Entries in discipleship (36)
In 1984 a young woman, expecting her first child, couldn’t find information on what a normal pregnancy looked and felt like, so she began to write her own handbook on pregnancy--while she was pregnant. Just hours before delivering her daughter, Emma, she sent off the book proposal for What to Expect When You’re Expecting. Nearly thirty years (and seventeen million books) later it's the standard for what is normal during pregnancy. Publisher’s weekly reports that 97% of women who buy a book on pregnancy buy this book.
But what it things had turned out differently? But what if this book had become a history book instead: as in, “how did pregnant women act thirty years ago?” What if we turned to the book not for information about how to order our lives while expecting, but only to study what people did back then? Four editions, seventeen million copies, thirteen spin-off books, and one romantic comedy movie, all dealing with how people used to treat pregnancy? That would be crazy, right? Expectant parents buy this book because they are entering new territory, and they want to know, well, what to expect. They want to know what is normal, and they want to be normal.
This week’s mediation asks the same question about the New Testament. Do we read this book as history, or are we looking for what to expect in our new life in Christ?
This is the choice facing every student of Jesus: we all must decide whether we will read the New Testament as a history book or a description normative life in Christ. The events reported in the New Testament, the coming of Jesus, his death and resurrection, and the life of the newly-formed church happened a long time ago. The record of those events has been preserved for us today--some people might add, “miraculously preserved.” Many Christians are willing to argue (even die) over whether the we can trust the accounts we have received from those early days.
After we settle the question of whether this book is trustworthy, we must also settle the question of the kind of life we will live today. Our answer determines the possibilities of our walk with Jesus. If the book is merely history then the sacrificial love birthed in his followers is not required of us today. If the book only reports the facts of healings, exorcisms, and resurrections accomplished by Jesus and his followers, then we need not measure our life by their example. If the book is rooted in the past, our only responsibility is to believe--and applaud.
But if the New Testament is our “What to Expect . . .” then we have a long way to go.
My daughter saves her deepest theological questions for bedtime. She doesn’t give a rip about theology, but she cares deeply about delaying bedtime. If Daddy is foolish enough to take the bait on Who made God-type questions, she wins. Ever though her greatest need is rest, she thinks her late-night allies are unsolvable religious questions. In the end, everyone ends up sleepy and confused.
So it is with following Jesus. Let’s talk about theology; let’s talk about church; let’s crusade against the high-profile fools of Christendom and expose them for charlatans--in fact, let’s do anything other than take the yoke of discipleship. Like stupid trolls arguing all night long about how best to cook a hobbit, we will be surprised when the morning takes us all.
I’m just wondering: have you ever seen anyone win a religious argument? The only reason a crowd gathers is simply to watch a good fight, never mind who wins.
The Apostle Paul, that great intellect of the first generation church, was capable of winning nearly any argument but with each passing year he lost interest in being God’s cop gave himself more and more to being God’s herald. Consider this amazing trope from his letter to the Philippians:
Now I want you to know, brothers, that what has happened to me has really served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. Because of my chains, most of the brothers in the Lord have been encouraged to speak the word of God more courageously and fearlessly.
It is true that some preach Christ out of envy and rivalry, but others out of goodwill. The latter do so in love, knowing that I am put here for the defense of the gospel. The former preach Christ out of selfish ambition, not sincerely, supposing that they can stir up trouble for me while I am in chains. But what does it matter? The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice. ~ Philippians 1: 12-18
He actually rejoiced even as others tried to make his life more complicated! This passage is filled with marvels--and instruction--for every student of Jesus. Paul, thrown in prison because he declared the gospel, looks out from his house arrest in Rome to see and hear a wide variety of evangelists continuing his work. He knows that some are simply trying to pour gas on the fire of his persecution. These interlopers actually mean to do him harm, but Paul doesn’t care. He focuses on the gospel and delights that the message goes forth. Could you do that? Could you ignore your enemies and celebrate the sound of the Kingdom--even if it is sounded off-key?
If the Apostle Paul learned how to ignore the fools and focus on the image of Christ how much more should we? Just after giving these critics his blessing, Paul sings the hymn to the lowliness of his King, and the exaltation that is sure to follow. Paul demonstrates the value of devotion to the Lord, not devotion to the cause--and there is a difference. From his chains in Rome, Paul gives us at least four reasons he doesn't take the bait:
1). When we’re devoted to the cause we can forget the King. Paul stayed focused on Jesus and cared nothing for the hypocrisy of his critics. Paul valued the Lord’s opinion over the judgment of others.
