October 8, 2017
In his letter to the church at Philippi, Paul describes a life of discipleship. He tells us in no uncertain terms what it means to be a follower of Jesus Christ. But he begins by telling us what a disciple is not, and he uses his own life as an example. Paul writes:
If anyone else has reason to be confident in the flesh, I have more: circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained. -Philippians 3:4b-16
“I regard everything as loss
because of the surpassing value
of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” (v.8)
Paul was a Jew’s Jew. He belonged to the most elite and religious sect within Judaism. In this letter to the church in Philippi, Paul addresses a growing concern among the churches. The big question then was, “do you have to become a Jew in order to become a Christian?” As more and more non-Jewish believers joined the church, this question became a point of deep discord, and the division it caused threatened the order of this new movement. Members were more focused on their disagreement over circumcision than on following Jesus.
So Paul sets out, in this letter, to remind the Christians in Philippi that adhering to strict Jewish laws means nothing. And he ought to know, because he himself had lived like that. The kind of life that was bound up in rules was “rubbish” – a nicer word than the one Paul actually uses, by the way. The only thing that has any value is “knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
Paul is willing to give up everything that was important to him before, “… in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, …” (vv 8b-9)
Knowing Christ, gaining Christ, … this is what matters. Not how many times we pray each day, or how many chapters of the Bible we read, or how much we put in the offering plate, as good as all those things are. Knowing Christ, in order that I may gain Christ. This is the goal toward which we run as followers of Jesus. “I want to know Christ,” Paul writes again, “and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death.” (v 10)
Whoa, Paul. Hang on there a minute. Knowing Jesus, that’s all well and good. I like that part about the power of his resurrection. But what’s this stuff about sharing in his sufferings and becoming like him in his death? Do you remember the passage from last week, back in chapter two, that included the ancient hymn to Christ? Here’s a refresher:
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death— even death on a cross. – Philippians 2:5-8
Sharing in Christ’s sufferings, becoming like him in his death – this is how we gain Christ, how we come to really know him. Christ emptied himself, humbled himself, and became obedient, even to the point of death on a cross.
On Friday, I was invited by the bishop to attend a workshop on discipleship and evangelism. In his message during the opening worship, Bishop Ough described his own experience of coming to know Christ. He had grown up attending church, and his parents were faithful Christians, but it was not until he was a teenager that he gave his life to Christ. Bishop Ough told us that he could sum up that experience in one word: surrender.
This is what Paul is talking about when he says, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection, and the sharing of his sufferings, by becoming like him in his death.” Becoming like Jesus in his death means giving our all to obeying God, no matter what it costs us. A life of following Jesus is a life of surrender.
Even a super-Christian like Paul has a long way to go when it comes to complete surrender. “Not that I have already attained the goal …” he writes, “but I press on to make it my own…” And why? What motivates Paul to this kind of surrender?
Because Jesus has made me his own.
It might sound like Paul is describing his own effort, his own striving to become like Christ. But the truth is that Paul is “pressing on” – or leaning into the realization that he belongs to Jesus.
Several times each week, people come into my office to tell me about the particular struggles they are experiencing. When I ask if I can pray for them, they almost always respond with eagerness. As I pray, I ask God to remind them that they are God’s own beloved children. I can’t tell you how many times people respond to this simple prayer with sobs. No one has ever told them before that they are God’s beloved children.
They have never experienced what Paul is describing here, what we who claim to follow Jesus should also know: Jesus has made us his own. That’s a truth worth leaning into. That’s a reality worthy of our complete surrender.
The next sentence Paul writes is full of prepositional phrases that drive deep into this truth:
I press on
toward the goal
for the prize
of the heavenly call
in Christ Jesus. – Philippians 3:14
This is what discipleship means, friends. It is answering the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus with full surrender. Pressing on toward this goal yields a prize, and that prize is God calling us in Christ Jesus. You see, it isn’t what we do that makes us good disciples – it’s what Jesus did. All our effort, all our striving to be righteous and live according to the “good Christian” rules, is just like Paul’s former life as a Pharisee – it’s rubbish.
If you want to be a follower of Jesus Christ, answer the call God extends to you. Press on toward the goal of knowing Christ – not just knowing about Christ, but developing a personal relationship with Jesus. And as that relationship grows, the evidence of your maturing faith will be seen in the way you live your life.
