“Sharks in the Aquarium” Ephesians 4: 7-16

Before Jimmy Johnson offered pregame commentary on Fox NFL Sunday, he was quite a successful football coach at both the professional and collegiate level.  As coach of the Dallas Cowboys, he led his team to two consecutive Super Bowl victories.  A few years ago, I read an interesting tidbit about Coach Johnson: he collected and enjoyed exotic fish.  He enjoyed them so much that he had seven saltwater aquariums in his Florida home.  Notice that I said salt water.  By the way, I also found out that the plural of aquarium is either aquaria or aquariums.

Among the varieties of fish in Coach Johnson’s aquaria were sharks.  That’s right; saltwater sharks in the aquarium.  Some NFL fans are probably thinking, “What a fitting pet for Jimmy Johnson.”  I understand that sharks are caught in the ocean when they are very young and small.  But sharks are strange in that, unlike other fish, they grow in proportion to their environment.  So a full grown mature shark could be eight feet or eight inches.

The surroundings determine the size of the shark.  The restricted space of the aquarium creates a small shark.  So you could be the owner of Jaws as a house pet.  It’s hard to believe that such a vicious predator could be a house pet.  The size of your aquarium would determine how large your predator grew.

Some of you have already picked up where I am going with this line of thought.  I propose this morning that every person is like the shark.  I contend that our environments affect our growth; our aquariums influence our level of spiritual maturity.

Our Scripture from Ephesians speaks about growth.  As part of the Church, we are to continue to mature into Christ; our goal is to be more like Jesus.  To call ourselves Christians, we are to follow the example of Jesus in being Christ-like, or “little Christs.”  Each of us are gifts to the Church, and each of us possess gifts to be used for the unity of the Church.  For the Church to be more like Christ, differing gifts are bestowed.  Not every person can teach Sunday School; every person cannot arrange flowers or decorate the Sanctuary for Christmas; nor is every person blessed with an ability to sing.  But every person is given gifts; diversity is healthy.  Knowing that many gifts are granted by the Holy Spirit, we have to find our gifts and then exercise them so that the Church may mature.

I strongly believe that every person possesses God-given gifts.  And these gifts are to be used for the growth of the Church.  And in this context I am not referring to numerical growth.  Rather, spiritual depth for a congregation cannot be gained among a body that is not unified.  Diversity is good and healthy.  There are many gifts granted by the Holy Spirit; we have to find our gifts and then exercise them so that the Church may grow spiritually.

Parts of the human body work together for the good of the body.  Our circulatory system works in conjunction with our respiratory system.  Our kidneys and bladder work together.  When the parts of our body fail to work together, the body suffers.

I had a dear friend to die earlier this week.  Years ago, he had a kidney removed because of cancer, and the radiation had an adverse affect on his heart.  After his critical heart surgery, his kidney never recovered, and eventually his organs began to shut down.  When the parts of the body fail to work together, the body suffers.

When we personally grow in our faith and walk with Christ, then the Church automatically matures as well.  It is only logical; if the Church is composed of believers who possess gifts and these believers are developing more like Jesus, then the Church has to mature spiritually.

There are deterrents to a person’s spiritual growth and in turn a church’s level of growth.  This morning I would like for us to focus on the different aquaria that impede or hinder our relationship with Christ.  As I stated earlier, a shark’s growth is directly proportionate to his environment.  As sharks, I am afraid that too often we settle for a little aquarium rather than the freedom of swimming in the vast ocean of God’s grace and love.

One of these aquariums that hinders our growth is called the aquarium of our past.  Many Christians only develop to a certain level because of their past.  I do not choose to make light of growing up in a home with an abusive parent or an alcoholic guardian.  To be sure, these aquariums provide scarring that abide with a person, sometimes for a lifetime.  My heart goes out to those who grew up in less than ideal situations, because I realize the impact that that experience has on a person.

But on the other hand, as adults, I also believe that certain events are held close and not released.  Specific episodes are never relinquished, and as a result, the guilt from these occurrences prevents a Christian from ever attaining the abundant relationship that Christ offers.  The aquarium of our past can haunt us and even debilitate us.  How often do we see ourselves as God sees us?  Sometimes we let our pasts affect the way we respond to God’s call of discipleship.

The Apostle Paul had a past.  If you remember, he was a human coat-rack for those who stoned Stephen.  The charge against Stephen was for being a deacon in the first church.  Actually, the charge was for living like a deacon should live: he was publicly sharing the gospel and doing good.  It was so threatening to the religious establishment that their anger consumed them into killing Stephen by throwing rocks at him until his death.  Paul was responsible for the security of the coats of the stoners while they were busy with their execution.  Paul also personally hunted Christians and dragged them from their homes to be placed into prison.  Yet after his conversion, it was this same man that became the apostle to the Gentiles.  This same man who was killing Christians became one of the most effective missionaries ever.  Paul did not settle for an aquarium of his past.  If so, he would have never become the Christian giant.

