Hebrews 11.29 to 12.2
Today is the second of our August series on Mission and Stewardship. Last week, I shared a quotation with you from William Temple, who among other things was Archbishop of Canterbury during the early part of the Second World War. I said that I hope you will remember this quotation always:
The Church is the only society that exists for the benefit of those who are not its members.
I said that it’s a great thought, but not a consoling thought. It’s an unsettling thought.
Some of you suggested after the service that the Church must exist in some way for the benefit of its members. If you think that, I’ll concede that you are indeed quite correct. There is one way (and one way only) that the Church exists for the sake of its members:
The Church exists to make its members disciples of Jesus; the Church exists so that we may be formed into the image of Jesus.
In other words, the Church exists for our true benefit. The thing is, becoming a disciple of Jesus is a bumpy journey of repentance, not a journey of calm repose. We just need to read the Gospels to see that. Being formed and re-formed into the image of Jesus can be a painful process. But: it’s all for our benefit. Our true benefit.
Last year, when we went through the process of mapping out our strategic goals, two of these goals were:
- Develop a congregation focussed on discipleship.
- Share with others our faith in God.
We have said that we want to develop a congregation focussed on discipleship, focussed on meeting this one true need that we have. We wanted to be focussed on becoming disciples of Jesus who share our faith with others.
And of course, our Vision Statement puts being disciples right in the centre. We are
Living God’s mission
as disciples of Jesus
united in the Spirit
If we want to be disciples, let’s look at what disciples are. On the basis of today’s rather discomforting and even bothersome Gospel reading, I want to say that
- disciples are committed;
- disciples welcome disappointment;
- disciples are misunderstood;
- disciples are learners.
Disciples are committed, misunderstood learners who welcome disappointment.
Disciples are committed
Today’s Gospel reading shows us about the commitment required of disciples. Jesus says,
Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth? No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on, five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three…
To be a disciple of Jesus is to be committed to him and his Way. I remember once as a young person, feeling quite trapped in a fundamentalist church (you know, the kind of church that took the ‘fun’ out of ‘fundamentalism’…).
Part of me wanted to leave the whole Christian faith behind me, but what kept me there was simply Jesus. He had lived for me and died for me. He had conquered death for me. Through his Spirit, I knew him as a loving and faithful Friend. How could I stop trusting him? I found that I could not walk away from him or his people.
To be committed to Jesus is to be committed from the heart. John Wesley knew this. He called those who were not fully committed to Jesus Christ ‘Almost Christians’. In Sermon 2 of his Forty Four Sermons, he says:
The almost Christian knows that God’s word is true, but will not commit himself to following it. He may live a good, moral, even religious life, and even go beyond others with regards to human compassion. His humanitarian spirit causes him to give to others that which he has need of.
He may hate all unrighteousness and sin in society to the point of protesting and petitioning against it, but does not recognise sin in his own life.
Wesley even says, ‘the Church is full of almost Christians who have not gone all the way with Christ’.
To be a disciple is to be fully committed. That doesn’t mean that we are ‘committeed’! We do not spend every waking moment doing things for the Church. Being committed to Jesus means that as part of the Church—as part of the Body of Christ—we are committed to him in each and every area of life: work, home, church, community.
Let me say it again: we don’t have to be ‘committeed’ to be committed. Committees are important, but we can be committed without being on committees all the time. We can and should be committed to Jesus in our daily lives.
Disciples welcome disappointment
Are disciples mad? Who on earth welcomes disappointment?
It is necessary for us to be disappointed, because the Christian life is a journey of continual refining and purification. It’s a journey in which we so often put our trust in the wrong things, and then realise our mistakes by experience.
When I thought about this originally, I wrote this:
What could possibly disappoint disciples? Anything and everything but Jesus Christ.
But I was wrong. We can be disappointed in Jesus—at least, we can be disappointed by our false expectations of Jesus. I think the disciples were a tad disappointed when Jesus said he’d come not to bring peace, but a sword. We want inner peace; but being a Christian often means we are troubled by things that didn’t trouble us before.
This is how a Catholic writer called Simon Tugwell puts it:
Christianity has to be disappointing, precisely because it is not a mechanism for accomplishing all our human ambitions and aspirations, it is a mechanism for subjecting all things to the will of God….
