Unpopular Discipleship

Discipleship, Truth, Christlike

One of the big new concerns in the church today is the concern to ” market the church”.  The idea is that God’s people need to better market their product – salvation.

There are some positive benefits from these surveys and observations.  These folks are right that we need to get the gospel message before the people.  It is important to find new and more effective techniques for communicating the gospel.  When we find that people don’t understand us because of the words we use we must carefully translate the truth into a language that is understood.  Removing language and cultural barriers to understanding God’s truth is vital to our outreach.  In this sense I wholeheartedly embrace the insights provided through church marketing experts.

However, the very notion that our product needs an overhaul is ludicrous.  We do not have to make the gospel more relevant to modern ears . . . there is nothing more relevant than how to be cleansed from sin and how to find life beyond the grave.  We must be careful that as we seek to promote the church . . . we are promoting the true church and not a watered down, cheap imitation.  Many today are removing offensive doctrines in order to make the gospel more attractive.  This is to lead people into idolatry.

But . . . .if we were to find some principles that are sure fire ways to help people respond more positively to the church, maybe these guidelines would help: [I AM PLANTING MY TONGUE FIRMLY IN CHEEK]

  • Use the Bible Sparingly.  There are things in the Bible people will find offensive.  (Things like sin, absolute truth, a narrow road to salvation, eternal punishment and so forth).  I have found that these are not popular subjects with contemporary folks.  Keep the people away from them. [remember where my tongue is!]
  • When quoting the Bible focus on the passages that talk about the personal benefit of following Christ.  People like these things.
  • Throw out any songs, readings and prayers that are theologically deep.  Those might expose people to those unpleasant aspects of the faith like sacrifice, trials, responsibility.  Instead focus on experience oriented songs, prayers and readings.  Find things that will help people feel good about their experience without ever having to encounter the true and living God
  • Never ever, don’t even think about, don’t even talk in whispers about . . . . this passage.  This is not the kind of discipleship the world we live in is looking for.  Just cast these verses from your mind.

But . . . .since we are more concerned about proclaiming God’s truth than being more “attractive” let’s look at our text.

Jesus’ Understanding of His Mission

The Greeks who had heard about Jesus came to Philip with their request probably because they recognized Philip to be a Greek name.  They also might have heard that Philip was from Bethsaida which I understand was more Greek tolerant than some Jewish cities.  They wanted to see Jesus.

We don’t and can’t know for sure what was meant by this request.  Surely they could “see” him just by watching for Him as He walked about.  Did they want to discuss faith with Jesus?  Were they looking for spiritual counsel?  I think all they really wanted was to be introduced to Him.  Jesus was a favorite rabbi . . . . and up-and-comer.  Jesus was a rising star on the political front and they wanted to be able to tell people that they had met Him.

I’ve stood in line to have a book signed by an author.  This doesn’t mean I know the person, it just means I have met the person.  I think these Greeks may have been looking for a similar encounter.

When Jesus is asked if they can meet Him Jesus gives one of those “non-answer answers”.  Listen,

The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified. I tell you the truth, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies it remains only a single seed.  But if it dies, it produces many seeds.  The man who loves his life will lose it, whole the man who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.  Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be.  My Father will honor the one who serves me.(John 12:20-26, NIV)

The response you or I might have to this statement initially might be: “So, does this mean you will meet with them, or you won’t?”

Jesus understood that these men saw Him as one rising in power.  He knew that they did not understand what His “mission” was.  Jesus wants them to know that this is not the time for Him to be a celebrity . . . .it is time for Him to die.

Jesus uses a agricultural illustration.  It’s a picture we can all grasp.  If we want to raise a garden we know that it must start by putting seeds in the ground.  We must bury the seeds.  We can’t dig the seeds up every day to check on them . . . we must bury them and leave them there.  The seed is abandoned (as it were) to death.  Only then can the seed make the harvest possible.

