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Entries in discipleship (34)

Don't blame me, I didn't say it.

If you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else. You should pick someone who is widely respected and is recognized as an authority: the kind of person that would make others think twice before they disagree. I think I have a quote like that. Here goes:

Most problems in contemporary churches can be explained by the fact that members have never decided to follow Christ.” ~ Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard is an ordained Southern Baptist minister, PhD., and professor at the University of Southern California’s School of Philosophy. He is the author of numerous books on spiritual formation. His work, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God won Christianity Today’s book of the year award in 1999. He would win every year he writes a book except the people at C.T. feel the need to share with others.

Christians in the United States are more charitable than any other demographic group. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we divorce, go bankrupt, cheat on our taxes, engage in extra-martial sex, and generally live life at the same level as everyone else in society. Christians—those who take the name of Jesus Christ as their prime identity—do not follow him in any significant way. We have taken his name, but we have not taken his yoke.

Worse still, a large section of the American church has presented the gospel message as exclusively a matter of going to heaven when you die. While this is a wonderful benefit of following Jesus the fact remains that the gospel message proclaimed by John the Baptist, Jesus, and the Apostles was the “gospel of the Kingdom of God.” In most churches this phrase is altogether foreign even though there are more than a hundred New Testament references to the Kingdom. The Kingdom of God is hard to miss in the New Testament, but we have somehow found a way. It’s right out in the open: for example, the first request of the Lord’s Prayer is, “Let your Kingdom come, let your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

Closely related to the message of the Kingdom of God is the need for Christians to heed the call to be Christ-followers. The Biblical word for this is discipleship, an idea that is nearly always omitted in evangelistic presentations. Our outreach efforts highlight the promise of heaven to exclusion of following Jesus. In his book, The Great Omission, Willard points out that following Jesus and teaching others to do the same is the mission of the church. This is accomplished through discipleship:

Eternal life is the Kingdom Walk, where in seamless unity, we “Do justice, love kindness, and walk carefully with our God.” (Micah 6: 8) We learn to walk this way through apprenticeship to Jesus. His school is always in session. We need to emphasize that the Great Omission from the Great Commission is not obedience to Christ, but discipleship, apprenticeship to him. (The Great Omission, p. xiv)

Is it any surprise that our churches are filled with people who do not demonstrate a significant difference from the rest of society? Is it possible that by concentrating exclusively on “eternal life,” the American church has largely gotten the message wrong? We are a church that has made following Jesus optional, while the words, “follow me” were the very ones Jesus used to call the disciples.

Of course, Dallas Willard didn’t make this stuff up. Willard knows that if you want to make a really offensive statement it’s always better to quote someone else:

A certain ruler asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

"Why do you call me good?" Jesus answered. "No one is good—except God alone. You know the commandments: 'Do not commit adultery, do not murder, do not steal, do not give false testimony, honor your father and mother.'"

"All these I have kept since I was a boy," he said.

When Jesus heard this, he said to him, "You still lack one thing. Sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me."

When he heard this, he became very sad, because he was a man of great wealth. Jesus looked at him and said, "How hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God! Indeed, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God."

Those who heard this asked, "Who then can be saved?"

Jesus replied, "What is impossible with men is possible with God."

Peter said to him, "We have left all we had to follow you!"

"I tell you the truth," Jesus said to them, "no one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age and, in the age to come, eternal life." (Luke 18: 18 – 30)

Jesus connected eternal life with the call to come and follow. Do we dare to do the same? I’m just glad that I didn’t say it. He did.

Beyond Appreciation, beyond waiting for heaven.

If you want to know what your full potential looks like as a Christian, look at Jesus. All that he did during his earthly ministry was done through reliance upon the Holy Spirit and by looking to the Father for direction. Jesus lived his life as a model for us to follow, and that model is within reach of each person who receives him as Lord as well as Savior.

Jesus was fully God and fully man yet he was one person. This is vital to our understanding of Jesus as a role model in our everyday lives. He was not a man who achieved divinity, nor was he God merely pretending to be a man. We must make distinctions between the two aspects of his identity because each one drives different aspects of our Christian walk: we worship Jesus because he is God; we can pattern our lives after him because in his humanity he lived the perfect human life as our example.

