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The Church and Spiritual Growth

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,

because he has anointed me

to proclaim good news to the poor.

He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives

and recovering of sight to the blind,

to set at liberty those who are oppressed,

to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor. And he rolled up the scroll and gave it back to the attendant and sat down. And the eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them,

“Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

Luke 4:18–21

Jesus’ healings in Luke are not demonstrations of personal power but signs that a comprehensive saving purpose, which embraces the physical as well as all other dimensions of life, is being realized in the world. …The emphasis on the response of gratitude to Jesus suggests that Jesus should not be forgotten once the help has been received, for receiving help can and should be the start of a lasting relationship, as with Peter, who follows Jesus after the healed women, who accompany Jesus on his journeys (Luke 8:2-3). Enjoying Jesus’ benefits is not sufficient; his mighty acts must be seen as signs of God’s reign, as calls to repentance and invitations to participate in God’s purpose through bearing fruit steadily as disciples.

The Narrative Unity of Luke-Acts A Literary Interpretation, Volume One: The Gospel according to Luke by Robert C. Tannehill

The healings of Jesus are always curious things, even the raising of Lazarus. We know one thing about all of these people: their healing wasn’t permanent in this life. Lazarus, of course, died…again. The blind lost their sight again potentially in their old age. So what is the point? Was Jesus just teasing them? Was he tricking them with a good show? Of course the problem is that this would go completely against the whole teaching of Jesus. Let’s consider the two quotes above since I think they help us have a better explanation of what is happening.

First, in the synagogue in Nazareth, which is the story Luke begins his narrative of the ministry of Jesus with, Jesus reads aloud from the Isaiah scroll and preaches. He says, ‘Today, this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ The passage in Isaiah anticipates the work of Jesus the Messiah. It anticipates the Servant of God, who would come to preach and heal. It predicts the Suffering Servant of God whose death would initiate a new humanity and proclaim release, forgiveness.

Luke then hangs his storytelling to us about the life of Christ on this revelation in Nazareth. The reaction of the Nazarites displayed the typical reaction to Jesus from hard-hearted people. So Jesus came to heal, and to proclaim forgiveness. Many would receive this healing work with gratitude, but many would reject it and him. And we come to realize that healing necessarily coordinates with forgiveness. Remember the 10 lepers who were healed? What does Jesus say to the grateful one who actually returned to thank Jesus? ‘Rise and go your way; your faith has made you well.’ The 9 others were cleansed, but only this one was ‘made well.’ Isn’t this regularly the case? Tannehill is astute to point this out. Jesus’ healing was a sign of comprehensive saving purpose. That leper was healed spiritually and physically. Peter is one of the disciples who follows in this same pattern. Having received a miracle with a miraculous catch of fish, he lives the rest of his life in falling-forward repentance. We’re making progress here, even if it looks different than expected. And we see continuing examples, both negative and positive either rejecting Christ or returning to Him, throughout the rest of Luke-Acts such as Levi, Simon the Magician in Acts, Ananias and Sapphira, and the apostle Paul.

What of it all? The Gospel of Luke, I think is one amazing portrait hammering down what disciples look like, what it looks like for us to live as a grateful, repentant disciple of Jesus. Disciples are characterized by initial healing (what we most often call salvation), but they are also characterized by growth or fruitfulness. I think Kierkegaard had a phrase, ‘inward deepening.’ Although he may have used it in a specific way, I would like to describe such growth as inward deepening. In other words, I long to see Christians slowly but steadily growing. It honestly isn’t the flash bang success that we might have thought or that we wish for, but this slow growth is an enduring kind. Though our outer self is wasting away, inwardly we are being renewed day by day.

We had a conversation with some friends the other day and somehow some formerly Christian singers were mentioned. It’s sad that they reportedly left the faith. But I wonder if part of the problem is that they were elevated when they were young to a place of unacknowledged, de facto authority. In our weird world, often we ingest and are discipled by our music more than the local church, making the musician a teacher of sorts. In any case, the position they gained was a place where their spiritual growth drove them to despair instead of deepening. And there are many variations on the problem of a lack of regular spiritual growth. Some people I know had an amazing time of spiritual growth in college, but then have ended up not seeming to not grow any more after they turned 22, maybe because of the busy-ness of life—getting married, having kids and the like. But what I long to see in our church (and prayerfully I am inclined to think I have) is people who have this inward deepening throughout their whole life wherever they go and no matter the position they achieve. Instead of turning in on ourselves or pursuing selfish motives, we come to know the gospel again and again and allow its glory to illumine and restore the most broken parts deepest within us. The gospel does this for the youngest among us and the most mature.

And God has established his church to proclaim and be at the heart of our spiritual growth, in a weekly rhythm of returning to God, in repentance and healing. It has been easy throughout history for us to be distracted by other things, even serious things. Historically war and famine have been big ones, but we might be distracted by movies, latte making or biking. But when we see such inward deepening, we will also see a slow but sure renewal of the Christian gathering and engagement with the basic truths of the gospel. The church is our regular gathering where we sing, pray, preach, and display the gospel. The gospel permeates our worship, and it bubbles over into our own spiritual growth, into our fruitfulness. This is why it is not a small thing to miss the church gathering. Instead, done regularly, it is a sinful habit. We don’t just recite dead texts, sing dead songs and head home. Instead, we’re here to proclaim the good news of life and healing so that we might grow, bit by bit, day by day. And it is with the end that we might have a more perfect fellowship with our God here and now, as we look forward to the day when we will forever be with our Lord. The end, the goal. is our God himself, the fountain of living water. He is our joy, our glory.

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