The Cost of Discipleship

Message: when we have a real picture of God, we can understand why discipleship costs. Based on Luke 14:25-33.

Introduction

Today the church often seems to offer a nice, fluffy, cuddly God to people.  A sympathetic, empathetic God of unconditional love.  A God who saves us and loves us and looks after us.  Now there’s nothing wrong with that in itself, but it’s only a partial – and hence a biased and unrealistic – picture of God. It’s also an irrational picture of God. 

A Tough, Rational Picture of God

If God is so unconditionally loving then it wouldn’t matter that we were sinners, because God wouldn’t punish us anyway.  Indeed, in this portrait, God is too nice even to mention our shortcomings and selfishness.  We can just carry on doing what we’ve always done and ignore God, who will love and accept us no matter what.  So, rationally, logically, there is no need for forgiveness, no need for the cross and no need for Jesus.  If we offer people an irrational faith, parts of which contradict each other, is it any wonder that sensible people reject it?  Is it any wonder that about 70% of people in the UK believe in God but only 10% regularly come to church?

Fortunately, if anyone reads what Jesus actually said and did, He destroys that silly, childish and sentimental picture of God pretty quickly.  Jesus says tough things to people.  He talks about being disciples.  Hey, that implies discipline – following, obeying, serving – that costs!  Where’s my fluffy God gone?  Actually, Jesus does this quite a lot in all sorts of ways, but in this reading, he speaks explicitly about the cost of following Him. 

Discipleship: Responding to the Real God

So how do we put together these pictures of a loving God with the disciplinarian who demands obedience, sacrifice, service, even the surrender of our lives?  Can we resolve them into one?  Should we even try? 

First of all, I think we should.  Those people who don’t believe in God aren’t foolish (well some are, but we probably won’t reach the truly selfish ones who are only interested in what they can get[1]). Most people recognise that when they are offered something for nothing there’s a catch.  Hence our offer of a fluffy, free, gutless God turns them off: maybe that’s why Jesus never offered that picture of God?

Discipleship: An Application  

So how do we picture the true God, the real deal, a seemingly contradictory God of love and judgement?  I’ve been reading ‘The Purpose Driven Life’ by Rick Warren recently, and he offers a picture or model (there may be many more) that seems to work.

Warren’s focus is on discipleship, and underpinning the many ideas in this very rich book, is just one idea, the idea of ‘character’.  He suggests that the character, or person, we are when we die is the one we will keep throughout eternity.  So if we are full of hatred, jealousy, rage and selfish ambition[2] then we will remain so forever.  Even if we are saved and living with God, we will still be us: in essence, the same character we were on earth[3].

Therefore Warren’s conclusion (and his book is soundly Biblical) is that this life may be our only opportunity to hone and develop our character into something that we could and should be: forever.  Now, IMHO, all models of God (theology) are wrong, but some are useful, but perhaps this idea helps us makes sense of a loving God, who allows us to suffer, even after we become Christians and are saved.

Conclusion 

There is a reason that God wants us not only to be saved, but to be disciples and to change and grow in character – however painful and costly that might be – because the alternative is awful.  God requires us to live a good life of worship, service, fellowship, sacrifice, mission – discipleship – not because he is a distant, disinterested God, but because He is our Father, He is Jesus (‘God with us’), he is the Holy Spirit within us and because He loves us..


[1] Are you shocked?  Jesus said the majority of people will enter the broad gate to destruction (Matt 7:13-14).

[2] Some of the fruit of the sinful nature (Galatians 5:19).

[3] Can we still change in heaven?  Warren suggests not; CS Lewis says yes, we can change, that there is still pain in heaven.

Transfiguration: Glimpses of Substance

A sermon on the Transfiguration, based on Luke 9:28-36.

