“Big Words” Sermon Series: Disciple


[Unfortunately, the audio of this sermon was lost.  This is the manuscript.  Who knows whether this is what I said or not?]


Today’s big word in our series is “Disciple.”

That saying, “Discipleship is life; everything else is details?” It’s not true. When you’re a Christian, discipleship is life AND all the details. There is nothing outside the life of discipleship because there is nothing outside of God. As followers of Jesus, our entire lives are lived as unto God, which means everything about our lives, to the smallest detail, is discipleship.

Before you let that overwhelm you, please hear it as good news and not bad. To be a disciple of Jesus is an orientation toward life. One of the most central aspects of this life is grace. So when I say, “Everything about our lives is discipleship,” I don’t mean, “God is critically evaluating our every move and rating us harshly because we’re always on, we’re always disciples.”

We are always disciples. That means everything we do in the world is part of following Jesus, who always sees us with grace, because we are his disciples.

In my view, there are two equally valid understandings of our whole lives as Christians, and in a sense they are two sides of the same coin. You can see yourself as a worshiper of Jesus Christ and everything, literally everything you do is, in some form, worship of the Trinity of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. You can recognize yourself as a disciple of Jesus who is the Christ, the Messiah, which means he has called you to follow him; therefore, everything in your life becomes an aspect of following Jesus. For the first Disciples, this could not have been more literal.

Jesus came upon James and John fishing. He did what everyone would do: “Come, follow me,” he said to them, “and I will make you fish for people.”

That’s my standard greeting to folks. Yours too, right? No?

When we look at how James and John responded, we grasp both the vastness of Jesus’ calling and the depth of their willingness to respond. In the the most concrete terms, they drop everything and follow Jesus.

To give context here, Jesus was considered a rabbi, and rabbis took on disciples, whom they would train in their way of teaching. But becoming a disciple of a rabbi usually took on the form of going through stages of schooling in which you would memorize first the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, then the Torah—literally translated “law,” their entire Bible at that time, which we would call the Old Testament, and then the commentary compiled by the famous rabbis. Each step of memorization was a filter, a narrowing, a dividing point between those who went on as rabbinical students and those who pursued other fields of vocation. Now stop and grasp the immensity of what I’m telling you: the folks seeking to be disciples of a rabbi memorized every word of their Holy Scriptures. That’s not all they did, but it’s so much more than we can imagine doing. Doing this became their entire lives. How else could you? You couldn’t accomplish this part-time, a side gig.

Having that context, we see how shocking Jesus’ choice for his disciples appeared. These guys were fishermen. Perfectly respectable if slightly smelly profession, but not exactly an intellectual pursuit. Were they even literate? Not required for fishing. But instead of seeking the candidates who had amassed the most knowledge, Jesus chose these very common-seeming folks and invited—no, more commanded them to follow him, just as any rabbi would. And they, probably shocked and honored and almost feeling like they were entering a life they’d never dreamed of, dropped their nets and followed Jesus—and entered a life they’d never dreamed of. Or maybe they didn’t think that at all, but I can tell you with complete confidence they didn’t know what was coming when they dropped those nets.

The Bible gives us this picture of disciple. Disciple is both a noun and a verb. It’s a cool word. Look how Jesus calls them to follow him: Come, follow me—come, be my disciples—and I will make you fish for people—I will make you disciple others. Cool. He puts it in their language. Always. Jesus is all about context: farm parables for the farmers, calling the fishermen with fishing language. That’s a crucial point we’ll return to later.

When Jesus calls people to follow him, he invites-slash-commands them to become his disciples. If you are a disciple of Jesus, you follow in his way. One of the rabbis said, “A disciple is someone covered in the dust of his teacher.” A disciple walks so closely behind his teacher dustysandalsthat the dust from the teacher’s chinelasm (flip-flops) ends up all over the disciple.

The verb form of disciple, “to disciple someone,” means both to lead and to teach them, to impart what you know and to help them become a mature and capable person, in the Jewish context becoming a rabbi in your own right. To be a disciple of Jesus means to become a Christian, to become a “little Christ.” Regardless of the negative connotations anyone has currently for “Christian,” it is a wonderfully accurate term scripturally, because our purpose as disciples of Jesus Christ is to become more Christ-like, to have God transform us into the image of his son Jesus Christ.

