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Entries in discipleship (35)

Monday's Meditation: Sex, Celebrity, & Discipleship

I’m wondering today if I became a dramatically better writer overnight. With last Thursday's post, When Famous Christians are Gay, traffic to Students of Jesus increased ten-fold, and comments tripled their usual rate.

Why did so many more people visit this particular blog post and recommend it to others? To be sure, there were some unusual elements: I’ve never written specifically about sexuality before; I’ve never focused on a celebrity before; and never addressed the politically charged topic of homosexuality before. These three elements combined to generate increased buzz and discussion--but why?

Sexuality: Does our sexual activity fall under the Lordship of Jesus? Is there a connection between sexuality and spirituality? In the 16-month life of this blog I’ve never written specifically about sex and the life of a disciple. My bad--it’s a significant part of how we express our devotion to Jesus: gay, straight, single, married, widowed, divorced. My failure to address the sexual part of our being effectively pushes sex into the closet, as if spiritual people do not concern themselves with sex. Big mistake. I’m determined to address this area soon.

Celebrity: Say what you want, Jennifer Knapp still knows how to promote an album. The twin interviews with Christianity Today and The Advocate certainly put her back into the public eye after a seven-year absence. And readers apparently care. What is it about celebrity that draws our attention? As followers of Jesus, why would we respond more strongly to her story than someone unknown? True, her celebrity stems from recording “sacred” music targeted at a Christian market, but what does this reveal about our values as consumers of Christian culture?

Discipleship: Jesus invites everyone: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.” (Matthew 11: 28) He loves us just the way we are--but does he let us remain just the way we are? What activities are compatible with becoming a follower of Jesus? When--and how--does he change us? Do we want him to change us, or is Christianity simply another lifestyle choice we add as an accessory to our lives? His anger burned against religious hypocrisy. He called self-righteous people “snakes” and “blind guides.” Clearly, he urged them to repent. Yet when Jesus befriended tax collectors and prostitutes did he endorse their lifestyle? Although we have no record of it, can we imagine that the woman at the well in John 4 remained in her living arrangements? Is a life-long embrace of sin compatible with the life of a disciple? The yoke Jesus offers produces peace and rest--but it is still a yoke.

These three topics have saturated my thoughts in the last four days. I invite you to think them through and dialogue with me in the days to come.

Guys Like Us

“The Bible itself teaches that we are to understand it in terms of our own experience when it says that Paul, Barnabas, and Elijah were human beings like us . . . It means that their experience was substantial like our own . . . We must pray for the faith and the experiences that would enable us to believe that such things could happen to us.” ~ Dallas Willard, Hearing God

Lately my friends and I have been discussing the need to appropriate the Biblical experience into our own lives.  Apparently James wasn’t kidding when he said, “Elijah was a man just like us.”  But my friends and I have all recognized that Elijah, Paul, and even Barnabas seem way too spiritual to serve as effective role models.  We might as well try to imitate LeBron James.
Over the years I’ve asked believers in many settings whether they thought they could live up to the example of someone like Elijah. No one has ever told me yes. Who could attain to a life like the Apostle Paul’s? No takers. I have finally found a minor character in the New Testament who is approachable as a role model.  The book of Acts gives him ten verses, eleven if you count the shout-out he gets from Paul years later. His name is Ananias. He’s just a guy who has a daily time with God. Praying, listening, and reading the scriptures.  And God speaks to him. Ananias is no super-star of Christianity.  He’s just a guy living in Damascus who loves God and is respected by his friends.
You can find his story in Acts 9: 10 - 19:
In Damascus there was a disciple named Ananias. The Lord called to him in a vision, "Ananias!" 
"Yes, Lord," he answered. 
The Lord told him, "Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying. In a vision he has seen a man named Ananias come and place his hands on him to restore his sight." 
"Lord," Ananias answered, "I have heard many reports about this man and all the harm he has done to your saints in Jerusalem. And he has come here with authority from the chief priests to arrest all who call on your name." 
But the Lord said to Ananias, "Go! This man is my chosen instrument to carry my name before the Gentiles and their kings and before the people of Israel. I will show him how much he must suffer for my name." 
Then Ananias went to the house and entered it. Placing his hands on Saul, he said, "Brother Saul, the Lord--Jesus, who appeared to you on the road as you were coming here--has sent me so that you may see again and be filled with the Holy Spirit." Immediately, something like scales fell from Saul's eyes, and he could see again. He got up and was baptized, and after taking some food, he regained his strength.
The God of heaven chose Ananias to set Saul of Tarsus on the path to become the Apostle Paul. He was just a guy. The kind of guy we should feel we could imitate with confidence.  Take a look with me at what kind of experiences an everyday disciple in the first century had with God :
  • God spoke to him in a vision (v10): Yes, visions should be normative. The coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost redefined the role between Creator and disciple.  At Pentecost Peter boldly tells us what kind of age has come: “Your sons and daughters will prophesy, your young men will see visions, your old men will dream dreams.” (Acts 2: 17)  Peter isn’t just quoting an ancient prophet, he’s describing how God speaks to his people in Christ. God still speaks in these ways, but the average North American Christian is actually suspicious of these divine avenues.
  • God gave specific instructions (vs11-12): Ananias knew where to go and what to do, because he heard from God.  How many believers today know God’s specific will for their lives day-by-day? My experience as a pastor has taught me, sadly, that most Christians are confused about God’s will for their life and important decisions. Day-to-day most Christians do not even expect to receive specific instructions from the Lord.  Ananias was apparently part of a church that trained and encouraged every member to expect to hear from God--and act on it!
  • Ananias dialogued with God (vs13-15): It was a dialogue from the heart. He was not a robot, he shared his fears and concerns.  I don’t believe Ananias argued with God.  He addressed him as “Lord” because he recognized who was Master.  His submission was so complete he even surrendered his fears to God.  True service to God does not simply come from those who have heard from God, but from those who also feel they have been heard by God.
  • God affirmed the mission (vs15-16): The Lord did not merely shake the windows or stamp his foot, he gave Ananias a picture of the future. This man Saul was God’s chosen instrument, and Ananias knew it even before Saul knew it.  Part of our confidence to do the will of God comes from knowing his purposes and plans, and God is gracious to supply such vision more than we are aware.
  • Ananias obeyed (vs17-19): Dreams, visions and revelations are worthless apart from obedience.  God does not share information “FYI,” he shares information “FYA--For Your Action.” Ananias’ actions were filled with faith and the assurance of God’s commission.  He facilitated the in-filling of the Holy Spirit; he was midwife to God’s healing grace; and he was a minister of the gospel in baptizing Saul.  Ananias was in every way a full partner with God.  He was just guy in Damascus.  I'm just a guy in Kentucky.  What are you?