Paul writes, “Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.” (vv15-16) Paul brings us back to unity of thinking, having the same mind as Christ Jesus, as he encourages us to hang onto the level of maturity we have reached in our faith.
Discipleship is not what we do, it’s who we follow. All the marks of a mature follower of Jesus are evidence of following, not the means by which we follow. In his book, From Membership to Discipleship, Phil Maynard identifies five areas of discipleship that contribute to this picture:
- A life of worship
- A life of hospitality
- A life open to Jesus (spiritual practices)
- A life obedient to Jesus
- A life of service
- A life of Generosity
But we don’t necessarily arrive at full maturity in all of these areas at the same moment. If you were to plot your spiritual development the same way a pediatrician tracks a growing child’s physical development, you would notice that you grow faster in some areas, and others take longer.
But let me emphasize that each of these areas of discipleship do not come about by our own effort or design. Our efforts to become more hospitable or more generous can’t be sustained for any length of time by our trying. They aren’t the means to become better followers of Jesus. They are the evidence of a whole-hearted surrender to Christ.
This is going to sound counter-intuitive, but …
- If you want to become more generous, you don’t doing by giving more – you do it by knowing Christ more intimately.
- If you want to improve your worship life, you don’t do it by singing louder or lifting your hands higher – you do it by surrendering your life to Jesus.
- If you want to experience a life of more effective spiritual practices, such as prayer and Bible study and fasting, you don’t do it by scheduling more prayer time or signing up for another Bible study group or skipping more meals. You do it by drawing near to the heart of God in Christ Jesus, and centering your life in him.
- If you want to engage in more meaningful service, you don’t do it by signing up for every serving opportunity that shows up on the bulletin board. You do it by diving deeper into your relationship with Christ, and letting him guide you into a more profound awareness of how he wants you to use your gifts.
- If you want to be more obedient to Christ, you do it by listening more closely for his direction, and leaning into a life of full surrender to his will.
And as you devote yourself completely to following Jesus, you will find yourself growing in faith, developing into a mature and robust way of living that reflects Christ more and more in your worship, your hospitality, your service, your spiritual practice, your obedience, and your generosity.
Next week, you will receive a letter inviting you into a commitment to become more Christ-like in the coming year. It will ask you to consider growing in your faith through the promises that we make in the baptismal covenant. These are promises to offer our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and our witness.
There will be some very concrete suggestions for fulfilling your commitment to develop a more mature faith – things like committing to attending worship a specific number of times each month, engaging in a specific number of serving opportunities during the year, and inviting a specific number of people to join you in worship or service.
The numbers you write into the blanks won’t make you a better Christian. They aren’t the means for you to grow in your own discipleship, and they aren’t the goal of your walk with Christ. They represent a promise you make every time we renew our baptismal vows. It’s a promise to press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly calling of God in Christ Jesus. It’s a promise to grow into a mature follower of Jesus. It’s a promise to want to know Christ, who has made you his own. Let it be so.
October 1, 2017
Note: The gospel lesson for this Sunday is Matthew 21:23-32, and should be read immediately before this sermon.
Imagine the frustration those priests and elders must have felt! This Jesus was always catching them in their own words, making them look foolish in the eyes of the people. They liked the respect shown to them in the streets and the markets. They loved being the ones in authority. And here was this unschooled carpenter, teaching right under their noses, sounding like he knew God more intimately than any human possibly could.
We just heard Jesus describe two sons, who are each given the same direction to go work in their father’s vineyard, and the connection between authority and obedience becomes clear. One says he will go, and doesn’t, while the other refuses, but then changes his mind, and does what he was told to do. “Which did the will of his Father?” Jesus asks. The answer is obvious. The one who went to work, even after he said he would not.
What prompted Jesus to tell this parable? The Temple leaders gathered around Jesus hadn’t been able to answer the question he had asked them about John the Baptist’s authority. They got into an argument among themselves trying to come up with an answer that would appease the crowd and uphold their own honor, but that wasn’t possible. So they said, “we don’t know.”
