Deciphering Discipleship Part 1

Part One of the sermon entitled Deciphering Discipleship which was originally given on April 23, 2017 at Midway Mennonite Church in Columbiana, OH.

Sermon Scripture Text: Matthew 28:18-20
2 Timothy 3:14-17


Picture By Distant Shores Media/Sweet Publishing used with no changes made. It can be found at: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Gospel_of_John#/media/File:Gospel_of_John_Chapter_2-12_(Bible_Illustrations_by_Sweet_Media).jpg

A Buddhist monk sat at the edge of the Yellow River and watched a dove with amazement. At regular intervals, the bird dipped its plumage into the water and then flew up into the air, feathers sparkling with water. And then he returned to do it again.  “Why are you doing that?” the monk asked the dove.  “Don’t you see the smoke on the horizon?” the bird answered. “There’s a forest fire over there. I’m trying to put it out.”  The monk laughed out loud. “And you, little bird, think that you can do something about it?”  “I don’t know,” said the dove. “But I know that I have to try.”

Our text today is a familiar passage that is found at the end of the Book of Matthew and has been motivating Christians around the world to get out and try to lead people down the road to repentance and salvation for a millennium.  In the NSRV version, Matthew 28:18-20 reads, “And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” 

It is in part because of this passage that I felt the need to go through the C.S. Lewis Fellows program.  This passage filled me with uneasiness, because I wanted to go as Jesus commanded me to, but I didn’t know how to go.  So, I eagerly completed the application thinking that very soon I would be given the keys to the kingdom, so to speak, and able to Go and Make Disciples, just as Jesus was instructing me to do.  Instead, I learned that I totally missed the meaning of this piece of scripture.

If you were to look up this passage in the Believers Church Bible Commentary on the book of Matthew, you would read that the main verb in the Greek text of the great commission is matheteuo, which means make disciples.  Jesus is telling his remaining eleven disciples to expand the circle, to invite others to join them in following Jesus.  The other three verbs in the text are participles that connect with the main verb…We might paraphrase verses 19-20 like this:  As you go forth, call people everywhere to become disciples, which will involve both baptizing them into God’s community and summoning them to embody my teaching in their lives.

The focus on this scripture isn’t the going part.  Instead it is the making part. I think as a culture in general we do tend to miss that emphasis.  This is a rather convenient misunderstanding because if we focus on the Go instead of the Make, then we can find excuses that give us a pass on this command.  We can tell ourselves things like, that is the job and gifting of the missionaries.  I don’t need to worry myself with that command because I can’t go anywhere.  But in actuality this command isn’t just for those who travel far from their homes to spread the Gospel.  It is for each and every one of us.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer noted that “Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”

We each are all called to discipleship and can extend this invitation to follow Jesus to every person we come into contact with just by going through the business of our daily lives.  There is as much of a need for the Good News of Jesus Christ in our workplaces and schools as there is for the people of the South American jungles that have never heard the name of Jesus.

So how have the churches in America gotten this passage wrong for so long?  It most likely goes back to cultural understanding.  We have forgotten, or never known, what true discipleship is.  Our version of discipleship is different than the understanding of discipleship in Jesus’ time.

The Merriam-Webster’s dictionary offers us this as the definition of disciple:  one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another: such as Christianity:  one of the twelve in the inner circle of Christ’s followers according to the Gospel accounts.  That’s it.  It is brief, and seems to focus on accepting and sharing ideas.

A better definition for discipleship has been offered by Greg Ogden in his book, Transforming Discipleship: Making Disciples a Few at a Time, where he defines a disciple as one who, in the context of community, places himself or herself under the shaping influence of Jesus so that there is no doubt as to who is deploying the formative power.

However, in Jesus’ day, the cultural understanding of what discipleship is, was very different.  Rabbis in ancient Israel were scholars and teachers of Jewish laws and scriptures and they would travel around from town to town to teach in the local synagogues.  They didn’t go to their local college to get their Master’s in Biblical Studies.  Instead they had to learn by first being a disciple to another Rabbi.

To be someone’s disciple, you would give up your whole way of life and leave your family so that you could devote yourself to literally following your teacher as they travelled from place to place.  As you travelled with your teacher you also took care of his daily needs like food and shelter.  We often see in the Gospels that Jesus sends some of the twelve ahead to take care of details like these.  For years, you would devote yourself to this Rabbi so that you could learn all of his knowledge and ideas.  There were many teachers with Disciples, not just Jesus.