Let’s stop there. Now, that’s a mouthful I know. Look at what he’s saying: the purpose of being a Christian is not to advance ourselves spiritually or materially. It is not to be ‘right’ while others are ‘wrong’. The purpose of being a Christian is to subject all things—including our selves—to the will of the good God.
In other words, the Church doesn’t exist for our benefit. Except for this one thing: to bring us into line with God’s will, to make us disciples.
Simon Tugwell has yet more to say:
Christianity necessarily involves a remaking of our hopes. And our disappointments are an unavoidable part of the process.
We come to faith as immature believers. As we grow in Christ, we find that the dreams and expectations we had of being a Christian have to grow too. Our hopes must be remade. And we’ll be disappointed sometimes.
Disappointments come by God’s grace. I suspect the disciples were (at least!) disappointed when Jesus told them
I came to bring fire to the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled! I have a baptism with which to be baptised, and what stress I am under until it is completed!
The baptism that Jesus still had to undergo was the baptism of death on the cross. If the disciples were hoping for a quiet life, they were going to be disappointed.
If we want a quiet life, we may find ourselves disappointed too. God may have other things in mind for us. And the thing is this: if God doesn’t have a quiet life in mind for us, then a quiet life won’t make us happy. And God has a mission field for us to work in, the mission field of the congregation, the community and the world.
Let God disappoint you.
Disciples are misunderstood
There’s a lot of misunderstanding around about church these days. We’re in a time when the church is a foreign culture to many people.
We give out leaflets in letter boxes at Christmas and Easter times. I’ve heard of people bringing their leaflet as a ticket to get in. They had never realised that you can just come to church.
Some months ago, I mentioned to someone that I’d just married a couple in church. They didn’t realise that a minister could marry people.
A minister was at a social gathering. When another guest found she was a minister, he told her about how he never went to church but that the church his mother went to had been very good to her while she was ill. He was very grateful for their help. When the minister told him that’s what the good churches do, he said, ‘You should advertise that!’
Often, we’re misunderstood because no one knows what we’re on about. If we don’t tell them, who will?
Sometimes though we’re seen as judgemental, hypocritical, homophobic wowsers. Sadly, that’s not far off the mark with some kinds of Christian believer. Perhaps these Christians look at the words of Jesus in this passage about division, and decide that causing division is what he wants. Sometimes it may be unavoidable, but it’s not what he wants.
Where we are misunderstood, we can correct the misunderstanding by our words and by our care. Together.
Where criticism is right on the spot, we can listen with humility. It may be the voice of God to us.
Disciples are learners
The word disciple means ‘learner’ or ‘follower’.
We are learning the art of being a Christian from the master artisan, Jesus. Riley Lee is Australia’s only grand master of the shakuhachi, a Japanese flute. He accepted the discipline of sitting at the feet of another grand master for a very long time before he could consider himself an exponent of the shakuhachi.
We can’t consider ourselves disciples without discipline. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, study, and the rest need to be ours. We must sit at the feet of the Master, Jesus.
We hear a lot these days about ‘lifelong learning’. That should characterise the life of the disciple. The goal of discipleship is for us to be remade in the image of Jesus, and that takes a lifetime.
But there’s another thing that should characterise disciples; it is called ‘beginner’s mind’.
A person with beginner’s mind accepts that there is much that we just do not know.
The most ignorant person is not the one who accepts he or she doesn’t know something. The most ignorant person thinks they know more than they do.
We can being willing not to know the answers to some things. Why? Because God knows. That’s beginner’s mind. That’s the faith of a disciple.
Disciples are committed, misunderstood learners who welcome disappointment.
Disciples follow their Lord wherever he leads. They know that being a Christian isn’t a recipe for a quiet life. As we are transformed into the image of Jesus, we find ourselves disturbed by things that never bothered us. We realise that we have a relationship with those who suffer. They are how Jesus comes to us.
The Church is here so that you and I can be remade in the image of Jesus, and then reach out to others to draw them into the life we’ve found.
We’re developing a congregation focussed on discipleship. And it’s a great adventure!
Let us pray a prayer from the 7th century Gelasian Sacramentary:
O loving God,
you are the light of the minds that know you,
the life of the souls that love you,
and the strength of the hearts that serve you.
Help us so to know you
that we may truly love you;
and so to love you
that we may faithfully serve you,
whom to serve is perfect freedom;
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.