2). When we’re devoted to the cause our agenda is determined by the opposition. In his day (and in ours) there are too many mistakes to correct--why let their errors define your message? Instead, Paul refused to allow the foolishness of others draw him in to foolish controversy. He preached Jesus the King.
3). When we’re focused on the cause we will embrace nearly any platform that gains attention, because we come to believe the ends justify the means. Paul rejoiced in his chains because he saw an obscure entry into the very palace guard of Rome.
4). When we’re focused on the cause we’re concerned with changing others--whether or not we have ever changed ourselves. Yet the master plan of of the Master Himself was to change us from the inside out.
Like my little girl trying to avoid the school-night bedtime, we avoid the greatest obstacle to the Kingdom’s progress: ourselves--our actions, our behavior, our pursuit of Christlikeness. With each passing year in ministry Paul trusted that Jesus was able to police the church. He traded in his badge and took up the servant’s towel. And strangely, the gospel of the Kingdom grew and spread--even without the benefit of the orthodoxy patrol.
I drove into town yesterday, just four days into the new year, and the roadside was littered with new years resolutions thrown aside like so much trash. We start each year with such good intentions--perhaps the road I was driving on was paved with them.
Jesus is looking for disciples, not revelers. Discipleship requires us to understand the difference between good intentions and intentionality. The Lord was quite clear: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself, take up his cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it.” (Matthew 16: 24-25). This kind of following is more than a one-time decision; it is no mere “accepting the free gift.” It is the conscious choice to lose our lives in him.
Intentional is the day-to-day outworking of our surrender, the surrender that brings an eternal quality of life even now. Rather than bubbly resolutions or grim religious rules, perhaps we could embrace in three foundational aspects of life in the Spirit.
1). Redeeming Time: We live inside of time, but we hardly consider its passage. God has ordained that we experience the passage of time one day after another. The days march by in succession, turning into weeks and months. Yet we are surprised. “What? Where did the year go?” The Psalmist prayed, “Teach us to number our days aright, that we may gain a heart of wisdom” (Psalm 90:12). Each day would like to command our attention and draw us into the urgent, the pressing, the demands of everyday life. Each day cries out with a voice of authority, but it is the voice of an idol. Each day attempts to eclipse our relationship with the Lord: work, food, play, entertainment, even sleep. Could any relationship flourish only on the left-overs of the day? The Apostle Paul cautioned his friends in Ephesus: “Be very careful, then, how you live - not as unwise but as wise, making the most of every opportunity, because the days are evil.” (Ephesians 5:16) The King James translation employs the useful phrase, “redeem the time.”
2). The Presence of the Holy Spirit: Real change requires Incarnation. The importance of incarnation did not end with the Christmas story. We need the in-breaking of the Spirit every day, because we need incarnation every day. The Spirit gives life, but the legacy of flesh is corruption. “All flesh is grass, and all its loveliness is like the flower of the field.” (Isaiah 40: 6) It’s not that our flesh is evil, but rather that flesh is always subject to corruption. Imagine a perfect tomato: vine-ripened and red, resting on the kitchen windowsill. It’s flawless. You return to the kitchen the next day--remains firm and inviting. But imagine you left that tomato on the windowsill for six months: it's no longer perfect, and definitely not inviting! It’s not that the tomato was defective: it simply decayed. It’s the legacy of all created things apart from Spirit-infused life. Our plans are no different. “Perfect,” well-intentioned human plans are always subject to corruption. We need the life-giving Spirit of God conceive in us the life-giving plan our God. True change comes to those who seek the presence of the Holy Spirit each day.
3). A Response to Grace: Intentionality calls us to cooperate with the grace of God. The Apostle Paul recognized that receiving the grace of God was the initial step--God’s step, but there were also steps for Paul to take as well: “By the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace to me was not without effect. No, I worked harder than all of them - yet not I, but the grace of God that was with me.” (I Corinthians 5:10) How many of us associate the phrase “worked harder” with God’s grace? Make no mistake--Paul does not confuse his effort with God’s grace. He understands that his efforts come as a response to that grace. If we expect to experience godly change in the coming year, we must recognize where God’s grace is leading us, and then cooperate with his initiative. No amount of effort will replace God’s grace, yet we must add our strength to what the Master is doing. It’s how we commit ourselves to his leading. True change comes to those who add their best effort to God’s kindness.
The celebrations have already died down. School, work, family and the daily press of life will erode our good intentions as surely as the spring rains. But there is good news: the intentionality of discipleship can set us on a road paved with the daily grace of God.