So, by now… you all may be wondering why this series is titled: Pilgrim’s Progress. If the title is ringing a bell in your mind and you can’t quite figure out why… that is because Pilgrim’s Progress is probably the most renowned Christian allegory of all time. Followed closely by C.S. Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia and (if you’re willing to stretch the definition of allegory a bit) Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series. Since it publishing date, well over 300 years ago, in 1678, Pilgrim’s Progress has been rewritten over and over, turned into films, and made for TV movies… And the reason that this story has lasted for so long is that its over-aching theme is so quintessentially true, and simple, and perfect. That it never stops speaking to us… But I’m going to leave you guessing as to what that theme is for the moment…
The author of this work was John Bunyan who was born in England during a time when the Puritans were upraising against the Church of England. And when you rise up against the Church of England… back in the 17th Century that meant picking a fight with the English government and monarchy… thus a Civil War broke out during the mid seventeenth century. When I think about this, it takes a bit of a stretch of my imagination for me to think about church going puritans taking up arms… but never the less that happened. And John Bunyan was among them. He was a puritan solider. But after the fighting settled down he then became a pastor in a newly formed Baptist tradition that had also grown out of the puritan rebellion.
Now Bunyan was fiercely pious, and had a great self-imposed sensitivity to sin. He would confess during his lifetime that his sins included having used profane language, having danced, and that he once rung the bells of this local church without permission…
I have a feeling that Bunyan and I would have gotten along… I remember as a middle school youth grouper… whenever out group was leader-less for more that five minutes we would sneak up to the bell tower and ring the bell. If you pulled hard enough on the rope, and you hung on tight… when the bell would swing back, it would lift you straight up off the ground about 3 or 4 feet. So, naturally we found that very amusing! In retrospect I’m surprised that we didn’t bring the old church bell crashing down through the tower into the sanctuary!
But anyway… to get on track… Because Bunyan was pastoring a congregation in the Baptist tradition, which was illegal in England… he was imprisoned for teaching outside of the way of the Church of England. And it was while he was locked up, for twelve years, that he wrote the Pilgrim’s Progress. This story is an interesting cross-roads of fresh imagination and that strict moral code that Bunyan lived by. It is a very unique work.
The story is told as if in a dream. And in this dream a man, aptly named Christian, is told, by a man named Evangelist, about the great Celestial City. So, Christian eagerly and urgently packs his bags because he must see this Celestial City! He must see this Paradise! Be begs his family to go with him. But his wife puts her foot down and says that the kids and her are staying… he can go off on his own for this adventure. So… Christian sadly leaves then behind… because the pull of the Celestial City and the promise of salvation that it holds is so urgent in his heart. On his way there, Christian meets people named: Helper, Obstinate, Pliable, Worldly Wiseman, Formalist, Hypocrisy, Piety, Prudence, Charity, Faithful, Talkative, Mr. By-ends, Hopeful, Diffidence, and Temporary. As you could probably guess, the characters are an embodiment of a value or a moral state they are named after. Christian meet with them, travel’s with them, learns from them, battles along side them as they fled from places called vanity, despair, doubt, humiliation, the valley of the shadow of death… All while seeking out the Celestial City.
I don’t mean to spoil the ending for you… but Christian makes it to the Celestial City… but the thing about arriving at this place of heavenly paradise and salvation is that he couldn’t have made it there without the journey. And this is the great theme! The journey matters. The trials and temptations… the people… the transformation of the heart… the journey matters. The miracle and magic of salvation is perfect in and of itself… but it’s meaning and refining way lies in the fact that it must be sought out. Gone after. It requires a journey! Salvation is an adventure!!
The message I have for you today… is the only message there is, truly. If a pastor were ever to share one truth with their congregation it is this truth. It is the same message that Evangelist gave to Christian… “Go on… Go! The Celestial City awaits you! Just follow the King’s Highway! Remember to stop off at the Cross, to unload your burden… and then go! Go on to Salvation. Go on git!… God speed.”
That’s it! The only message! “Go on git!”