What Jesus changes with this model is that he is always the teacher and his followers through the ages are always the students.  The disciples remain disciples of Jesus even after he sends them out fully equipped to make disciples on their own.

What does Discipleship look like now in American Churches today?  It isn’t seen as a way of life anymore for the masses.  A lot of it is left to those who choose a monastic life, or a pastor’s path.

Dallas Willard, an author specializing in Christian Spiritual Formation, has pointed out in his writings how far we have strayed from understanding the Christian life as sitting at the feet of Jesus.  Instead we focus on the benefits that we receive by faith in Jesus rather than on being conformed to the life of Jesus.  We want abundance without obedience…The bottom line essential with in the evangelical world is having the debt of one’s sins canceled by transferring them to Jesus’ account…The most telling thing about the contemporary Christian is that he or she simply has no compelling sense that understanding of and conformity with the clear teachings of Christ is of any vital importance to his or her life, and certainly not that it is in any way essential.”  (Ogden, pages 46-47)

Studies show that only one out of every six adults who attend church regularly are involved in any type of activity or relational process that would help with personal spiritual growth.  That is around 17 % of the average church congregation.  Of this group about 69% are involved in a small group for bible or topical studies, 20% attend an adult Sunday school class, 14% are involved with one-to-one mentoring, 11% take part in special faith-based classes, and only 3% are involved in programs geared towards discipleship.  ( Ogden, pgs 26-27)

Discipleship, for the church body, has become a buzz word.   It is something to add to the to do lists rather than something to be actively engaged in so that we become closer followers of Jesus Christ.  The focus is on creating programs to reach out to disciple the lost people outside our churches. What is forgotten is the need to disciple those within the church first.


If you enjoyed Part One, please visit next week for Part Two.

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Writing, Preaching, and Teaching

We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith;  ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness. (Romans 12:6-8, NRSV)

 

The twists and turns that come up on the journey of life are always surprising.

It isn’t like the new cars of today that have the sensors all around them that start flashing lights and talking to you warning you of things that are coming.  Wouldn’t it be great if humans were equipped with this capability?  To be able to prepare and be proactive rather than reactive?  But alas, God our creator didn’t see any need to add this feature to our design.

So, surprises must be a required part of our journeys.

For me the surprise twist in my road seems to be that God has been using me to preach.

Me!

A woman.

A relatively new Anabaptist.

Never in a million years would I have expected this.  In fact, over the years, I have been adamant that I could never be a preacher and had no desire to give a sermon….EVER! Yet here I am, preparing to start writing my sixth sermon message in seven months and plans for a seventh one to be given in May.

Our God works in very mysterious ways indeed!

When I first began to feel that God was calling me to change and to begin something new I was excited. All indications seemed to point to being a writer.  This all seemed very romantic to me as I recalled all of my childhood literary heroines.  It was like being invited to join the ranks of Laura Ingalls, Jo March and Anne Shirley!  As a result, Wisdom Wanderings was born!

It was this urge to write that led me to become a C.S. Lewis Institute Fellow.

I entered into that year of intentional discipleship expecting to learn more about myself and to also gain a firmer understanding of my faith, what I believe, and who I am as a child of God.  All of these possibilities excited me and I just KNEW I would come out of that year of study a better, more competent writer.

It doesn’t surprise me that all of these expectations were the outcome – I do have a firmer understanding of what I believe and a much deeper faith – but I am very surprised that the writing I am doing the most of since completing year one of my fellowship time is sermon writing!

Not blog posts.

Not magazine articles.

Not a bestselling book helping others to find the deeper faith that I did….Sermon writing.

All of this sermon writing has me wondering where this road is going to.  Again, there is no sensor to give me any indications of what is coming.

It would seem that a perfect storm of events, a.k.a God’s timing, has placed me in a church that is currently seeking a new pastor.  This vacancy has given me the opportunity to preach occasionally.  However, we will eventually find a pastor, and that leads my mind to wondering what comes next for me?

God always has a purpose.  This time of sermon writing and giving are preparing me for something.  Only time will tell what God is currently equipping me for.

Could there really be a future for me in some kind of preaching or teaching capacity?  I can’t in the foreseeable future see any opportunities for either preaching or teaching outside of my own church.  God works in mysterious ways and in his own perfect timing.