We should recognize the difference between his unique sacrificial death on the cross and the pattern of living he set for us during his earthly ministry. His death on the cross is unique because of who he is—the sinless perfect Son of God, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. History is filled with examples of sacrificial deaths; soldiers have died on behalf of their comrades and parents have died on behalf of their children. But no one else could accomplish what Jesus accomplished on the cross, because his perfect sacrifice came by virtue of his identity as God come to earth. His sacrifice was for the sin of all people, at all times, in all places. Only God’s own blood could satisfy the guilt of our sin. His death was unique: one time, once, for all. God himself provided the lamb. No one else could do it and no one else will ever have to do it again. We have emphasized his death and resurrection on Jesus as God’s only Son precisely because only God could do it.

There is, however, the danger of over-emphasis: when we concentrate on the substitutionary death of Jesus to the exclusion of his life and teaching we limit his ministry to a divine rescue mission—a rescue mission that only becomes effective for us when we die. When we see his ministry exclusively as the action that purchased heaven for us it is difficult to make the connection between his sacrifice and our everyday lives. Many Christians are emotionally moved by his suffering on Calvary. Many are grateful that he paid a debt he did no owe. Many Christians understand that they have no hope of heaven apart from the price Jesus paid on their behalf. But apart from gratitude for his kindness, for most believers there is little connection between what Jesus did then and how we can live today.

Here is the challenge: our appreciation for what he did does not empower us to fulfill the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount. Our gratitude for his suffering does not release the wisdom, insight, or strength for each one of us to live as a new kind of person. Jesus urged his followers to “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” (Matthew 11: 29) The “rest” he speaks of here is not our eternal rest, but rest and peace for everyday living.

His gentleness and humility may have led him to the cross but they are also character traits available to his disciples today. Likewise, his power to heal and deliver may have offended the religious leaders of his day, but that same power is available to his followers today. He offers the opportunity for us to learn from him—not about how to go to heaven when we die but about how heaven can come to earth now. This is the very first request we are taught to pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “Let Your Kingdom come, let Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6: 10, emphasis added). During his earthly ministry his wisdom, his actions, and his powerful works were examples of how we could live on earth as well. This is the radical nature of his gospel: the gospel of the Kingdom of God.

Students of Jesus can go beyond receiving Jesus as Savior and receive him as Lord. Through the record of the gospels and the active presence of the Holy Spirit Jesus still invites us to take the yoke of discipleship today. The good news of the gospel includes the glorious invitation to grow in Christlikeness right now. Will we respond to that invitation, or wait for the age to come?

Trying, or Training?

Let me tell you a story about what happened on vacation a few years back. We used to take my wife’s little sister, LuciAnn, on vacation with us when she was in high school. She was great company and cheap babysitting. One year we took her to San Diego for a week and almost killed her.

Luci wanted to try scuba diving. There was this little place in La Jolla that advertised scuba lessons and diving, all in one afternoon. It was pure southern California: the proprietor was a Vietnam veteran with pictures of his past life everywhere. Tie-dye had not gone out of style in his shop. He had a three-inch shark’s tooth on display; he claimed he had pulled it out of his head after the shark bit him! One Thursday afternoon Luci and I joined one other student for a scuba class. The shop was a mile from the ocean, and after suiting up we headed to his hippie-era van for a drive to the sea. I expected we would make our way to a marina but instead he drove to a public beach and said, “don’t put your fins on yet. It makes it hard to walk on the sand.” Turns out that was the only lesson we got.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Aren’t you going to spend any time training us?” I had been scuba diving two or three times in other locations, and each time we had spent an hour going over equipment, and had even trained briefly in a swimming pool. But that was me. I knew this was Luci’s first effort.

“Oh, yeah.” he said. “I’ll cover that stuff at the beach.”

Sunbathers and swimmers at the beach stopped and stared (children pointed) as our instructor and three students marched to the water in full wet-suit armor. We sat on the firm sand and the waves ran up our legs us as we put on our fins.

“Here’s what you need to do,” he offered. “Stay close to me.” He pointed to me and said, “You’ve been down before, right? You take the other guy, and I’ll take the girl.” Instruction-time had ended. Diving time began. The four of us waded out chest-deep into the Pacific in full gear: we had weighted belts to help us stay under water.

