"Bearing Witness"

Matthew 7:15-20

(Sermon 32 in the Standard Sermons of John Wesley)
By: Lauren DeLano

Have you ever heard anyone say, “Do as I say, not as I do.” I’ve heard adults, either parents or authority figures, say this to children and youth many times before. Maybe you’ve said it to your own child before as they question why you just rolled through a stop sign when you’ve been teaching them to obey the law as they learn to drive. Maybe you have seen someone encourage their child to be a good sport as they begin to play youth basketball or soccer, only to see that same parent yelling at coaches and referees during games.

When people utter the phrase, “Do as I say, not as I do,” it’s often someone’s way of saying, “I’ve made a mistake or I’m bending the rules a little bit.” Of course, most of the time people mean no harm when they say this phrase – they recognize that they have made a mistake and they want to make sure anyone in their care doesn’t repeat that mistake. They invite those watching them to hear their words and instructions rather than following their actions. Yet, Jesus warns us against this kind of behavior and warns us against following anyone who has a “do as I say, not as I do” attitude. Because false prophets often say one thing and do another – or have ulterior motives behind their words or actions. It’s hard to trust exactly where they are leading people and it often becomes necessary to ask the question, “what’s in it for them?”

As Jesus concludes his teaching from the sermon on the mount, he is concerned for the disciples and the crowd that has gathered. Though they are called to go out into the world sharing God’s love and seeking to be faithful disciples, he knows they will come across challenging times and challenging people. He wants them to have the tools to be able to identify false prophets or people leading them down the wide path. Thus, we too can learn from his instructions, for there are certainly false prophets in our world today seeking to lead us astray.

We must look beyond the outward appearance of a person and dig deeper than the words that people proclaim, or we might be tricked into believing or following the wolves that are dressed in sheep’s clothing. If we’re not careful we may become like Little Red Riding Hood, trusting she will find her grandmother in her bed when she arrives at her house, only to find out there is a big bad wolf there instead. In this passage, we find that Jesus gives us an extremely simple tool to discern whether people are true or false prophets: he says not once but twice that “we will know them by their fruits.”

Rather than using this tool though, we often get distracted by other questions – wondering if people are devoted to our specific political party or religious tradition. “But parties, groups, and traditions have a way of attracting both genuine believers and true prophets on the one hand and false prophets and hangers-on on the other. The only way to be sure is to look for fruit from the tree, and to be sure what sort of fruit it is.”[1]

In the first century, as the church was outlining ways to determine whether someone was a false prophet or not, they created a list of rules: noting that a true prophet would ask to stay in someone’s home for one night or two at the very most. If they asked to stay for a third night, they were a false prophet. Also, a true prophet would never ask for money for themselves, though they might ask for money for someone in need. But, otherwise the most they were to ask for was bread for sustenance. Today, we might determine someone is a false prophet if they lead the church to seek judgment rather than to give mercy, or they celebrate self-righteousness rather than lifting up the love of Christ; if they seek to gain glory for themselves, and call for division rather than an appreciation of difference. In all of these examples, rather than bearing good fruit, they are breeding distrust and division – leading both themselves and others to bear bad, rotten fruit.

Yet, a true prophet seeks to help others grow in knowledge and faith. They seek to point others to Christ rather than themselves. And they listen to God, seeking to tell of God’s love and grace in the world – which is available to all, not just those who hold certain beliefs or act in a certain way. And, certainly, most true prophets will challenge you, pushing you to look beyond yourself to the needs of others in our world. They ask us to be disciples who, while we might not be perfect, strive for justice, peace, and love to emanate from within so that others might know Christ’s love and grace. They remind us that we are to do as we say and as we do because our words and our actions matter.

So far though, by discerning between true and false prophets, this passage only requires us to look upon others and their fruit – determining whether they bear good fruit or not. But, I don’t think that is all Jesus is calling for in these verses. For, as we’ve talked about numerous times, Jesus’ teachings in the Sermon on the Mount, always require us to look in the mirror. And in this passage, we are not to be let off the hook. For each of us are called to determine whether we are telling the truth of the Gospel and living out the Gospel as disciples.

This passage has certainly led me to reflect on my own faith life this week, as I have prepared for this sermon. Because of the vocation I have chosen, my journey as a disciple of Christ is on display each week as I lead Bible studies and as I preach each Sunday, and in the many other ways my ministry unfolds. And you all, as people in this faith community, must discern whether I am a truth teller and hold me accountable to the Gospel. This certainly doesn’t mean I will be perfect – because I don’t think that a tree that bears good fruit must be perfect – but it means that I strive to do my best to love mercy, do justly, and walk humbly with God each day. It means that as I stand in the pulpit and teach in other ways that I do my best to be both pastoral and prophetic as I listen for God and the way God is moving in my life and in the life of this congregation. This, too, is what the staff of this church is called to do – in children’s and youth ministries, in music and in missions, in discipleship and stewardship – we are all called to be people who believe that God is moving in this place and invite you along to experience the good fruit and join us in bearing good fruit. We know that we and others are true prophets – truly living on the narrow way when our fruits match our inward nature and our community is overflowing with good fruit.

God invites each of us into an abundant life that calls us to bear good fruit. And, it is certainly worthwhile for each of us to spend time reflecting on whether we are true prophets – leading people into love, offering grace to each person we meet, seeking to bring about God’s kingdom here on earth as it is in heaven. For each of us are called to be preachers of the Good News of the gospel, none of us are exempt from the call to bear good fruit.

This morning as we baptized Cooper, you all agreed to proclaim the good news and to live according to Christ’s example. Committing to surrounding him in love and forgiveness. As individuals who make up a faith community that seeks to raise one another up in love and in the example of Christ, we must continually examine the fruits we bear as individuals and as a community. By what fruits do people know you? By what fruits do people know our congregation? How do you bear witness to God through good fruits? Amen.

[1] Wright, N.T. Matthew for Everyone: Part I. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 77.