Nov. 8, 1985, Eastern Mennonite College assembly
Audio version (mp3 file, 28mb)
Greetings to all of you disciples. Or don't you agree that you are a disciple to some person or to some thing? Christian discipleship means following a person. The call of Christ to discipleship is a call to Him, and away from all other gods -- the god of money and things; the god of intellectual knowledge; the god of sinful pleasures; the god of prestige and power; the god of nation and military might; anything and anyone that takes the place of God in our affections and trust.
One time, years ago, one of those evenings when we left the supper table and went into the living room for family devotions, my husband, Grant M. Stoltzfus, now deceased, read just a verse or two from the Amplified translation in 1 John 5: "Keep yourselves from idols -- from any sort of substitute that would take first place in your life."
And then he said, "I am going to go around the circle and ask each one of us to name the thing that comes the nearest to taking the place of God in our lives." And he went around the circle for answers. Now, the youngest of the five children couldn't answer, but the other six of us gave answers. Sports. High grades. Fashions. All A's. Work. Academic degrees. Maybe you can figure out where the parents sat in that circle. But isn't it amazing how we call ourselves Christians and then shift our eyes from him and look to all kinds of substitutes for our security and meaning in life?
The call of Christ to discipleship is not a call to easy Christianity. Much so-called "preaching of the gospel" has three main points: first, decide for Christ for the sake of your own personal salvation; second, send your money in here; and third, expect financial prosperity because you did send your money in here. Charles Colson says what is preached is a gospel of selfishness. It is not only what is said but what is not said that distorts the true picture of Christ's call. Precious little is said about following him in daily living. About carrying one's cross and sharing in Christ's sufferings. About active social concern for the victims of injustice, poverty, and oppression. About loving one's enemies. About dying to the self-centered kind of living, and becoming a new creation. Little is said about being a part of Christ's body, the Church, and its mission in the world.
I knew a Mennonite widow of some means who was supporting a radio preacher who preached more about the nation than he preached about Christ. As if the purposes of God are going to be accomplished more by the power of the military through the state, than through the power of the Spirit through the Church.
"Do you ever hear him preach about Christ?" I asked her.
"No, I guess I don't," she said.
What a fierce loyalty Jesus demands in contrast to easy Christianity. As told in Luke 14:25, large crowds were traveling with Him, but He did not play the numbers game or the gimmicks game, either one. As if cautioning them against any quick decision to come to Him or any false notions of what it means to come to Him, he turned to the crowd and said, "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." He made clear that love to Him is absolute. He certainly did not mean that in a literal sense, we would hate father and mother -- he commanded us to even love our enemies. But he made it clear that love to him is absolute and every other love is like hatred in comparison. I understand him to say, "You shall have no other loves before me -- not a dear person, not money or things, not work, not a career, or anything else."
Jesus said in verse 33 of Luke 14, "any of you who does not give up everything he or she has cannot be my disciple." Christian discipleship means carrying a cross. Jesus said in Luke 14:27, "Anyone who does not carry his or her cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Carry a cross? What's that?
Paul W. Nisley says we want pleasantness, the hope of the resurrection without the pain of the cross, the rewards of being Christian without the cost of carrying our cross, the promise of eternal bliss without the strain of discipleship. Jim Stenzel says most of American Christendom prefers to think of Holy Week in terms of ribbons on our bonnets rather than the nails through Christ's limbs. We like to skirt the issue of death. It's part of our national gospel of positive thinking. We like neatness and the crucifixion is messy. We prefer the happy end and not the painful struggle.
Stenzel goes on to say many of us find it comfortable to identify with power; with the big-name people. North American evangelicalism is tempted to bask in the sun of its present popularity. We need to learn again the meaning of the cross from the churches in Ethiopia, Uganda, Guatemala, and El Salvador. And, we might ask, "Will our first loyalty be to God's law or to our nation's law, when our churches are asked to be places of refuge for the uprooted?" Some churches are saying, "We can't obey the government in this matter." Our present government practice of jailing American church-workers who tried to shelter refugees is in sharp contrast not only to the teaching throughout the Bible, but to the words at our own Statue of Liberty. Quote: "Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, the tempest-tossed, to me. I lift my lamp beside the golden door." End of quote.
Followers of Christ have known for a long time that God's faithful people had to say no to lesser authorities than God all through sacred history. Did you catch the point with the Sunday school stories; the story of the mother of Moses, the baby Moses who said "I can't go along with that and this business of killing little baby boys? Did you catch the point with the Hebrew midwives who said "We can't do that" when they were told to kill the baby boys as they were born, and they didn't do what the King of Egypt said they were to do? Did you catch the point when Esther the Queen said, "I will go to the king even though it is against the law, and if I perish, I perish?" Did you catch the point when the three young men would not obey King Nebuchadnezzar and worship the image of gold he set up? Did you hear them say, "We can't do that?" They took the blazing furnace instead.
Did you get the point when Daniel would not obey the decree that he pray only to King Darius, and when he got down on his knees and prayed three times a day as usual, did you hear him say, "I can't do that?" Lion's den or no lion's den. Did you hear Peter and the other apostles when they were reprimanded by the Sanhedrin and told, "We gave you strict orders not to preach in that name." Did you hear them say, "We must obey God rather than men," and did you see them go on teaching? Did you hear the city officials talking about Paul and Silas and that man Jason who made room for them in his home? Did you hear those city officials say, "These men who have caused trouble all over the world have now come here, and Jason has welcomed them into his home. They are all defying Caesar's decree, saying that there is another king -- one called Jesus." Well, for once, these enemies of Jesus spoke the truth. There is another king -- Jesus. And following him sometimes means disobeying the decrees of government.
