September 27, 2020 – Essentials of the Way 4: Discipleship
Essentials 4 – Discipleship
Ezekiel 18:1-4,25-32, Psalm 19, 1 Corinthians 10:23 – 11:1, Matt 5:43-48
Ok, this week as we continue in a series of sermons about the Essentials of the Way, this week is about Discipleship. This is a VERY churchy word, kind of an insider word. It means growing in maturity as a Christian. It’s not a word you hear a lot in other areas of life. And so, to someone from outside the church, or someone new to the faith, it can sound a little odd. It’s one of those words that you think you’re SUPPOSED to know what it means, but you don’t, and you feel a little embarrassed to ask for a definition. In real estate, you’ll hear the word “easement” thrown around. When I was looking at houses, I kept hearing about the “easement,” and I’d just kind of nod and be all, “oh, yeah, easement.” No idea what it meant. “What the heck is an easement?” “Oh, it means someone else can use this little strip of land for their drainage ditch or power line or whatever.” “WHY DON’T YOU JUST SAY THAT?” “WE DID. The fact that you didn’t know it doesn’t mean it’s a silly term.” “Oh.”
So, Discipleship. What does it mean? Why, if it’s such an insidery word, why are we calling it one of the essentials of the way, one of the pillars of the Christian faith? I want to answer that question by talking about chefs, and a movie about sushi. Let me pray for us as we begin.
When you think of what a disciple is, think of an apprentice. Ten years ago, there was a movie called Jiro Dreams of Sushi. It was about a Japanese master sushi chef, a guy named Jiro, who owns a tiny ten seat restaurant inside a subway station in Tokyo. And it is considered by many to be the best sushi restaurant in the whole world. When a new cook comes into his restaurant, Jiro starts off by having them wash the vegetables. You get to know the product, and you get to be around the other more experienced chefs and see how they work. After a few years of peeling vegetables, you graduate to learning how to make the rice. And you do that for YEARS. Every day, day in and day out, your whole job is making rice. And you get REALLY good at it. You perfect that aspect of the craft. Then you start to get to chop the vegetables, then you learn how to cook the meat, then you learn how to cut the fish, then you learn how to SELECT the fish. And then, after decades, you’re ready to run your own kitchen. That happened to Jiro’s son – after a few decades of apprenticing under the master, he was ready to do the whole thing himself at another location.
Point 1 – Orientation
Point 2 – Perfection
Point 3 – Multiplication
Point 1 – Orientation
What does ANY of this have to do with Christianity? Well, in a nutshell, this is discipleship. It is a slow process, over time, of whole-life transformation into the person that God wants you to be. Discipleship is about becoming the kind of people we are meant to be. In the Garden of Eden, Adam and Eve were gives tasks – to worship God and to be his ambassadors in his creation. At the end of this age, at the end of Revelation when Christ comes back to perfect his creation, what are his followers doing? Same thing Adam and Eve were told to do – to worship God and to be his ambassadors in his creation. That’s who we are made to be as image-bearers of God. Worship God in fullness and steward his creation with wisdom and justice and mercy. Discipleship is “the formation of a genuine humanity who will reflect the divine image into the world.” It’s basically apprenticeship. There aren’t a ton of careers anymore that have the idea of apprenticeship, but it used to be that you would basically commit to a master craftsman, follow her around, and she would teach you, with words and by her example, how to fully live into this craft.
This is the goal of the Christian life between conversion and ultimate salvation: to be restored to our original purpose – to fully and accurately bear God’s image – to look like, act like, feel like, and react like true humans.
So, to put this all together: Discipleship is the process of becoming like Jesus, which means you will be fully human and fully yourself.
Point 2 – Perfection
How does this happen? Through perfection, as Jesus said. Now there’s a loaded word. We’ll get to that. See, discipleship is not just LEARNING as much as you can, although learning is definitely a component of it. In the modern west we believe that the BRAIN is the center of who we are. This is not the Bible’s view. The Bible says that the HEART controls our actions and is the seat of who we are. So if we want to become more like Jesus, it’s first and foremost a HEART thing and not a BRAIN thing. And the primary thing that produces heart change is HABIT.
When Jesus was asked about the most important demand the Creator places upon humans, his answer was not that we’ve got to get our thinking right, it was that we have to get our loving right. We are to “love” God with all our heart, mind, soul, and strength and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Our hearts are the center of everything we do, and while minds may be changed by knowledge, hearts are changed by HABITS. The primary way your hungers, your desires, your loves are developed is through certain types of habits.
And one implication of this is for all of us to realize that what we are doing now is thinking about and talking about discipleship, but discipleship, apprenticeship, is an ACTIVE task. You show up, every day, and work. And habitual practice is THE way we actually grow as Christians. To grow deeply into Christ, there is no other way than habitual practices. You can call them habits, you can call them rituals, you can call them practices. But these are routine actions we engage in to achieve a desired result.
So how do we do it? Well, remember what the first three weeks of this series were. Gospel, Worship, Community.
The first step in discipleship is keeping the Gospel central to your life. King Jesus rules and reigns over his creation, he freed you from slavery to sin, and he died in your place for sins you have done, are doing, and will do, so that you can be forgiven of those sins and be a son or daughter of the living God. The Gospel is always first and Jesus is always central. If the apprentice wants to become more like the master, the best way to do that is by carefully observing everything the master does. In this case, that means Scripture. We need to read the Bible outside of Sunday morning worship, by ourselves, and aloud with friends, and with our families. We need to take the time to immerse ourselves in the story of the Bible so that we can see the world the way God sees it. First, reading big chunks of Scripture. And by that I mean, reading whole books in one sitting. Take the time, perhaps once a week or once a month, set aside an hour or two and read right through a book in one sitting. That’s what the books of the Bible were designed for, after all. Second, spending prayerful time with short passages. There are so many ways to do this. You can engage your imagination – what if you were a person in the crowd when Jesus was walking by, what if you were an Israelite on the edge of the Red Sea with Pharaoh and his army bearing down on you. Some of you like the process of Lectio Divina, which is a meditative way of reading short passages of Scripture over and over.
