This sermon is part of the sermon series "Fruit: It Does a Body Good". See series.
On Dec 5, 1914, Ernest Shackleton embarked on what he called "the last great polar expedition." His goal was to cross Antarctica by dogsled—an uncharted journey of 1,500 miles across the most inhospitable terrain on earth. His crew of 27 was handpicked from a field of 5,000 applicants. The ship that would carry them there was named Endurance. For six weeks they fought their way through frigid seas and ice floes trying to reach the continent, until finally their ship became frozen into the ice pack. There was nothing to do but hunker down for the winter and wait for the spring thaw to release the ship. After ten months in their wooden icebox, spring finally arrived. But instead of releasing the vessel, the shifting ice floes crushed it to pieces.
At this point, Shackleton gathered his men and announced his new mission: to get every man home safely. With the ice pack breaking up, they set up camp on a giant ice floe, hoping the current would carry them toward Paulet Island, where they had provisions stored. Shackleton devoted every waking moment to preserving his men's health, morale, and unity. Day after day he walked from tent to tent, checking on each man. When spirits began to sag, he would order the cook to come up with some hot drink, or call for a talent show.
When it became apparent that the floe was carrying them out to sea, Shackleton ordered the men into three lifeboats they had preserved from the Endurance. After seven harrowing days and nights fighting powerful currents, freezing rain, and massive icebergs, they made it to an uninhabited slab of rock called Elephant Island.
For the first time in 497 days, they set foot on land. But they were far from safe. Elephant Island was far from any shipping route, and no one on earth knew they were there. With morale and provisions running out, Shackleton determined their only course of action was to take one of the boats and head for a whaling station on South Georgia Island for help. That would mean a journey of 800 miles across the most treacherous waters on the planet. As he shoved off with a potion of his crew, Shackleton promised the rest he would come back for them, and the 22 men left behind assured themselves that if anyone could save them, it was Shakleton.
For 14 days the small boat battled gale-force winds and 20 foot seas. They took only four navigational readings during the 800 mile journey. If they were off by even a degree, they would miss South Georgia entirely and be lost at sea. On the 14th day, they spotted land, but the outgoing tide wouldn't allow them to get to shore, so they had to spend another night in the waterlogged boat. That night a hurricane hit, and for nine hours they fought for their lives. When daylight broke, they were able to land in a rocky cove, only to discover they were on the wrong side of the island. The only way to get to the station would be to hike across 22 miles of mountainous terrain that had never been charted or crossed before. Shackleton and two others trudged 36 hours straight before stumbling into the whaling camp like walking corpses.
Shackleton allowed himself one night's sleep, before setting about the task of rescuing the rest of his men. He would have to acquire a ship, and re-cross those hazardous waters. His first three attempts failed, as sea ice prevented him from reaching Elephant Island. During those months, Shackleton's hair literally turned from brown to gray with worry over his men. On his fourth try, Shackelton made it through the ice, and as he approached the island, he saw men gathering on the shoreline to greet him. Anxiously he counted one, two, three … but it wasn't till he reached 22 that he breathed a sigh of relief. "They're all there," he said to his mate, "they're all well." Shakleton kept his word, and delivered every one of his men safely home. That's loyalty. That's commitment. That's faithfulness.
That's the fruit of the Spirit we come to this morning as we continue to grasp God's vision for our relationships with one another in the Body of Christ. What is faithfulness, and what does it look like in the church?
Keeping your word
"Faithfulness" turns out to be one of the most common and important words in the New Testament. It's simply a variation on the word "faith". Faith, of course, is the basis of our relationship with God. To have faith in God is to trust God, to take him at his word, and to put our confidence in him. And God is worthy of that trust. When he says he'll provide, he provides; when he says he'll forgive, he forgives; when he says he'll be there, he is there. In other words, he's faithful. He keeps his word and delivers on his promises.
In Galatians 5:22, Paul takes this word that usually describes God's relationship to us and uses it to describe our relationships with each other. In the same way God is faithful to us—keeping his word and delivering on his promises—we can be faithful to one another.
The English dictionary defines faithfulness as loyalty; dependability; a firm and unchanging attachment to a person or idea. The word assumes there will be challenges to this loyalty—the passing of time, disappointments, setbacks, even danger. Shackleton's rescue is a tale of faithfulness, because he had to overcome so many obstacles to keep his promise. Faithfulness means keeping your word, no matter what.
