Monday, March 20, 2017

Deny your self .... Say what??

I cannot exercise obedience to Jesus’ call to discipleship on my own power or by my own devices. I cannot on my own decide what step will bring me into greater faith. Only Jesus can decide that. The process is simple: He calls - I follow. That is why I become responsible for listening to him and doing as he says.

My faith is not developed or deepened as the result of something I do apart from Jesus’ call. Dietrich Bonhoeffer puts it this way: “If, for instance, we give away all our possessions, that act is not in itself the obedience Jesus demands.” In fact something like that might just be the opposite of genuine obedience to Jesus. By doing that, I might be choosing a way of life for myself based on some ideal I got into my head rather than what Jesus really is asking of me. In such a case, in the very act of giving away my possessions, I express allegiance to my own ideals, which may not be in tune with what Christ wants from me.

Recall the story of the rich young man in Luke’s gospel. In that case, Jesus did tell him to give all his possessions away. But that was because Jesus understood perfectly what was holding this man back from a full and unreserved commitment to the kingdom. For me, it just might be material possessions – but then it might be something totally different. Each of us must be able to examine ourselves carefully to discover what the one thing is that holds us back – our Achilles’ heel, as it were. Once we know that, then we can hear the voice of Christ calling out to us to leave it behind so that we can follow.  Jesus knows what that is – but we must discover for ourselves how we must deny our selves so that we can follow him. This might seem impossible – and it is if we try to do it on our own. But then our hopes lies in Jesus’ counsel to all potential disciples - for God everything is possible. He calls us to follow in obedience, and in our obedience, we find the grace we need to believe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Muscles don't grow without exercise

Like our muscles, we must exercise our faith for it to grow.

Here is the paradox: When I take my first step of faith, it places me in a position where greater faith becomes possible and actually becomes necessary. That first step emerges from my obedience to the call of Christ. By answering this call I learn to be faithful. If I refuse to follow where Jesus calls me, I never really learn how to believe. I stay stuck in the shallow end, trusting in myself and my own strength and wisdom. The repeated experience of my life shows me that this is an all too easily exhausted supply of resources.

The step of faith I take on hearing the call of Christ is not without consequence. What I need to realize is that taking that step is not the whole answer to my questions about my salvation. I cannot have it all figured out in the first step of the journey.

Discipleship is a journey of many such steps. Jesus continually pushes me into new situations where it becomes possible for me to rely upon and to trust Jesus more deeply. Each step leads me ultimately into deeper and deeper water. Pretty soon, it may seem that I am in over my head – but that is when real trust begins. Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it this way: “It is the impossible situation in which everything is staked solely on the word of Jesus.” He adds, “Had Levi [Matthew the Tax Collector] stayed at his post when Jesus said ‘Follow me,’ Jesus might have been his present help in time of trouble, but not the Lord of his whole life.”

When I think I can live life without faith, I soon discover how wrong I am. Fear overcomes. Insecurity abounds. But when I come to a faith that is founded on the understanding that Jesus is the Lord of everything, large and small in our lives, I find I can move forward because it no longer depends only on me.  

There is no magic formula: I am mistaken if I reduce faith to a set of steps that allows me simply to follow a set of rules rather than immerse myself in the presence of Jesus. Only when I am in the deep end, over my head, that I begin to trust in the Lord’s continuing presence. One thing I have learned - most of the time when I am struggling with faith, I am actually struggling with obedience, struggling to hang on rather than “let go and let God.” It is in obeying the call of Christ to follow where he leads that I find the faith I need.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Onto the water . . .

Recall the story about Peter “walking on water.” Peter was in a storm-tossed boat when he saw Jesus walking on the water. Peter thought that if Jesus would just call him, he, too, could to walk on water. And just then, Jesus calls out to him, but Peter still had to decide whether or not he would step out of the boat. Thinking Jesus might give him the ability to walk on water is one thing, but it was quite something else for Peter actually to trust that Jesus would give him the ability to do so. But the fact remains that the only way Peter can know is actually to step out of the boat. If his trust is well-placed, he will know for certain Jesus can do it. If his trust is ill-placed, then he will end up floundering in the water. The drama increases as Peter’s steps from the boat—the moment he put all his weight on the water—he entered a moment of no return. Either he would sink or would walk with Jesus.

