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.

The Beatitudes of Jesus: An Introduction

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them. He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

“Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:1-12, NIV)

The human brain is hard-wired, in such a way, that it works its best when healthy rhythms of giving and receiving occur. God created us to thrive and flourish when we pay attention to particular ways of being with one another as people.

Jesus used the term “blessed” not in a financial sense, as if having lots of money is what it means to experience blessing. The word “blessed” means to have God’s stamp of approval, his favor, with the emotional and spiritual response of joy or happiness. 

Real and lasting joy comes from a right relationship with God, defined according to what Jesus says – different from the false righteousness of the religious establishment which is based on outward appearance rather than inner attitudes. We need to know how to relate to our God, instead of simply conforming to an outward form of Christianity that everybody is doing.

Our entire selves are blessed when we engage in consistent rhythms of practicing humility before the Lord; sitting with grief; putting ourselves in another’s shoes; seeking right relationships with both God and others; pursuing mercy, purity, and peace-making in all our affairs; and allowing persecution to form us in ways the good times cannot.

Jesus preached the Beatitudes to clarify what it means to be approved by God. He wanted to gain true disciples who follow God for the right reasons. The crowd was following Jesus physically, but not necessarily spiritually. They all followed for different reasons: for healing, curiosity, or a genuine desire to be a disciple. So, Jesus sat them down to communicate what a true follower and disciple is.

Imagine we are part of the crowd originally hearing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7).  The world in which the people lived, and the religious system which they took for granted, was highly restrictive. 

In order to approach God, enter the kingdom, and be a good citizen, one had to be Jewish, male, a faithful Law-keeper, physically whole, healthy, and able; and, if not wealthy, able to make a good living. 

Yes, this reality meant that Gentiles, women, those who struggled to keep the Law, the diseased and disabled, and the poor had no shot whatsoever in the kingdom of God. To be blessed and have God’s stamp of approval on your life meant you were a healthy and wealthy Jewish man who practiced a legalistic form of righteousness. 

Not a single one of us here would have any shot at the kingdom of God. Yet, we have heard something about this guy, Jesus. There seems to be something very compelling about him. We go seek him out, sit down on a mountainside and hear him say the most refreshing and scandalous words we have ever heard…

God approves of the spiritually bankrupt who realize they’ve got no leverage to make any deals. They shall be given the riches of God’s grace.

God approves of those who grieve over personal sin and lament the presence of sin in the world. They are the ones who will experience God’s forgiveness and comfort.

God approves of the powerless and those who use their authority to champion others. They will inherit God’s power and take up authority to command dark forces and put them in their place.

God approves of those who have a voracious appetite for right relationships and doing everything for the right reasons. Their growling spiritual stomachs will be stuffed with God’s righteousness.

God approves of those who liberally extend grace to others, being always considerate of everyone’s needs, showing neither prejudice nor favoritism. They shall receive God’s grace at the end of the age when Christ comes to judge the living and the dead.

God approves of the spiritually clean who have bathed in the waters of divine mercy. They will see Jesus face to face.

God approves of those who facilitate and negotiate peace. Because that is precisely what God’s children do.

God approves of those who are persecuted for living by these counter-cultural Beatitudes. They have an inheritance that will never perish, spoil, or fade.

Grant us, Lord God, a vision of our world as your love would make it: a world where the weak are protected, and none go hungry or poor; a world where the benefits of abundant life are shared, and everyone can enjoy them; a world where different races and cultures live in tolerance and mutual respect; a world where peace is built with justice, and justice is guided by love. And give us the inspiration and courage to build it, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Luke 22:24-30 – Just Shadow Jesus

Digital painting of Jesus and the disciples by John Mathews

A dispute also arose among them as to which of them was considered to be greatest. Jesus said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves Benefactors. But you are not to be like that. Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves. For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves? Is it not the one who is at the table? But I am among you as one who serves. You are those who have stood by me in my trials. And I confer on you a kingdom, just as my Father conferred one on me, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom and sit on thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel. (NIV)

Jesus is a different sort of leader.

While the kings of his day were concerned with power and using their authority to ensure even more power and privilege, Jesus went about things differently. In a world of patronage where it was necessary for the lower classes to connect with and suck-up to the higher classes, Jesus operated by a different system.

Jesus, Lord of the universe, King of creation, absolute Leader of the Church, and Ruler over God’s realm was and is a servant of the people.

“Follow my example: Even the Son of Man did not come for people to serve him. He came to serve others and to give his life to save many people.”

mark 10:45, erv

On the surface, striving to be the best might seem noble and good. Yes, working toward being the greatest might motivate us to do all things with excellence. It can solve a lot of problems and issues. On the other hand, it may also result in attitudes and behavior which fosters unhealthy competition and an inordinate focus on becoming the greatest.

Think about it. Not everyone can be the greatest. If everyone is, nobody is. This results in lower self-esteem for nearly everybody. And it creates ripe conditions for leadership paranoia in which the greatest is always looking over their shoulder worrying about being toppled from their lofty position. At the least, all this ballyhoo about greatness only takes away from caring for the people who most need our efforts – family members get the shaft from someone with an imbalanced life who is laser-focused on getting to the top and staying there.