Let's say you promise a friend you'll come over and play video games on Saturday. Then another friend calls and invites you to go to a movie that day—something you like better. What do you do? If you're a faithful friend, you keep your word and play video games, even though it means passing up a better offer. Or let's say you're talking with a group of people at work, and they start badmouthing a colleague of yours who happens not to be there. What will you do? A faithful colleague will speak up, or walk away, even if it means risking their popularity in the office.
Faithfulness seems to be a vanishing virtue these days. People today stick with something for as long as it works for them but don't hesitate to move on when a better prospect comes along. People change jobs, change homes, change brands, even change spouses with alarming frequency. I talked with a pastor friend recently who was doing a wedding for a couple. As he reviewed the vows, "in sickness and in health, for richer or for poorer, as long as they both shall live," the couple winced, and asked if they could leave those words out because they sounded so ominous.
Loyalty, commitment, and faithfulness are rare commodities these days. It's hard to know who or what you can count on anymore. But, Lewis Smedes writes, "Somewhere people still make and keep promises. They choose not to quit when the going gets rough because they promised once to see it through. They stick to lost causes. They hold on to a love grown cold. They stay with people who have become pains in the neck. They still dare to make promises and care enough to keep the promises they make."
It seems like that "somewhere" ought to be the church. Surely the body of Christ is a place where people keep their word to one another, even when it's inconvenient, or uncomfortable, or difficult, or costly. Unfortunately, it doesn't always work that way.
A collection, or a community?
It wasn't working that way in the church in Galatia, which is one of the reasons Paul wrote this letter and included "faithfulness" in his list of virtues. We learned a few weeks ago that Paul and the Galatians had gotten off to a great start together. He came to them in a time of physical weakness, some sort of sickness, but they welcomed and cared for him and came to faith under his ministry.
But after he left, some other teachers came in and began undermining Paul's ministry, teaching a different gospel, and the Galatians abruptly abandoned Paul and his message. Listen to Paul's plea in Galatians 4:17, 19-20: "Those people are zealous to win you over, but for no good. What they want is to alienate you from us … My dear children, for whom I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you, how I wish I could be with you now and change my tone, because I am perplexed about you!"
You can hear the disappointment in Paul's voice. He thought he could count on these brothers and sisters in Christ to stand by him—to remain true to the gospel. When they abandoned him, it hurt and revealed their immaturity.
A church consultant tells the story of a large, vibrant church he was asked to study. The pastor of this church sensed that something was wrong, even though the church seemed to be thriving. When the consultant interviewed members of the church, he found they were very enthusiastic. "We love it here," they said. "The music rocks. The sermons are relevant to my needs. My kids love it." But when he asked them what would happen if the pastor left, or the music changed, or the kids' programs declined in quality, one after another, without hesitation, said, "Oh, I would leave, and find a church that meets my needs."
What this consultant discovered is that many churches today are simply a collection of individuals pursuing their own interests, rather than a community of people committed to one another's well-being. The only way to get beyond this consumer-mentality is to connect people to one another in deep, caring, and long-lasting relationships. Ultimately, our loyalty isn't to an institution or a building or a program, but to people—to brothers and sisters who are counting on us. And that's where faithfulness comes in. Somewhere there needs to be a place where people keep their word to one another, no matter what.
None have been lost
Before we consider what faithfulness looks like in the church, let's see what faithfulness looked like in Jesus' relationships. Let's go to John 17, to what's often called the High Priestly Prayer of Jesus. On his final night before going to the cross, Jesus prayed for his followers. Let's listen in on that prayer:
After Jesus said this, he looked toward heaven and prayed, "Father, the time has come, glorify your Son, that your Son may glorify you. For you granted him authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent. I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do (John 17:1-4).
There's the first indicator of faithfulness on Jesus' part: "I have brought you glory on earth by completing the work you gave me to do." What was that work? It was to reveal the Father to the world, and to call men and women into relationship with him. By word and action, he has done what he said he would do. But there's more:
I have revealed you to those whom you gave me out of the world. They were yours; you gave them to me and they have obeyed your word …. For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me. I pray for them …. While I was with them, I protected them and kept them safe by that name you gave me. None has been lost except the one doomed to destruction so that Scripture would be fulfilled (John 17:6, 8-9, 12).
