Monday, February 11, 2013

The Radical Way

Luke 9:37-43a

"The denying ourselves and the taking up our cross, in the full extent of the expression, is not a thing of small concern: It is not expedient only, as are some of the circumstantials of religion; but it is absolutely, indispensably necessary, either to our becoming or continuing [to be] his disciples. It is absolutely necessary, in the very nature of the thing, to our coming after Him and following Him; insomuch that, as far as we do not practise it, we are not his disciples. If we do not continually deny ourselves, we do not learn of [Messiah], but of other masters. If we do not take up our cross daily, we do not come after Him, but after the world, or the prince of the world, or our own fleshly mind. If we are not walking in the way of the cross, we are not following Him; we are not treading in his steps; but going back from, or at least wide of, Him."  John Wesley, "Self-Denial"

In this sermon of "Self-Denial", John Wesley was specifically referring to Luke 9:23-24 in which Jesus says, "If anyone desires to come after Me, let him deny himself and take up his cross daily, and follow Me.  For whoever desires to save his own life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it."

Make no mistake.  This is not about the contemporary concept of "personal salvation" by merely "accepting Jesus Christ as your personal Lord and Savior", as popular in some traditions as this has become because it is theologically and biblically questionable whether "personal salvation" is even possible apart from intentional discipleship; that is, "daily" following Messiah.  And what Jesus is talking about and what John Wesley is emphasizing is discipleship; intentional, purposeful, sometimes radical, sometimes downright dangerous discipleship.  It is as literal as the Bible can actually be except for one small misunderstanding; the life we gain or lose is not necessarily nor exclusively being taught in terms of how we have come to understand "martyrdom" - not strictly speaking, anyway.  It is rather about a life devoted to Messiah rather than to self. 

We (that is, potential and active disciples) are called by Jesus to "deny ourselves daily" of our base instincts and selfish purposes.  We are to live our lives not according to our own desires or what society or our culture expects from us, but we are rather called to follow Jesus and go where He will lead us - never expecting or demanding even for a moment that He will somehow turn and follow us in the path we choose for ourselves.  This is NOT the role of a shepherd. 

This is the trickiest part of trying to understand what is happening with the disciples the day after the Transfiguration (Luke 9:37-43).  The disciples had been called upon to cast a demon from a boy, but they apparently failed to do so even though they had been empowered by our Lord to act in His behalf (Luke 9:1-5).  What went wrong?  What happened between the time of empowerment and the time called upon to fulfill that empowerment and put it to good use?    

Clearly the disciples were unable to cast this demon from this boy and it might have been easy for them to believe only the Lord to be powerful enough to deal with this particular demon, yet Jesus did not allow that they were incapable or that this task was perhaps just a little too big for them.  They were unable to do what they had been empowered to do because they had been unwilling to submit themselves fully to that empowerment.  The disciples were unable to cast this demon out because they were depending on their own resources - which, it turns out, they didn't have.  And they didn't have what they needed because, as Jesus suggests, there was a substantial "disconnect" by their own neglect; maybe their arrogance.

A detail that Luke leaves out in this confrontation is recorded in Matthew's and Mark's gospel.  Each account follows the Transfiguration and nearly every detail is present except for this one explanation from Jesus as to why the disciples were unable to cast this demon out: "This kind does not go out except by prayer and fasting" (Mt 17:21).  And Mark's gospel, in addition to the fasting and prayer prescription, gives this simple admonition: "If you can believe, all things are possible to him who believes" (Mark 9:23).

And this, I think, is where the real "litmus test" of discipleship rests because I might suggest many of us, maybe even most of us, have an intellectual willingness to acknowledge Jesus as Messiah because it is what we have been taught since Vacation Bible School; but to BELIEVE, to EMBRACE from the depth of one's soul (that is, to give oneself fully to the better part of who we truly are) means we have to dig much deeper.  I suspect many of us find ourselves in the same spiritual place as the father of the possessed child as recorded in Mark's gospel: "Lord, I believe; help my unbelief" (9:24); because, truly, when and where have any of us really been so spiritually pushed?  We WANT to believe but if we are unwilling to completely submit and let go of everything around us, how committed can we really claim to be?    