Another environment that hinders our relationship with Christ is the aquarium of legalism.  The Christian life is intended to be a life of freedom, yet so many Christians focus on the “should nots” rather than the benefits.  When I was a high schooler, I can remember wondering what it would be like not to be a Christian.  I saw my classmates having “fun.”  They partied regularly; became intoxicated; got high on marijuana; were sexually active; and had loose language.

But as a Christian, I did not participate.  I envied the “fun” that I thought my friends were having, but at that time my Christianity focused more on the don’ts than on the do’s.  My relationship to Christ was limited to what I did not do:  I did not drink, do drugs or talk dirty.  I was a shark stuck in the aquarium of legalism; I could only grow to a certain size.  My actions were based on a rigidity not on a relationship.  I read my Bible every day, but the reason for doing so was not so much to grow in Christ, but because I could say that I read my Bible everyday.  My relationship with a loving Savior was given a backseat while I embraced the confines of legalism.  My spiritual understanding soared when I reached the point in my Christianity that the relationship with Jesus was much more important than the rules.  The Ten Commandments were no longer the ultimate guide for my life; instead the life of Jesus became the blueprint for me to follow.  The vastness of the love of God cannot be contained in any aquaria.

Many preachers preach a legalistic gospel, meaning that the Script is more important than the relationship.  A pastor by the name of Eugene Peterson writes, “There are people who do not want us to be free.  They don’t want us to be free before God, accepted just as we are by his grace.  They don’t want us to be free to express our faith originally and creatively in the world.  They want to control us; they want to use us for their own purposes.  They themselves refuse to live arduously and openly in faith, but huddle together with a few others and try to get a sense of approval by insisting that all look alike, talk alike, and act alike, thus validating one another’s worth.  They try to enlarge their numbers only on the condition that new members act and talk and behave the way they do.”

“These people infiltrate communities of faith “to spy out our freedom which we have in Christ Jesus” and not infrequently find ways to control, restrict, and reduce the lives of free Christians.  Without being aware of it, we become anxious about what others will say about us, obsessively concerned about what others think we should do.  We no longer live the good news but anxiously try to memorize and recite the script that someone else has assigned to us.  In such an event, we may be secure, but we will not be free.  We may survive as a religious community, but we will not experience what it means to be human, alive in love and faith, expansive in hope.” (Eugene Peterson. Traveling Light. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press. 1982. P. 67)  For those who find themselves in aquariums of legalism, your level of maturity as a Christian is limited.  I encourage you to focus on Jesus, if you want to grow in Jesus, as our passage tells us.

Another aquarium that confines a believer’s growth potential is public opinion.  I mentioned this in the quote by Pastor Peterson: “becoming obsessively concerned about what others think we should do.”  If we fall into this pitfall, then we are not presenting our bodies as a living sacrifice as Paul suggested to the church in Rome, but instead we are presenting our bodies as a living mirror of who others are.  If we think that God is pleased with decisions to follow Jesus simply because it would please Mama or Daddy, then we are fooling ourselves.  That aquarium of public opinion would limit a shark into a guppy.  When our actions need to be validated by others, then we are no longer serving Christ; we are giving our allegiance instead to those whose favor we hope to gain.

Everyone wants to have friends, and face it, most of us do not enjoy conflict.  But there are times when our decisions are not the most popular with some of our friends and family members.  Public opinion should never serve as a litmus test for what is true or what is right.  Is it ever the wrong time to do the right thing?

We may not openly enter the aquarium of public opinion; we are much more discreet, aren’t we.  Instead we sometimes succumb to peer pressure and idly listen while someone makes prejudicial remarks about another race, or a person is ridiculed unjustly.  We become chameleons and adapt to our surroundings sometimes sacrificing our morals.  We fear alienation or loss of a promotion if on the job we express a differing viewpoint based on our ethics.  How we play before the stage of public opinion!  And yet each time we don our costume for the production, we are building our aquarium ever so tightly around us and limiting our potential for spiritual maturity.

This morning, I have offered how we are like sharks whose growth potential depends on their environment.  Our lifestyles influence our level of spiritual maturity, which in turn affects the spirituality of our church.  The aquariums of pasts, legalism, and public opinion have been offered as examples; there are countless reasons that our spiritual life can be squelched.

The invitation this morning is this: Do you want to live in small fish tanks all of your life, or do you want to be free to explore the vastness of God’s ocean of love?  Do you prefer the confining, restricting arena of what you have always done and how you have always lived, or would you like to try the possibility of finding new freedom in the One who came to set the prisoner free by launching out into the unexplored sea and delving into the magnitude of God’s mercy?  As a shark, you can be eight feet or eight inches.  Aquarium or ocean?  What will you choose?