It’s as if a person is living a one-dimensional existence in a three-dimensional world. It won’t work. Fortunately, we don’t have to live like that.

Jesus shows us a better way.

Jesus was present to his disciples. He is present to us in the person of the Holy Spirit. Christ encouraged relational connections and using one’s gifts, talents, and abilities for the common good of all people. For Jesus Christ, the dynamics of power and authority are not to be leveraged for personal greatness but for collective uplift. Authority is to be carefully applied for everyone’s benefit, including those we think don’t deserve it.

The disciples understood far too little about the community their leader was trying to build. Judas Iscariot is likely the one disciple who first realized what Jesus was truly up to. The greatest are the least and the least are the greatest. It wasn’t what Judas signed up for, so he cut his losses and betrayed Jesus.

True exaltation is a gift of grace. The kingdom of God turns on mercy and operates on the economy of grace. It is those who faithfully serve who will sit with Jesus, the ultimate Servant, at the table. Peacocks and pretenders will never realize their dream to be the center of attention.

In a great twist of irony, those who wish to compete and occupy a high standing will discover they have worked to obtain the lowest rung on the ladder leaning against the wall of Satan’s kingdom.

Jesus consistently, patiently, and carefully established the kingdom of God on earth. He went about his task in a manner none of us would even consider. He focused on character, not skills; willing hearts, not intelligent brains; new life, not reformed habits. On the job orientation involved following Jesus around everywhere.

Just shadow Jesus.

Here I am washing your feet. Do the same. Here I am being present to and serving the poor, the lonely, the outcast, the moral failure, and the lowest of society. Do the same. Here I am showing sacrificial self-emptying unconditional love. Do the same. Just shadow me. Do what I do, period.

An obsession with greatness will inevitably lead to petty kingdom building enterprises. Instead, we are to love the neighbor next to us. We make room at the committee table for somebody who looks, acts, and talks different than me. We freely let Jesus live through us, thus, giving the gift of him to those we encounter. We purposely look for ways to serve underprivileged communities rather than use the people living there in ways to make us look better.

Indeed, this following Jesus thing is subversive – even for many professing Christians.

What will you do?

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord, in the name of Christ. Amen.

Philippians 2:5-11 – Palm Sunday

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
    did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
    by taking the very nature of a servant,
    being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
    he humbled himself
    by becoming obedient to death—
        even death on a cross!

Therefore, God exalted him to the highest place
    and gave him the name that is above every name,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
    in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord,
    to the glory of God the Father. (NIV)

I often take the posture of kneeling or prostrating when I pray. I do this, not because I think my prayers are more effective that way, but because this embodies my petitions with a recognition of Christ’s lordship over my life. Also, for me, there is no experience quite like using the kneelers on church pews and bowing together in a common experience of recognizing the lordship of Jesus Christ.

I sometimes ponder a question as I am on my knees: What kind of people would we be if we looked like these verses in Philippians?  The Apostle Paul said to the church in Philippi that their “attitude” should be the same as that of Christ Jesus. Their mindset, the way they think about everything, ought to be just like the mind of Christ. If we want to know how to think well and live well, how to relate to others in a good way, then we ought to thoroughly adopt the mind and the attitude of Jesus.  

How we should think and live comes from God. Within the life of the triune God exists three persons: Father, Son, and Spirit. Within this great three-in-one God exists perfect love, absolute holiness, united harmony, and constant respect. The Holy Scriptures tell us that just as God is holy, we are to be holy. Just as God is love, so we are to love one another. Just as God is harmonious, we are to live in harmony with one another. And just as God is supremely exemplified in the person of Jesus as a humble servant, so we are to practice humility and service in all our relations.

None of this is optional for the Christian. There is no place in the believer’s life for pride, posturing, and power-broking. There is to be humility, taking the posture of lowliness, and using any kind of influence for the benefit and encouragement of others – just like Jesus did while on this earth.

In a world pre-occupied with power and control, safety and security, influence and throwing its weight around, there is Jesus. He did just the opposite of engaging in upward mobility; he practiced downward mobility, and in doing so Christ descended into greatness as Lord and Savior.

Jesus did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped. The pre-incarnate Christ did not sit in heaven as the second person of the Trinity and hold onto his lofty position with tight fists – he did not grasp it tightly. When Jesus came to this earth, there was a humble willingness to open his hands and relinquish his rights and privileges as God. Christ made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant. Jesus gladly, not reluctantly, emptied himself for us. Jesus became one of us.

The television series, Undercover Boss, is a reality show in which high-level corporate executives leave the comfort of their offices and secretly take low-level jobs within their companies to find out how things are really working and what their employees are honestly thinking about their jobs and what is happening. In the process of this undercover mission, they learn of the perceptions about their companies, the spirit of their work forces and — maybe — something about themselves as well.