“Put on your masks,” said the boss. Luci had never worn a mask before.

“No! Not like that! Spit in it!”

“It’s doesn’t fit,” Luci offered.

“Didn’t you size it back at the shop?” he demanded. The water was up to Luci’s neck, chest-deep for the rest of us. He fiddled with the mask. “There. That oughta do it. Put it on. Let’s get going.”

We swam out about fifty yards when Luci pulled up. “My mask is full of water.”

“Give me that!” he barked. The four of us were treading water, with diving weights around our waist. Luci went under for a moment. I pulled her up. The instructor adjusted the mask one more time. Luci choked out a mouthful of seawater.

“You’re going to have to try harder,” he told Luci. “You could get in serious trouble here.” No foolin’! Luci was near tears as this time the instructor stretched the mask over her head. Of course, he did it perfectly, and it fit. “Tell you what,” he said, "just hold my hand the rest of the way.”

I gained a lot of respect for my young sister-in-law that day. I would have panicked: she was out in the ocean in water above her head, with no training at all, fighting to stay above water. All the instructor could offer was “You’re going to have to try harder.” Luci didn’t panic, and she managed to stay in control enough to enjoy the rest of the dive. 45 minutes later the beach-goers watched as we emerged from beneath the sea and waddled back up to the hippie van.

Luci learned how to scuba dive that day. I learned that there is a world of difference between trying and training.

Becoming a follower of Jesus requires training. Jesus said, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11: 28 – 30) His promise of rest is realized as we learn from him.

Too many believers have encountered the hippie-scuba-instructor model of following Jesus: “You’re going to have to try harder.” Someone told them that following Jesus results in rest and peace; no one trained them to hear the voice of God, or how to take the yoke Jesus offers. In fact, too many believers are unaware that Christian maturity even requires training. But it’s true: “Anyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is not acquainted with the teaching about righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5: 13 -14)

If we are serious about using the phrase, “born again,” we must realize that infants need others to provide care until they can care for themselves. Ultimately it is Jesus himself who trains us as disciples. He is the master teacher, but most of us need someone to train us how to hear his voice and how to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.

Who has trained you? Who are you training?

Join the Jail-break or Join the Break-in?

“How do we help people know and live the life of a Kingdom catalyst, and that they can join with the Father for his reign to break into the world? This is the kind of "discipleship" that I need and want to pass on to others.” ~ Steven Hamilton

Steven Hamilton posted these words in the comment section after the Monday Memo, and they go right to the heart of discipleship. This week’s Monday Memo suggested that there’s an important difference between seeing ourselves as “born again” or seeing ourselves as “born from above.” The text in John, chapter three, can support both translations. Most translations favored by evangelicals give us “born again,” but the New Jerusalem Bible, a Roman Catholic translation, renders the idea “born from above.” I find it interesting that historically Catholic Christians have been more engaged in world affairs than Evangelicals, who largely see the work of Christ as a divine rescue mission--saving us from hell and securing heaven--which has encouraged Christians to retreat from worldly things. (OK, I know this is a generalization, but I stand by it--generally)

Have you ever considered what would happen if Jesus came to your home town tomorrow morning? What things would he set straight? Where would he turn his attention and activity? Of course, we have some idea of what he would do; the gospels are a record of what Jesus did when he came to town. Many people think that the arrival of God meant judgment had come, and in some measure that’s true--Jesus brought the judgment of God against sickness by healing the sick. He brought the judgment of God against demonic oppression by setting people free from demonization. He brought the judgment of God against hypocrisy and discrimination by welcoming the outcasts to his dinner table.

In the day of his visitation, Jesus did more than demonstrate God’s verdict on injustice, he invited others to follow him. He invited others to join him in his Father’s work. (see Matthew 10: 1-10; Luke 9: 1-6 & Luke 10: 1-12 for starters). This means that when God came to earth he immediately pressed people into working along side of him, literally doing the same things he did. He is still doing the very same thing today: breaking into our world and inviting others to join him. This is the answer to Steven Hamilton’s question about discipleship.

