If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away---Henry David Thoreau

Sunday, July 15, 2012

The Essence of the Christian Life is Discipleship: Luke 9:23-25

*This sermon was preached at Zion Mennonite, Hubbard, OR. It is the second in a series "Anabaptist Core Convictions."

No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life---Hans Denck

Anabaptists of the sixteenth century, and most of those who yet share their rich and “radical” Christian tradition, were “theologians of praxis rather than reflection.”---Barry Callen, Radical Christianity

Mennonite church historian Harold Bender made one of the most significant modern contributions to defining Anabaptism with his presidential address to the American Society of Church History in 1942.  His classic statement on Anabaptism became known as the Anabaptist Vision. Although it would later be questioned as being too idealistic and for leaving out Anabaptists that diverged from his viewpoint , Bender’s Anabaptist Vision has provided a compelling synthesis of essential elements of Anabaptism.

Bender considered the first of his three concepts as the key element to the Anabaptist Vision.  His key element was discipleship, "a concept which meant the transformation of the entire way of life of the individual believer and of society so that it should be fashioned after the teachings and example of Christ..." According to Bender discipleship, or following in the way of Jesus, was understood to be central to living the Christian life.

Discipleship is all about following in the way of Jesus. Jesus came to people fishing on the shore, collecting taxes, eating dinner, walking along the roadside, worshipping in the synagogue and called them to follow him. Since he was a peripatetic or traveling teacher, his first disciples literally followed him. They learned his way by listening to his teachings and learning from Jesus as he modeled his lessons within everyday life as he traveled here and there.

For the early disciples following Jesus was a challenge in that they had to leave aside their vocations and families to travel beside Jesus with no possessions and to depend upon God and the good will and hospitality of those they encountered along the way.  This all required self-denial, laying aside personal needs and desires in order to go where Jesus went and learn from him.

Their journey was made even more difficult in that Jesus was on a journey to Jerusalem and the cross to confront the powers that be. The disciples’ journey with Jesus took them to a destination they did not imagine and would have just as soon avoided. They were challenged to live in the way of Jesus and face the cost of what that would mean. To follow Jesus meant to take upon oneself the consequences of living by the teachings of this wandering prophet and imitating his example. And Jesus’ life and teachings led him into conflict with religious and political leaders of his day and ultimately to death on a Roman cross.

And so, Jesus made it clear to his disciples what following him meant: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. Following Jesus was not an easy road to travel.  And even though  following Jesus for us will probably not mean literal crucifixion, a cross, it will mean following Jesus along his winding road to its ultimate end. Thus, “taking up one’s cross” represents whatever consequences we may encounter with our own personal struggles and in conflict with the powers that be on our journey with Christ and doing it all in the nonviolent way of Christ, represented by the cross.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, German theologian, leader of the Confessing Church, and opponent of Hitler, made clear the cost of discipleship by contrasting “cheap” and “costly grace.” Bonhoeffer said, "cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without church discipline. Communion without  confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ." Anabaptists would resonate with Bonhoeffer’s understanding of the cost of discipleship. Nochfolge Christi, following Christ, was at the center of Anabaptist faith. Harold Bender, in his Anabaptist Vision defined the essence of Anabaptism in this way:  The great word of the Anabaptists was not “faith” as it was with the reformers, but “following” (nachfolge Christi). The Anabaptists had faith, but their emphasis was upon living out their faith in life. The Anabaptists believed that discipleship was the essence of the Christian life. 

In this light we can better understand the saying of Anabaptist Hans Denck I quoted last Sunday: No one can truly know Christ unless they follow him in life. Discipleship is more than having knowledge of Christ. Discipleship is more than believing in Jesus with the heart and confessing him with the mouth. It is more than “getting saved and going to heaven.” It is more than obeying a rule book, even if it is the Bible. It is more than going to church on Sunday or observing the customs and habits of a church tradition. Discipleship is a journey, a sometimes difficult and costly journey. It is all about following Jesus in our day and time, ethically, nonviolently, and no matter what the consequences may be.

In this sense discipleship is a creative journey of following the living Christ in our lives today. It is more than a literal, “wooden” imitation of Jesus’ first century teachings and actions. We cannot simply read the story of Jesus healing the blind and go out on our streets and try to do the very same thing. Discipleship requires an act of translation; translating the life of Jesus into our day and time and then “living the translation.”  Discipleship calls for an imaginative application of his way of life then to our way of life now.

