Matthew 8:18-22 – The Path of Christian Discipleship

When Jesus saw that a curious crowd was growing by the minute, he told his disciples to get him out of there to the other side of the lake. As they left, a religion scholar asked if he could go along. “I’ll go with you, wherever,” he said.

Jesus was curt: “Are you ready to rough it? We’re not staying in the best inns, you know.”

Another follower said, “Master, excuse me for a couple of days, please. I have my father’s funeral to take care of.”

Jesus refused. “First things first. Your business is life, not death. Follow me. Pursue life.” (The Message)

Count the cost. Realize what it will take. Have some understanding of the time, energy, and resources needed. Discern the kind of commitment which is before you. It’s a matter of life and death, of spiritual survival.

If you had to carry everything you needed in a backpack, what would you put into it?

First off, for me and most people, that means identifying the barest essentials. It would likely take a long time to think simplistically about what is most important for survival. A lot of things would get left behind. And many items would gain greater attention and appreciation.

We would need some small basic tools including: a multi-tool with a knife and pliers; a source of illumination, like a flashlight and extra batteries; duct tape; rope; fishing line; a way of starting fire; a pot, pan, and mug; first-aid kit; emergency poncho; and just a few extra items of clothing.

If we were to live out of a backpack, it would very much change our lifestyle. And that is the point Jesus was trying to get across to some individuals who seemed like they couldn’t do that.

Trying to fit an existing life into a brand new life won’t work. It will not fit into the backpack of Christian discipleship.

Instead, we must adjust to a new reality, a completely different way of being.

When my wife and I were raising our girls, those precocious little females brought lots of life to the dinner table each night. There was never a dull moment with them. Today, however, they are all grown with their own families – which means we are empty-nesters.

It would be weird if my wife and I continued to live as if they were home – making large meals, dirtying lots of dishes, and engaging in mock conversations. Rather, although it took a while to get used to, we eventually came to grips with the new reality that our precious girls were grown and no longer living under our roof. And that meant a complete change of lifestyle for us.

A full-orbed Christian spirituality includes both the comfort of Christ to others, and the rugged responsibility to obey the words and ways of Jesus. In other words, the love of Jesus Christ is both tender and tough, at the same time, all the time.

Hurting and healing are both necessary for the follower of Jesus. Hard teachings and uncompromising commands for discipleship from Christ become the pathways of healing.

So, then, to go all out for Christ will involve much difficulty.

Jesus said to his followers, “If any of you want to be my follower, you must stop thinking about yourself and what you want. You must be willing to carry the cross that is given to you for following me. Any of you who try to save the life you have will lose it. But you who give up your life for me will find true life.”

Matthew 16:24-25, ERV

In today’s New Testament lesson, Jesus rather rudely rejected two would-be followers. When it comes to God’s upside-down kingdom, the eager beavers are turned away, and the half-hearted are called.

Jesus wants us, all of us, and not just our dedication. That is the demand of Christian discipleship. Anyone who believes they can remain the same person and simply fit a bit of Jesus into their lives, does not understand the cost of following Christ. The person who thinks it is Christianity’s lucky day when they decide to follow Jesus has not yet grasped what it means to be a Christian.

Whereas the religious scholar’s head was too big to fit through the narrow hole of Christian discipleship, the man who wanted to bury his father was too fainthearted and timid. He wanted to dip his toe in the water, and really had no intention of taking the all out plunge into the pool.

Nobody needs to do something “first” before following Jesus. Essentially, Jesus was neither invited nor welcome to the funeral. And Christ will have nothing to do with people picking and choosing which areas of their lives he will be invited into. It’s either a wholesale welcome or no welcome, at all.

When Jesus knocks on the door, he wants to be invited into the entire house, not just the foyer.

For Jesus, following him isn’t easy. The world is full of spiritual zombies, the walking dead. This old fallen world needs Christian disciples who will follow Jesus anywhere – into the hard places and rough terrain of engaging the sinful world.

We are meant to wholeheartedly follow Jesus, neither flippantly without counting the cost, nor procrastinating the hard road of Christian discipleship. Christians are to accept and maintain orders of first importance – which means full submission and obedience to Jesus Christ. Anything less is merely a cheap form of following.

