Following Jesus In America 2006
"Then he said to the crowd, If any of you wants
to be my follower, you must put aside your selfish
ambition, shoulder your cross daily, and follow
If you try to keep your life for yourself, you will
lose it. But if you give up your life for me, you
will find true life. And how do you benefit if you
gain the whole world but lose or forfeit your own
soul in the process?" (Luke 9:23-25, NLT)
My "sermonette" on discipleship and following Jesus
is a bit long this week...
"If your brother sins, go and show him his fault when the two of you are alone. If he listens to you, you have regained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others with you, so that at the testimony of two or three witnesses every matter may be established. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. If he refuses to listen to the church, treat him like a Gentile or a tax collector.” (Matthew 18:15-17)
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter into the kingdom of heaven — only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day, many will say to me, 'Lord, Lord, didn't we prophesy in your name, and in your name cast out demons and do many powerful deeds?' Then I will declare to them, 'I never knew you. Go away from me, you lawbreakers!' "Everyone who hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the flood came, and the winds beat against that house, but it did not collapse because it had been founded on rock. Everyone who hears these words of mine and does not do them is like a foolish man who built his house on sand.”
“When they saw him, they worshiped him, but some doubted. Then Jesus came up and said to them, "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 the Son and the Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
This week, from Monday through Wednesday, Cathy and I were in Mount Dora, for the annual Florida Vineyard Pastor’s retreat. The speaker focused most of his talk on the need in the Church today to return to the “Real War” and called on us to stop fighting Fake Battles.”
In a nut shell, fighting the “Real War” comes down to doing what Jesus came to do Himself then trained the 12 and the 72 to also do – “make disciples of all nations - teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.”
In the American Church we’ve focused a lot of resources and attention on teaching, but not on teaching to obey.
Jesus makes a lot of “hard sayings” in the Gospels. These are passages that make us pull back and say, “Wow! Is this the same “God so loved the world” Jesus? Some of the things He taught caused some of His followers to bail out and leave His Church. (See John chapter 6 for instance.) They must be understood in the context in which He spoke them – yes – as a first century Jew speaking to first century Jews primarily - yes. He used stories, parables, and many teaching methods common to His day in order to drive the message home. But no matter how you filter and process His words and teachings, they remain radical, challenging, world-rocking, go-against-the-current type stuff that is hard to receive.
I’ve heard so many interpretations of Jesus’ words concerning these hard passages – such as Matthew 7:21-22:
"Not everyone who says to me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, 'Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?'
The sermons I’ve heard on these verses are, first of all, few and far between. It’s not like these words are going to leave you with the “warm fuzzies.” Not exactly “seeker sensitive” sort of stuff that will make that beer-drinkin’, card-playing, womanizing neighbor want to rush back for more. (Then of course, you never know, ‘cause I know a guy, namely me, who fit that description, and did come back for more! Maybe that saving grace of God is irresistible after all!)
For the most part, the sermons I’ve heard on this passage go something like this…. “Yeah, this is hard to chew on, but don’t worry people, Jesus isn’t talking about you of course.” These verses aren’t, after all, for Christians – they’re for those really bad hypocritical people out there…so don’t worry, go home, and sleep well.”
There’s a huge problem with this sort of interpretation. If you look in your red-letter Bible and go backwards from Chapter 7 to the first letters that appear in black, there is an unbroken ocean of words in red until you final arrive at 5:1-2. Those verses read as follows:
“Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them, saying…” (Matthew 5:1-2)
The next block of explanatory narrative that Matthew gives comes in Chapter 7:28-29.
“When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.”
Notice that 5:1-2 clearly states that Jesus was “teaching them.” Who is the “them” – clearly, His disciples who “had come to Him” Now, it’s true that the crowds also heard the teaching, but the text of 5:1-2 reveals that Jesus was primarily focused on the disciples – “mathetes” in the Greek – which means “learners, pupils” – the “crowd” is distinct from the disciples. The “crowd” had not decided to follow yet. They were listeners. But the disciples had signed with Jesus’ school of ministry – they were there to learn and in order to become like Him – to obey His words.
