Why do we exist? Why is there a church? I mean both, why is there a Queen Street Baptist Church and why is there a Christian Church? What is our purpose and what is God’s will for us?
The Great Commission as found in Matthew 28:19 makes it clear that our mission is to make disciples. This is where our effort needs to be put.
But before we can make disciples, we need to make sure that we are disciples.
You might be thinking, “Of course, I’m a disciple. I’ve attend church for decades and have sat on committees and given money.” Of all of those things I am thankful. But that does not necessarily mean that you are a disciple.
Let me tell you about a conversation I had with my mother some years ago. I frequently talk about becoming a Christian in my early twenties, an experience that took place in 1993. One Sunday after I mentioned this in church, my mother pulled me aside and asked me why I said such things. She raised me as a Christian, brought me to church, had me baptized and confirmed. It is true that I was actively involved in my home church. I read Scripture in church, sang in the choir, was an usher, an alter boy, helped serve communion and so on. I do not brush aside all of those experiences as unimportant. They were vital parts of my spiritual journey. But however it may have looked on the outside, I can assure you that I was not a disciple of Jesus. I was active in my church but I was not committed to Jesus. While it is great to have both of those, they are not the same thing.
So what is discipleship and what does it look like? The passage that we are going to look at is the classic presentation of what true discipleship is. But I will warn you, it is not easy.
The teaching that Jesus gives in this passage is not just to the small group that called themselves disciples, but it includes them. Jesus gives this teaching to all. From time to time, there would be people who would indicate interest in following Jesus. But what kind of following did Jesus want? He definitely didn’t want people just physically following him from town to town. If someone was to follow, they needed to do it as a true disciple.
The first aspect of discipleship that Jesus presents is that of self-denial. The image that Jesus uses that of taking up the cross.
Too many people today think that Christianity is something that you can just tag on to the rest of your life. You want to be a well-rounded individual. You walk for physical health, read books for intellectual health and so you might as well go to church for spiritual health.
But that is not Jesus’ idea of Christian discipleship. The people who first heard Jesus’ teaching, would not have to use as much imagination as we do to understand his imagery. Many of them had seen people take up their cross. When a person was condemned to death, they were forced to carry the cross beam from where they were judged to where they would be executed. Often they would have had a severe beating beforehand, which would make the journey even more example. When Jesus eventually is condemned, we see that he was not physically strong enough to carry the cross and a bystander was brought in to carry it for him.
The point of this is not that following Jesus is so terrible that it is like the torture before the execution. The point is that the activity of carrying the cross is not just a hobby or a minor part of their life. If the prisoner is bored, they can’t ask the guards for a change of activity. If they thought the beam was too heavy, they couldn’t ask for a lighter one. If the path was ugly, they couldn’t ask for a nicer route. Everything about carrying the cross was about self-denial. There was nothing about it that was about making life comfortable or having our wishes met.
We sing the song What a Friend We Have in Jesus, and there is some truth in that. But the basic confession of the early church was that Jesus is Lord. When we say Jesus is Lord, we cannot look at Jesus and pick and choose what parts of following him are agreeable to us. Following Jesus is like carrying the cross, you have to be all in. This means that our first priority cannot be our own comfort and pleasure.
I believe that the church suffers from what I call “prosperity gospel lite.” The prosperity gospel teaches that God wants us all healthy and wealthy and if we claim it in faith, it is ours. Most of us would deny that form of the prosperity gospel. But there is something that I call prosperity gospel lite. This is the common assumption that if we are followers of Jesus, God is obligated to make our life reasonably comfortable. We night think God owes us a mansion, but we might think we shouldn’t lose our jobs or bounce a cheque. We might not think that God will heal everyone, but we might think we should be able to dodge serious diseases and accidents. What is the question we ask when something goes wrong? “Why did God allow this to happen?” What is implicit in that question is that God owes us an easy life. But that is something that the Bible does not promise. Our promise is that God will never forsake us in our suffering.
Following Jesus means denying self and letting God’s will be our primary concern.
Take Up the Cross Daily
One of the traditions that became a part of the evangelical church in the last couple of hundred years is the altar call. An altar call is when the preacher offers a passionate call for people to give themselves to Jesus and people respond by coming to the altar and committing in prayer. There is nothing wrong with this, even if it is a relatively recent innovation of the church. It is good to make that kind of commitment to Jesus.
The danger that can come with a focus on the altar call is that we might see discipleship as being a one time event. We tell God in prayer that we want to be a disciple and then we are done.
I will say that our conversion happens once. There is a time when we accept in faith what Jesus did on the cross and we are adopted into the family of God. This is something not to be repeated.
But notice what Jesus says here about discipleship. Jesus doesn’t just say that we have to take up our cross, but that we need to take up our cross daily.
We may be a child of God no matter how we feel, but we must choose daily to live as a disciple. It is not enough to rely on the activity we did in the past. We might have a great past of telling people about Jesus, helping people in need, praying for hours, but who are we today?
What I need to make clear is that this is not pressure to achieve enough activity each day to earn God’s love. In fact it is not about activity, at least not at the heart. It is about each day choosing to be a disciple of Jesus, choosing to take up that cross and choosing to submit to God’s will. Although having a passionate love for God is important, being a disciple is not subject to our emotions. Some days we are going to wake up and being a disciple is not going to sound very attractive. On those days, just take up our cross. Can you imagine a condemned person in the first century telling the Romans they did not feel like carrying their cross because they were having an off day?
This may sound difficult that we have to make this choice every day. But the truth is that it is so much better than being a slave to our emotions. If we only live our life according to how we feel, we will in the long run have less joy than if we have chosen to be a disciple.
So we have to deny self and choose to take up our cross daily. But what are we replacing self with and what are we choosing do? The third part of discipleship is the actual following of Jesus.
Disciples of Jesus are ones who learn from him. That is what disciples do. The term Christian means a follower of Christ.
What we need to do is learn about who Jesus is, what he taught and what he expects of us. There is no short cut. Our starting point should not be what we think is a moral or right life but what Jesus wants us to do.
There is a common theme in discipleship studies that discipleship is much more than learning information. I agree with that, but I would also say that we need to start somewhere. Surveys repeatedly demonstrate that even within the church there is a diminishing engagement with the Bible. How can we begin to follow Jesus if we don’t know who he is or what he wants?
This requires so much more than just listening to sermons on Sunday mornings. I would like to suggest that we need sermons plus small group studies plus personal devotional study. If you look at the amount of time we put to other things that we value, taking time to understand Jesus through the Scriptures is more than reasonable.
We need to learn but we also need to respond. Listen to this passage that was written by Jesus’ half-brother James.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says. Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do. (James 1:22-25)
Being a disciple is so much more than a gatherer of biblical knowledge. It is about following Jesus with every part of us, including what we do.
This can sound like it is really difficult to be a disciple. But let me put all of this into the larger context. We do not become Christians by our works. It is purely by the grace of God. We reach out in faith and we are adopted as sons and daughters of God. We do not have to achieve are certain level of activity to remain in that family.
Nor is being a disciple of Jesus a joyless life. While I would never say it is easy living as a disciple (Jesus would not have used the image of the cross if it was), I will say that it tremendously rewarding. I have far more joy in my life now as a disciple of Jesus than I ever did before I became a Christian and had the “freedom” to live any way I wanted. I find life to be so much more fulfilling as a follower of Jesus.
What we need to see in this passage is that discipleship is a high calling. We should not look at it as an impossible goal that we could never attain, but rather as a challenge for us to embrace the high calling and to follow Jesus with every part of our being.