It is not enough to be "astounded at the greatness of God" as the crowd was after Jesus had cast the demon from the boy; that "astonishment" alone did not make them disciples.  It was not enough for the Israelites to be astounded at the Parting of the Red Sea and it was never enough for the Israelites to witness the power of the Lord when they watched water come from a rock or when they gathered manna every morning for each day's sustenance for the journey.  There is nothing "radical" about being astounded or amazed. 

I know from speaking with several that many have personally witnessed what they would call a "miracle", being amazed at the power of the Lord at work, but that's THE LORD'S POWER - not the "empowerment" He offers to His disciples.  That kind of empowerment, according to our Holy Father's Messiah, is going to require much more from us than intellectual acknowledgement, a profession of faith, a personal credo, or even a willingness to "be astounded".  No, we are going to have to go deeper.

It is as St. James points out in his epistle, it is not enough to "believe with fear and trembling as the demons do".  And it is not enough to mindlessly claim to be a Christian without the real mark and measure and intentional effort of discipleship.  Consider Jesus' admonition to His disciples after they had failed to cast out the demon.  Jesus was not amused at their failure; He seemed rather put out with them that they were incapable of acting in His behalf for His people!  "You faithless and perverse generation, how much longer must I be with you and bear with you?" 

Think of a parent, after showing a child time and time again how to do something and the child still can't quite get it?  Good grief, child, how many more times do I have to show you??  Each is being prepared for the day when the parent - or Jesus - will no longer be around to do the things which must be done!  But the child does not quite grasp because the child is not completely committed to the task.  Nor are the disciples; not enough to have done the necessary prep work BEFOREHAND - fasting and prayer.

The time was coming for the disciples, and is upon us now, when we will be called up to act in the name of Jesus on behalf of Jesus for those who cannot do for themselves!  Yet we should not be surprised that nothing happens by our hands if we lack the discipline of being truly, genuinely, and completely connected with our Lord through "prayer and fasting".  According to Jesus, it is the only way anything of any real consequence is going to happen.  Oh, we can go through the motions, of course, but we have learned to trust in modern medicine or the government to get the really "astounding" or "amazing" things done. 

It is not enough to simply acknowledge that our lives are pretty good just as they are.  This is a little too inwardly focused to really be "kingdom-oriented"; and "kingdom-oriented" is what disciples of Christ are called to be!  It is not about "me"; it never was.  To claim a "personal" salvation and then reject opportunities for discipleship calls into question what we actually, deep-in-the-soul, believe about our Lord and the mission of His Church to which disciples are called. 

The "radical way" of discipleship - when it stops being about "us" and our "personal" issues and "personal" blessings - is but a "fast and a prayer" away.  It is by "fasting and prayer" that the forces of this world will no longer have power and dominion over us because we are, by "fasting and prayer", completely submitting ourselves to our Lord and His Will and His Way ... and His POWER and His EMPOWERMENT! 

Maybe this is precisely why devotion to serious, self-sacrificing fasting and serious, contemplative prayer have gone largely by the wayside; we are afraid of what the Lord may actually call upon us to do, or we are unwilling to heed that call.  Or our faith, such as it is, is a little too "personal"; that is, without regard for anyone else.  That is NOT our Methodist heritage.  That is NOT discipleship.

If we want to serve Him, truly serve Him; Jesus is offering the means by which truly committing ourselves to Him is even possible: denying ourselves daily in fasting and serious prayer.  That is to say, deliberately setting aside time each day to put aside creature comforts and the burdens of work and connect only with Him - just as Jesus did the many times He went away to pray

Going without food for the modern Christian is not so radical.  Saying a prayer while engaged in some other activity is not so radical.  Serving our Lord fully and completely and being earnest in discipleship and the means of grace like fasting and prayer, Scripture study and worship of our Lord?  That is truly the "radical way".  And THAT is who and what we are called to be. 

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

No comments: