One Thing Lacking

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Listen to “One Thing Lacking” by Fred Smith

 

Several times in the New Testament we encounter the surprising notion that the best people are lacking something.  The rich young man was quick to answer he had obeyed all the commandments and lived a life of integrity since he was a boy. Jesus loved him immediately and said, “You still lack one thing.” It was one thing too much and he went away sad. 

In Ephesus, Paul’s companions meet Apollos, a rare individual with all the right preparation for the work. He had the pedigree, the skills, the connections, the accent and polished ability to both attract and refute. An extraordinary talent. Yet, as they listened to him they realized with all his compelling brilliance and eloquence he was lacking one thing. He had only experienced the baptism of John. The baptism of repentance. There were many gospels in the early church and the numbers of those who followed John the Baptist were growing rapidly. They were zealous, well-intentioned, and, ironically, rivals for Paul’s gospel of Jesus.

Then, when Paul comes to Ephesus he meets other believers who, like Apollos, had received only the baptism of John.

“While Apollos was at Corinth, Paul took the road through the interior and arrived at Ephesus. There he found some disciples and asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you believed?”

They answered, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.”

So Paul asked, “Then what baptism did you receive?”

“John’s baptism,” they replied.

Paul said, “John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He told the people to believe in the one coming after him, that is, in Jesus.” On hearing this, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.”

The baptism of John is about repentance and personal improvement. His followers understood the priority of living a moral and disciplined life and to exhibit those things proving they had turned from their sins. In fact, there could have been no more integrity filled, honest, moral, ethical and right living people in the community. But they had not received the power of a new life – just the desire for remaking the old one. There was no doubt about their character but they were doing it on their own with the best of intentions. They were improved but not new. Their ways and intellects were changed but not their hearts and so would never be able to grasp the love that surpasses all knowledge. The one who is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us would be incomprehensible to them. The power of repentance is not the same as the power of a life bought with a price and the power of personal morality is not the same as the power of a transformed mind. The religion of individual improvement will never understand being rooted and established in love together with all the saints. The power of more and more knowledge will never comprehend what surpasses knowledge. The religion that only sees turning our individual life to a better ethic will never understand the call to be a connected family, to see ourselves as only a part of generations of believers that go on forever and ever. Repentance is not resurrection.

A Different Faith

There could be no better leaders in charge of a church, a city, or even an entire country. They understood the necessity of confessing and repenting for sin while making every effort to lead a better life. I have no doubt they were upstanding citizens and people to be trusted with responsibility. I would consider it a privilege and a blessing to be a citizen of their country. However, there was one thing they lacked. The Holy Spirit.

Sometimes it seems this is what people want when they talk about national revival and a return to the traditional values of our history. They quote the Old Testament passage about turning from their wicked ways in repentance in calling for a return to integrity, morals, honesty, and a country that is rooted and established in faith. But what faith? For that they could have the faith of the Stoics residing in Ephesus. They too believed in justice, courage, piety, industriousness, modesty, and moderation. All good things. But that is a faith far different from Paul’s gospel. That faith is closer to John’s. It is a good ethic but not capable of comprehending what Paul describes as the supernatural Spirit in the life of the believer. It is good and not to be despised but incomplete. It was, perhaps, the faith that Paul most feared would recapture the church when he left them. 

It is admirable but, sadly, lacking one thing.

 

Art by Fanatic Studio

 

 

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  • Avatar
    David Thom
    Reply

    Hi Fred, your chaplain from MIT here. Your entire theme is spot on. Whether we say Jesus or The Holy Spirit I think we’re getting that “the one thing” is a relationship with God as fully revealed in Jesus and The Spirit. That means to me that John preached a relationship with God too, just not yet fully revealed in Christ. I don’t think John would just preach morality. When Jesus speaks to the rich young ruler and says, “If you wish to be complete, go and sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow Me” He actually says several things – but to tease the young man – the only one thing he lacks is following Him – but like you said Fred, He teases the young man that “its not about morality.” The young man’s earlier answer of “perfect morality” was either a lie or a teasing of Jesus. Teasing is “banter” or repartee, it shows they’re being friendly with each other. Jesus “inverts” the order of what’s important, putting Himself last, in part, at least, to tease the ruler that he could never be that morally perfect with his riches unless he followed just & only Him. This teasing is a pretty good theory (can’t prove it) because when the passage says the young man “went away grieving; for he was one who owned much property” The mood clearly flips. No more smiles and winking. His property was #1 and he just wanted to be moral – he didn’t want Jesus #1. Almost every other interpreter I’ve ever read (except you!) thinks the man didn’t want to be moral, that he didn’t want to help the poor. He probably already was helping the poor otherwise he wouldn’t have the guts to come to Jesus. His bantering with Jesus was something he thought he earned. I like how Jesus knew the guy deserved the ultimate challenge and He knew He’d be turned down. He needed time to think about it. Bet he came around!

    • Fred Smith
      Fred Smith
      Reply

      Thank you! First, I love what you are doing at the Cambridge Roundtable. I think I told you before that my first sermon was in the Kresge Chapel for MIT students. They paid me $5 and the check was issued from the Department of Artificial Intelligence.

      Second, I think you may be right about his coming around eventually – at
      least I would like to think so. My experience with young men in his situation is they do “come round” or they live with that choice the rest of their lives. It does not go away. How much of our literature is about that choice and how we respond?

  • Avatar
    Clare Frist
    Reply

    This is such an important message! Thank you for articulating it so well. An accompanying thought is that there are two types of “good” people, those who want to be the final judge of their own goodness, and those who are willing to hear and accept from God who they really are and then live by grace and humble obedience.

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