When I Survey the Wondrous Cross by Isaac Watts

When I survey the wondrous cross
On which the Prince of glory died
My richest gain I count but loss
And pour contempt on all my pride.

Where every realm of nature mine
My gift was still be far too small
Love so amazing, so divine
Demands my soul, my life, my all.

Lord, you are all-knowing and full of wisdom. Your plan is masterful. Help me as your disciple to follow you in every thought, word, and deed. Give me a heart of obedience and trust so that I do not get wrapped up in my doubt or what I think is the right choice.

Help me to recognize that your good will does not always look the way I think it should, but that doesn’t make it any less good. I desire to be your disciple and follow you all the days of my life. Please give me the strength to do that. Amen.

1 Peter 5:1-5 – Humble Service

To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock. And when the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that will never fade away.

In the same way, you who are younger, submit yourselves to your elders. All of you, clothe yourselves with humility toward one another, because “God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble.”(NIV)

Today’s New Testament lesson addresses two groups of people: Leaders and followers, the older and the younger, shepherds and sheep. Both have their distinct roles and places, yet both are to share together in the virtue of humility. Whether pastor or parishioner, mentor or mentee, humble service is to characterize all.

I spent a good chunk of my ministerial life working with college students and twenty-somethings. One of the reasons I like being around young adults is that they have a very well attuned barometer to hogwash coming from older folks. Unlike children and more mature adults, this group of people live in a nexus between an emerging awareness of the world without having yet been crusted over with bitterness or disillusionment. They can spot a disingenuous person across the room like an eagle eyes the difference between a fish and a rock at five-thousand feet in the air.

All of us have likely had the experience of not being able to explain why, but a certain interaction with a person just seems off – it smacks of being a bit too contrived and manipulative. The other person might talk a good line, yet your instincts tell you different. So, for example, if a church pastor or leader seems to be just going through the motions as if the work is a necessary evil, then there might be something behind it. It is always a good idea to stop and listen to your gut speak.

Difficult for many people is that life is not so much about learning a certain skill set, as if we were in a trade school. The skills approach relies upon learning to say certain things, do certain things, and press certain buttons in others, and then get a solid expected outcome. That kind of approach is where the finely attuned baloney meter goes off in others. They sense that this person talking to them is not bringing anything of themselves to the discussion; they’re just talking without listening; they just go on without a sense of dialogue in which they learn from you or reveal anything of themselves to you.

I genuinely believe humility is the cornerstone of all virtues and the foundation to effective personal interactions and group dynamics. Without humility, there is no sense of the majesty and dignity of the other person – there is only competition and a twisted hierarchy of those with power and those without. If humility is absent, life is a trade school in learning to get what I want on the backs of others.

However, with humility, who we are as people matters. I bring my feelings, my thoughts, my beliefs, my experiences, and my questions into the conversation or situation and seek to, in turn, discover what you think and feel. Then, together, we come to a third way of seeing that honors our collective sharing and consulting of one another with fresh collaboration which blesses the world. This is less a skill set, and more of just being a good human being.

Humility is a posture, not a skill to leverage for what we want. A humble disposition pursues learning, growth, and development. It sits with uncertainty and mystery so that genuine relationship has a real go at happening. Humility sits on the floor at Jesus’ feet and discovers something about self, God, and the interaction between each.

The humble emptying of oneself is necessary in awakening to a new awareness of God’s presence. It may not mean that shepherds and leaders have clear assurances and certain plans, yet it will surely involve living in the awkward in-between of assurance and uncertainty, being loved but not knowing where that love will take you, and following Jesus without a pre-negotiated plan. 

No one can malarkey their way through the Christian life; everyone needs the posture of humility. Jesus will be our Teacher, yet we will need to bring ourselves to the mix because Christianity is not dispassionately taking notes and then forensically regurgitating it all on an exam. Instead, Christianity is a dynamic spiritual encounter between God and self through the person of Jesus. It begins with humility. And the rewards of such living are permanent and eternal.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd of the sheep, give us the humility which realizes its ignorance, admits its mistakes, recognizes its need, welcomes advice, and accepts rebuke. Help us always to praise rather than to criticize, to sympathize rather than to discourage, to build rather than to destroy, and to think of people at their best rather than at their worst. This we ask for your name’s sake. Amen.

