Tuesday, August 18, 2015

So, what is a disciple?

[This was shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church, Springboro, Ohio, this past Sunday.]

Joshua 24:1-2a, 14-18
There’s a word we use a lot in the Church. Like many words used in the Church, this one doesn’t get used much in the rest of the world. The word is disciple

It must be an important word, because according to Jesus, it describes the only end product that is to be created by the Church, His body in the world. In Matthew 28:19-20, you know, the crucified and risen Jesus gives what we call the Great Commission. He tells the Church: “...go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.” 

Make disciples. The Church is God’s only enterprise on earth, the only enterprise on earth that will survive the end of the world and live in eternity, and its only task is to move out into the world to produce disciples.

That seems simple enough. The Church has one task. Yet, there seems to be a lot of confusion in Christ’s Church about just what it’s supposed to be doing, about its mission. 

Many people who belong to churches today see the Church as a social organization or a do-gooder society or a make-me-feel-good club. 

And while the Church is composed of people who relate to one another, a social organization, and while it does seek to empower believers to do the good will of God, and the Gospel it proclaims will make us feel good, none of that is central to what the Church is about. The Church’s single aim is to make disciples. 

But what exactly is a disciple? 

The New Testament Greek word we translate as disciple is mathetes. It means student, follower. A student or follower of the God we know in Jesus Christ seeks to live like Jesusa life of total surrender to God, a life that accepts death--in our case the death of our sinful selves, our sinful desires, our sinful actions--so that from our dependence on Christ, our faith in Christ, Who Himself was sinless, we can rise to live with God, as Martin Luther expresses it in The Small Catechism, “in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness, even as [Christ] is risen from the dead and lives and reigns for all eternity.” 

Disciples understand that no price is too steep when paying it, God empowers them to empty themselves of themselves and of their egos and of their desire for the world to dance to their tunes, so that they can take up the free gift of never-ending life with God

Christ calls us to follow Him and die to our old, earthbound ways so that we can live, now and in eternity, with Him. A disciple lives with a commitment to a death to self that clings to Christ for new life, not just once, at some spine-tingling spiritual moment of conversion, but keeps clinging to Christ through every single, often humdrum and unspectacular, day. Even in the tough days, the tragic days, the disciple clings to Christ. 

But, if what I’ve just said serves as a definition of a disciple, today’s first lesson puts flesh and bones on the definition. It tells us a bit of what disciples do, the disciplines or ways of life they adopt, in response to God’s love and goodness, given to you and me in Jesus Christ. 

Our lesson is a portion of the Bible’s recounting of the last days of Joshua, the military commander who succeeded Moses as the earthly leader of God’s people, Israel. Shortly before his death, Joshua gives the people of Israel a word from God. 

In doing so, Joshua exemplifies the first thing a disciple is. A disciple is a person steeped in the Word of God

Disciples live and breathe the Bible’s holy air. 

Disciples see the Bible not just as a religious book, but as God’s Word, the preeminent expression of God’s will, grace, and authority over their lives. “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever,” we’re told in Isaiah 40:8. 

Disciples know that when they receive God’s Word with faith, it creates and grows faith in God within them and goes to work, transforming us from people of this dead and dying world into people of Christ’s eternal kingdom. In 1 Thessalonians 2:13, the apostle Paul reminds a group of first-century Christians, “...when you received the word of God, which you heard from us, you accepted it not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God, which is indeed at work in you who believe.” 

Disciples know that God’s Word comes from God and is designed to enter and change us from the inside out, as we stand under its authority. 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

By imbibing deeply of God's Word, disciples are powered by God to live their faith in Christ. As Pastor Michael Foss writes in his book, Power Surge: Six Marks of a Discipleship Church for a Changing World: "As a [disciple's] experience of God begins to permeate all life, faith becomes a way of being in the world-a way of life-not merely a way of thinking or believing."

As many of you know, over the past year, Living Water has been involved in the first phase of the North American Lutheran Church’s partnership with the Navigators program for creating cultures of discipleship in our congregations. 

The next phase, Year 2, the recruitment and spiritual growth of a Life and Learning Team will come. It's something about which I’m praying right now. In Year 3, this team will recruit and foster the spiritual growth of more Living Water people and others we invite to be part of two- and three-person groups. 

As our bishop, John Bradosky, reminded us all last week at the NALC Convocation in Dallas, the only way for churches to grow is for the disciples who are part of it to grow in their faith in Christ. 

