Sunday, April 06, 2014

Growing in Discipleship

[This was prepared for presentation during worship with the people and guest of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, earlier today.]

1 Corinthians 3:1-2
Matthew 28:19-20

During these weeks in Lent, we’ve been talking about the five building blocks of Christian discipleship and of the mission of Christ’s Church. Today, we come to the fifth building block: Personal growth in discipleship.

Now, this may seem like the least interesting and maybe the least important of the five. But I believe that every time the Church or individual Christians fail to live out the other four building blocks--loving God, loving our neighbors as ourselves, loving our fellow believers as Christ loved us, and making disciples--the root cause of this cluster of failures is that we have failed to grow as disciples.

In his book, Real Life Discipleship, Pastor Jim Putman identifies five stages of spiritual development. The first stage is being spiritually dead. Every human being is born spiritually dead. We are turned in on ourselves. We are born in sin. We are separated from God, the only one Who can give life.

This is why Jesus told Nicodemus: “ one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again." The old must die so that the new can rise, which is what happens in Holy Baptism.

This need is why God, not wanting to see the people He created eternally lost to Him, sent God the Son Jesus to die and rise so that all who repent and believe in Him will have eternal life with God.

And this is why God commissioned the Church--you and me--to act as His rescue mission to a world filled with the spiritually dead. The simplest statement of what it means to be a disciple--a follower of Jesus--was made by Jesus Himself when He called the first disciples in Matthew 4:19: “Come, follow me," Jesus said, "and I will send you out to fish for people."

The ultimate goal of discipleship is to grow up and become strong enough in our discipleship that we reproduce ourselves, making new disciples. That’s why I think Putman’s five stages of spiritual development are right on:
  • spiritually dead,
  • spiritual infancy,
  • spiritual childhood,
  • spiritual adulthood, and finally,
  • spiritual parenthood.  
We don’t like to hear this. I don’t like to hear this. We don't like the idea that God wants us to grow, to change.

We’d prefer to remain spiritual infants, sopping up the grace and love of Jesus with no thought of being changed by grace or of passing it onto others.

We’d prefer to turn our faith into a kind if intellectual transaction: We give assent to Jesus’ lordship and in exchange, He gives us forgiveness for our sins and life with God.

We want to be able to just say: “Thank you very much, Jesus, we’ll see you when I die and now onto the stuff I really want to do in this world.”

Or we want to make discipleship into membership, like belonging to the Kiwanis or the local health club.

But to be a disciple means to submit to the ongoing process of trusting Jesus to, day after day, destroy our addiction to the dying ways of this world and to make us more like Him.

God does not want us to get too comfortable with life in this world. He wants our whole way of life to be alien to this world. That’s why 1 Peter tells Christians: “Beloved, I urge you as aliens and strangers [to this world] to abstain from fleshly lusts which wage war against the soul. Keep your behavior excellent among the Gentiles, so that in the thing in which they slander you as evildoers, they may because of your good deeds, as they observe them, glorify God in the day of visitation [the day when Jesus returns to the earth].”

Keep so growing in your faithfulness, Peter is saying, that when unbelievers observe you, they’ll have every reason to follow Jesus themselves and then, on the day He judges the living and the dead, join you and all of Christ’s people in glorifying God in eternity because, through you, they too will be disciples.

Often, when I talk with people about the importance of growing in faith, they tell me I’m ignoring Jesus’ call to childlike faith. “All I need is faith as a child,” they say. “I don’t need anything more than that.”

But Jesus never called Christians to be infants. Paul echoes Jesus’ implicit teaching on this subject when in 1 Corinthians 14:20, he writes: “In regard to evil be infants, but in your thinking be adults.”

And the fact is, if we are not growing in our faith, we are dying. If we are not growing closer to Christ, we are, by default, falling away from him.

Under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the early Christians understood the importance of growth in discipleship. Turn please to 1 Corinthians 3:1-2 (page 794 in the sanctuary Bible). Paul is confronting first century Christians in Corinth. He laments that they weren’t spiritually mature enough for him to speak to them as he needed to. He writes: “Brothers, I could not address you as spiritual but as worldly--mere infants in Christ. I gave you milk, not solid food, for you were not yet ready for it.”

Paul was saying if there is no spiritual growth, Christians aren’t really ready to do Christ’s mission for them. They aren’t ready to be who Christ died and rose to set them free to become!