Surely we could aspire to the life of Ananias! Yet the Biblical witness affirms that we are human beings--just like Paul, Barnabas, or Elijah! Perhaps we would be surprised to learn that our potential is even greater than any of these examples--we are called to become conformed to the image of Jesus Himself.  But that’s another post for another day.

Hearing the Gospel for the First Time

I have a confession to make: I had been a Christian for five years before I ever heard the gospel.  One night at summer camp I listened to the story of a God who loved the world so much that he sent his only son to pay the price for other people’s sin.  My sin.  I believed the message, I prayed the prayer and asked Jesus into my heart--and five years later began to discover that the good news was so much better than I had been told.

Jesus didn’t proclaim the gospel of forgiveness and heaven, he proclaimed the gospel of the Kingdom of God.  His gospel of the Kingdom of God differs radically from the gospel of go-to-heaven-when-you-die.

Why not take a few minutes and check out these passages:

  • John the Baptist prepared the way for Jesus by preaching the Kingdom (Matthew 3: 1-2).
  • The very first message Jesus shared was the Kingdom of God (Mark 1: 14-15).
  • Jesus said the reason he came to Earth was to preach the Kingdom of God (Luke 4:43).
  • He said the new birth was the way to enter the Kingdom of God (John 3: 5).
That’s all four gospels, and we’re just getting started:
  • The book of Acts opens and closes with the Kingdom of God (Acts 1: 3 & 28: 31).
  • The Kingdom of God was Paul’s message from Corinth to Ephesus to Rome.
  • The book of Hebrews describes a kingdom that can never be shaken (12:28).
  • Peter and James depict the Kingdom of God as the calling of all believers.
The Holy Spirit inspired more than 150 references to God’s Kingdom in the pages of the New Testament.  And don’t even get me started on pictures of the Kingdom in the Old Testament.

If the words “Kingdom of God” seem awkward when they appear after the word “gospel” perhaps it’s because we have shortened the gospel to mean exclusively redemption from sin and going to heaven. The rediscovery of the gospel of the Kingdom, along with Jesus’ commission to “make disciples and teach them to obey” stand as the greatest need in the North American church today.  Discipleship under the Masters’ hand and maturity in Christ depend on the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

We have confused Heaven with the Kingdom.  Heaven is a great place.  I’ll get there someday because Jesus paid the price, but in the meantime Heaven is breaking into the here and now.  I believe we have become preoccupied with an arrow pointing to Heaven when we should be looking for how God is bringing the Kingdom to Earth.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus taught us to pray, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.”  (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added)  Jesus said plainly that God’s Kingdom should be our highest priority: “Seek first the Kingdom of God.” (Matthew 6:33)  Do we really think he meant that we should place going to heaven after we die as our highest earthy priority?

Consider his actions and words at the very end of his earthly ministry.  Jesus chose to remind his friends about the message he had announced from the very beginning: the gospel of the Kingdom of God. He spent the 40 days after his resurrection teaching about the Kingdom of God (Acts 1:3)  In the few days remaining with his friends, the Kingdom of God was still his passion.

The Kingdom of God is the true context for discipleship.  No serious student of Jesus ignores his teaching or demonstration of the Kingdom.  Yes: demonstration.  Jesus explained his actions in terms of the Kingdom of God.  Healing, deliverance, and feeding the masses were all signs of the Kingdom of God.  The world longed for the rule and reign of God to come to Earth, they received their answer in the actions and teaching of Jesus.  In his absence, Jesus expects us to demonstrate and explain God’s Kingdom today.  To be about the Kingdom is to be about the Father’s business.