Introduction

We are in that part of the story (Luke, Mark or Matthew), where Jesus asks his disciples who he is and only Peter has the nerve to see it and say: “you are God’s Messiah”.  Then Jesus tells the disciples that he must suffer and die to fulfil his mission; Peter argues with Jesus and is rebuked.  A week later Jesus takes Peter, James and John up a hill to pray, then …

Meaning at the Time

Jesus allowed his disciples to see him transfigured so that they would know what he was really like – his Glory, or substance.  They needed to know what the Messiah was really like because they had no idea, or worse they had a wrong idea (Jewish Superman), which got in the way of the truth.  Even when one disciple realises that Jesus is the Messiah, he still gets it wrong.  So Jesus had no choice but to take some of the disciples[1] and show them the truth.

This truth was that Jesus was on earth as part of God’s age-old plan for his people, the continuation of the work done by Moses and Elijah[2]. In the bright light it’s hard to see who they are, and we might see a symbol of the Trinity: Father, Son and Spirit.  This mountaintop experience, where God is often found in the Bible, reveals God’s glory – the reality, the hyper-reality, of his great substance or solidity.  

Meaning for Now

Our faith is not some self-improvement program.  We are not going to get more powerful, or younger, sexier, fitter, thinner, healthier, or wiser or richer by following him.  We are going to get more like Jesus – Jesusier? – juicier: if you squeeze us then love will leak out!

And because Jesus is close to God we get closer to God as we get closer to Jesus.  And because Jesus is God we get more like God too, not that we will have power and honour and praise – but we have glory.  We have substance, something about us, it’s not of this world and it will outlast this world. It is more than this world can understand or grasp.  Hallelujah!

Conclusion

It is my duty and my joy to bring this message to you, for you are special people, loved by God and filled with His glory.  Thank you.


[1] Why not all of them? And why choose the most stroppy ones – the ‘sons of thunder’ and Peter? That’s another sermon!?

[2] But Jesus will go further and wider than Moses or Elijah, who’s mission was just to the Jews.  Jesus will allow all peoples of the earth, not just the Jews but the whole human race, to be with God.  This revelation will so shock and anger the conservative religious authorities that they will kill Jesus.

Making Jesus more Reasonable

A sermon about the temptation to make Jesus more reasonable, based on Luke 4:21-30 and 1Corinthians 13.

Introduction

A recent BBC social survey suggests attitudes are getting more liberal, which is not surprising given years of BBC propaganda designed to achieve this end!

However, pressure on the church to conform to the norms of society is not new. Many years ago, the church abandoned it’s opposition to lending money. The Biblical position is that lending money for profit to those in need is exploitation – ‘usury’.

I knew a Christian Bank Manager who complained about irresponsible lending to his superiors – he isn’t a Bank Manager anymore! Now we can look back on the ‘credit crunch’ and we see the devastation caused by irresponsible lending by greedy lenders.

I can’t say with integrity that all lending is wrong (I have a mortgage), but the church is needed to counterbalance natural human greed and restrain its worst effects: we could say that of all sins.  Not that the church – you and me – are perfect.  We need Christ’s leadership to guide us, before we can be an example to others: “Doctor, heal yourself” Jesus says.

The Biblical, Unreasonable Jesus

In many parts of the Gospel we see Jesus saying and doing things that don’t fit in with our modern, liberal politically-correct western society.

He insults a foreign woman who comes to him for help; he physically assaults the money lenders in the Temple; he appears to make mistakes, or not to be able to do things in certain circumstances; he suggests that it’s better to mutilate oneself than to burn in hell; and he points out other peoples’ sins – even while forgiving and healing them.

Some Christians ignore inconvenient parts of the Gospel; many scholars (liberal or conservative) try to explain away Jesus’ more difficult words and deeds.

Luke 4 and Corinthians 13

In today’s passage he goes out of his way to provoke and upset people (I wonder, is it to shock them out of their smug complacency?  Or am I just making excuses like everyone else?)  Jesus deliberately provokes his own kith and kin to the point where they are ready to murder him.  Think about that.  That’s the Lord we follow – ‘gentle Jesus, meek and mild?’

Contrast that with 1Corinthians Chapter 13 on love.  We had this at our wedding, but perhaps it isn’t just the mushy, emotional passage that people think it is!