Take note, however, that Peter didn’t jump out of the boat as soon as he saw Jesus -- he waited for Jesus to call him out of the boat. But once Jesus called him, Peter had to make a decision whether he would do what Jesus called him to do – he had to decide whether he would obey the call of Jesus. The demand for obedience to Jesus’ call put him in a place where his faith became real.

Jesus calls us to step into a new life—a life of faith. The call to become a disciple of Jesus – to follow Jesus – takes us out of the relative security of our respective boat and places us into a space of insecurity – the stormy waters of our lives. The miraculous thing about this is that what seems to the world to be a place of utter insecurity – relying totally on a God we cannot see – is actually a place of absolute security. If we remain in the boat because we feel secure there, we may fail to realize that the boat could sink in the storm and all would be lost. However, if we find the ability to “walk on water” because of our trust in Jesus, neither the boat nor the storm matter anymore. This letting go – the act of obedience to the call of Jesus – provides us with everything we really need in life rather than the things we think we need. With each step away from the boat, our trust in Jesus grows and we grow in our ability to do things far beyond our imagining. What boat do you live in? What are the things that you think bring you security? Where do you ultimately place your trust?

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Romantic or real?

For which of you, intending to build a tower, does not sit down first and count the cost, whether he has enough to finish it lest, after he has laid the foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, ‘This man began to build and was not able to finish’?  (Luke 14:28-30)

Jesus requires obedience of his disciples, but before we go off half-cocked following him, he wants us to stop for a moment and count the cost of our commitment – what discipleship may require of us in the real world.

Many disciples begin their journey alongside Jesus with a rather romantic view of what may be required. They are ready to volunteer to go anywhere, any time, but that romanticism quickly wanes when the commitment required becomes in the least bit inconvenient. The bottom line is that answering the call of Jesus to follow him means we give up any thought that there will be bits and pieces of our lives that can remain unaffected by our relationship with Jesus. We no longer have the choice to serve where we want in the way we want and then pat ourselves on the back for a job well done. We do not have the luxury of deciding what we will do or where we will go based primarily on whether or not we have enough resources in reserve. Can you imagine the apostle Paul deciding where to go next based on the cost of living in a particular city? Why should we be any different? Do we not serve the same Lord? Are we not empowered with the same Holy Spirit? Are the standards of discipleship different now than they were in the first century of the church? Are there “levels” or “tiers” of discipleship based on how much of the cost we are willing to bear?

In the romantic view of discipleship, we might imagine giving up everything for Jesus so that the world would admire our faith and the people we serve express their profound gratitude for our service. More likely, the actual result be scorn from a world that sees disciples as wasting their lives and resources to do things that have little or no ROI (return on investment). This sometimes runs contrary to what we think we deserve from God in exchange for our loyalty. But this is not the pattern of Jesus, who was ridiculed even as he was dying on the cross. The grace that we need to do whatever Jesus asks of us comes only through the power of God that is infused into us by the Holy Spirit. That power comes to us as we obey Jesus, regardless of circumstances or consequences.
So this Lent, to grow our discipleship, we need to reflect on this question: how much of our service to Jesus is based upon what is convenient and how much of it is based upon doing what Jesus tells us to do?

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The call of Jesus to follow him is a real and tangible command.

“Come, take up your cross, and follow me.”
The call of Jesus to follow him is a real and tangible command.
It is not the beginning of a philosophical discussion or the opening of a debate about doctrine. Jesus doesn’t present a plan for positive thinking or suggest seven simple steps to becoming his disciple. It is not merely an idea meant to guide us through difficult times in life as we do our best at doing the right thing.
Confessions of faith or intellectual discussions about biblical doctrine may help us better understand our commitment to Jesus, but the call of Jesus is not to any of these things. Because the call of Jesus is real, our response must be equally real. We must take concrete steps to follow him.
The only way we can follow the Teacher is to live out of a level of intimacy that can be sustained only by acknowledging Christ’s constant presence in our lives. He bids us to walk with him and work with him — watch how he does it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. He won’t lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on us. If we keep company with him we'll learn to live freely and lightly. I believe this is what he means when he says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:29-30).
“There is only one way of believing on Jesus Christ, and that is by leaving all and going with the incarnate Son of God,” says Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Thus, discipleship means we must give up any thought that there will be bits and pieces of our lives that can remain unaffected by our relationship with Jesus. In other words, we must be “all in.”
Here is the critical question we must ask to see if we following Jesus: How much of our service to Jesus is based upon what is convenient for us and how much of it is based upon us doing what Jesus is telling us to do? If we answer the latter, we might be in the right space.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Jesus doesn't want you to be a "good person"

Jesus doesn’t want you to be a good person.