What they meant was, “We aren’t willing to commit. We don’t want to look bad in front of the people.” So Jesus uses this parable to teach that appearances can be deceiving. It isn’t what we say, it’s what we do that shows our commitment to faith. It isn’t our lip service God wants; it’s our repentance. It isn’t our fancy words; it’s our obedience that matters to God.
Here’s how obedience and authority are connected. There is a difference between power – having the strength of will or muscle to accomplish something – and authority – being authorized to act by one who holds the actual power, the “author.” But sometimes, authority comes from a different direction. Instead of being handed down from above, it gets “handed up” from below, from people who submit themselves to another’s authority by their obedience.
Like the two sons in Jesus’ parable, it’s what we do, not just what we say, that matters. How often do we fail to commit, for fear of being ridiculed? Or maybe we just aren’t sure that Jesus is the Way the truth and the Life. We waffle, and instead of confessing that Jesus is Lord, we bear a different kind of testimony. By our silence, we tell the world that we aren’t so sure Jesus is worth committing our lives to.
But even more important than what we do and say, is our focus on the One we follow. Our identity lies in Christ Jesus, and we respond to his authority with our obedience. In Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he quotes an early hymn of the church that describes Christ’s authority perfectly.
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Continue reading
I don’t think any of us come to worship God in this place with the idea of becoming less like Jesus as our goal. We’re all in it to become more like Jesus. Sometimes, it’s hard, though, isn’t it? Sometimes we’d like Jesus to let us off the hook a little bit, tell us what we are doing is good enough, pat us on the head and let us get on with being a little less like him. Right?
But it never seems to work that way. Jesus always calls us gently toward greater perfection. Christ sets the barre high for us, as his followers. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God?
In today’s passage, we pick up the conversation between Jesus and his disciples from the point where we left off last week. Jesus has been teaching us how to live in the Kingdom of God, and he has urged us to be reconciled to those who have wronged us.
Last week, we learned a process for resolving conflict between two believers, and in the UMC we call that process the Rule of Christ. It outlines a series of steps for confronting a brother or sister in disagreement. We must first examine our own contribution to the problem, then go directly to the one who has hurt us and tell that person what is wrong. If they don’t listen, or won’t be reconciled to us, then we must bring in another believer to act as mediator or advocate, and if the other party still will not listen, we are to call upon the resources of the whole church. Once we’ve tried everything, and there is still no resolution, we are to treat the other person as a Gentile and a tax collector – in other words, as an outsider.
While many traditions interpret this to mean we are to exclude, or shun, the person, a look at the way Jesus himself treated Gentiles and tax collectors may indicate that what we are really supposed to do is work even more diligently at finding ways to live in community with the offender, offering the same invitation to discipleship that we would offer any other outsider we would win to Christ.
The “three strikes and you’re out” that Jesus gives – go directly to the offender, then take one or two witnesses, then take it to the church, if all else fails, treat the offender as an outsider – line up nicely with the common practice of first century Jews. It was understood that three pardons were enough – a fourth offense did not need to be forgiven. If I forgave you three times, and you wronged me again, I could hold a grudge and still claim to be righteous.
As the disciples listened to Jesus teach about conflict resolution, they may have interpreted his words in this way. But Peter knew better. He knew that with Jesus, it was never that simple. With Jesus, the old order of things was never good enough. So, to clarify things, he asked a question, hoping that – for once – he had guessed the right answer in advance.
Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.
“For this reason the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his slaves. When he began the reckoning, one who owed him ten thousand talents was brought to him; and, as he could not pay, his lord ordered him to be sold, together with his wife and children and all his possessions, and payment to be made. So the slave fell on his knees before him, saying, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ And out of pity for him, the lord of that slave released him and forgave him the debt. But that same slave, as he went out, came upon one of his fellow slaves who owed him a hundred denarii; and seizing him by the throat, he said, ‘Pay what you owe.’ Then his fellow slave fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ But he refused; then he went and threw him into prison until he would pay the debt. When his fellow slaves saw what had happened, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their lord all that had taken place. Then his lord summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked slave! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. Should you not have had mercy on your fellow slave, as I had mercy on you?’ And in anger his lord handed him over to be tortured until he would pay his entire debt. So my heavenly Father will also do to every one of you, if you do not forgive your brother or sister from your heart.” – Matthew 18:21-35
Peter thought that surely, if the standard was forgiving up to three times, seven ought to be more than enough to satisfy Jesus. Seven was a perfect number, after all. When Jesus says, “Not seven. Seventy-seven” or maybe even “seventy times seven,” depending on how you read it, he’s asking Peter to go deeper in his understanding of forgiveness. And Jesus invites us to go deeper, too.