And as imaginative as this question might be, discipleship is more than simply asking ourselves: What would Jesus do?  Surprisingly enough, Evangelicals like quoting this question of Charles Sheldon, even though they are probably unaware that he was a Christian socialist! The letters of the question, WWJD, have been mass produced into arm bracelets for young Evangelicals to wear as a form of Christian identity. That seems a bit odd, since Sheldon was a Congregational Church minister and part of the Social Gospel movement. He proposed the question WWJD in a series of sermons, then in his novel In His Steps, as a way to face moral decisions, a way to discern how to “follow in the way of Jesus” in our own time, particularly regarding social issues. Walter Rauschenbusch, leader of the Social Gospel movement, attributed his inspiration for this movement to Sheldon’s novel.

Following Jesus goes beyond asking a question about how to imitate Christ in the face of moral and social issues. Discipleship calls for following the moves, impulses, callings, and Spirit of the living Christ through experience, Scripture, traditions, and practices of the church applied to our time and context. That requires creative imagination, openness, and a process for discerning the leading of the Spirit of Christ today.

So, discipleship is more than believing in the heart and confessing Jesus Christ with the mouth.  It is more than “being saved by grace and going to heaven.” Discipleship is more than going to church on Sunday mornings and obeying church rules or following its customs and habits. It is more than practicing a rote repetition of Jesus words and acts. Discipleship is an imaginative, Spirit-led journey of following in the way of Christ today in our personal lives, our believing communities, and within the world around us.

Discipleship has to do with our personal spiritual journey.  Jesus said that if we want to be a disciple, we must take up our cross.  It is a personal, cruciform journey. For the early disciples literally following Jesus was an essential part of becoming one of his students, since he was a travelling teacher. One had to personally choose to follow Jesus.

Following Jesus today is a personal spiritual journey. Daily we set off on this journey as a student apprentice or disciple of Jesus. A student apprentice learns both by gaining knowledge and by engaging in practices. As Jesus studied the Torah, prayed in the synagogue and in solitary places, observed life around him, developed relationships, welcomed the stranger and marginalized, healed the sick, liberated the captive, proclaimed good news, and witnessed to the ways of God’s kingdom, he grew in wisdom and practice.

So, as Jesus’ first disciples had to personally and daily decide to follow Jesus, we personally and daily choose to follow in his way. Discipleship calls us to personally engage in practices of reading the scriptures, gathering for worship, prayer and meditation, discerning God’s will, showing hospitality to strangers and immigrants, resisting the powers that oppress, and proclaiming in word and deed God’s coming reign.  These are classic practices that engage us in following in Christ’s path.

Discipleship involves engaging in communal practices. Anabaptism views discipleship not merely as a personal spiritual journey, but a communal practice of the church.  Western Christianity, with its emphasis upon individualism, has distorted the faith and its practice by turning it into personal and private matter. It’s between me and God. With this mindset the church in Western culture becomes a building where I, as an individual believer, gather to personally give thanks to my personal Savior, for my personal salvation confessing my personal faith, and worshiping my personal God. 

This very personal and individualistic understanding says, “We must not hold one another accountable for how we live, that’s a private matter. We don’t want others intruding into our personal faith and practice.” Church is a place where we individually gather to study, pray, worship God, meet friends, and go home to our private lives. This is a complete distortion of both discipleship and the church and definitely not an Anabaptist perspective.

Church is ecclesia, a people called out from the world, bound together by Christ, building up one another, holding one another accountable for our spiritual growth, encouraging one another in the use of our gifts, sharing in common ministries and practices, and sent into the world in mission and service.

The Christian life is not a solo performance. It takes an orchestra. Christian life is not my personal canoe I paddle downstream. It is a large row boat with everyone engaging together in the rowing upstream against the grain of our human nature and our culture and society. Discipleship is best performed in a covenant community. We are bound together to assist one another on the journey of discipleship; to encourage, build up, challenge, call to accountability, and pray for one another. Discipleship does not say “everyone for themselves.” But rather, discipleship says, “We are all in this together!”

That is why the corporate practices of the church are so important. We need each other to follow in the way of Christ. We need mutual care, charity, and economic justice when some cannot survive the financial strains of Capitalism and the free market society. We need small support groups in the church to help us resist peer pressure or cultural conformity that sucks us into materialism and consumerism. We need church ministries that challenge us to connect with the poor, the oppressed, the marginalized, people we don’t connect with on our own. We need the church’s social ministries to help us connect with cross-cultural and other multi-racial groups, and to practice peace and social justice, when we would just as soon go home to our nice families, comfortable homes, and just be good Christian neighbors. We need the church in order be disciples, to fully and radically follow in the way of Jesus.

