Discipleship 101: The Marks of a Disciple – sermon on Romans 12:9-21

September 3, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here. 

Last week, we heard the Apostle Paul encourage us to offer our bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. We learned that we do this, not by being conformed to the world, but by being transformed through the renewing of our minds, so we can discern God’s good and acceptable and perfect will for us.

Paul went on to describe how we are each part of the Body of Christ, with many diverse gifts that help us equip ourselves, and each other, as members joined together in Christ. We discovered that living sacred lives in a secular world is really a call to discipleship. But what does that word, ‘discipleship,’ mean? What do I have to do in order to be a disciple?

In the gospel reading we heard a moment ago, Jesus tells us that if we want to be his followers, we have to deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him (Matthew 16:24). Jesus isn’t asking us to go around with a large wooden cross on our shoulders, and he isn’t telling us to go looking for ways to suffer. Jesus tells us that following him means giving ourselves up completely for the benefit of others, just as he has done.

As we continue reading from the 12th chapter of Romans, Paul explains just what this means.

Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor.

Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.

Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. – Romans 12:9-21

What are the marks of a disciple of Jesus Christ? How can you tell a true disciple when you see one? And maybe the most important question for each of us is: Am I living a life of discipleship? Well, this is Discipleship 101, so we should start with some definitions.

Lots of Christian writers besides Paul have tried to define the word “disciple” for us. According to Phil Maynard, “A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ for life committed to being part of the body of Christ, becoming more like Christ, and joining Christ in ministry”[1]. Bishop Robert Schnase explains that this shows up in a life of radical hospitality, passionate worship, intentional faith development, risk-taking mission and service, and extravagant generosity.[2]

That’s a lot of words.

Jesus puts it simply as, “Follow me.” So why do people like the Apostle Paul and Phil Maynard and Bishop Schnase think they need to explain discipleship to us? Well, probably because the church has never been very good at it.

From the very beginning, even among the twelve who were closest to the incarnate Lord, people have had a hard time actually following Jesus. We don’t live like Jesus, we don’t love like Jesus, and we don’t make more disciples as Jesus did.[3] No wonder writers from the first century to today have tried to give us some guidelines for becoming faithful disciples. Paul’s letter to the church at Rome gives us a good picture of what discipleship looks like in real life.

Depending on which translation you read, there are close to 30 imperative commands in this passage from Romans, and all the verbs are plural.[4] These instructions for all of us are held together by one idea: disciples of Jesus Christ are not overcome by evil, but they overcome evil with good.

How can we do this? Paul says, “Let your love be genuine” To be a follower of Christ, a true disciple, means experiencing love. Love is the foundation of becoming like Christ. It can’t be faked. It has to be sincere. And this love is not something we can manufacture or initiate on our own. Offering genuine, Christ-like love, can only come from having opened ourselves to receive God’s love for us.

This is what Bishop Schnase calls “radical hospitality.” We usually think about hospitality as what we do for others, and extravagant hospitality means doing more, going above and beyond – bringing out the fine china instead of the paper plates. But when we consider that it’s impossible to offer something we don’t have, Bishop Schnase’s point makes a lot of sense – until we can offer radical hospitality to God, we will never be able to offer it to anyone else.

This radical hospitality opens every corner of our souls to God’s view. When we offer God radical hospitality, we welcome him into the darkest recesses of our deepest selves. We become completely vulnerable, and put ourselves at his disposal. We let God love us, and when this happens, we begin the process of transformation that only radical hospitality will allow.

How foolish and arrogant we are, to think we can make a difference in someone else’s life if we haven’t allowed God to make a bit of difference in our own lives! I sometimes think that this is the real stumbling block we set up for ourselves. We refuse to completely, radically, open ourselves to the love Jesus Christ offers us, and in the process, we limit what God can do in and among us.

So a disciple is someone who is radically open to God’s love. Remember that Jesus told us the greatest commandment is to love God, and the second is to love our neighbor as we love ourselves. Love is the key to discipleship. In fact, as we look at this long list of attributes Paul gives us, they all seem to be instructions for how to love.

We love God by being persistent in prayer, hating evil and holding onto what is good, being zealous for God, ardent in spirit, serving the Lord. We let God take care of judgment and vengeance, so that we can concentrate on loving well.

We love each other, within the body of Christ, with mutual affection, outdoing one another in showing honor, living in harmony and peaceably with one another, in genuine love.

We love others by putting ourselves on the line for them, bearing their burdens, weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice, extending hospitality to strangers, contributing to the needs of the saints, and associating with people no one else will associate with.

We love our enemies, just as Christ taught us to do, by feeding them when they are hungry, giving them something to drink when they are thirsty, blessing them instead of cursing them.

All of these things are acts of love, rippling out from a loving relationship with God and extending to even our worst enemies. And this not love we create, it is love we have received when we open ourselves to Christ in radical hospitality. In the first letter of John we read, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. Beloved, since God loved us so much, we also ought to love one another” (1 John 4:10,11).

The first mark of a disciple is the mark of love. A disciple of Jesus Christ loves as Jesus loves. Will you open yourself to that reality – not possibility, but reality – as you approach this Table today? Christ’s invitation waits for you. Come, not because you deserve it, but because you are loved.

[1] Phil Maynard, From Membership to Discipleship, 17.

[2] Robert Schnase, Five Practices of Fruitful Living.

[3] David Putnam, Breaking the Discipleship Code, 30.

[4] Mary Hinkle Shore, http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1060

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