3rd Sunday in Lent John 2:13-22 February 25, 2018, 20182B Lent Mark 8: 31-38 2.25.2018
The late Scottish author, clergy and professor of Divinity at the University of Glasgow, William Barclay, once wrote: “Once someone was talking to a great scholar about a young fellow. ‘So and so tells me that he was one of your students.’ The teacher answered devastatingly, ‘He may have attended my lectures, but he was not one of my students.’ There is a world of difference between attending lectures and being a student.” Barclay then goes to add: “It is one of the supreme handicaps of the Church that in the Church there are so many distant followers of Jesus and so few real disciples.”
I remember the first time I came across this quote and I suspect I winced because of the sharpness of the sentiment. But then I found myself wondering, is it true? And where would I fall on this discipleship continuum? Would I be a casual follower of Jesus or would I be considered a disciple of Jesus?
Sometime later I heard someone say that “Churches are full of followers, but not enough disciples.” Once again I wondered, is it true? And perhaps the bigger question might be, so, what’s the difference, between a follower of Jesus and a disciple of Jesus? And who gets to make that call?
On one level, one could look at the by-laws of almost any Lutheran church and read about how every year church councils are required to examine the church membership lists and if someone has not communed and contributed at least once within the past year they are to be placed on an “Inactive List”. Then if after a set number of years of being inactive, that individual is simply removed from the church roles. I can assure you, most church councils drag their heels on this by-law because nobody want to eliminate folks, even if they have not been in worship or supported the ministry for countless years. And yet, if you think about it, it’s not like the bar is set all that high. Commune at least once a year and put a check in the offering plate. Even the Lions Club has higher standards of expectations.
So maybe it is true, maybe churches need more disciples than members? And if it is true, what does it mean for you and me? Maybe it means that at some point in our lives the day comes when each one of us must decide which it’s going to be: Are we going to be an inactive member, a casual follower or a disciple of Jesus? And if we respond to the call to discipleship, what might that look like?
In today’s Gospel reading we are given some direction and guidance on this thorny question when we hear Jesus say: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. This would imply that to be a disciple of Jesus is to take up one’s cross and follow in Jesus footsteps, right? This would also imply that discipleship involves cross-bearing, right? And the obvious question would me--What does it mean to carry a cross?
Allow me to offer the following observation for your consideration and they are found in the following words: Sacrifice, Service and Humility.
The cross for Jesus meant sacrifice. Let’s be honest, for the vast majority of us, sacrifice is not high on our to-do lists and as a result we struggle with anything that resembles of sacrifice because sacrifice means giving up, letting go, surrendering something we hold near and dear to us.
Sadly, our society teaches us that the happiest and most fulfilled individuals are those who acquire more and more. I don’t know about you but I have found the reverse to be true.
In my years as a parish pastor I’ve found that the happiest folks are those who witness to their faith by more and more sharing—sacrificing if you will. I have seen marriages break up because spouses do not understand the need for sacrificial love, children are alienated from their parents because love isn't freely given, and congregations that don't give to their communities eventually die. So maybe Winston Churchill was right when he penned the words: “We make a living by what we get, but we make a life by what we give.”
Scripture tells us that God called the children of Israel to be a light to the nations. Instead they kept the light for themselves and they moved steadily toward the loss of identity as the people of God. Jesus calls his disciples to be the light of the world. But some of them put the light under the bushel—which is just a way of saying that they kept it for themselves—and the light was extinguished. Life does not go well when we do not give to each other—when we refuse to sacrifice on behalf of others.
Dr. Tony Campolo, a Baptist pastor, author and professor of Sociology, tells the story of standing on a street corner waiting for a bus in front of a church in downtown Philadelphia. People in cars were honking their horns impatiently in the busy traffic. On the sidewalk there were hustling, bustling pedestrians on their way home from work; others were going shopping. In the midst of all this hectic activity, [Tony Campolo] happened to turn toward the church, which had a crucifix positioned about six feet above street level. Beneath the statue of the crucified Jesus were the simple words, “Does it mean nothing to you, oh ye who pass by?” Campolo continues on and observes, “Caught up in the round of activities that mark our lives, we are so much a part of the ways of this world, we forget that Jesus sacrificed everything for us and that we ought to be ready to sacrifice everything we are and have for Him. When I think about this, I realize that I’ve got a long way to go before I can truly call myself a [disciples] of Jesus Christ.” I suspect we are all in that boat when it comes to carrying the cross of sacrifice.
