples were.” And she presented rules of family life, from the need for love and respect between family members to her conviction that mothers shouldn’t work outside the home.
And Sherry was so dedicated to Mrs. Milliron that Sherry neglected to distinguish between the wonderful Bible stories Mrs. Milliron told, and her teacher’s personal opinions. Sherry decided she didn’t care that Genesis 7 points out that actually fourteen of certain kinds of animals went on the ark, or that the Bible speaks of Peter’s mother-in-law, a person a disciple usually doesn’t have in his life unless he has a wife. No, if anybody ever said anything that went against what Mrs. Milliron said, why Sherry would not ever trust that person again. She questioned the qualifications of any Sunday School teacher who ever taught something different, decided not to respect any preacher who read Genesis 7 from the Bible, or any other passage that put a “Millironism” in question. She made it clear at Bible Study that your comments were not needed here, if they didn’t support the Millioronist faith. And so Sherry gradually broke her ties with more and more church members, even chased some of them out of the church, because she was so stuck on the second-grade version of her faith – wouldn’t learn, wouldn’t change, wouldn’t grow.
“Let us go on,” the author of Hebrews writes, “leaving behind the basic teaching about Christ, not laying again and again the foundation.” Let us be Christ’s Church, the way the first Christian Church showed us how: growing in numbers, and growing in faith.
And let’s pray: God, we ask that you show each one of us what our unique needs and adjustments might be, so that we can grow in our faith. Help us to become ever-better disciples. AMEN.