Jesus was faithful not only to his Father, but to his friends. Like Shackleton, he had hand-selected these men. He'd fed them, developed them, encouraged them, prayed for them, challenged them, forgiven them, and served them. And it had cost him. It cost him many nights' sleep as he agonized in prayer for them; it cost him his reputation to be associated with unlearned and unsophisticated men; it cost him time and energy to bring them along when he could have done it faster and easier by himself; it cost him heartache when they disappointed and doubted him. And ultimately, of course, it would cost him his life.
But he never quit on them; he never stopped believing in them. In the end, like Shackleton, he delivered each one safely into his Father's hands (except Judas, who by his own free choice refused to be saved, just as the Scripture had predicted). And after the resurrection—after they failed him—he called them together and assured them of his continuing love and care. "Surely I am with you always," he said, "even to the end of the age."
The most amazing thing is that Jesus makes that same commitment to you and me. Listen to the end of his prayer in John 17:20, 24: "My prayer is not for them alone, I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message …. Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory." The Bible tells us that Jesus will continue to intercede on our behalf, until the day he brings us safely into his eternal Kingdom.
That's faithfulness. That's keeping your word. And Paul is telling us that we can be as faithful to one another as Jesus has been to us, by the power of the Holy Spirit.
Our words to each other
So what does keeping our word to one another look like in the church? I thought the most helpful way to answer that question might be to read a portion of our Church Covenant together. For 60 years the Covenant has served to define our life together. It declares that we are more than a collection of individuals pursuing our own interests, but rather a community of people committed to one another's well being. Let's read together a couple of paragraphs from that Covenant.
Empowered by the Holy Spirit, we commit to a common life, which is characterized by the love of Christ. We will regularly engage in worship and the celebration of baptism and communion. We will hold one another accountable to the discipline of Christ-likeness, and we will ground our lives in Christian doctrine. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry, the expenses of the church, the relief of the poor, and the spread of the gospel through all the nations.
We will care for one another in Christian love. We will pray for one another, and come to each other's aid in times of sickness and difficulty. We will be sensitive to each other's feelings and respectful toward one another in our communications. When we have been offended, we will not strike back. And when we have done wrong, we will acknowledge our responsibility. Together we will pursue the ways of forgiveness and reconciliation, and, as Jesus taught, to do it as quickly as possible.
This is what faithfulness looks like here in this body of Christ. We will regularly engage in worship—even when the weather's lousy, and the kids don't want to get up, and we have to say "No" to something else. People are counting on you to be here. We will contribute cheerfully and regularly to the support of the ministry even in times of financial challenge and economic uncertainty, because people are counting on your gifts to sustain the ministry that means so much to them. We will pursue the ways of forgiveness and reconciliation even when it means having a difficult conversation, or admitting that we were wrong, because the Spirit can't flow freely when there's unresolved conflict. We will care for one another and come to each other's aid even when it's inconvenient and we don't know what to say, because most of the time all people really need is for you to be there.
Now, all of this may sound burdensome to you, but I'm afraid there are an awful lot of people who walk out of churches every Sunday and miss out on the joy of community, simply because they aren't willing to be there for one another in these sorts of ways. And if you're feeling guilty right about now and gritting your teeth and saying to yourself, I've gotta try harder, then you're missing the point. This kind of faithfulness can't be produced by guilt or grit. It has to be a work of the Spirit. That work begins with a vision and a prayer—that God might form us into people who keep our word to one another, no matter what.
Lori Dupre has captured that vision and prayer in a collage she created entitled "Faithfulness/Invisible Walls." In words, materials, and images, she has captured both the substance and the beauty of our life together. There are documents—brochures, by-laws, sheet music, Scripture—that represent the nuts-and-bolts of our life together. The words express the commitments we've made. But it's the hands that bring the painting to life. Those hands remind us that faithfulness is about relationships; it's about flesh-and-people who are counting on us to be there for them.
There's one more thing I'd like you to notice about this work: if you look very carefully, you can see beneath everything else the outline of our building here. It's a fine building with attractive lines and inviting spaces. All kinds of wonderful ministries and activities go on in this place. But wouldn't it be great if we were to become so faithful to one another that the most striking thing about our church wouldn't be the building or the ministries, but the relationships described by these hands, joined together in love?
Bryan Wilkerson is pastor of Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.