Sermon 31 August 2014: “On Discipleship”

Text: Matthew 16:21-28

I can only imagine that’s how Peter and the disciples felt when they heard Jesus talking about having to go to Jerusalem, suffer, be killed, and he’d raise up three days later. They were already at odds with the Jewish elders and chief priest for everything Jesus had said, but they still followed. This Jesus guy was different…he healed people, did miracles no one else could, and man, the guy could preach, what a message! The disciples followed him all over…and they even believed, Peter even confessed, that Jesus might indeed be the “Messiah, the Son of the living God.” But to go back into Jerusalem, into the “hornet’s nest” so to speak…and all this talk about suffering and death – no wonder Peter took Jesus aside and scolded him….maybe more of a reminder:

“We still think you’re the Messiah Jesus, but this….this is not what we signed up for.”

Kelly and I were flying back from our vacation time in Minnesota this past spring, and I sat next to this guy, probably had to have been in his 40’s or early 50’s. And it turns out he was one of those guys who like to talk to people on the plane….well, of course, I was nice at first – small talk isn’t that bad – and we talked a little bit about ourselves….he was an Environmental Engineer coming out to do inspections in Hampton Roads….and then the dreaded question came out: “So, what do you do?” I’ve learned that the words “I’m a Lutheran pastor” usually get two responses, “One, what’s a Lutheran?” or two, I ended up hearing people’s entire confession and life story.

Well, the latter happened for me. And I have to admit, as this man told his story, there were points where I simply thought: “Why me? I didn’t sign up for this.”

What does it mean to be a disciple, to follow Jesus? The gospel text today gives what a lot of people think is a clear command from Jesus: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” And what we’ve all probably heard along the way is that what Jesus means is that Christian discipleship, following Jesus is about doing “hard things.” Be more religious. Do more at church. Be willing to suffer for your faith, like Jesus.

But I think that kind of mentality towards discipleship puts us in a really big pickle: discipleship, a life of following Jesus either becomes a burden, a royal pain in the ass, or it becomes a way to make ourselves righteous “do-gooders” who pat ourselves on the back for what good Christians we are…but either way, it becomes about us, and our ability to do – or not do, or we can’t do – the “hard thing.”

Yesterday, I got a call in the morning….a call informing me that Foy Greenwood, [a long-time member of Holy Communion] who’s been a resident of Dominion Village nursing home for some time now….has been placed on hospice. And so I jumped in my truck and drove out to see Foy in the afternoon…..and we talked. And while he struggled to get the words out, his voice weak and tired, he said something that simply struck me:
He talked about how much he loves his church, and misses coming regularly. He talked about how he wasn’t always Lutheran – he was raised and had attended a Baptist church for a long time before coming to Holy Communion. And he said to me, this part crystal clear: “Now I have no problem with Baptists….the people in that church were lovely people. But Holy Communion is MY church….I know and love the people there and they know and love me…..”

Now here’s the thing: these two conversations, my chat on the plane and my chat with Foy really aren’t different. Because this guy on the plane had questions – questions around the struggles of being divorced and trying to be a good father to his teenage daughter who is struggling with issues that a lot of teenage girls face: image issues, identity, and depression. And Foy had a question for me, “How is my church? I heard times are tough….are new people coming?”

And I wonder, does the call to discipleship, to follow Jesus, rather than a challenge to do “hard things,” start with a question: “For what will it profit them if they gain the world but forfeit their life?”

And I thought about this more…..Discipleship isn’t about doing “hard things” but rather, it’s about asking ourselves the question of what’s truly life-giving….what in this life leads to an abundant life of hope and possibility….and what in this life kills and forfeits that.

And I think that makes discipleship primarily about questions of time and space. What do we invest our time in? I think about those two visits…..and while I can’t make sense how or why, I think it was time well invested – because a space was created. It was a space where two people had their humanity recognized. A space where for a moment, they didn’t feel alone. A space where they felt belonging. A space where Christ was truly present in the time we shared with one another.

Jesus isn’t challenging us to a life of doing “hard things.” Jesus is simply calling us to follow him. That is what Christ’s suffering, death, and resurrection is about….Christ has entered into humanity – our humanity – so deeply because he loves us, and to reveal to us the truth of where abundant life is found….He is calling us to follow him deeply into the lives of others – to laugh, cry, celebrate, suffer, and hope with one another. Jesus is calling us to follow him into a life of time and space….where human beings are valued and loved so much that things like compassion and forgiveness and grace and belonging are more than just nice ideas or concepts in our heads. They’re things we share and experience together in real, tangible ways….in incarnational ways.

What does it mean to be a disciple, to follow Jesus? My hope for you, is that as you ponder this question about life for yourself, you do so knowing that you follow the One who is faithful to us for all time, and that in the promise of His death and resurrection, a space- a home – always exists for you in His love and grace. Amen.

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