Sunday, September 09, 2007

Those Funny Church Words: DISCIPLESHIP

[This message was shared with the people of Friendship Lutheran Church, Amelia, Ohio, during the worship celebrations on September 8 and 9, 2007.]

Joshua 24:14-18
James 2:14-19
Matthew 5:13-16
German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who opposed Adolf Hitler in the Name of Jesus Christ and lost his life for it, wrote in his classic book, The Cost of Discipleship, “When Christ calls a man, He bids him, ‘Come and die.’”

We began this series on funny church words two weeks ago with a discussion of what I consider to be the most remarkable character trait of God: His grace. Unconditionally--”while we were still sinners,” as Paul puts it in the New Testament--God sent His Son Jesus into the world so that sinners who turn away from their sin and believe in Him can live with God forever. We cannot earn God’s grace! It is truly a free gift.

And it is true that the crucified and risen Jesus calls us to new life. All who follow Jesus Christ look forward to an eternity with God!

But following Jesus also entails a willingness to crucify our sins, even to the point of parting with old ways of thinking and living. Jesus says, “If you save your life, you will lose it; but if you lose your life for my sake and the gospel’s, you will keep it.”

When drug addicts, alcoholics, or people suffering from addictions like pornography, gambling, food, purging, or whatever, decide that they must get rid of the addictions around which they’ve built their lives, a kind of daily dying begins. In just the same way, each day, in order to be truly alive, we who believe in Jesus Christ and are addicted to sin, must, day-by-day, moment-by-moment, submit again to Jesus Christ.

We must allow the old self to die so that the new self, the God self, the person God made in His own image, can begin to emerge from the dust and muck of sin and death. This daily dying to self and re-submission to Christ so that His grace can do its work is what the Bible calls discipleship.

There are several major ingredients to discipleship. I want to talk about just five of them today.

To understand the first and most obvious, picture a young couple about to be married. Neither the bride or the groom can know what the years will bring. All they know for sure is that they love one another and want to always be together. And so they make promises to one another. As time passes, they may not always keep those promises. They may hurt one another. Sometimes the broken promises and the hurts will be so large that they can only be healed by repentance and forgiveness. But they can make it as long as they both realize that the marriage only begins with the words, “I do.”

Discipleship involves a similar commitment and understanding. It starts with surrender to Christ and with a commitment to daily surrender every day of our lives.

Once, as we read in one of our Bible lessons for today, the Old Testament leader Joshua gathered the people of Israel together and told them to choose whether they were going to surrender to God or not. Then he told them, “As for me and my house, we will serve the Lord.”

Just as every married couple begins their relationship with one another with the words, “I do,” every Christian begins the journey of discipleship when they make the commitment entailed in saying, “I believe!”

To understand a second element of discipleship, picture a doctor freshly graduated from medical school. She gets an office, fills it with equipment, and hires an assistant and a receptionist. But then, she won’t see any patients, make any appointments, or attach herself to any hospital. She’s a doctor; the certificate on the wall says so. But can she really be thought of as a doctor if she doesn’t practice medicine? Probably not.

In our second lesson, James, the earthly brother of Jesus and a leader of the first century church, said that, “Faith without works is dead.” Discipleship is all about practicing our faith.

It means living in daily communication with God by reading His Word and praying.

It means seeking God’s guidance for our decisions and actions.

It means repenting for our sin and seeking God’s renewal for living differently.

Being a disciple isn’t about holding membership in a church, although every disciple needs to be part of a church. It’s about a commitment to living our faith, however imperfectly we all do that.

Third: Discipleship involves following the God we meet in Jesus Christ exclusively. What would happen to a football player who went out onto the field with chains and two-hundred pound weights slapped around his wrists and ankles? It’s doubtful he’d have a very good game. You can bet that fairly soon, he'd either lose the weights and chains or head for the locker room.

God wants to give us His love and power for today and forever. But often, we can’t receive those things because we’re weighed down. Our weights may be worry, sin, work, obligations, illness, ambitions, or whatever. We can so rely on these things, that we don’t rely on God. But Jesus tells us, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” Disciples seek to empty their hands of all the things that vie for first place in their lives so that they can cling to Christ alone!