Reading about God, and specifically about the life and ministry of Jesus, is a wonderful way to get a more fully rounded picture of who this is that we are loving and striving to become more like. I mean, did you ever wonder why we stand for the reading of the Gospel? It’s not because the Gospels are more important than the rest of the Bible. It’s partially an old custom of standing in the presence of the King’s proclamation, but it’s mostly a discipleship thing. We want to make sure that you’re REALLY paying attention to what Jesus said, and how he lived, so that we can more closely emulate it.
Second, an important way that we experience discipleship is in worship, because fundamentally, we ARE what we LOVE, and so the more time we spend in worship of Christ, the more we come to LOVE Christ, the more we want to FOLLOW Christ. Remember what I said 2 weeks ago – when we worship together, we enter into the divine worship that is ALREADY GOING ON within the Trinity. So, spending time in the presence of God is definitely a way to increase our love of God.
Thirdly, community. Discipleship almost never happens on your own. If you read the works of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, it becomes abundantly clear: we cannot be disciples without life together. Even the idea of entering into a community, whether that’s committing to a small group, or joining a church, is itself an act of formative discipleship: it’s another case of you saying, “I’m with you guys; I’m here for you.” It’s giving of yourself for others, growing in your apprenticeship of Jesus.
Plus, community is where most discipleship happens! Look at Abraham and Isaac. Look at Moses, in Exodus 18. Moses, the prophet of God, the one who led the Israelites out of Egypt, being discipled by his father-in-law, Jethro. Elijah and Elisha, Naomi and Ruth. Look at Jesus and Peter, Jesus with Mary and Martha, Paul and Barnabus, Paul and Silas, Paul and Timothy, Paul and Titus… Paul probably wasn’t the easiest boss. Over and over throughout the Bible, from Deuteronomy 6 to the final letter of John, the primary way people grow in the knowledge and love of God, the primary way that they become more like Jesus, is by finding a more mature Christian and latching on to them. Can’t do that apart from community.
So, that’s using the 3 Essentials we’ve covered so far as primary means of discipleship.
As disciples, we are becoming the most full and complete version of ourselves that we can, flawed as we are, and frail as our determination can sometimes be. When we pursue this apprenticeship of Jesus, we are doing exactly what Jesus commanded us to do in our Gospel reading today: Be perfect, as your father in heaven is perfect. Oh man, a lot of ink has been spilled on this verse, and probably a lot of people have tied themselves in knots thinking they don’t measure up to this standard of perfection. There have been groups of people, and even denominations, who think that sinless perfection is possible this side of Christ’s return. It isn’t. It really isn’t. What is Jesus saying? Ok, let me ask you this – anyone remember Jesus’s final words on the cross at the end of John 19, verse 30? Anyone? “It is finished.” It is fulfilled, it is complete. Same exact word here. You must be PERFECT, you must be full, complete, finished, as my father in heaven is full, complete, finished. Jesus lived the perfect life because we couldn’t. With this verse, Jesus is inviting us into the process of lifelong discipleship, letting the Holy Spirit do the job of completing the work Jesus’s death and resurrection began in us. So that our joy, our lives may be complete. Perfect. We can work TOWARD being the most full version of ourselves possible, and that means moving toward being who God intended us to be – like Jesus. And so, we can aspire to the same thing that the Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegard did, when he wrote in his journal, “And now, with God’s help, I shall become MYSELF.”
Point 3 – Multiplication
Third part of this – sharing it to others. A frequent statement by churches is “we want to make disciples who make disciples who make disciples.” This kind of echoes a statement by churches in a church planting movement that say “we want to be a church that plants churches that plants churches.” It’s not just one generation and we’re done. It’s propelling a movement forward. This is the basic idea of discipleship laid out in Deuteronomy 6, when God was telling his people through Moses what he wanted a whole-life discipleship to look like, and how it would perpetuate. “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. These words that I am giving you today are to be in your heart. Repeat them to your children. Talk about them when you sit in your house and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up. [Translation: Talk about them ALL THE TIME.] Bind them as a sign on your hand and let them be a symbol on your forehead. Write them on the doorposts of your house and on your city gates.”
As with everything else God does, our salvation is not just for ourselves, nor is our growing in Christian maturity, our growing as apprentices – THAT isn’t for ourselves either. Today’s apprentices become tomorrow’s masters, and gain apprentices of their own. The model for training new surgeons is often called, “see one, do one, teach one.” That is, observe how it’s done, then try it yourself with supervision, now YOU get to tell OTHERS how it’s done.” Well, if the church is a hospital for sinners, then it’s a teaching hospital.
Find someone who seems more Christlike than you and ask if you can meet with them. Find someone who seems to relish spending time in God’s word and ask them to read it aloud with you. Commit to seeing more of Jesus in scripture, in worship, and in community. Seek Him out. When we become more like Jesus, we become more and more our true selves. What a central goal that should be in each of our lives, being imitators of Christ as we wait in hope for his return. It IS work on our part, it’s a part of this journey of faith that we are on. But what a goal to pursue, becoming more of who we are truly meant to be.