You see, the issue isn’t a number at all. And Jesus makes this clear in the parable he tells to explain his point. Here we have a king and his slave. The slave owes the king an enormous amount of money. It’s possible he became a slave in order to pay off a debt he owed to someone else. We don’t know, and how he came to be a slave, or came to owe the king so much money doesn’t really matter in this story.
The important thing is that this debt is so huge, he will never be able to pay it. A talent was equal to about 130 pounds of silver, or about 15 years of wages for a laborer. At 10,000 times that amount, it would take the slave 150,000 years of work to pay off the debt. Impossible.
Yet, when the slave begged for more time, the king had pity on him, and not only withdrew the sentence, but actually forgave the entire fortune the slave owed. The king showed mercy.
But what does the slave do after receiving such generosity from his master? On his way out of the king’s presence, he runs into a fellow slave who owes him the equivalent of 100 days of wages. Not 150,000 years, but 100 days. A manageable sum. A realistic debt.
You would think that the first slave would be feeling generous, having just received a very sweet deal from his master, but instead, he grabs his fellow slave by the throat and demands payment. The second slave falls into the very same posture of humility, and uses the very same words the first slave used to beg for a little more time. But this time there is no mercy. There is no pity. There is no generosity.
And the other slaves see how wrong this is. Even without benefit of Facebook or Twitter, the word gets back to the king that this slave he forgave will not forgive. The king is furious, and rightly so. Not only is this behavior wrong, it reflects badly on the king for one of his own slaves to behave so badly. It makes the king appear weak when he shows mercy to a scoundrel who apparently doesn’t get the concept of ‘paying it forward.’
So the king rescinds the original pardon, and the first slave suffers the consequences of his own lack of mercy to another. If he won’t forgive another, the king won’t forgive him.
I wonder why that slave would not show mercy, don’t you? Maybe he was just greedy. Now that his own debt was gone, any money he could force out of another would be free and clear cash in hand – he didn’t have to ‘borrow from Peter to pay Paul anymore.’
Or maybe he was so used to a cycle of violence and coercion that threatening the other slave was just force of habit for him. Whatever the reason, the slave who had been forgiven had not been transformed by the grace shown to him. The change in his circumstances did not bring about a change in his behavior, or his outlook on life. He suffered the consequences of his actions, and was thrown into prison.
And Jesus says, “This is what will happen to you if you don’t forgive from your heart.”
It isn’t the numbers that matter; it’s what we hold in our hearts that really counts. Seven or seventy-seven or seven times seventy doesn’t matter. 150,000 years of wages or 100 days of wages doesn’t matter. What matters is the stuff that goes on in the depths of our hearts.
If we accept the forgiveness that God offers us through his Son’s death and resurrection, we become new people. We are changed. And if we are changed, our behavior changes. The way we look at life changes. The way we treat other people changes. Our capacity to forgive others changes. There is no room for holding grudges in a heart that has been touched by God’s unmerited favor.
This does not mean that we should allow others to abuse us or take advantage of us. Theologian David Lose writes, “If someone is repeatedly unkind or hurtful, let alone mean-spirited or violent, we may very well want to put some distance between us. But even that decision doesn’t completely define … our … relationship with the other person, only how we conduct that relationship. We may continue to love a child or sibling or friend who is abusive, but we don’t have to put up with the abusive behavior. Indeed, the most loving and forgiving thing to do may very well be to stop putting up with the behavior.”
Remember that this passage belongs to the one we heard last week about confronting one who has wronged us. Confrontation without forgiveness only serves to make a conflict worse, but confrontation is necessary in order for forgiveness to bring reconciliation and healing.
The point of Jesus’ parable isn’t to get us to increase our forgiveness quota. It’s to get us to stop counting altogether. Because forgiveness is part of love, and love can’t be counted. If Peter had asked Jesus “How many times should I love my neighbor?” we would think the question ridiculous. Love can’t be counted.