We would like Jesus to be more reasonable.  Why does he have to be so difficult?  Why can’t he be more middle of the road, middle class – more like us?

Our society currently worships celebrity and wealth.  To be a celebrity you have to be popular.  To be popular to have to offend as few people as possible, you have to broaden your appeal.

Even if you’re not trying to be famous, you have to be careful what you say, lest you offend anyone.  That’s employment law!  Voicing an opinion is not the way to get ahead: avoid emotive issues – like uncomfortable facts – if you want to get ahead.

Jesus doesn’t seem to be interested in doing this – why does he have to be so inconvenient?

The Imitation of Christ

We are supposed to imitate Christ, but we try to make him imitate us instead.  One of our faults is to try and make Jesus more like us – to make him more reasonable.

At the moment our society is telling us to stop making a fuss. We don’t have the right to tell other people how to live – even if we are just leading by example.  “Stop rocking the boat” is the message: but Jesus rocked the boat and we are to imitate him.

I remember being told in art class to “draw what you see, not what you think you see.”  I hope that we will read the words and actions of Jesus in the Bible, just as they are.  We will need Faith, Hope and Love to truly follow him, and I wish you every blessing on the road.

Amen

Part of the Team

A sermon about the joys (and perils) of being part of the team (or tribe), based on 1Corinthians 12:12-31a and Luke 4:14-21.

Introduction

When we read the Bible there is a danger that we can prettify it.  We can think that all God’s people are heroes who never make mistakes, and that we are inferior by comparison.  Similarly, we can assume that people in leadership have got it all together, and that they don’t need us – we have nothing to offer.  Or the leaders know everything – we can’t offer any useful insight.

Corinthians

It seems from this passage (1Cor 12:12-31a) that the Corinthians had been creating or reinforcing divisions within the congregation, on mundane and/or spiritual grounds.  One of these divisions was between the different gifts, and Paul sets out to correct this.  While recognising that some gifts are regarded more highly, he points out that all gifts are needed and must all work together in love for the good of all (see 1Cor 13, next week).

Context.  I was thinking of these things in two contexts:

  • At Work.  Recently I’ve come up against a problem at work that has forced me to question what we are doing.  This did not make me popular with the rest of the team.  I found that:
  • Team membership depended upon toeing the party line, being ‘on message’
  • If you question the team then you are one of ‘them’ not ‘us.’: team = tribe.
  • Rather than listen to the message (the Team is in danger), I was labelled as ‘emotional’ & ‘outspoken’ – a troublemaker.
  • I was reminded why successful teams can fail – they believe their own propaganda and lose touch with reality.
  • In Church.  This is true of us as individuals and as a church.  I’ve seen:
  • A church that was blessed with resources to share that turned its back on that to become something else.
  • People with gifts being overlooked and/or needs being ignored.
  • Groups with gifts refusing to put them to use without strings attached.
  • Locally Methodists are preoccupied with the reorganisation of the Circuit and preaching – we seem to be ignoring the reality of shrinking numbers.

Unhappiness results in every case, because God made us for certain things – we are what we are and the world is what it is, not what we think we/it is.

Gospel Passage

In Luke 4:14-21 we see Jesus bucking this trend.  The people of Nazareth identify Jesus as one of them, part of the tribe.  They expect him to act accordingly, to fit in with their expectations of him as Mary’s son.  Instead Jesus tells them that he is God’s chosen one, the Messiah!  Jesus was not ‘on message’!  He was not one of them – he was a troublemaker!   (Next week we’ll see that he went on to reject their expectations of a miracle and upset them to the point where they wanted to kill him, Luke 4:22-30).

Conclusion

We don’t have to wait to be ‘called’ or to become something else before we start contributing – we are ready here and now.  Loyalty to the team does not make false things true (or vice versa) and it does not override loyalty to God.  We are a Team and not a tribe – we are members of the Team because God made us so, not because we blindly conform to a shared idea of who we are, regardless of reality.  Jesus followed His mission regardless of the short-term consequences.  God will shatter our false self images if they get in the way of his Truth and His Kingdom.  You are needed!