Monday, July 28, 2014

Making disciples: the attributes

Deuteronomy 4:1-8
2 Peter 2:1-9
Luke 16:10-17

Last week Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds questioned whether we could - or should - know a disciple or a potential disciple on sight.  In our determination to keep out those less-than-desirable cultural influences, it is likely we would do much more harm than good not only to disciples who are in early spiritual development but also to future disciples who might be interested to know more about our Holy Father and His mercy in Christ - until they discover Christians are not always disciples themselves.

The mission of the Church, however, is not to spot disciples!  As Christians baptized into the Church and the Eternal Covenant we cannot escape the "Great Commission" from Jesus; our mission to "make disciples".  But to "make disciples", as pointed out last time, is pretty broad and somewhat vague.  So if we have no real concept of what a disciple is, or what discipleship is supposed to look like, how can we know we have succeeded in "making disciples"? 

Is our success measured by receiving new members, restoring fallen-away members, celebrating professions of faith, or increasing our giving?  Yes, yes, yes ... and then some!  As much as these are good and necessary practices of discipleship, trying to quantify discipleship must be approached carefully because "quantity" suggests a goal which can be reached.  I don't think discipleship can be defined strictly by such quantitative terms because discipleship must never be measured in terms of how we can know we're "finished" - because we never will be.

The challenge, however, cannot be brushed aside.  A fellow pastor from another denomination was sharing some thoughts not long ago, general notions, nothing special or specific.  He was telling me about a Bible study he leads on a university campus in the town where he serves, and he mentioned this one particular young woman who never missed a study session.  She faithfully studied the lessons, she was enthusiastic, and she was always prepared for the study sessions with all kinds of questions - not to challenge but for clarity's sake.  Clearly she had a desire to learn more about The Lord and was willing to put in the time and effort.  However, the brother pastor pointed out she was not yet "saved".

I asked brother pastor how he could know something of such depth and spiritual intimacy about another person and what difference it might make.  Understand he comes from a tradition almost completely foreign to the tradition I grew up in, the tradition I pretty much ascribe to even now as a United Methodist.  I'm pretty sure I know what he meant, but I began wondering if it is possible to know what a "saved" person looks like as opposed to a disciple - or if there can even be a difference.  Jesus said, "If you hold to My teachings, you are my disciples" (John 8:31).  This seems to suggest to us that if we faithfully read and then put into practice The Lord's "teachings", we are disciples in the truest sense.

The distinguishing difference, I think, is in what a person says (the so-called 'sinner's prayer' or an appropriate Creed or an officially prescribed Confessional Prayer) and what a person does (study the Scriptures in community with other disciples, for instance). 

We assume too much in Christianity, and there is a certain level of arrogance that comes with these assumptions.  So when we assume anything, we take too much for granted.  We assume others know we are "Christians" because we are "good people" - at least by our own standards.  We forget there are scores of persons in our own neighborhoods who have heard of Christianity in a very general sense, but they know very little about the religion apart from the behavior and practices of known Christians.  We always hope they see only the good stuff - and there is much good stuff to see! - but we cannot ignore the reality that they see, and probably notice more, the less-than-holy stuff. 

The goodness they need to see, the goodness that offers hope to a hopeless world goes far beyond just being a "good ol' boy" or a fine, upstanding Christian woman, both of which are based strictly on subjective regional, cultural, or individual standards.  I have met and have known some decent, moral atheists, agnostics, and Muslims who are clearly not "disciples" of Jesus. 

Based on their culturally subjective moral standards and charitable hearts (that which I could clearly see) of these non-Christians, however, I have a hard time believing these good and decent folks have flat-out rejected Messiah Jesus or His moral teachings.  In fact I think sometimes these folks on the "outside" can see what is "inside" more clearly than we who have been inside most of our lives.  So what they see, perhaps, is what they are rejecting. 

Jesus did indeed tell the Pharisees in Luke's Gospel that "God knows your hearts" (Luke 16:15) even though they were clearly putting on outward airs, but Jesus also warned His disciples about false prophets who will be "known by their fruits" (Mt 7:16); that is, whether they bless or curse by their actions.  The Lord does indeed know what is within one's heart but since the "abundance of the heart comes from the mouth" (Luke 6:45), it is more difficult than we imagine to pull the wool over another person's eyes.

Moses spoke to Israel: "You must observe [The Lord's statutes and ordinances] diligently, for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples who ... will say, 'Surely this great [people of The Lord] is a wise and discerning people!"  (Deut 4:6)   

Peter made a clear distinction between Lot and the people of Sodom and Gomorrah as a matter of which human practices are "godly" and which are not (2 Peter 2:7-8).  Jesus also points out that human choices can and will be a determining factor in what will be entrusted to us later, that we can make a choice of what or Whom we will love and devote ourselves to - as a matter of our own choices - in keeping with the Moral Law or in violation of that Divine Law (Luke 16:10-17).

Even though Scripture study is a very good start for a disciple (in fact, maybe it is the only real start - otherwise, how would they know whom they are following?), discipleship is much more than simply reading the Bible just as justification before The Lord must mean more to us than memorization of a few select Bible verses, a particular prayer, or a creed - or just being a "good person".  All these practices have their places in spiritual development but if they never become innate to our being as the people of The Lord, we cannot claim them as "attributes"; characteristics of whom we are or choose to be.

Practices, good or bad, are habits; they are things we do.  These can be good practices, as the many means of grace are good and necessary toward growing in faith and in love; but unless or until these practices bear fruit worthy of the Kingdom, they remain mere practices with no discernable value. 

An attribute, on the other hand, is a characteristic of our being determined by the choices we make.  Discipleship, then, is in deliberately choosing intentional development of these attributes for the purpose of learning to emulate Jesus, to become more and more Christ-like with every thought and with every choice, and taking nothing for granted - ESPECIALLY The Lord's mercy! 

When we learn to take Divine Mercy for granted, we take the Church, the Lord, our neighbors, our spouses, and yes, even those we perceive as enemies for granted.  We assume too much as "given" when in reality, we have spiritual choices to make every single day; choices between what pleases us against what pleases the Lord.  These choices are not always synonymous; "for what is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15).

In order to "make disciples", then, we must first understand discipleship on terms well established by Jesus.  The enduring mercy of The Lord can and will justify us before The Lord, but only we can choose discipleship - not to earn Divine Favor but to make this Mercy known.  All this comes from a heart flowing with gratitude, a grateful heart that assumes nothing and therefore takes nothing for granted.  It is as I have shared about prayer and being in mission: we cannot know how important mercy really is until we practice mercy ourselves.

It is often said we do not really appreciate something until that something is no longer available to us.  Well, it is a little hard to think our Lord would withdraw His favor from His people - yet even conventional (human) wisdom can acknowledge how easily we take all that is good and right for granted.  For it is truly as Job had observed: "The Lord gives and the Lord takes away" (1:21).

Before we can begin to make disciples (and we must), we must first become disciples ourselves.  Unlike American Express, church membership has no "privilege" except that of serving our Lord by serving our neighbors.  We can find it within ourselves to do this with glad hearts, however, only when we remember our Lord having served us ("I came not to be served, but to serve", Matthew 20:28).  And He has - by His own attributes of mercy.  So must we - by embracing His attributes as our own.  Amen.  

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