When he calls you to follow him, he isn’t asking you to become nice and do your best at helping others. He isn’t telling us to do things so that we can feel good about the other things we may have screwed-up. Jesus’ call is a command for us to walk away from the way we “do” life so that we can follow him down a path or “way” that leads to the kingdom.

To follow Jesus, the first thing we have to let go of is the illusion that following Jesus is about becoming a good person. If that is what we think, then we will spend our lives trying to make ourselves good by following a list of rules that are, in the end, little more than self-righteous attempts to enter the kingdom on our own power. Jesus tells us clearly that this is not the way – that was why he often found problems with the Pharisees.

When we replace our relationship with Jesus with rules, the rules then take on an inordinate and unnatural heaviness. Doing so means that we are simply trying to impress Jesus, not follow in his pattern of living.  Scripture teaches us that Jesus was like in every way, except sin. No matter how hard we try, we cannot be exactly like Jesus. If we could, we wouldn’t need him. Moreover, it’s exhausting trying to be perfect – but that is often just what we try to do – and when we fail (which we ultimately will), we find ourselves farther away from God than we ever thought possible.

The sooner we stop trying to impress Jesus, the faster we can get about the business of following him – of being a true disciple. Once we realize that we cannot save ourselves and that we need Jesus, we can put down all our pretenses and allow the Spirit into our hearts – to start a process of change and transformation that is liberating, not burdensome.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Grace and Silver

If we asked most Christians about the meaning of grace, they’d probably tell us a good catechism answer: Grace is the unmerited favor of God. Not a bad answer, really, but it is one that is just abstract enough to distract us from the truly transformational nature of grace. Grace by its nature is powerful, audacious, and dangerous. I believe that if it ever got free reign in our churches, it would begin a transformation so rapid and radical that it would cause a sort of revolution.

So, what is grace, exactly?

An illustration from Les Miserables may help us better understand it. Most of us may know Les Mis as a broadway musical.  The musical is based, however, on Victor Hugo’s timeless tale about a peasant, Jean Valjean, who is sentenced to hard labor for stealing a loaf of bread. Released from prison he is offered sanctuary in the home of a priest for a short time. Even though Valjean had been treated with dignity for the first time in many years, he steals valuable silverware form the bishop’s residence. The next day, Valjean is brought back to the bishop’s home by the police, who tell the bishop that Valjean claimed that the silver was a gift. The police obviously expect the bishop to deny that he gave the silver to Valjean. Surprisingly, the bishop addresses Valjean, “Ah, there you are! I am glad to see you. But I gave you the candlesticks too, which are silver like the rest, and would bring two hundred francs. Why did you not take them along with your plates?” When he hands the candlesticks to Valjean, he privately tells him, ”Jean Valjean, you are my brother and no longer belong to evil, but to good. It is your soul that I am buying for you.” It’s a Christ-like moment that shows the cost of grace, both for the giver and the receiver. In turn, Valjean goes on to live a life of grace, eventually coming to support the poor and adopting a young orphan whom he must ransom out of servitude.

The grace bestowed by the bishop upon the thief transformed the thief’s heart – so much so, that rather than serving only himself, he became a generous servant to others.

God knows what we are and what we have done (individually and collectively) and yet, he loves us still. That love is showered on us even though we do not deserve it and have not earned it. Yet grace does cost something. Just as it cost the bishop his silver, it cost the Son of God everything he had to give – his very life. It differs from simple mercy in this: grace costs while mercy does not. Mercy says, “I forgive you, I won’t press charges” (and the solver is returned). Grace, on the other hand, goes the extra distance and says, “Not only won’t I press charges, I’ll pay for your rehab program.” (And the silver gives a thief a new start in life.)

That’s how grace can transform us – once we receive God's forgiveness, we allow our hearts to be changed, transformed - we repent. The only cost to us is for us to abandon our selfishness and begin to live a life patterned on the generous self-giving love of Jesus. This indicates the cost of discipleship.