Hamilton uses the phrase, “Kingdom catalyst,” that is, a person or thing that precipitates an event or change, and in this case the change is the in-breaking of the kingdom. If we limit the work of Jesus to a guarantee of going to heaven when we die, then we will be concerned with breaking out of this world. Who could possibly hear a call to discipleship in that? If broaden our understanding of Christ’s work to see him opening the way for heaven to come to earth, then we will be concerned with the in-breaking of God’s rule and reign (“as it is in heaven”) into our world here and now. If God is going to show up personally, then discipleship is the logical response--it means getting on board with what he will do when he gets here!

Anyone who looks forward to the “jail-break” from earth to heaven will not be concerned with life on earth--except for the kind of evangelism that invites others to join the getaway. When we look forward to God breaking into a captive earth, then our activities here and now take on new meaning. We need to ask ourselves if our gospel is an invitation for others to join the jail-break or join the break-in.

How did he become the man he was?

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head,
The stars in the sky look down where he lay,
The little Lord Jesus asleep in the hay.

Don’t worry, it’s not Christmas time, but this carol raises an important question to anyone who wants to follow Jesus. The song celebrates the Incarnation, literally, the enfleshment of Jesus, when God Himself became man. It is a powerful carol because any parent remembers well the beauty and mystery of their child asleep in the crib. We can relate to sleeping babies. But then . . .

The cattle are lowing, the poor Baby wakes
The little Lord Jesus, no crying He makes . . .

Right here--at the words, “no crying he makes” the song begins to depart from our personal experience. Most mothers would begin to worry about a baby who never cries. What kind of baby was this Jesus? Did he ever cry? What kind of child was the boy Jesus, growing year after year with Joseph and Mary?

Will you indulge me in some foolishness? This baby Jesus, God Incarnate: how did he receive the Magi when they came to worship? Did the infant in the manger invite them in and gesture for them to sit? Did he say, “Please, come in. You must be exhausted from your journey.” Did the newborn baby thank them for their thoughtful gifts?

Imagine Jesus as a boy learning the family business at his father’s side: the sinless Son of God, perhaps six years old, driving a nail into a board for the very first time. Did he hold the hammer correctly? Did he drive the nail straight and true? Or, like all children, did he gain his skill through experience? When the Perfect Human Being first held a saw and cut a piece of wood, did he cut the board correctly? And if he did not, what does this say of his divinity?

Behind these silly imaginations hide questions for anyone who would become like their Master. If Jesus is our example in both behavior and ministry, how did he become the man he was? If Jesus modeled ministry for us by healing the sick, casting out demons and raising the dead, by what power did he do these things? Indeed the church has debated these questions for centuries. It is not merely the stuff of theological curiosity because Jesus called us to be like him in every way.

If Jesus accomplished moral excellence and supernatural ministry exclusively through the privilege of his identity as the Son of God, how can he expect us to follow him? Any serious follower of Jesus should take time to consider--how did Jesus do the things he did? Was he sinless because he had some advantage over you or me? Did he heal the sick or multiply the bread and fish because he had some secret power not open to any of his followers? If Jesus did these things because he was the Boss’ son, isn’t it unfair for him to expect us to become like him?

Luke chapter 4 depicts the very beginning of Jesus ministry--the very first sermon recorded in that Gospel. It is short, and revealing:

He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written:
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
because he has anointed me
to preach good news to the poor.
He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
and recovery of sight for the blind,
to release the oppressed,
to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, "Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing." (Luke 4: 16 - 21)

Jesus selects the passage from Isaiah which begins plainly “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me.” Everything which follows in the life and ministry of Jesus flows from the operation of the Holy Spirit in his life. Luke points out the role of the Holy Spirit in Jesus’ baptism (3:22) and in the 40 days of testing in the wilderness (4:1 & 14). In Luke’s second work, the book of Acts, he quotes the Apostle Peter, who gives a one-sentence summary of the ministry of Jesus:

"You know what has happened throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee after the baptism that John preached -- how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and power, and how he went around doing good and healing all who were under the power of the devil, because God was with him." (Acts 10: 38-39)

Jesus did what he did by the power of the Holy Spirit, not by virtue of his unique identity as the Son of God. Make no mistake--Jesus is God Himself come to earth. His example for life and ministry, however, is through the Holy Spirit’s empowerment, and that same Spirit is available to his followers. What does that mean for us today? Come back next week for part two.