In like manner, Jesus must die in order to bring many to faith in Christ.  His death became our means of salvation.  Jesus faced the wrath of God so that we would not have to.  “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God”. 2 Cor. 5:21

Jesus understood the cost . . . no salvation without the sacrifice of His life.  Our choice is simple: we can stand behind Christ as One who has faced the wrath of God for sin . . . or we can face that wrath ourselves.

The Important Truths Christians Want to Forget

The words that follow Jesus’ illustration of a seed dying are words that are not popular to the ears of the world . . . or His followers today.  Lest we think they are an isolated gloss in the Word of God consider these texts:

Matthew 19:28-30..29  And everyone who has left houses or brothers or sisters or father or mother or children or fields for my sake will receive a hundred times as much and will inherit eternal life. 30  But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.

Luke 9:23-25  Then he said to them all: “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me. 24  For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will save it.  25  What good is it for a man to gain the whole world, and yet lose or forfeit his very self?  26  If anyone is ashamed of me and my words, the Son of Man will be ashamed of him when he comes in his glory and in the glory of the Father and of the holy angels.

Luke 14:26-27   “If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters–yes, even his own life–he cannot be my disciple.  27  And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

Luke 9:48   Then he said to them, “Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For he who is least among you all–he is the greatest.”

Matthew 20:26-28   Jesus called them together and said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them.26  Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, 27  and whoever wants to be first must be your slave–28  just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.

What every one of these verse are trying to say is this CHRISTIAN DISCIPLESHIP IS DYNAMIC NOT STATIC.  Jesus wants us to understand that “being a Christian” is not about walking an aisle or saying a prayer.  It is about a life commitment, a change of heart, a new orientation for living.

On occasion I am soundly criticized because I do not give “an invitation” at the conclusion of each service.  I am accused of not caring about evangelism.  I am accused of not making the way of salvation clear.  I am said to “not think a decision to follow Christ is really necessary”.   Each of these charges is blatantly false and terribly painful.  I don’t have an altar call because Jesus said we are to count the cost.  We are not to enter into our discipleship without understanding what it involves.  Today we have given the impression to the world that they need to walk an aisle, say a prayer and their salvation will be taken care of.  But I don’t see that anywhere in the Bible.

We are promised that if we “believe on the Lord Jesus Christ we will be saved.”  But I ask, “what does this mean?”  Is it a matter of saying “I believe”, taking the gift, signing on the dotted line and then considering the transaction to be over?  I don’t think so.

Now let me be very careful in what I am saying: I am NOT saying that we are saved by what we do.  We are saved because of what Christ has done on our behalf.  We cannot earn salvation.  Our only hope is to clothe ourselves in the work of our beloved Savior.  I do not waver in what I believe the Bible clearly teaches.  The problem has developed in how we understand the concept of “believing” or “trusting”.  It is to this issue I believe Jesus’ words apply.

Let me give you three simple statements that summarize what I think Jesus is saying:

  • Being a true follower means a willingness to trust Him completely.  It means we are not only willing to trust Him to provide for our salvation, but we trust Him for the future.  We trust Him when You don’t know where He is leading You.  You trust Him when you don’t understand where He is leading you.  You trust Him when you don’t like where He is leading you.  It means trusting His commands even when they are unpopular in a pagan society.  It means trusting His values when the society is “values neutral”.  Being a true follower means FOLLOWING!  It’s not a one time act, it is a change of heart, a change of direction.
  • Being a true follower means being unwilling to be distracted from our goal.  Jesus tells us that He who puts his hand to the plow but looks back is not a true believer.  The true follower of Christ is becoming more and more unsatisfied with anything less than heaven.  The true disciple is constantly reminding themselves they are living for a future Kingdom.

When James Calvert went out as a missionary to the cannibals of the Fiji Islands, the captain of the ship sought to turn him back. “You will lose your life and the lives of those with you if you go among such savages,” he cried.  Calvert only replied, “We died before we came here.”    [David Augsburger, Sticking My Neck Out, 1979, p. 154 ]

This idea is captured well in this familiar poem,

I had walked life’s path with an easy tread,

   Had followed where comfort and pleasure led;

   And then by chance in a quiet place —

   I met my Master face to face.

