Shift 4: Discipleship

Scripture:  Galatians 5:16-25

It is probably fair to say that for most people February 18th, 2021 was just another day.  In our family and I am sure several others, it was a day we were counting down to.   It was on this day that NASA’s Perseverance Mars Rover made planet fall.   The probe had launched in July of the previous year and we kept track as it traveled through space to the red planet.  Today you can actually follow the Perseverance Rover on social media.   Weekly updates are posted with picture from Mars.  It is amazing to me that a robot can send pictures from another world across space and I can then view those photos on a computer that I keep in my pocket.  We truly live in the future.

The Perseverance Rover has been a huge success in its mission so far, but NASA’s Mars missions have not always worked out so well.  Some of the earlier ones were fraught with peril.  Perhaps the greatest disaster involved the 1999 mission to send a satellite, the Mars Climate Orbiter.  This $125 million piece of equipment successfully launched, made the journey, but then sadly burned up in Mars atmosphere.  As an orbiter was never supposed to get close enough to the planet for that to happen.  What’s worse is that the reason for this mishap was a simple mistake.  The climate orbiter was a collaboration between a team at NASA and a group of engineers with Lockheed Martin.  When the Lockheed Martin group did their calculations they used American measurements while NASA worked with metric units.  Both sides assumed that they were using the same measurement standard and the end result is that the orbiter deployed far too close to the planet and it was lost.

As you can imagine this was a huge embarrassment for NASA and it set back the exploration of Mars by years.   It was all caused because the teams were not on the same page.  They both did things their way and assumed that their way was just the way it was done.   The disaster could have been avoided if the teams had been clearer in their communications and not assumed everyone was on the same page, but because they did not their mission ended up a failure.   I think there is a lesson in this story for us.   As a church we have a mission, and we say it every week:  Our mission is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.   However, I have to wonder like the two different teams with the Mars climate orbiter are we working with different standards?   Do we all have the same understanding of what it means to be a disciple? Because if we do not then like the Mars orbiter we are going to miss the mark in fulfilling our mission.   As we will see, disciple is somewhat of a hard word to define, but this morning’s scripture gives us a good foundation for understanding what it means to be a disciple.

One of the reasons why it is so hard to define the word disciple is because it is so engrained into the Christian experience, that it becomes part of the background.  We hear it so often, nearly always in a religious setting, that we can feel familiar with the word and concept without ever really thinking through if we truly know what it means.   Even if we do not always think about what it means, it is clear that disciple is not an empty word.  The way we use it in a church setting, conveys importance.  The fact that making disciples is our mission, our reason for existence, conveys the importance.   So a disciple is not an empty label, just being affiliated with a church or having a passing interest in Christianity does not make someone a disciple, so what does?

To get guidance for what it means to be a disciple, we can back to the biblical text.  Like the literal text itself, and see the word used in the Greek.  The Greek word that is often rendered disciple can mean pupil or student, but it is more than that.  Because there is a different Greek word for learner, so perhaps a more accurate definition of the word would be adherer or apprentice.  The Greek word that is often translated as disciple in the bible is one that conveys a person who intensely learns from a teacher.

Learning is part of discipleship, and to be a disciple is to be a learner, but discipleship is more than learning.  In his book Shift 2.0 author Phil Maynard points out that churches have overemphasized the learning aspect of discipleship.  For instance, in Methodist churches especially it was popular in the 90’s and early 2000’s to offer Disciple bible study classes.  Disciple was right in the name and the emphasis was on an academic approach to reading and learning the bible.   While learning and knowledge is important Maynard writes, “Discipleship is not just about education” and “Discipleship is not just learning about Jesus.  It means becoming like Jesus.”

Perhaps another way we can go about thinking about it is that we can think of other things that people are.  For instance, a writer is someone who writes.  A baker is someone who bakes.  An athlete is someone who takes physical fitness seriously so they can compete.   Anyone can be a writer, a baker, or an athlete if they do the necessary work.  What makes someone a writer, a baker, or an athlete is that they do the activity intentionally with the goal of improving and honing their skills in the specific area.  Being a disciple is the same way.   A disciple is someone who actively follows Jesus, with the intention of becoming like Jesus.   Just like writers write, bakers, bake, and athletes train- disciples practice discipleship.   No one is an accidental disciple of Jesus.   Yes, the first step to discipleship is being saved by grace which is a free gift from God.  However, if we truly want to follow Jesus and be like Jesus then we must do the work of discipleship.