Perhaps one reason the church struggles in the area of spiritual formation is that we are not making disciples of the Kingdom.  In our enthusiasm over God’s forgiveness and mercy, we have overlooked his purposes and plans.  Everyone who trusts in God can expect to go to heaven, but Jesus is after more than eternal reward.  He wants us to join him in the family business.

Monday's Meditation: Does Jesus Trust Us?

Why would Jesus save me from Hell?  That’s easy: most believers understand his infinite and sacrificial love on behalf of everyone in need.  Pastors and church leaders present this picture of Jesus again and again.  “Even if you were the only sinner in history,” they proclaim, “Jesus would have died for you.”  But here’s a question most Christians fail to ask: Why would Jesus want to disciple me?  We are comfortable with our need of a Savior; we are less comfortable with his vision for our lives.  Any unworthy fool can receive his mercy; believing that he trusts us is another matter entirely.
The truth is, Jesus wants to place his trust in us.  Jesus selected the most unlikely people to train as disciples: working-class fishermen, turn-coat tax collectors, members of the armed resistance against Rome.  After three years of intensive training, his followers scattered at the hour of his greatest need, and hid behind locked doors after his death.  The best disciple-maker in history left behind a decidedly rag-tag group!  Yet Jesus had confidence in these very men.  After his resurrection Jesus gathered these eleven fearful and scattered men and, under the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, set them loose to turn the world upside down. Jesus saw each one as pre-selected by the Father's grace and fully capable of Godly potential. (see John 17: 6 - 11)
Today’s Memo is addressed not only to individual believers, but also to a second group of people: pastors and church leaders.  Do we believe in our congregation as much as Jesus believed in his?  When pastors lack vision for their people the result is lowered expectations, dumbed-down preaching and a general chaplaincy that considers victorious Christian living a pipe dream. The lesson of Jesus the disciple-maker should be clear: even if individual Christians do not have confidence in their identity in Christ, at least their leaders should.
What would happen if pastors and leaders began to operate from the conviction that it is possible to reproduce the character and power of Jesus in his followers?  Jesus apparently held that idea:
I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father. And I will do whatever you ask in my name, so that the Son may bring glory to the Father. (John 14: 12 - 13)

Is Obedience Possible?

Imagine this scene: a man lies naked, hungry and cold.  A stranger approaches and offers these words, “I wish you well. Be warm, and filled.”  Then the stranger walks away.  Now imagine the stranger who walks away is Jesus.

Unthinkable, right?  Too many Christians possess just such an image of Jesus when it comes to the issue obedience.  God wants us to obey his will.  It’s good.  It’s necessary.  The problem is many of us see ourselves as incapable of obedience.   We have failed too often.  We find ourselves naked and cold, in desperate need.  And into our helpless situation, we imagine that Jesus walks up to us and says, “be obedient” without offering any practical help.

Would the grace God demand from us something we cannot give?  If we were “miserable sinners” before turning to Jesus, why does Jesus expect his followers to become obedient to his will?  How do we become something other than “forgiven miserable sinners?”  Some believers find themselves trapped in a Christian existence of forgiveness, more sin, and more forgiveness.

The good news is that God’s grace does something more than say, “Be warm and filled.”  Jesus calls us obey, but he does not leave us on our own.  He demonstrated how to become the kind of follower who is not trapped in the forgive-sin again-forgive cycle.

The Jesus way of teaching believers how to obey is contained in the famous verses we call The Great Commission:
All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore 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. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.
The Great Commission does not command obedience, but rather discipleship--which makes obedience possible.  Discipleship is God’s plan to grow in obedience.  Jesus breaks discipleship to two functions--immersing believers in the three revealed identities of God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) and instructing disciples in how to obey everything he commanded.  To separate obedience from teaching how to obey would be the same as merely saying “Be warm and filled” to a naked homeless person, and Jesus wouldn’t do that.

The church, however, has fallen into the “Be warm and filled” fallacy.  We attempt to “teach” obedience apart from relationship.  In fact, obedience cannot be taught apart from relationship, it can only be demanded.  Sitting in church listening to the demands of obedience usually results in guilt--a guilt incapable of producing fruit.

A better pattern is the family model.  Good parents teach their children to obey in an atmosphere of mutual love and commitment.  Fathers and mothers love their children, and children love their parents.  Relationship and obedience grow side-by-side.  The love felt by both parents and child provide the motivation for discipline from above and effort from below.  Healthy families provide examples of obedience.  Day-by-day children can witness whether true obedience lives in the household.

New life in Christ means the Father has provided a new family for each of us.  We become a part of God’s household.  If obedience resides in the house, it becomes a way of life--something for us to enter into, not something imposed from the outside.  Obedience becomes the natural response of loving hearts.  The family of God becomes the context for learning how to obey.  Our obedience helps provide a setting for others to discover the way of life.  This is one of the reasons that our obedience is not merely a personal matter.  It’s also why some Christian mystics describe God as Father and the church as the mother of our obedience.

Could you be God’s means of grace is someone else’s life?  If you respond to the Great Commission by making disciples, the answer is yes.