And 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 that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Billy Graham, the 98 year old Evangelical Christian Evangelist, has a column in the IndyStar every day. I have to admit I don't read it often, but it is on the page that has the crossword and sometimes I will look to see what he has to say.
This past Monday, the question that was asked was --- How do we walk with God?
Billy in his answer said this --- "By nature we are cut off from God, because we have sinned and turned our backs on Him."
We don't profess that as United Methodists, we believe that God is always with us, even when we "turn our backs on Him."
That answer from Billy Graham got me thinking --- Do we as Methodists understand discipleship different than a Southern Baptist like Billy Graham --- or our Roman Catholic friends?
The answer I got is YES.
Our understanding of Discipleship is different --- and that is OK
We throw the word Disciple around all the time --- but the question I want to wrestle with is --- What do we mean?
When I think about Discipleship --- a lot of images come into my mind.
The first image is that of a Boy Scout or choir boy --- you know what I mean --- somebody who always does good --- always does what is right.
But is that a Disciple?
If so, I know that I will never qualify.
I am no boy scout or choir boy!
I began to research what others said about being a disciple
What I found most fascinating as I began to research this notion of Disciple, was that people began using additional adjectives to help describe what they meant.
I came across words like "real disciple" or "mature disciple"
These authors began to suggest that there was a hierarchy of Discipleship --- and that they had the key to the real thing.
The other thing I found interesting, was that many times, these various authors did not agree on what exactly was required to become a "real" or "mature" disciple.
But before we dig too deep let me state what feels like a pretty consistent definition of a disciple.
Discipleship is the ongoing process in which followers of Jesus grow in their knowledge of the Biblical stories, develop a character that is modeled on Jesus and live faithfully, all of this is done to glorify God.
Greg Ogden writes:
discipleship is “… an intentional relationship in which we walk alongside other disciples to encourage, equip and challenge one another in love to grow toward maturity in Christ.”
One of my favorite quotes on Discipleship came from Debbie Salter Goodwin when she wrote:
“Discipleship isn’t something you can add to life like a special trip. Discipleship becomes the life of any follower of Jesus. To raise a generation of disciples who will continue to change their world with the transforming message of the gospel requires parents and others who themselves are making this same commitment.”
Of course part of the challenge is to understand what defines that relationship with Jesus.
And it is here that it gets interesting --- and to be honest, I start to find myself excluded.
Some lists have what I would call a "litmus test" of beliefs that one must assent too.
Things such as:
- Belief in a literal and inerrant interpretation of the Bible
- Belief that Jesus experienced a physical resurrection (rather than a spiritual one)
- Believe that Mary was born immaculately
- Be opposed to certain hot button social issues of our day
By many of their reckonings, I have to confess to you --- I do not qualify as a disciple of Jesus, or at least as a "real" or "mature" disciple
But I think it was an article by Charles Arn, in Christianity Today that really captured my attention.
May I suggest that, for all practical purposes, a "disciple" is synonymous with an "assimilated church member." Or, at least, it should be.
If you agree, then try this exercise with your church leaders: list the qualities of an ideal member for your congregation. How would such a person act? What would he say? How would she feel?
Once you have listed the ideal qualities of a disciple, examine your church's programming to see how—or if—you are helping people reach this ideal. After all, it seems reasonable that church activities are intended to lead people toward some goal.
I find this fascinating, because it makes discipleship contextual --- a disciple at Meridian Street United Methodist Church might not look exactly like a Disciple at St Thomas Aquinas, or Common Ground.
He goes on in the article to suggest that there are nine characteristics that we might want to examine.
- Understands and identifies with the goals of our church.
Do you know what the mission and vision of Meridian Street is, and what our goals are to accomplish that vision?
- Attends worship regularly.
Regular attendance has been show to be essential to a person being committed to the ministry of the church.
When one starts missing church it is often the first warning sign that they are likely to drop out.
- Experiences spiritual growth and progress.
Disciples he argues have to be committed to wanting to learn, question, stretch and grow in their faith.
- Has taken the formal step of becoming a member of the church.
He suggests that the practice of making a formal commitment to membership helps with accountability in our journey of discipleship.
- Has friends in the church.
According to Arn, the typical active, assimilated church member has over seven friends in the church; drop-outs have less than two.
- Is using his/her spiritual gift.
Arn says that giving one's time and talent to the church is even more important than giving one's money, from an assimilation perspective.
Plus, he says: a role or task in the church provides a great opportunity to make friends.
- Is involved in a fellowship group.
Those of you involved in a small group know that are one of the best ways to build common bonds among each other.
- Tithes to your church.
As Jesus says in Matthew's Gospel:
"Where your treasure is, there will your heart be, also" (Mt. 6:31).
- Participates in the Great Commission.
Hopefully you know the great commission: it is our scripture for this morning. It is the call to each disciple to go and make more disciples.
I think Arn is onto something.
And for us at Meridian Street I think we can make it even simpler.
A Disciple is someone who lives out the membership vows.
If you are a member, do you remember the vows that you took when you joined?
They are found in our hymn book, but to be honest, they have been modified a little since the hymnal was printed.
But from our Book of Discipline it states the vows one takes to become a member:
- To renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of the world, and repent of their sin;
- To accept the freedom and power God gives them to resist evil, injustice, and oppression;
- To confess Jesus Christ as Savior, put their whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as their Lord;
- To remain faithful members of Christ’s holy church and serve as Christ’s representatives in the world;
- To be loyal to Christ through The United Methodist Church and do all in their power to strengthen its ministries;
- To faithfully participate in its ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, their service, and their witness;
- To receive and profess the Christian faith as contained in the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments
What is missing from those vows?
- Creedal statements
- "litmus tests"
- no literal mandate or inerrancy of the Bible
The promises we make in the United Methodist Church are designed to help us grow in our discipleship.
Over the next few weeks, Matt and I will focus on particularly #6 in which we promise: To faithfully participate in Meridian Street United Methodist Church's ministries by our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.
We will spend time going into depth on each of these concepts to help us grow as disciples of Jesus.
A couple final thoughts:
Charles Spurgeon, the great British pastor of another age, once gave us a great reminder:
“Let no Christian parents fall into the delusion that the Sunday school is intended to ease them of their personal duties. The first and most natural condition of things is for Christian parents to train up their own children in the nurture and admonition of the Lord. Let holy grandmothers and gracious mothers, with their husbands, see to it that their own boys and girls are well taught in the Word of the Lord.”
While his language is a bit old fashion the truth remains. It is our responsibility to disciple our children and grandchildren.
And in case you think, I don't have any children living close by --- let me remind you of what we promise when we baptize a child.
We --- the congregation --- promise to help the parents to raise their child as a follower of Jesus.
We must work together in helping each other grow as disciples.
But before we can help another, we must make sure we are on the path as well.
I hope that you will join us in one of the four groups that we are starting next weekend.
- Saturday at 9 am in the Parlor,
- Sunday, at 10:30
- Wednesday at 5:45
- Thursday at 6:30 at 3 WiseMen in Broad Ripple
Join the conversation, and continue the journey toward discipleship.