God works through people. Jesus became a person, a living, breathing, fully human person in order to reveal himself to us and help us know him and know us and then make his life our rescue, yanking us by the scruffs of our necks from death to life while we were still God’s enemies. That was my last sermon, “Atonement and Redemption.” Jesus calls every single Christian to follow him and become like him, and his means of doing that is through people. So if you are a Christian, you are a disciple of Jesus Christ, and you disciple others to become like Jesus Christ.

Now here’s the crazy part—we’re not perfectly like Jesus. Okay, that’s not crazy, that’s not even surprising. But God calls us to disciple others to become like him when we’re not so much like him? Yeah, that feels crazy. But he does that, and if you haven’t understood that, you haven’t understood the complete Gospel. God does not gift certain people “to disciple” and everyone else just cruises and does his or her thing. Jesus makes us his disciples and a component of that, a crucial piece of being Jesus’ disciple, is discipling others. I think it’s just like some people are especially gifted at evangelism but every Christian’s vocation includes evangelism, meaning communicating to other people who God is and how he loves and saves and calls us; some people have stronger gifts of discipling and every one of us shares the calling of making disciples.

Jesus makes this abundantly, inescapably clear by saving it for his final command to his disciples. He’s been resurrected, came back from Crucifixion fully alive, so he has their attention. 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 I have commanded you. And remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.” So making disciples means, literally, baptizing people in the name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and teaching those people to obey everything Jesus commands. Put another way, publicly testifying that I have died with Jesus Christ and am raised to new life by and in him, which has freed me from sin’s power over me, and freed me to obey Jesus and become like him. Because Jesus is with us, being his disciples means not just memorizing a list of commands he gave the Twelve, but obeying everything Jesus commands in Scripture and commands us directly. Those original Eleven who went on to obey this command and make disciples are finding people to follow them and teaching them, “This is how Jesus spoke to me, this is what he taught me about love and grace and mercy, this is how he modeled for me to love my brother and my neighbor and my enemy, so this is what he teaches you to do, too.”

We are still in the line of people Jesus made his disciples and through them made others his disciples. That would be a cool and very long line to see! Think of the people who have influenced your life as a follower of Jesus. Think of who has discipled you, meaning taught you through word and modeling and love to obey Jesus Christ and live in this freedom and Joy. All those people are in front of you in line. All the people you have influenced are behind you. And the line stretches on. Jesus has built his Kingdom, the Kingdom of God, from these building blocks. He is the Cornerstone, and he constructs his Kingdom—the one we always pray to come whenever we pray His prayer, “the Lord’s prayer”– through us.

Life is discipleship. Now the danger of saying that is that we can easily decide “Whatever life I’m living, I call that discipleship, because ‘life is discipleship.’” To avoid that misunderstanding, I’m probably better to go back to my original, “Discipleship is life.” God calls us to something different than merely going whatever way pleases us, whatever we’re inclined to, and asking Him to bless that.

That’s theory, now we’re going to talk about practice. As with all our Big Words, we’re not covering wildly new territory, we are trying to make clear and accessible the most important terms of our common faith. Everyone who calls him or herself a Christian is a disciple. There is no two-tier Christianity in which some people are disciples and others are “just Christians.” Nor are there “super disciples.” All of us who are Christians are disciples of Jesus Christ who seek to follow and know him, obey his commands, and through this become like him. We believe fullness of Joy, Life itself, is found on this path.

I’m going to focus on “discipling,” the verb form, discipling others rather than being disciples, remembering that both of these are central to our lives with God. But I hope we cover the topic of “To be a disciple” every week, whether we preach on Justice or Creation or God’s Grace or Heaven or Hell.

Lisa, Alex, Dave, Lindsay, Tim, Mike, Rowena, Richard, Buzz, Sam, Richard, Ken, Tim, Steve, Tom, Terry, Tim, Lois, John, Jeff.