None of the executives cease to be executives. They just make a willing decision to take the lowest level job in their own company to hopefully benefit the employees and the entire corporation. The best episodes are when the most generous executives go above and beyond helping the employees around them at the end of the show. 

Jesus descended to earth. He never ceased to be God. Yet, Christ willingly put his kingly robe in the closet and donned Dickies and work boots. He came among us and purposely limited himself to identify with us fully – and secured for us the greatest generosity imaginable – an answer to the problem of guilt and shame through forgiveness of sins.

Jesus became a servant. He completely tied himself to us. Jesus did not come to this earth seeking to be served, but sought to serve and give his life as a ransom for many. Christ kept going lower and lower to the point of descending to the greatest humiliation of all – death on a cross. Jesus endured the ultimate shame of the ancient world by dying a terrible death. The King of the universe was killed by vicious humanity so that he might redeem and save those very same people from their terrible plight of bondage to evil.

We are to be humble people, embracing a lowly status of slaves to God and to one another. The ancient Philippian church had a real problem with pride which is why Paul talked about emulating the mind and attitude of Christ in his humiliation. The following are exhortations Paul gave to the Philippians, which were to reflect the practice of humility in relationships:

  • Whatever happens, conduct yourselves in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ (1:27). 
  • Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves (2:3). 
  • Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling (2:12). 
  • Do everything without complaining or arguing (2:14). 
  • Join with others in following my example and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you (3:17). 
  • Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God (4:6). 

Because of Christ’s humble obedience to the Father, he was exalted from the lowest place to the highest place.  King Jesus is on the throne, above everyone and everything. Because of his descent to this earth, Christ has ascended in glory and honor. We can now see God in a new way, through Jesus. And when we do, it causes us to kneel in prayer and profess that Jesus Christ is Lord.

In the ancient world, this was subversive language. If Jesus is Lord, Caesar is not, and ultimate allegiance does not belong to the Roman Empire. If Jesus is Lord, the local gods are not. And in our day, it is no different. Historical characters and religious deities may come and go, but the issue of ultimate allegiance still pertains to us. If Jesus is Lord, no politician or celebrity is owed lordship status. Pride and arrogance are to be put down at every turn in favor of humble service and loving actions.

If we are to follow Jesus Christ truly and really, we will practice downward mobility and embrace humility. Bowing, kneeling, and prostrating will become second nature to us as we give our unflagging allegiance to Jesus. We will accept our creaturehood and God as Creator. We will live in the reality that Jesus is Sovereign over all creation. 

As we enter the Christian Holy Week, let us acknowledge and know the humiliation and exaltation of Christ….

Just watch my servant blossom!
    Exalted, tall, head and shoulders above the crowd!
But he didn’t begin that way.
    At first everyone was appalled.
He didn’t even look human—
    a ruined face, disfigured past recognition.
Nations all over the world will be in awe, taken aback,
    kings shocked into silence when they see him.
For what was unheard of they’ll see with their own eyes,
    what was unthinkable they’ll have right before them.

Who believes what we’ve heard and seen?
    Who would have thought God’s saving power would look like this?

The servant grew up before God—a scrawny seedling,
    a scrubby plant in a parched field.
There was nothing attractive about him,
    nothing to cause us to take a second look.
He was looked down on and passed over,
    a man who suffered, who knew pain firsthand.
One look at him and people turned away.
    We looked down on him, thought he was scum.
But the fact is, it was our pains he carried—
    our disfigurements, all the things wrong with us.
We thought he brought it on himself,
    that God was punishing him for his own failures.
But it was our sins that did that to him,
    that ripped and tore and crushed him—our sins!
He took the punishment, and that made us whole.
    Through his bruises we get healed.
We’re all like sheep who’ve wandered off and gotten lost.
    We’ve all done our own thing, gone our own way.
And God has piled all our sins, everything we’ve done wrong,
    on him, on him.

He was beaten, he was tortured,
    but he didn’t say a word.
Like a lamb taken to be slaughtered
    and like a sheep being sheared,
    he took it all in silence.
Justice miscarried, and he was led off—
    and did anyone really know what was happening?
He died without a thought for his own welfare,
    beaten bloody for the sins of my people.
They buried him with the wicked,
    threw him in a grave with a rich man,
Even though he’d never hurt a soul
    or said one word that wasn’t true.

Still, it’s what God had in mind all along,
    to crush him with pain.
The plan was that he gives himself as an offering for sin
    so that he’d see life come from it—life, life, and more life.
    And God’s plan will deeply prosper through him.

Out of that terrible travail of soul,
    he’ll see that it’s worth it and be glad he did it.
Through what he experienced, my righteous one, my servant,
    will make many “righteous ones,”
    as he himself carries the burden of their sins.
Therefore I’ll reward him extravagantly—
    the best of everything, the highest honors—
Because he looked death in the face and didn’t flinch,
    because he embraced the company of the lowest.
He took on his own shoulders the sin of the many,
    he took up the cause of all the black sheep. (Isaiah 52:13-53:12, MSG)