We know of early Anabaptists, both men and women, who said, "I can't do that" to government officials, and took the consequences of death by burning or drowning. We know of our own people in Civil War and World War I and II times who said, "I can't do that" to military service. We should be grateful for the many good provisions of our countries and be loyal, obedient citizens, except when asked to violate God's higher laws. But will we recognize when the time has come for us to say, "I can't do that," or "we can't do that?" Or are we and our religion too soft?
Tom Page, senior editor of the devotional book Discipline says, "Reading and study is quite safe. Acting out discovered truths is quite dangerous. Are we reading and discussing and watching and listening and publishing, and then sleeping on it? Are we pondering over the plight of the world, but leaving it in the hands of someone else to bring a vision of God's kingdom to bear upon the world? Do we pray for God to act for peace and fail to ask God to act through us?" End of quotation.
Now let it be understood that peace efforts without Christ and the message of new life in Christ will not bring lasting change. Let it be known, too, that those who profess to know Christ and do nothing about suffering people are not following the way of Christ.
What is your cross? It's not some affliction or disappointment common to humankind. It's what you suffer because you belong to Christ. To illustrate this, sometime you might draw a vertical line on a paper to represent the ways of the world, the customs and the commands that are contrary to the Jesus way. And then, one-fourth down, a short line across, to represent how you must go counter to those customs and commands. That is your cross, and that is a place of pain, and it will mean persecution. The apostle Paul said, "Everyone who wants to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." It's the same as saying every follower of Christ knows suffering. Do you wish to be excluded from that band of followers?
Christian discipleship means joy. There is actually joy in the midst of pain -- the pain of persecution. According to the words of Jesus himself in Matthew 5, today's English version, "happy are those who are persecuted because they do what God requires. The kingdom of heaven belongs to them. Happy are you when people insult you and persecute you" -- imagine -- "and tell all kinds of evil lies about you because you are my followers. Be happy and glad, for a great reward is kept for you in heaven. This is how the prophets who lived before you were persecuted." Here are three things to be glad about: knowing we're followers of Jesus, knowing we have a reward in heaven, knowing we're in the train of prophets given honorable mention by Jesus.
Peter, that weak Christian turned strong, said in 1 Peter 3:14, "Even if you should suffer for doing what is right, how happy you are." How happy you are. The apostle Paul said he wanted the fellowship of suffering. Imagine that. He wanted the fellowship of sharing in Christ's sufferings. He said, "I want to know Christ, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death." He said, "We rejoice in our sufferings because we know that suffering produces perseverance, perseverance character, and character hope." Well, this is easy to say, hard to do. But Paul certainly knew all kinds of suffering. I take his words seriously. And those last ones that I gave you are Romans 5:3-4.
So important is this suffering aspect of discipleship that Paul says in Romans 8:17, that sharing in Christ's sufferings must precede sharing in his glory. Must. M-U-S-T. Must. And notice the little word "if". I-F. A tiny little word in Romans 8:17. "Now if we are children, then we are heirs and co-heirs with Christ." If -- if -- indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory. So being a Christian does not mean deliverance from all trouble, but a form of deliverance in the midst of trouble. Christian discipleship means walking as Jesus walked.
Perhaps we should talk less about the Christian life, since so many professing Christians live just like anyone else, and call it "the Christ-like life. Walking as he walked and as he taught." 1 John 2:6 says, "This is how we know we are in him. Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus walked." What kind of walk is that? It's the walk of obedience -- obedience to God. It's the way of prayer. It's the walk of a responsible lifestyle. His life wasn't cluttered up with possessions. He wasn't a slave to the tyranny of things. It's the walk of humility. It's the path of persecution, as we have said. It's the path of steadfast purpose. It's the walk of love and sacrifice and service.
John Carlos Ortiz says, "a disciple is a person who learns to live the life his teacher lives, and gradually teaches others to live the life." Christian discipleship means making other disciples. The Holy Spirit gifts, calls, and enables each one in the Church for a unique part in its ministries. Have you found that yet? A part in the Church's unique ministries, both within the church and out there in the community, and in a world of desperate physical and spiritual starvation. As 2 Corinthians 5:15 puts it, "We no longer live for ourselves, but for Christ, who died for us and was raised again." And imagine -- He has committed to us the message of reconciliation, and we are His ambassadors. As Paul says, "Christ's love compels us."
Years ago, in the pre-computer days, when I first discovered those little strips of paper for covering my typing errors, I wanted to tell everyone about it. I called friends in the area offices, I called the offices in a place called Eastern Mennonite College, and I called offices in a place called Mennonite Broadcasts. And I said, "Do you know about this good way to cover typing errors?" If we are excited about Christ's forgiveness, his covering of our sins, we will want to tell everyone.
1 Peter 2:9 says, "you are God's own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light." Christian discipleship means a path that leads to heaven. Jesus said to his disciples, "I'll be with you only a little longer," and Peter asked, "Lord, where are you going?" Jesus said, "Where I am going, you cannot follow now, but you will follow later." And that is still the plan. What a spiritual strengthener to know that this path of discipleship on which we follow Christ leads to heaven, where we will be with Him in person at last.
Christian discipleship means following the person Jesus. Carrying a cross. Experiencing joy. Walking as Jesus walked. Making other disciples. Reaching heaven at last. Do any of us feel God's spirit calling us this morning to a first time decision to take Christ into our lives for personal salvation? Or are we hearing a call to a deeper commitment to deny ourselves, to take up our cross and follow him? If so, I would urge us promptly to act on the call -- to arrange to talk to the campus pastor or seek out some other trusted spiritual person to talk and pray with us. One to one, personally. Let us pray together.
Lord God, save us from going into paths of power and privilege. By your strong spirit, lead us into faithful and fruitful and joyful discipleship with Jesus. Amen.
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