Philippians 3:13-4:1 – Follow My Example

Brothers and sisters, I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.

All of us, then, who are mature should take such a view of things. And if on some point you think differently that too God will make clear to you. Only let us live up to what we have already attained.

Join in following my example, brothers and sisters, and just as you have us as a model, keep your eyes on those who live as we do. For, as I have often told you before and now tell you again even with tears, many live as enemies of the cross of Christ. Their destiny is destruction, their god is their stomach, and their glory is in their shame. Their mind is set on earthly things. But our citizenship is in heaven. And we eagerly await a Savior from there, the Lord Jesus Christ, who, by the power that enables him to bring everything under his control, will transform our lowly bodies so that they will be like his glorious body.

Therefore, my brothers and sisters, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, stand firm in the Lord in this way, dear friends! (NIV)

Many years ago, while driving through an intersection, a car turned in front of me and caused me to slam my brakes. After getting on my way (and proud of myself for not saying a word) my daughter, who was five years old at the time, leaned forward from the back seat and asked me, “Dad, is that guy an idiot?” 

Kids often imitate their parents in everything, whether good or bad. This is no less true for adults. When it comes to Christianity, faith is passed on not just from individuals reading their bibles in seclusion; it is handed down from person to person. Christians learn from leaders and respected persons how faith is lived out and practiced – and this comes primarily through imitating what they see. 

Therefore, it is good for us to ask the question: “Who do I imitate?” because we mimic and pass on things we learn from others. So, it is imperative we learn from people who demonstrate the values and ideals we aspire to possess ourselves. In the people we listen to either virtually or in person, as well as the authors we read, we are to walk according to the example of virtue, sacrifice, and commitment.

We must imitate those Christian leaders who have a proven character in persevering in faith in the face of pain and suffering and have done it with great humility. This does not necessarily mean we emulate those who eruditely speak the Word of God, have superior gifts and abilities, and enjoy success in ministry. It does mean, however, we ought to imitate, and have as mentors, those persons who imitate Christ. We can leave behind those who are self-promoting peacocks and pursue admiration and praise. 

We are to mimic those who have proved themselves in hardship. A Christian leader who has not undergone fiery trials and been purged of sinful pride are more easily seduced by their own importance. However, leaders who have seen their share of hard circumstances, pain, and suffering, and have come through it loving God and serving others out of grace and humility, are leaders worth imitating. They will likely serve well as good models of faith and ministry.

It is also good to consider the kind of example we ourselves are displaying for others. In all our words and behaviors, whether we recognize it or not, we are modeling what is genuinely important to us. And sometimes what we do not say, or choose not to do, says as much or more about our character, beliefs, and ethics.

It takes a lot of confidence in our way of life to say to another, like the Apostle Paul did, “follow my example.” If we have learned with humility and curiosity the words and ways of Jesus, and lovingly put them into practice, then we can be emboldened to mentor others in the faith and demonstrate for them what laboring for justice, righteousness, holiness, and godliness looks like in this fallen world.

More than ever we need a cadre of solidly committed folks who have been mentored well in the ways of grace to serve as a beacon of light in the darkness of this world’s besetting sins of structural racism, hedonistic consumerism, discriminatory ageism, oppressive patriarchalism, biased hierarchism, disparity classism, religious anarchism, and a hundred other “isms” which keep people from flourishing in this life as God intended.

It is vital we learn from and emulate others who have a proven track record of promoting the common good of all persons. And it is equally important we become part of the ranks of those who are good examples of citizens in God’s benevolent and ethical kingdom.

Almighty God, may I stand firm in faith through all the challenges and travails of this life. Enable me to incorporate the love of Christ in my life to such a degree that it proves to be an example of grace and peace. Give me a heart willing to sacrifice and serve the common good of all. Give me a broader and deeper understanding of the lessons I need to discover from others wiser than myself. Allow me to learn all I must from this painful, yet blissful life, through Jesus Christ my Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.