One of the elements of our Methodist tradition, is that it does a great job at defining this work of discipleship.   When John Wesley helped form the first Methodist societies as part of a revival movement he gave them three general rules.  These general rules do great job at giving us a framework for the work of discipleship, following these rules can help us follow Jesus and in time be like Jesus.  The first rule is do no harm.  The general rules specify that we do no harm when we avoid evil of every kind, and in Wesley’s document he goes on to give several examples of what constitutes harm.  Many of these examples given are similar to the acts of the flesh mentioned in this morning’s scripture. The examples given can be summed up in three categories:  actions that cause pain or hardship for someone else, actions that can have a negative impact on ourselves, and actions that can reflect poorly on our witness of Christ.   Doing no harm comes from actively loving our neighbor as ourselves.  Doing no harm is the result of actively thinking about others and modifying our own behavior so that our actions do not cause hurt or hardship.

Doing no harm is loving others by refraining from certain action, and the second general rule is how we love others through our actions.  The second general rule is do good.  Specifically Wesley wrote: “by doing good, by being in every kind merciful after their power; as they have opportunity, doing good of every possible sort, and as far as possible, to all.”  Last week we talked about service, and serving others is part of discipleship, it is one the key ways we actively follow Jesus.

The final general rule is what Wesley calls “attending upon all the ordinances of God.”  Sometimes in modern summaries of the general rules, this one gets paraphrased as “stay in love with God.”  However, when we shorten it to that part of the general rule is lost in translation.  Just like the first two general rules this one is also action based.   The ordinances of God that the rule refers to are the actions we take that maintain and improve our relationship with God such as corporate worship, partaking the sacraments, bible study, and prayer.   This third general rule are about the spiritual habits we have to keep us connected to our savior and heavenly Father.   Often these daily or weekly habits are some of the elements of discipleship we struggle with the most, but they are some of the most vital.  Many of us believe it is important to read the bible daily, but often it seems we always run out of time to make it happen.  However, just like an athlete has a regular workout routine and knows not skip leg day, a disciple needs a regular habit of attending upon the ordinances of God.  The reason why an athlete gets in that regular workout is because they make it a serious priority in their lives, and we should give spiritual habits like bible reading and prayer that same priority.   In his book Deep Discipleship, pastor and author J.T. English writes about this:  “We are all formed by what we do.  The habits we develop shape us into who we are.”

Doing now harm, doing good, and having spiritual habits should shape us.  They will transform us into becoming more like Jesus.  John Wesley’s general rules also mention that there should be an expectation of change that comes from following these rules.  In a very 18th century way he wrote: “It is expected of all who desire to continue in these societies that they should continue to evidence their desire of salvation.”  The original Methodist societies formed so that Christians could be better disciples, so that their lives would be more Christ like, and they could better follow Jesus.   Wesley believed and taught there we could see evidence in our lives that we were becoming better disciples, and that is where this morning’s scripture comes into play.

This morning’s scripture contains the fruit of the Spirit.  For John Wesley this list of qualities was evidence of the Holy Spirit’s presence in someone’s life.  Just like a tree can be identified by the type of fruit it produces a disciple of Jesus can be identified by how love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control are present in our lives.   Seeing the fruit of the spirit in our lives is the evidence of our salvation.   Becoming more loving, more joyful, gentler, and more self-controlled is the transformation that following Jesus should bring in our lives.   The fruit of the spirit gives us continued evidence that we are growing in discipleship and being more like Jesus, because we should be able to see gains in these areas.  It will likely be gradual over time, but as followers of Jesus we should be able to look back where we were five years ago and see tangible ways that the fruit is more evident in our lives today.  For instance, perhaps today we stay centered in the peace of trusting God where previously a situation would cause a flood of anxiety.  Perhaps we are more patient and gentle in dealing with certain people today, because we are able to better remember that they are still precious to God even if they get under our skin a bit.   If we are truly growing as disciples then the ways we see the fruit of the spirit in our lives is evidence of that.

If a writer spends a lot of time writing their writing will naturally improve.  If a baker spends a lot of time baking, eventually their cakes will be amazing.  If an athlete continues to do the work they will post personal bests.  In the same way, if a follower of Jesus intentionally avoids harm, actively seeks to do good, and maintains spiritual habits then as disciples we will become more Christ like.  The fruit of the spirit will manifest itself in our lives, and we can have an assurance of the evidence of our salvation.  Again, no one becomes a disciple by accident, no one becomes a disciples by association either.   Being present in a church and hoping to become more like Jesus through osmosis does not work.  We become more Christ like, when we act more Christ like.  That is what discipleship is about.

Our mission in the United Methodist church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  We do that by first being followers of Christ, who take following Jesus so seriously that we prioritize giving the time and effort so that the Holy Spirit can first transform us to be more like Christ.  Making disciples is not just about getting people to say a sinner’s prayer and sign a church membership roster.  Making disciples is about becoming more like Jesus.   When a community of faith is full of people who do no harm, do good, and maintain spiritual habits then it will be filled with people whose commitment to Jesus is evident to all by the spiritual fruit present in their lives.  When a community of faith is full of disciples like that, then the world will absolutely be transformed into a more kind, peaceful, joyful, gentle, and loving place.   May we be the kind of church that brings about that kind of transformation.


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