The second of the three crosses for Jesus involves service as he dedicated his life and death helping others. I have often wondered whether I would be a good candidate for a cruise ship adventure. There are aspects of this adventure that intrigue me. I am told that others have had a wonderful time. I mean how could you not: unlimited access to a fabulous assortment foods and beverages, the chance to select from a seemly endless menu of activates. Explore the interior of a tropical island, whale watch among the glaciers, or swim with dolphins. Lie on a beach or pool side or snorkel among the exotic fish along a living coral reef—or simply lounge around in or out of your cabin with a good book or take a much needed nap. It does sound wonderful does it not? What’s not to like having someone looking after you, waiting on you hand and foot. Why not, you deserve this kind of pampering from time to time, right?
Pastor Mike Slaughter a Methodist pastor in Ohio has suggested that some followers of Jesus practice this kind of “cruise ship” religion. They expect to be served rather that to serve. They feel they have put in their time and deserve to sit back and let others do the work. They’re interested in enjoying their religion and getting what they want from it. They’re willing to give of themselves only when it is convenient and personally advantageous. If I did not know better, I would suspect Pastor Slaughter has managed to irritate a number of folks with this analogy—and yet—he has taken a struggling mission congregation in a rural and poor part of Ohio and has seen it grow as the folks in his church have taken up the cross of Jesus and are striving to be disciples, not on cruise ships but on something more akin to a servant- mission trip. In short, when Jesus talks about service he is talking about looking to the needs of others first and not counting the cost to ourselves but seeing to it, that what we do, can really bring about change in the lives of others.
This brings me to the third word regarding taking up one’s cross for Jesus: Humility. This seems to be a word I have encountered a lot lately. For many, this too is a stumbling block. And yet, at the heart of Christian discipleship is a spirit of humility. Why? Because this discipleship stuff is hard, it is demanding and it is counter-cultural and most of the folks we know just won’t get it. They will look at you funny when you tell them about taking up a cross for Jesus. They will scoff or look confused when you tell them about being a disciple of Jesus.
British author and scholar C.S. Lewis was comfortable as an atheist. He didn’t want God to exist. But he felt himself pursued. He tried to escape belief in God and in Jesus, but kept finding himself checked. Finally, the moment arrived—checkmate. C.S. Lewis knelt in his room. He said that he was “the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England. But then came the really hard part. Lewis knew that there is no such thing as a “private Christian.” He knew he had to go to church, that a Christian has to “fly one’s flag.” For a highly cultured university professor, surrounded by unbelievers, that was not easy. He had to take up his cross to follow Jesus [as a disciple].
Let’s be honest, being a disciple of Jesus involves plunging into life with your faith, your fears, your feet, your hands, your inevitable mistakes, your flawed love. Following Jesus as a disciple is scrambling across the worst literal or figurative bridge in life, abandoning the safer side for no good reason other than faith. Following Jesus as a disciple means looking foolish, having both cheeks slapped, handing your coat off to another, and even treating your worst enemy with respect—in other words, loving your enemy. The truth is—Jesus can be so exasperating! In short, to follow Jesus as a disciple is the daily challenge to be more fully human—and let’s face it—that can be humbling.
So, if you want to play king of the hill, if you would rather be successful than faithful, if you prefer power over compassion, or prestige over being poor in spirit—I got news for you—that isn’t discipleship.
Following Jesus is humbly realizing how much we are dependent on our God; how much we rely on his love; how much he deeply he cares for us and forgives us even though we are no more than beggars in his sight.
Let me close with this final observation regarding Sacrifice, Service and Humility…most of my clergy colleagues seldom want to talk about the cost of discipleship, and I get that. At one point in his preaching career, Jesus had more than five thousand followers, but when he preached one particular sermon, He alienated all but twelve of them. It was the sermon in which he spelled out the cost of discipleship. After His followers heard what it would cost them, only the twelve apostles remained, and He turned to them and asked, “How come you guys are still hanging around here?” It was then that Peter answered, “We didn’t have any place to go?”
As children of God, as brothers and sisters in Christ, as followers, and disciples and everything in-between—we are saved by grace. Which is good to know because being a disciple comes with great expectations and most of us will fall short. Knowing this, trusting this, we walk by faith, day by day, step by step humbly following our Lord, trusting in his love and his grace to transform each of us into the disciples we were created to be. Amen
+ Change the World; Mike Slaughter
+ God, Cornbread and Elvis; Joe E. Penner Jr.
+ Let Me Tell You a Story; Tony Campolo
Pastor Stephen Blenkush
Zion Lutheran Church
Milaca MN 56353
Love like Jesus!