Changing Your World: By Being a Disciple
(Shared with the people of Friendship Church, August 3, 2003)
Jimmy Carter was in a funk. He had just made his first bid to be elected governor of Georgia and had lost in the Democratic primary. He was depressed and turned to his sister, the evangelist Ruth Carter Stapleton for comfort. But at first, he derived very little comfort from Ruth’s words. In fact, at first she upset him a little bit. She basically told him, “Jimmy, you call yourself such a great follower of Jesus. But when I look at how you’re reacting to losing an election, I wonder. If you’re really following Jesus, you ought to be willing to give up anything that’s important to you, even being a success in politics.”
Carter felt defensive. He had calculated recently that with mission trips taken by his church from Georgia to New York City, he had spoken with and personally invited at least 700 people to follow Christ. That was a pretty good record, wasn’t it? Yet, as Ruth’s words sank in, he suddenly compared that number to the millions he had asked to vote for him to become governor. He realized that in his life, he gave his own desires and those of his family higher priority than he gave to Christ and His priorities for Jimmy Carter’s life. Later in their conversation, Ruth asked her brother a telling question: “Jimmy, if you were on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?”
Carter thought about that question and decided, “No, there wouldn’t be enough evidence to convict me of being a Christian.” He also told God something, “Lord, if you want me to get out of politics, out of business, whatever, I will. From here on, You will be the highest priority in my life.”
Many people are amazed by the life that Jimmy Carter has lived since leaving the White House in January, 1981. His work with Habitat for Humanity and the Carter Center, fighting disease and promoting democracy, have earned him the Nobel Peace Prize. But Carter’s post-presidential accomplishments shouldn’t amaze us. The committed follower of Jesus, what the Bible calls a disciple, is a person Jesus Christ can use to change the world. That happens when believing men and women like you and me, grateful that God has put us first by going to a cross for us and rising for us, dare to put God first in our lives.
Our Bible lesson, from the New Testament book of Ephesians, encourages us “to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” No matter what our jobs or professions may be--Jimmy Carter’s happened to be politics, our calling as followers of Jesus Christ is always the same. In our own unique ways, we’re called to put Jesus Christ first.
People who live as Christians and don’t just call themselves Christians, can be used by God to do wonderful things. The reverse is also true. People who call themselves followers of Jesus but aren’t do incalculable damage to themselves and everyone they encounter. Erv Streng, who retired as pastor of Lutheran Church of the Resurrection about six years ago, once told me about the experience of his son-in-law as a youngster in a church. A man from the congregation had done thorough research and one Sunday morning, gave a stirring presentation on an overseas ministry in which laypeople from a congregation like theirs could go and serve the poor in the Name of Jesus. The boy who would become Erv’s son-in-law was excited and inspired by this presentation. So, he approached the man who had given it and said, “I’d like to help. I’d like to go.” The man looked at him and said basically, “Son, you go on home and enjoy yourself. It was just a talk.”
How many people in our world are turned off by Christ and the Church because those of us who call ourselves Jesus’ followers aren’t really following Him, we’re just talking?
We do a bang-up job of showing up each Sunday and putting some money into the plate.
We show up for every social function our church offers. We may even do a little volunteering.
But if we were tried for the crime of being Christians, there wouldn’t be enough evidence to convict us. On examination of our lives, it would be found that we’re every bit as two-faced, every bit as consumed with money, every bit as cynical, every bit as apathetic about the needs of others, and every bit as selfish as the non-Christian world.
And believe me, in saying these things, I point the finger at myself too. I am a sinner who falls far short of who I would like to be and far short of being the person God wants me to be.
Yet, our Bible lesson reminds us that God has not only called us to live as disciples, God has also equipped us to be disciples. Our lesson tells us that God grants gifts, special abilities, to every believer in Jesus. With them, we can point the world to Jesus. And when every Christian uses the gifts God gives in the right way, the world begins to change for the better.
A few years ago, I shared the true story from Decision magazine of a woman who had decided that God called her to share Christ with others and told her husband that meant she should be a missionary. Her husband wasn’t so sure of that. He urged her to try being a missionary in the neighborhood first and see where God led her from there. So, the woman thought about her gifts. Apparently, she was a pretty good baker. So, she started baking bread for all the new people who moved into her neighborhood. Over the years, this woman positively influenced many of her neighbors, some of whom came to faith in Christ. Willing to go wherever God sent her, this woman found that God had called and equipped her for mission right in her own neighborhood. Maybe he’s got the same thing in mind for you.
So, we’re called to live as Jesus’ disciples and we’re equipped to live as His disciples. But how do we figure out our own unique gifts as Christians? How do we grow up, finding the gifts God has granted us and becoming the maturely functioning children of God we were called and equipped to be? The same way we find out our other talents and abilities in life.
When my dad was a little boy, his dad had a service station. People would bring their cars into the station and his dad would work on the vehicles to make them run again. My dad found that interesting. In fact, when he was just four years old, dad somehow figured out how to get my grandfather’s tow truck started and rumbled down the road some distance before my grandfather was able to hop onto the running board and get his foot on the brake. Dad’s interest in things mechanical continued. He was a grease monkey from the time he was young and kept working on cars, taking on increasingly difficult jobs. When he was in the Air Force, they turned him into a jet mechanic. When he got out, he worked at some filling stations as a mechanic and later, worked as a buyer and manager for some auto parts stores. At four, dad wouldn’t have been ready to be an auto parts store manager; he wasn’t even ready to drive the tow truck. But through trial and error, daring to move onto the next level, dad grew up as a mechanic. The God Who calls and equips us followers of Jesus Christ, also calls us to do the same thing. He calls us, through trial and error, to grow up, to mature in our faith.
People who are growing up in their faith–and creating positive change in their own lives and in the lives of others around them–usually are committed to the healthy habits for living that we’ve talked about at Friendship. They’re committed to meeting and knowing Jesus Christ through the habits of Bible study, prayer, worship, service in Jesus’ Name, giving in Jesus’ Name, telling others about Jesus, and fellowship with other believers, like a person can enjoy when they’re part of small groups. They know that God loves them just as they are. They know that God isn’t standing over them with a checklist to make sure that they pursue these habits every day. But they do know that these habits become the places where God will meet them and help them to become everything God made them to be–people who are called by God, equipped by God, and given maturity by God so that, in the words of our Bible lesson, they can “grow up in every way” as followers of Jesus!
I see many people like that at Friendship. Just this past week, I had one conversation after another with Friendship people–from those enduring difficult crises to those who face the strenuous demands of everyday living. In one way or another, almost all of them told me that they wanted to live their lives with Christ as their highest priority. As long as being Christ’s disciples remains our highest priority–as long as we strive to live lives in which there is sufficient evidence to convict us of being Christians, I know that God will use Friendship to change our world for the better and this will be an exciting church for people to be called, equipped, and to mature as God’s people!