In the end, all I can do is continue on as God’s disciple.  When he calls me I will answer with the words of Isaiah:   “Here I am, send me!”

Although preaching and teachings God’s word from a pulpit weren’t a part of my plans, they seem to be part of God’s plan for me.  To truly be his disciple I must heed the call and follow his plans rather than my own.  After all, his are always infinitely better!  I will continue to trust and hold on as I come around the next bend in my life and be willing to be open to whatever God has around that bend for me.

if my people who are called by my name humble themselves, pray, seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin and heal their land. (2 Chronicles 7:14, NRSV)

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Getting Comfortable

God is always moving and the Holy Spirit is always moving in us.  As we thrive and become comfortable He begins to start to nudge us here and there to stray out of that comfort zone for His glory.

These past few weeks have been quiet weeks for me.  I have been resting my mind and renewing my soul taking sabbath time with the Father.  Time that is much-needed after the flurry of activity surrounding two major milestones on my journey to answer God’s calling on my life.   Both of these milestones required me to come out of the comfort zone I had built around myself.

The first of these was completing and graduating from year one of the C.S. Lewis Fellows Program.  This year-long intensive program is designed to make disciples who can then go out and disciple others.  In order for this to happen I had to be willing to let go and let God move into all the areas of my life, not just one or two.  His claim is on all of me.

Many times over this past year I have had to go to some very uncomfortable places in my heart and mind as I emptied out the hurts that have built up in my heart over the course of my lifetime.  Digging deep into feelings that I didn’t even know I had in some cases.  This process still isn’t finished, and I am not sure that this ever will completely end, but along the way God has filled in the holes in my heart.   He is strengthening me daily and letting me know that I am enough already as I am.

This process of healing that he has begun in me is necessary in order for me to move forward and be able to fully embrace the call he has for me in this life.

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The second milestone I reached during the month of June I must confess is one that I never thought would be something that would be a part of my calling.  On June 12 for the first time ever I brought the Sunday morning message to the congregation at Midway.

Never in a million years did I see myself in the position of being qualified to give a sermon or that the opportunity would ever even be given to me.  However, our God works in mysterious ways as we all know.  So I guess at the end of the day is there ever anything that is too great for us to do if we are filled with Spirit of God who gives us the guidance and wisdom we need?

Many times I have stood before our congregation, but only ever as a worship leader.  The thought of standing behind the pulpit was a very intimidating one!  I knew right away that God was calling me to share my testimony so that was what I concentrated on as I began to write the message.

Some parts came together easily.  I knew right away that the name of this message had to be “Believing and Belonging”.  The scriptures that would be used came relatively easy as well:  Luke 10:38-42 and John 15:1-8.  The story of Martha and Mary is told in this passage from Luke and is the perfect illustration of the journey I have been on – first as Martha, then as Mary.

However the actual words of the sermon eluded me.  For the better part of a week I tried in vain to find a place to begin.  Thursday night before the given Sunday I sat in front of my computer willing the words to come, but nothing felt right.

Giving up for the night I went to bed with renewed prayers that God would pour the message he wanted me to share into my heart.  As I laid in bed waiting for sleep to come I suddenly knew where the message needed to start!  The next morning I began typing and the words quickly filled up pages.  The message was ready!!

But was I?

On many occasions I have made it clear that I did not feel I would ever be able to fill a pulpit and preach a Sunday message.  The suggestion that perhaps I should preach was one that I regularly rejected feeling that wasn’t a place for me.  Turns out God had other ideas on the matter!

I don’t know what will come next for me, but that Sunday morning God held my hand and steadied my voice and used me to bring a message to his people at Midway.

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I guess we just never know where the road might take us if we are willing to leave our places of comfort!

So perhaps it isn’t that we are ever truly comfortable in our lives, but that we are learning to be comfortable serving him in humility, relying on His strength and wisdom to guide us through all the tasks that he brings our way.  We are learning to be comfortable in him rather than in ourselves.

As I continue to branch out in his calling for me, I will move forward with confidence drawing strength and wisdom from the vine.  Serving where ever and however He may call me.  Abiding in his love bringing glory to his name.

“I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower.  He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit.   You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you.   Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me.   I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing.   Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned.   If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you.  My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. (John 15:1-8, NRSV) 

*To hear my recorded message, visit the Midway Mennonite Church’s website.  Worship in song followed by the scripture readings begins the recording and the message starts at about 23:30.