Neither can forgiveness, because forgiveness is really a decision to accept what you can’t change in the past, so that the past no longer has power over you. When you cannot forgive, the past puts you in prison. Forgiveness is the freedom to let go of the past, and walk into the future.
And isn’t that good news? Isn’t it worth sharing the good news that forgiveness, like God’s love, is without limits? The only thing God can’t forgive is an unwillingness to be forgiven, and it isn’t because God refuses to offer forgiveness, but because we have to be willing to accept the offer for it to go into effect. And when we accept Christ’s offer of forgiveness, it changes us into people who offer forgiveness to others.
Just like those servants who ratted out the ungrateful slave, others will spread the word, but this time, the news will be that we care, that we aren’t here to judge others, but to share God’s saving love with them. Instead of pointing out our wrongs, people will be talking about how forgiveness is in our DNA, and how it has changed our lives.
That’s how we reach others for Christ. Christ transforms us by his grace. We respond to that grace by offering grace. We answer God’s forgiveness by forgiving the people who have wronged us. And the word gets around.
Christ sets the barre high for us. Jesus doesn’t let us off the hook, because we’re all he’s got. Christ depends on us, as he reaches into this troubled, broken world of ours, to show people what it means to follow him into the Kingdom of God. We matter. And what we do, how we treat one another, matters. How else will people who are in pain, who need God, see the difference that following Christ can make in their lives? How else will they know that they matter to God? As disciples of Jesus Christ, we want to live like Jesus and love like Jesus. This means forgiving like Jesus.
It’s part of Discipleship 101, a basic course on learning to follow Christ. This life-long devotion to discipleship begins in love. God loves us so much he gave his own Son, so that by believing in him, we might have eternal life. Receiving that love and entering into a loving relationship with God forms the core of Christian discipleship. But it doesn’t end there.
Following Jesus means that we become something new. We become connected to Christ as members of his Body, the church, and we live out this life-changing faith in community with other believers. Loving God, loving each other, we sometimes mess up. We sometimes hurt each other. That’s why these first few weeks of Discipleship 101 have focused on reconciliation and forgiveness within the Body of Christ. It’s the starting point for growing deeper in faith and furthering Christ’s mission.
In the weeks to come, we will dig into the spiritual practices that help us become more obedient to Christ, and we will examine how that obedience makes us into mature Christians. We’ll look at worship and generosity as evidence of maturity. All of these elements of discipleship have no meaning, unless they are grounded in love. And this kind of Christ-centered love is bathed in forgiveness. Friends, believe the good news: In Jesus Christ, your sins are forgiven. So go, and do likewise, in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
 Luke 10:37
September 10, 2017
Watch a video of this sermon here.
School is in session and we are learning together how to become fully devoted followers of Jesus Christ. This is Discipleship 101. Last week, we identified a disciple as someone who lives like Jesus, loves like Jesus, and makes more disciples like Jesus did. We discovered how using our various gifts to build up the Body of Christ is really an act of love. Following Jesus means loving like Jesus.
But what happens when a brother or sister hurts us, or we have a sharp disagreement with someone? How do we maintain the lines of communication that can promote healing and unity within Christ’s kingdom here on earth? Continue reading
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? Continue reading
August 27, 2017
Someone once said, “The problem with living sacrifices is they keep crawling off the altar.” Maybe people cringe from offering themselves completely to God because they focus on what they will lose when they make a sacrifice. Maybe it’s because our idea of a sacrifice is pretty gory, and always fatal.
But Paul asks us to consider a different meaning for the word “sacrifice.” He calls us to remember that the root of this word is the same as the word “sacred.” Instead of thinking of a sacrifice as something we have to give up, or give away, or kill, Paul invites us to recognize that true sacrifice means setting apart something as sacred or holy. The thing we are to make holy is ourselves, our whole selves.
This week, we’re finishing up the series on Intersections: Where Faith Meets Life. We’ve wrestled with God, we’ve explored doubt and how science and scripture inform each other. Now it’s time to get down to the real nitty-gritty.
How can we, as devoted followers of Jesus Christ, live sacred, set apart lives, while still staying connected to the world in which we live? How do we live in the world without being assimilated by the world? How can the way we live our lives be so full of joy and peace, so different from worldly living, that our lives attract others to Jesus? Continue reading