So, how do we grow as disciples?

Theologians call the process of growing in discipleship sanctification, the process by which God makes us over in Jesus’ image. Paul says that, “...we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord's glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.” In other words, as we lay our lives open to Christ each day, God is remaking us, deepening our faith and our discipleship. We let the Holy Spirit call, gather, enlighten, and work on us as we seek to follow Christ. That’s how we grow as disciples.

But how do we do that exactly? How do we keep still and let God make us over as disciples?

When I was learning how to play in the outfield as a little leaguer, I realized that I had no control over what pitch the pitcher threw or how fast. I had no control over how hard or high or where the batter hit the ball. But if I positioned myself right in the field and used my glove and throwing arm in the right ways, I could catch balls hit to my field. In that conversation with Nicodemus, Jesus said that the Holy Spirit blows where it will and we have no control over it. But if we position ourselves spiritually, we can receive the growth God wants to give to us. We can breathe in the Holy Spirit and grow as disciples. That often can be painful and we will frequently not understand what God is trying to accomplish in our lives. Growing as Christ's disciple isn't easy. But it is the way of life.

Here are a few ways we can breathe in the Spirit and grow.

First of all, ask a person you know who is more spiritually mature than you are to meet with you periodically--once a week, once a month, once every two weeks--and informally. Make sure it’s someone you trust and who isn’t a gossip. Talk about your struggles, spiritual and otherwise. Read Scripture together. Pray together. Make yourself accountable to this person and keep your  appointments. God will meet you as you meet and you will grow.

Second, read God’s Word and pray regularly on your own, with your spouse, or with your family. God’s Word has power. Isaiah says God’s Word never returns empty. Even when we don’t perceive it, as we submissively read and consider God’s Word, the Potter is molding His new creations, you and me.

Third, worship and receive the sacrament regularly with your church family. Hebrews 10:25 says that when Christians worship together, we not only praise God, we also encourage one another and prepare one another for the day we see Jesus face to face.

Fourth, get involved with a small group Bible study. You might want to join us for the studies we’re beginning on Mere Christianity and on discipleship itself after Easter. We gain insight from studying God’s Word together that we can’t gain on our own.

Fifth, get involved with mission and service and evangelism projects. We have lots of them at Living Water. And we’re going to be doing more with our regular Kindness Outreaches in the near future. These outreaches can change both your life and the lives of those you touch. In both of my previous parishes, we did kindness outreaches. In Cincinnati, we committed more than 12,000 individual acts of kindness in five years--giving away cold water or Coke on summer days; cans of soup in the winter; money off at a local gas station; and our youth group loved going to local businesses to clean toilets. And with each act, we handed out a card or were able to verbally tell the recipients, “We’re doing this to share the love of God in a practical way.” Whether others are nudged closer to faith in Christ or not, when you serve others in Jesus’ Name, your discipleship grows.

Sixth, cultivate friendships with people you think are spiritually dead. They’re all around us. We meet them every day. They need to know Jesus. Pray for them. Invite them to your house. Truly befriend them. And then, in Peter’s words from 1 Peter 3:15: “ prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have [in Christ]...” Be willing to be a mentor and faith guide to a co-worker, classmate, or friend. Growing disciples are mentors as well as mentees. It's how we grow.

In Matthew 28:19-20, Jesus gives the great commission. Let’s look at it one more time (page 698). Jesus says: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

It’s God’s plan that we who make up Christ’s Church will be His hands and feet in this world. More than that, it’s His plan that we--His sheep--not the Good Shepherd--Jesus Himself--will make other sheep. As Dan and Trish have both pointed out this past week, there is no Plan B. God is counting on us to play our parts in calling the spiritually dead to new and everlasting life with God through faith in Jesus Christ.

We have no control over the message of the Gospel. That has been set by God.

And we have no control over how others will respond to the Gospel, whether they receive Jesus and live or reject Jesus and choose death.

But we do control whether we will allow Jesus use us to live the Gospel through the five building blocks of loving God, loving others as we love ourselves, loving fellow disciples as Christ loves us on the cross, making disciples, and growing as disciples.

As we position ourselves to receive the life and power God gives to those who are “all in” for Jesus, our lives will be built on the solid foundation of Jesus and we will fulfill our one and only purpose in life: to have and to be Christ’s disciples. Amen