A fourth ingredient of discipleship, one I’ve already touched on, is simply, spending time with Christ. Charles Darwin, famous for his book The Origin of Species, began his life as a Christian. Later, he became an agnostic, uncertain of God’s existence. As an older man, Darwin wrote to a friend that his mind was a “withered leaf to everything except science.” He told this friend that he no longer could even enjoy hearing Handel’s Messiah, the stirring piece about Christ, despite the fact that in his younger years, he had loved it. Darwin had allowed Jesus Christ to be crowded out of his life.

Our lives can be crowded too. Family, work, errands, friends, taking care of our houses and yards, vacations, kids sports, concerts: All these things and more can fill our days. None of them are bad, of course. But to have the energy for them, we need more than just a good night’s sleep. We need to take the time to read God’s Word, to pray, and to let Christ recharge our batteries.

During the Tuesday night Bible study this past week, we agreed that one thing that points to the power of God’s Word is that we often can find the time to veg out in front of the television, work the crossword puzzle, leaf through a magazine, or play video games. But we can’t find the time to include a few minutes of Bible reading or prayer in our busy days. It’s as though the devil, the world, or our sinful selves make it easier to spend time in trivial pursuits and tough to find the time to do the thing we most need and crave: being with God.

Martin Luther, at a time when he was chief administrator of more than ten monasteries, taught at a university, served as parish pastor, and a prolific, if unpaid, best-selling author, told a friend, “I have too much to do each day to pray less than three hours every morning.”

When you pray and read God’s Word and how long you pray and read God’s Word is less important than that, like Luther, you do pray and read the Word each day.

Over the course of this summer, as we’ve been joined by thousands of other Christians praying with and for us, we at Friendship have seen just how much God does through the prayers of His people. As Jim and I were remarking last Saturday, “Whoever heard of a church gaining attendance, members, and giving in the summer months?” But it happened this summer at Friendship! That’s the sort of thing that can happen when disciples spend time with God!

Finally, disciples share their faith with others. Remember the four challenges that Mike gave to us on June 3?

Updating them a bit for this autumn season, I believe that they should continue to challenge Friendship:
(1) Pray for our church, seeking God’s guidance;
(2) Maintain strong participation in the church. (Something that needs to continue in the fall.)
(3) Maintain strong giving, giving prayerful consideration to the Biblical model for giving, the tithe, designating the first 10% of our income to God’s purposes; AND
(4) Invite others to worship.
Disciples want others to know Christ, too. As Rick Warren says, "The church that doesn't want to grow is telling the world to go to hell." My prayer is--and will continue to be--that Friendship will always be a congregation intent on sharing Christ with others, that the people of Friendship will always let the light of Christ shine brightly in their lives!

A soapmaker, back in the days when there were soapmakers, convinced that there was nothing to Christianity, approached a pastor, who was teaching a group of children one day. “Pastor,” he said, “how can you say that this church stuff is worth anything when there’s so much suffering, evil, and hypocrisy in the world? What good are all the sermons and books you people produce?” The pastor motioned to a small child, “This is Eric. He’s three years old. I ask you, what good is soap when Eric and hundreds of children like him are dirty? How can you pretend that soap is effective?” “That’s stupid,” the soapmaker responded. “If soap is to be effective, it has to be used.” “Exactly,” said the pastor. “If Christianity is to be effective, it must be used.”

Discipleship is “using” our faith in Jesus Christ in the best sense of that verb. It entails:
  • surrendering to Christ;
  • practicing our faith in Christ;
  • flushing our lives of all that distracts us from following Christ;
  • spending time with Christ; and
  • sharing our faith in Christ with others.
Speaking as one forgiven sinner to others this morning, I tell you forthrightly that there are many times when I fail as a Christian. But the title to which I most aspire in all the world and the one to which I hope you most aspire is simple: disciple--follower, student--of Jesus Christ.

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