Discipleship leads us to practice hospitality, serve others, and engage in peace, justice, and reconciliation. More broadly I could say that discipleship leads to living in the way of Jesus. I could have also have said “discipleship leads to a lifestyle of healing, caring for the marginalized and outcast, confronting the powers that oppress people. But, my focus in this teaching sermon is to highlight  the way discipleship is manifest within the Anabaptist tradition and our particular congregation. The practices of discipleship I have listed are particularly important to Anabaptism and to Zion Mennonite. These are contained in Zion’s new vision statement, which we will soon be sharing with the congregation: hospitality, service to others, and peace, justice, and reconciliation.

Hospitality has to do with welcoming the stranger among us. It is as old as Abraham welcoming three strangers by the oaks of Mamre and as new as an invitation for lunch to a first time visitor at Zion Mennonite. Jesus and his disciples depended upon the hospitality of strangers for their mission. Jesus practiced hospitality toward the stranger, marginalized, sick, unclean, women, and social outcasts. As an essential practice of the early church, hospitality was critical for the growth of the church as they welcomed new people into their house churches. It is one of four key elements our Worship Commission is emphasizing for Zion’s worship life. Practicing hospitality is a way of following Jesus.

Jesus’s life was about serving others as a way of serving God. Jesus made this clear when at the Last Supper he grabbed a towel, bent down, and washed the dusty feet of his own disciples. Discipleship, or following in the way of Jesus, necessarily entails serving others. This is a hallmark of Anabaptist and Mennonite faith and practice. Mennonite Central Committee’s work of community development, hunger relief, community and global service epitomizes this Anabaptist emphasis. These are not simply humanitarian efforts, but a corporate form of Christian discipleship. As MCC’s motto states, what they do they do it “In the name of Christ.” This emphasis upon discipleship as serving others is also seen in other organizations and practices of mutual aid, disaster service, and community service opportunities. Serving others in the name of Christ reflects this Anabaptist conviction of walking in the way of Christ today.

Peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation are crucial ways of practicing discipleship. At times I have classified peacemaking as a distinct Anabaptist core conviction in and of itself, since it has come to signify a key distinctive of the Anabaptist tradition.

I believe that this is one area of discipleship that marks Anabaptism as peculiarly distinctive among the various Christian traditions. My use of terms needs some explanation. First, I use peacemaking instead of the classic Mennonite term nonresistance. Peacemaking is more than a passive stance of not retaliating against violence received. Peacemaking goes beyond the old traditional Mennonite perspective of simply avoiding personal violence, military service or occupations that engage in violent force and separating ourselves from those that do. Neither is Anabaptist peacemaking  simply “passivism,” a passive opposition to war.

If passive non-resistance is all that traditional Mennonites understand by its “peace stance,” then we have a long way to go in understanding the full implications of this significant arena of discipleship. On the other hand, Christian peacemaking is not just about actively engaging in liberal political efforts to end war. Christian peacemaking is a practice of discipleship, a way of following Jesus Christ.

Second, I believe that peace is inextricably linked to justice. Justice is not about vengeance, retribution, or “giving people what they deserve.” Justice is about rectifying wrongs, making things right, correcting inequities. This may not have been the way most early Anabaptists or Mennonites thought of nonresistance, but in our modern world “there is no peace without justice.”  Remember, I am not simply talking about convictions of historic 16th century Anabaptism or an ethnic Mennonite tradition, but rather a living Anabaptist tradition of faith and practice that we must translate into our time and context. To do justice is to follow in the way of Christ.

I am convinced that the Anabaptist way of following Christ in our world today will necessarily expand to include judicial, economic, gender, racial, and global justice. Why? Because these are significant issues every good liberal should be concerned about? No. Because these are ways of following Christ in our broken, violent, and divided world today!

Third, justice calls for reconciliation.  When human relations have been broken by violence, war, injustice, oppression, conflict, denial of human rights, not only is there a need for justice, but a means by which conflicted parties can be brought together and relationships restored. The creative, groundbreaking, global work of Mennonites like John Paul Lederach in conciliation and Howard Zehr in restorative justice exemplify this modern Anabaptist impulse toward the work of reconciliation. Following Christ in our world today will mean engaging in the work of reconciliation.

Peacemaking, justice, and reconciliation grow out of the desire to follow in the way of Christ. I am convinced that these are not peripheral issues that Christians can take or leave, but are essential to the gospel of Jesus Christ. And these are issues we cannot simply engage in on our own. They require a corporate body, a new people, an alternative community to enact these practices, which are ways of following Christ in our world today.

Discipleship, following in the way of Christ, is an Anabaptist core conviction. It’s as simple as responding to the voice that says, “Come follow me.” And it’s as hard as denying yourself and taking up your cross daily and following Christ.

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