And the primary means God uses on a daily basis to help His disciples grow in faith and in the joy of their relationship with Christ is the Word of God. 

Five days a week, I strive to begin my day by reading a single chapter of the Bible. Then I spend some time considering, sometimes memorizing, often restating the implications for my life, of a single verse or passage of that chapter. I write my reflections down, as my Navigators coach, Bill Mowry, has taught me. This helps me to remember what God is teaching me. 

By spending time in God’s Word, I open the door of my soul to God, so that He can kill the old Mark and let the new Mark rise. 

I’m not where I want to be as a follower of Jesus Christ, but I know that disciples daily seek to steep themselves in God’s Word and I strive to learn from and follow their example.

The second thing our lesson shows us about disciples is that they fear the Lord

In a world that, when it gives God a thought, seeks to make God into a buddy, this may seem outrageous. But Joshua tells the people in Joshua 24:14: “Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness.” 

The Hebrew Old Testament word, yir’ah, which we translate as fear, is much richer than our English language can convey. It does mean, in part, fear, as in quaking in our boots. And I would suggest that if the thought of coming into the presence of a holy, perfect, immortal God doesn’t fill we unholy, imperfect, mortal human beings with a little quaking, we may be comatose. 

But the Hebrew word for fear here also means “standing in awe or reverence before” God. The disciple who has “the fear of the Lord” has a clear understanding of reality. They know that God is God and they are not. But they also know that the one true God of the universe, filled with a love so great for us that He sent His only Son to die for and rise to set all who repent and believe in Him free from sin and death, is the only King worthy of our praise, honor, allegiance,...and fear. The English Standard Version translation of the Bible rightly renders Psalm 130:4: “with you [God] there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Experiencing God’s forgiveness incites holy fear within disciples.

Third: Disciples depend only on the God we know in Jesus Christ for life. It’s the same God that Joshua and ancient Israel knew. In Joshua 24:14, he challenged the people: “Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord.” Disciples agree with Peter, who, when God-in-the-flesh, Jesus, asked Peter and the other apostles if they wanted to abandon Him as others had, said to Jesus: "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that You are the Holy One of God." 

Martin Luther said that whatever is most important to us in life is our god. What is most important in our lives? Disciples get rid of their idols. 

“My family is the most important thing in my life,” some Christians piously intone. But parents who say this--and more importantly, believe this--do their children no favors. Children who think they’re the center or the universe are not only likely to have difficulties in their relationships with others as they grow older, but the selfishness cultivated in them leaves them less susceptible to hearing, or sensing their need for the God we know in Jesus. Not only do disciples divest themselves of idols, they also help those they love do the same.

Fourth: Disciples are willing, if it comes to that, to stand alone with God. They are secure in their relationship with God. 1 Peter 2:11 reminds Christians, they are “foreigners and exiles.” So, they are able to stand firmly in their reliance on God as their only source of wisdom, hope, and life. Joshua says in Joshua 24:15: “as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.” Disciples seek to live out the faith they confess, whatever the rest of the world believes or doesn’t believe.

Fifth: Disciples remember God’s past faithfulness and so are inspired to face each day. Throughout chapter 24, Joshua reminds Israel of God’s past faithfulness to inspire them to face their own lives. When we remember not only what God did for His people in the Bible, but what God has done for us in Christ, the ways in which He supports and encourages us even in the midst of personal tragedy, and how He has answered many of our prayers in His way and in His time, in accordance with His will, our discipleship is deepened and we can declare with ancient Israel after Joshua had reminded of God’s past faithfulness: “We too will serve the Lord, because he is our God.”

Our call at Living Water is not to be members of a club, but a company of disciples of Jesus Christ who make other disciples, just as Joshua sought to help Israel follow the same God you and I follow through Christ. 

There’s more to being a disciple than we’ve talked about today, of course. But in our encounter with Joshua this morning, we’re reminded that disciples adopt certain disciplines by which God grows our faith in Him and our joy in belonging to Him. 

  • Disciples are steeped in the Word of God. 
  • They fear the Lord. 
  • They depend only on the God we know in Jesus Christ for life. 
  • They’re willing to stand alone with God. 
  • And they remember God’s past faithfulness and so, are inspired and empowered to face today and the uncertainties of tomorrow. 

May God help us to to adopt these disciplines of discipleship so that God’s grace given in Christ may grow deeply in our lives, so that we may be who God calls us to be, and so that we can make other disciples as Jesus has commissioned us to do. Amen

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