   With station and rank and wealth for goal,

   Much thought for body but none for soul,

   I had entered to win this life’s mad race —

   When I met my Master face to face.

   I had built my castles, reared then high,

   Till their towers had pierced the blue of the sky;

   I had sworn to rule with an iron mace —

   When I met my Master face to face.

   I met Him and knew Him, and blushed to see

   That His eyes full of sorrow were fixed on me;

   And I faltered, and fell at His feet that day

   While my castles vanished and melted away.

   Melted and vanished; and in their place

   I saw naught else but my Master’s face;

   And I cried aloud:  “Oh, make me meet

   To follow the marks of Thy wounded feet.”

   My thought is now for the souls of men;

   I have lost my life to find it again

   Ever since alone in that holy place

   My Master and I stood face to face.

   [Author Unknown]

  • The True Follower is willing to do whatever it takes to become more like Jesus

Don’t you marvel at the great athletes?  My favorite is Michael Jordan.  The thing that fascinates me about Jordan is the cost and discipline that make him such a great athlete.  His is never lax about practice.  He works hard on conditioning in the off season.  And He avoids things that might hinder his abilities.

Just like any good athlete the child of God is to be a “servant of Christ”.  We are to be focused on making progress toward to the goal of honoring Christ in every breath of life.  The believer is constantly on the look out for those things that are impeding their progress.  It is true that they more and more “hate his life in this world” because they are enamored with the life that is to come.

Is that the experience of your life?  Are you growing in grace and truth?  Is your hold on Heaven becoming more firm?

Here’s a little quiz to help you get started thinking like a Kingdom child:

1. If we want to just “veg out” for awhile but there is a gnawing need in a ministry and you can help….what do you do? “Veg Out” or dig in?

2. If you have the choice between protecting yourself from possible rejection and standing up for the honor of Christ, what do you do?

3. If the roll of toilet paper is almost empty, do you change the roll or leave one square so the next person has to change it?

4. If you told to recant or die, what would you do?

5. If you are confronted with obeying the Lord’s command to “not forsake the assembling of believers” or to do something else (anything else?) On Sunday . . . . what would you do?

6. If there are two pieces of pie left do you take the big one or the little one?

7. If your schedule is really tight and someone stops to “visit” who you weren’t expecting do you brush them off or listen for an unspoken need.

8. If you can “duck out” quietly or stay and help with a project, what do you do?

9. If you have to choose between standing in the spotlight or turning the spotlight on another (even if you did the work) what would you do?

10. When you find yourself engaging in behavior the bible condemns do you repent or justify your actions?

If you took these questions seriously you undoubtedly felt twinges of conviction.  Maybe you even questioned the reality of your own discipleship.  Let me add that the Christian walk is something that develops over time.  God’s Spirit changes us gradually.  But He does change us.

I’m not recommending that you try to determine who has a genuine profession of faith and who does not.  That’s not our job.  Our job is to make sure that we have counted the cost and are willing to follow Him without reservation.  Christianity is not about taking a gift that is offered and walking away.  It’s about entering into a relationship that is extended to us by the gracious hand of the Savior.  It’s a relationship that impacts every element of our life.  Yes, we will stumble.  At times we will seem to stop.  The key however is whether or not you are making progress toward the goal.  Are you moving in the right direction?  Is your Christianity a real relationship with Christ or did you merely ask for your name to be added to the rolls?

This week:

1. Do a personal inventory of your profession of faith.  Have you truly his disciple or are you just wearing the uniform?

2. Consciously remind yourself of your goal this week.  A Card “Keep Looking Forward” or the notes of this sermon somewhere prominent where you can refocus regularly.

3. Be ruthless in your honesty as to what is holding you back.  Weed those things out of your life.

Take aim on those things that hinder your walk.  Not because you need to in order to be saved . . . . but because you are following the Savior . . . . and you want to follow Him fully.

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Scripture:

John 12:20-26