Getting it Done

How do we move from knowing to doing? Jesus the Master Teacher tells us how.

Full Text: 

 Matthew 7:13-29

In 2000, two Stanford University professors published a book based on their study of corporations.  In corporate life, they said, everybody knows that strategic planning is required, that quality control is important and that customer service is essential.  But it’s one thing to go to a seminar to learn about customer service, for instance, and it is another to do customer service.  The problem, for many corporations, is not a lack of knowledge but the gap between what they know and what they do.  Understandably, the professors called their book, The Knowing-Doing Gap.

It’s not just corporations that suffer from this gap.  All kinds of organizations – schools, agencies, and, yes, churches – suffer from this gap.  Parents and teachers struggle with this gap more than most, whether it’s in the way they parent or teach, or get their children or students not merely to know but to do what is right. 

But everyone really knows about it.  There is not one person here today, I would wager, who is not intimately familiar with the difference between knowing what is good and doing what is good.  If there happens to be someone here today who not only knows what is right to do in every situation, but who also does what is right in every situation, then that person should be the one up here doing the talking.  For even the apostle Paul knows it.  In Romans 7, he says, “I do not understand my own actions.  For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  (Romans 7:15, NRSV)

It is this gap – the gap between knowing and doing – that Jesus addresses in this closing section of the Sermon on the Mount.  In these verses, he issues three warnings and offers one parable of encouragement.

The first warning is, “Enter by the narrow gate.”  You can’t follow the crowd.  You can’t just go with the flow.  It won’t happen naturally or without effort.  To move from knowing to doing takes some intention, some action that will separate you from what others may be doing around you.

The second is, “Don’t pay attention to false teachers.”  In ancient Israel , there were true prophets and false prophets.  How could you tell the difference?  It wasn’t by debating the relative merits of their words, but it was simply to wait and see.  Did what they prophecy come to pass?  Was there peace or was there war?  Was there prosperity or was there affliction?

In the same way, Jesus is telling us, you should not judge a teacher based on his words, but on his deeds.  If this teacher produces good fruit, then pay attention.  If the teacher produces bad fruit, then it would be best if you would ignore that teacher.

The third warning is, “Not everyone who calls me, ‘Master,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven.”  There is no fixed formula that you can follow and there is no flashy resume that will get you into the kingdom of heaven.  It is simple obedience that is the criteria. 

Finally, there is a good-news-bad-news parable: Those who hear these words and seek to build their lives on them will be like those who build their houses on rock.  Those who hear them and do not act on them will be like those who build their houses on sand.

Now you may be ready to push your chair back from the table and say, “Gee, this game is awfully high stakes.  It’s gotten too rich for my blood.”  But I think that, within these warnings, Jesus has actually given us the simple steps it takes to be a real student of Jesus.

First, it takes some effort.  You can’t just cruise along the way things are, expecting Jesus to come and wave a magic wand and change your life for you.  Jesus is great help in time of need.  Make no mistake!  He has done and is able to do things we cannot do ourselves.  That’s what grace is.  But if you want to be a student of Jesus, someone who not only knows what to do, but also does it, you need to make some effort. 

Now, just as a sidelight, I want to say that I like the distinction that Dallas Willard makes between effort and work.  Lutheran theologians are very suspicious of any action that might be used as an attempt to earn our way into God’s grace.  But this is not about earning God’s grace or working our way to salvation.  Jesus already took care of that on the cross.  This is not about earning, Willard says.  It is simply about effort.

I’m still enough of a Lutheran that the word effort can make me queasy.  I do like the word, “intention,” though.  “I intend to be a student of Jesus,” we might say, or, “I intend to be more open to God’s presence in my life today.”  “Intention” may seem to be a fairly weak word.  But in my experience, stating our intention is a way of focusing our heart and mind in a particular direction and stating our intention regularly can have a powerful effect.

First, it takes some effort, even the simple stating of intention.

Second, it takes actually putting the teaching into practice.  It takes trying the teaching out for ourselves.  It’s not enough just to read about it.  It’s not enough just to pass the test at the end of the semester.  You need to practice it, live it, in your own life.  I might even go so far as to say, “Don’t take Jesus’ word for it.  Try it for yourselves.  If I hunger and thirst for righteousness, am I really blessed?  When I love my enemies and pray for those who persecute me, what kind of fruit does it produce in me?  When I approach others with whom I disagree in openness and vulnerability, yet trusting God’s ultimate care, how does that work out?  Is it true to life?

This is what Jesus means by abiding in his word.  “If you continue (abide) in my word, you will know the truth and the truth will make you free.”  (John 8:31-32)  Jesus is not talking about doing continuous Bible study.  He is talking about living his teaching, practicing his teaching in your everyday, real life.  That is how we continue.  That is how we abide.

First, intention.  Second, practice.  Third, obedience.  I think of obedience not so much as a decision (although that’s how Dallas Willard speaks about it) but rather as the natural outgrowth of intention and practice.  If we focus our hearts and minds on becoming a student of Jesus and if, in our practice we come to experience the truth of his teaching on our own, then we will more and more live according to that teaching.  We will not onlyknow what to do.  We will start to do it.

Maybe you are still thinking, “This is way beyond me.  I don’t have the ability.  I don’t have the knowledge.  I don’t have the time.  I can’t even get five minutes by myself to think about these things.”  Then I have a simpler way for you, a way that is also built on the teaching of Jesus and it is this – Ask.  Seek.  Knock.  Thomas Merton once said, “How do you deepen your faith in God?  Do you say, ‘I’m going to go off and deepen my faith in God.  I should be back by this afternoon, suppertime at the latest?’  No, you ask God to deepen your faith.”

So, begin with Jesus’ preaching – “The kingdom of heaven is at hand.”  God is available to you, no matter who you are, no matter where you are, no matter what your circumstance.  Begin with the vision of Jesus.  Then, no matter what you are doing, invite God to act in that situation and expect God to act in that situation. 

You don’t have to go to Africa and be a missionary to be a student of Jesus.  You don’t have to go to seminary and be a pastor to be an apprentice.  You don’t need any special training.  You don’t need any special knowledge.  You don’t need to get your spiritual life together first.  You don’t have to be anyone other than who you are right now and, whether at home or at school, whether at work or at play, you don’t have to do anything different than you are doing now.

Except – ask, seek, knock.  And God, who knows better than anyone in the whole universe how to give good gifts, will be there for you.

You may not think of yourself as a disciple of Jesus.  You may not think of yourself as someone who is seeking God.  Maybe you just have a hunch that there is something going on in the world, something powerful, something amazing, some greater life than you have now.  And you want to be part of it.

All you need to do is ask.