That’s probably not very eloquent, but there it is…
Now… Lets read some scripture.
We find our Scripture today at the “beginning of the end” of the Sermon on the Mount. The Sermon on the Mount is the heart of Christ’s teaching. It outlines our Ethics as Christians. It embodies everything that is new and different about a life spent with Christ. It is our very heart. This passage is the beginning of a series of twos. You hear in our reading that we are going to be talking about two roads or pathways. And following this section is the story of two fruit trees and then of two houses. And when we run into these sections of repetition in Scripture it is supposed to act as a sort of Stop sign. Its saying, “Stop right there! Don’t read another word! You just stumbled onto something really important!”
This section of the sermon on the mount is perhaps Jesus’ most important sermon that he ever spoke.
Read Matthew 7: 7-14
I don’t know if you noticed, but this passage is full of verbs. Full of action words. Ask. Seek. Knock. Open. Give. Do unto others. Enter. Find. That is a ton of action words packed into just seven verses.
A lot of people like to sort of chop this section of scripture into three parts: there is first the “Ask, Seek, and Knock” section where Jesus encourages us to pursue our faith… to be actively involved; then comes the Golden Rule: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Reminding us of the responsibility that we have in our interaction with God’s children; and finally the wide and narrow gates where we are warned not to stray off of the narrow pathway that leads to salvation.
But I really think that when we read these passages, they need to be looked at as a whole. This is the culminating message of the sermon on the mount, and it is one that says this simply: “Go on! Be careful! And stay on track!” These words remind me of a parent that is dropping their child off at the school for the first time. These are very parental words! “Go on! Be careful! Stay on Track!”
They are timeless.
My own parents, when they dropped me off at college, would always holler out the window “Make good choices!” Then speed off as they do…
Parents say this in light of a faith that they have in their child, faith in the refining ability of new experiences, in the very act of growing up, and also faith that comes from knowing that they are their for them should they be needed… Because parents know that the journey is important. And as hard as it is to watch sometimes… when a child falls off the narrow path, gets off track… we are there to pick them up and wash them clean. “Go on! Be careful! Stay on track!”
This is Christ’s message for us. “Go on! Be careful! Stay on track!” And like a good parent, Christ is there to walk the King’s Highway with us.
This is the only message that I spoke of earlier. That God loves us enough to have sent us his son so that we can take that journey towards salvation! And travel in faith! However loaded it is with obstacles, temptation, barriers… the path is before us! In Pilgrim’s Progress.. Christian faced vanity, greed, despair, death… these are all things that we face on our own journey… things that seek to trip us up and throw us off the path… But thank GOD for CHRIST! Who strengthens us against temptation… and who washes us clean and puts us back on the right path when we fail.
For the past several weeks we have been studying the life and movements of our spiritual ancestors. And in these tales, there have been a lot of verbs as well. A lot of going, pursuing, sailing, seeking, chasing, building… there has been a lot of doing. They fled from a country that restricted their worship… They battled the temptation of returning home and giving up, they braved the journey to a new world. They starved and perished as they built their new colony… then (thanks to an act of great mercy) they feasted and thrived… and they continued their walk along the King’s Highway.
The biggest and most important lesson our heritage offers us, is the lesson that our journey is best traveled in togetherness, in community. It is the congregation, as Matthew said in 18:20, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name…” that is the place where real faith can thrive.
Seven years after Bunyan published Pilgrim’s Progress he wrote a second part. That follows Christian’s wife, Christiana as she walks the King’s Highway towards salvation. The big difference in these two parts is that Christiana doesn’t walk the path alone. She takes her children, and as she meets and encounters new people… she invited them to join her in the journey. She walks the path together with her church. A congregation of those seeking out the Celestial City together.
This is what lies at the heart and soul of the Congregational Way.
Walking along the King’s Highway together. Pursing our Lord in faith. Seeking the Cross together.
This Thursday you all will be gathering with your families and friends at the feast table, what the pilgrim’s would have called the Groaning Board… I encourage you all to dwell on the gift of togetherness as you do so. The kind of togetherness that holds Christ at the very center.