Last week I read chapter 3 of Luke's Gospel. In meditating on this passage, the words of John to the masses caught my attention. In the contemporary German translation Hoffnung für Alle in verse 8 John says:
Zeigt erst einmal durch Taten, dass ihr wirklich zu Gott umkehren wollt.
Show first through deeds that you really want to return to God.
This translation emphasizes what doesn't stand out so strongly in the English translations I have read, that those who claim they want to come back to God should demonstrate this not with empty words or by undergoing some ritual, but in living transformed lives.
John continues by warning the people that the axe is ready to cut down any tree that doesn't bear fruit. In my church background, bearing fruit has most often been understood in terms of “winning souls for Christ.” Those who are not making converts are unfruitful and therefore in danger of being cut down and discarded (into the fires of hell?) But I don't think John has this in mind when he speaks here. The context of the passage doesn't support it, nor do other parts of the New Testament, where we find the fruit of God's spirit within us being evidenced by the manner in which we live (consider Galatians 5:22-23 and Colossians 3:12-17)
What does the evidence of repentence look like according to John the Baptizer? He tells those who have two shirts to give one away and to share their food with those who have none. He tells tax collectors and soldiers not to exploit and abuse their positions but to be content. Interestingly, he doesn't tell them to be more diligent in their personal devotions. He doesn't tell them to cut themselves off from interacting with the world around them. He doesn't tell them to pray more or to evangelize more. He doesn't tell them to be more spiritual. He tells them to demonstrate their transformed hearts through loving action that affirms the dignity and value of others.
In this season of Lent, many Christians choose to give up one or more things as a sacrifice to help focus body and soul on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. I think there can be value in this, although I do not see it as an essential aspect of Christian life. However, Julie Clawson writing about the potential conflict between Lent and Valentine's Day, caught my attention with her focus on going beyond personal spiritual practices during this Lenten season.
Instead of giving up chocolate or Facebook for Lent, we could work to aid those our culture dictates we exclude. We could provide the blessing of marriage to those our culture forbids to let marry. We could provide aid to those our culture says are unwelcome sojourners in our midst. We could work to ensure that our churches truly are a welcoming house of prayer for all peoples. It may be uncomfortable and perhaps even difficult to work for the good of those our culture would rather us despise or exclude (although I doubt it will get us beheaded), but perhaps that’s what being a martyr for the sake of love means these days.
I think she is right when she states that “It is a lot easier to focus on our personal spiritual development than it is to work for the good of others.” Certainly the two are connected, as working for the good of others flows out of our relationship with God. I see a connection as well with the words of John in Luke 3. We demonstrate our repentance not primarily through acts of personal piety, but through acts of loving service to others. The first may be difficult, but the second is more so.
How do we best demonstrate that our encounter with God transforms our lives? Do we do it best through more church activities, attending worship services as often as possible, joining multiple Bible studies, listening only to Christian radio? Some of those activities may be useful, even necessary. But surely we should give evidence of our transformed lives even more in the way we work to express love to others, to affirm their dignity and worth, to create a more equal and just society, to worship God through caring for creation. May our lives produce bountiful fruit—for the benefit of the people and society around us, as well as for our global community. In this way we honor and worship the God of our salvation.