That’s a list of some of the people who have invested in my life to disciple me.  I know who Jesus is and how God loves me largely because of their presence in my life.  They intentionally influenced me to help me become a more faithful follower of Jesus.  They are the people standing in front of me in that line of disciples.

Who are yours?  Who has influenced your life?  Who has chosen to make an investment in you?  It can help us to stop and remember, even to make a list, to see how God has sent people…and maybe to nudge us as to how he is sending us to others.

First, I have a very broad definition of how we disciple others. Anytime we consciously seek to encourage someone to know Jesus better, we are in the realm of discipleship. Jesus made disciples by sharing his life with his followers and teaching them who God is, through his words and actions. Some of his words were wildly challenging and controversial—I can’t love God and money?–and some sounded simple while demanding a lifetime to try: “Love one another as I have loved you.”

Again, we do not seek to make people disciples of us, but of Jesus. That’s a fine distinction. Paul tells his church in Corinth, “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.” If you think, “I can’t disciple someone until I am really following Jesus,” you’re kind of right. If we’re not imitating Jesus at all, then encouraging others to imitate us is a bad idea. This is why our lives are not just our own and it isn’t just between Jesus and me whether or not I’m choosing to be faithful on any given day. It isn’t a “private religion.” We have a big responsibility to those who follow us, especially those whom we intentionally and consciously disciple.

But I said, “You’re kind of right.” Saying “I can’t disciple someone until I am really following Jesus” gets us into trouble if we mean, “I’m not going to start seeking to influence others to know Jesus better until I get it together.” Because we don’t have it together, in that sense, and we never will. What’s the biggest thing I need to teach other people about Jesus? Grace. It has to be grace. Grace must be central. Otherwise, the more I teach them to obey Jesus’ commandments, the more I communicate that we have to please God by obeying him and God will be displeased with us if we fail. God doesn’t wait for us to obey him to be pleased with us, any more than he waited for us to be his friends to save us. God saved us while we were still his enemies and he delights in us as his children just as we are, right now, today.

So if you are asking yourself, “am I at a point in my faith to disciple others,” I think the first question must be, “Do you understand that God saved you by grace and you live by grace?” When we disciple people, we show them both our strengths and our weaknesses. Either way, we are pointing to God’s work in our lives.

When I’m discipling someone, I’m choosing to share my life. I largely work with high schoolers these days, so there are certain things I don’t share with them, because they don’t have a category for those yet. But I’m not hiding my failures or struggles or sin from them. Sharing my life means sharing both my strengths and my weaknesses, both how I’ve grown and where I’ve fallen. I don’t talk about sex much, but I do talk about my marriage, to help them start developing an understanding of God-centered marriage if they haven’t seen that before.

Jesus called twelve guys to follow him closely, had three, Peter, James and John, who were his innermost circle, and then had hundreds who were hearing his teachings and in some way connected with his ministry. Sometimes thousands of people would hear a teaching, or even experience a miracle. But his disciples, both the twelve and the closest followers around him, shared life with him. It’s wild to realize that they knew him so intimately, they saw things that were never recorded. We think, Jesus, the Jesus revealed in the Gospels whom the disciples knew, but truthfully, imagine recording every detail of three years of life? John says at the end of his Gospel, “But there are also many other things that Jesus did; if every one of them were written down, I suppose that the world itself could not contain the books that would be written.” Why does John include that? As a tease? I don’t think so. Certainly to show us how amazing and unfathomable Jesus is. But also to communicate that Jesus truly shared his life with his disciples. They knew stories we don’t know. Some of those questions we’d love to have answered—they know the answers. They saw more than we can. Day in, day out. This is discipleship—sharing life together.

Like I said, discipleship takes many forms, but at the core, it’s letting someone into your life, letting them see and know how you know God and God knows you, how you love God and God loves you. You’re walking with them through their journey in life right now. For me, that’s a lot of students preparing to transition from high school to college. Big step. Crucial time for discipleship. Requires a lot of faith, a lot of trust, and some big emotional transitions coming up.