In the first century Jewish world there was only one way to be a disciple. Read the Gospels and see how Jesus called each of his followers to become disciples – it always involved radical commitment to leave their world and livelihoods. It meant risk, it meant loss, it meant commitment. Where do we get out modern, “obey Jesus if I feel like it” sort of Christianity. Were does this rabidly narcissistic, and individualistic to a fault “I worship God how I want and where I want” spirituality come from? One thing is for sure, it is completely foreign to the New Testament.
Jesus defined discipleship in many ways but the most widely used definition for who is a disciple is Jesus' own example from the Gospel of John 13:34-35:
“So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples."
There is so much to be said about John 13:34-35 for our day and age. In our country, persecution does not come from without – but from within. Opposition and testing come at the hands of “believers” who refuse to obey Jesus’ words and teachings in Matthew 18:15-17 (see above) and instead withhold love from other believers. I’ve seen this too many times. “You failed me, you didn’t live up to my expectation, and so I won’t speak to you. I won’t say hello to you; in fact, I’ll turn my back to you on Sunday mornings.”
Instead of following the steps of Matthew 18, these “lawless believers” (see Matthew 7:23) tear others apart with their silence and meanness. They devour churches and pastors and say they are doing God’s will as they do it. Welcome to persecution in the American Church of the 21st century.
Jesus makes it very clear, after going to them to resolve the offense, if they refuse, the only recourse is to try one more time by bringing “one or two others” as witnesses. If they refuse to listen at this point Jesus’ words are stark and plain – have nothing to do with them – “treat them like you would a Gentile or a tax collector” – in others words – stay clear. There aren’t a lot of ways to exegete the pungency of “if they won’t listen, treat them as a pagan or a corrupt tax collector.” (New Living Translation)
In the Gospel of Luke, Chapter 14, there is a full discourse on what it means to follow Jesus. At the start of the chapter, his critics try to set a trap to bait Jesus into saying something negative about the Sabbath – something they can hang their hooks on. Jesus uses the opportunity to lay out the problems with the religiosity of His adversaries and he turns takes the issue to the level of reality – notice from the New Living Translation how He does this:
Great crowds were following Jesus. He turned around and said to them, "If you want to be my follower you must love me more than your own father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters-yes, more than your own life. Otherwise, you cannot be my disciple. And you cannot be my disciple if you do not carry your own cross and follow me. "But don't begin until you count the cost. For who would begin construction of a building without first getting estimates and then checking to see if there is enough money to pay the bills? Otherwise, you might complete only the foundation before running out of funds. And then how everyone would laugh at you!
Notice His definition of a disciple:
1. One who intensely loves Him – more than mother or father. He uses the Hebrew comparative metaphor – to love Him so much that our love for others and even for our own selves, appears like hatred in comparison (see NIV or NASB versions of this verse).
2. One who carefully considers what it’s going to cost to follow Him
Following Jesus is a cross bearing experience – meaning that a lot of what we are – our habits, our ways of dealing with problems, hurts, relational crisis – has to change – and not just change – but die.
Why is there so much immaturity and worldliness in the Church today? I think it comes down to the Cross – we’ve focused a lot of attention on what the Cross does for us – and that’s good! Jesus death brings life and healing, and hope. But we’ve forgotten that coming to Jesus means not only benefiting from His wonderful work on the Cross – but that it also means dying to all our “un-Christlikeness.” There is no other way to follow Him. There is no other way to deal with our “stuff” – or sin – than to kill it on a cross!
Paul writes in Galatians about this:
“Now those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.” (Galatians 5:24)
This is not simply an action which is past because earlier Paul had written:
"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me. (Galatians 2:20)
When he writes that “I have been crucified with Christ.” He uses the perfect tense in the Greek. According to the Greek scholar Spiros Zodhaites is used to define “an action that was completed in the past, but has continuing results.” According to Zodhaites, this tense “has no exact equivalent in the English language.”
More to follow soon….