Discipleship happens in the secular workplace and in full-time ministry. It’s funny, but the more you are set apart for direct ministry, in a sense the less you are involved in common, daily life. So I have a lot of time that I spend sitting down one on one with students and talking and praying with them. But I’m not working at a job in an office or a factory or a shop interacting with my co-workers. Some of the most powerful discipleship happens there, defined and undefined. This is one of the biggest reasons God desires Christians in every possible vocation (that won’t directly compromise their faith or cause them to sin.) Relational discipleship happens in the workplace. God uses those relationships to transform both the people there and the work environment itself. God brings His Kingdom through us! That’s discipleship.

The trade-off for more official ministry can be focus, of course. I don’t share a lot of time with people in the workplace, but I get to take designated time to spend with people in discipleship as my work.

The other area of discipleship we have to name is raising our children. It’s scary, because it is such a huge responsibility, so big that we have to trust in God’s mercy and love. We don’t get to look only our best while we disciple our kids. All of our hypocrisy is on display. Talk about day in and day out! Thus, if we don’t teach our kids about grace, well, I think we’re sunk. They will see whether or not we rely on God. Ultimately, our fullest discipleship is with our kids, because we are fully sharing life with them.

I want to give you a list of issues that have come up recently for the students I’m discipling, but I feel like that’s too risky for someone to solve for X whom I might be talking about. I’ll just share generally about a group I lead. I’ve talked about discipleship as one-on-one, and that is how I tend to think about it. However, as we’re moving toward empowering others to step into discipleship themselves, if it’s possible to have them join us in some aspect of our work or ministry, that can be a great move forward. I teach a Bible class and have a number of students I’m discipling right now. Of those students, four of us and I meet regularly to share our lives and open up about how we are dealing with issues and to support one another. I’m forty-seven and they are in high school, so clearly I am leading this group, and I have to be selective about what I share. But here’s the thing: these aren’t the coolest kids (sorry guys) nor the most gifted, but they were 1)willing, 2)recognized their need, and 3)wanted more. I didn’t come up with this idea—they did. They asked. They have been immensely brave and vulnerable in how they’ve opened up, not just to me but to one another. Two of them had even been—not enemies, exactly, but rivals and at odds. But God is bigger than that. I don’t think any of them will become a formal pastor (of course, I’m not a “formal” pastor—probably about as informal as that gets) but they all have pastoral gifts. As we share what’s going on in our lives, they grow both through facing and addressing their own issues, and through learning to listen to, counsel, and pray for one another. That can’t happen the same way one-on-one. They are learning to disciple one another.

Okay, I promised we’d come back to “Jesus is all about context.” That’s where we’ll end. Jesus became a first-century Jew. The preexistent Son of God that John describes in his Gospel as “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” that second member of the Trinity, created everything. He wasn’t a first-century Jew when he did that. He became incarnate as a first-century Jew. Paul writes that “For though I am free with respect to them all, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though I myself am not under the law). To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law) so that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, so that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that I might by all means save some. I do it all for the sake of the Gospel, so that I may share in its blessing.”

As we grow in discipleship to Christ, we become more like him. That part is non-negotiable. But connecting with people to disciple them often means being able to step into their world. Discipling is not lecturing. It’s inviting someone to walk alongside us as we follow Jesus, and then usually at some point sending that person off to follow his or her unique calling. Often the original connection happens because we have something in common, whether workplace or school or common interest or we go to the same fellowship. But after that, as the person we’re discipling opens up, we figure out how to speak their language. That’s what Jesus did. He entered their world and spoke their language. He found a way to relate to fishermen and a tax collector, to the “sinners” who invited him to their parties and some ended up following along with him. That’s what we do. We love like Jesus loved. In context.

I don’t play video games these days. But I take a lot more interest in video games than you might guess, because the young people I disciple care about them. Their relationships, their classes, their families, their sports, their world is important to me, because they are important to me. Jesus didn’t make people enter his world; he entered theirs. When he built trust, when they saw that they mattered to him, they became able to see the Kingdom he was showing them. But he began with fishing, with connecting points. That’s our calling: Enter in. Invest. Then help them see how Jesus is real in your life and can be in their lives.

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