“iDisciple – Part 1”
Bible Text: 1 Corinthinthians 13:1-3 | Preacher: Rev. Mike Putnam | [WHAT FOLLOWS IS THE FULL PRINTED TEXT OF TODAY’S SERMON. TO LISTEN TO AN AUDIO RECORDING, CLICK THE LITTLE BLACK ARROW ABOVE THE WORD “WHAT.”]
In 1967, The Beatles released a simple song that encapsulated the hopes of that age: “All you need is love / Love is all you need.” It was an instant smash hit.
In the song, we find a grain of truth that speaks to the human condition. Not only do we all love, but we love to be loved. Love is magnetic. It draws us in. But it also sends us out. It gives us our marching orders, for better or worse.
Saint Augustine, long before he was saint anything, once recalled his life before faith in Jesus, saying, “What is it that delighted me? Only loving and being loved.” Well, what could possibly be wrong with that? But, Augustine acknowledged that in those days, his loves were “disordered.” He sought and gave love in all the wrong ways and in all the wrong places.
Well, this morning we are beginning a new sermon series. I’ve been agonizing over its content for months. I ordered a bunch of new books, watched a bunch of programs, and even listened to other preacher’s sermons on the topic, trying to clarify my own thinking about it.
“Discipleship.” What is it? Is it even relevant today? How does one do it? Can it be taught? And, is it something that is desirable? Would you say that you are a disciple? Do you want to be?
There’s something happening in the Western World. It’s been happening for a long time actually, but we’re just now reaching the tipping point.
If you look across this great land of ours, dotting the landscape, in big cities, in small towns, and even in places where there isn’t even so much as a corner store, you will find churches. Tall ones and small ones, busy ones and quiet ones. Ones that bear the name Catholic, United, Baptist, or Anglican.
But for the last few decades something has been happening. At first, no one really noticed, but then everyone noticed. We soldiered on, hoping something would change. But now, we’ve reached the tipping point. Because, over the next few years, thousands of churches are going to close. Over the last few years, The United Church has been closing a church a week. But it’s possible we’ll soon be closing a church a day.
What’s happening? Well, most Canadians who identify as loosely Christian are becoming less so – they’re frequently choosing “none of the above” rather than “Christian” when surveyed about their beliefs. But why?
Well, Ed Stetzer, who holds the Billy Graham Chair of Church, Mission, and Evangelism at Wheaton College, says, “The Western World is becoming more secular – not because committed Christians are becoming non-Christian, but because “nominal Christians” are becoming “nones.”
What does that mean? Well Stetzer, in his research has identified three types of people who call themselves Christian. The first are “Cultural Christians.” These people self-identify as Christian because they aren’t something else or were born in a historically Christian country. Although they don’t attend church or hold to any particular Christian beliefs, they’re pretty sure their grandma went to church once, so…
Another type is “Congregational Christians.” These are folks who attend a particular church from time to time. But you wouldn’t describe them as having a vibrant faith. Their name may be on the roll of a church somewhere, but their faith is not a defining feature of who they are.
The third type is “Convictional Christians.” These people are decidedly more religious. They go to church regularly, live values that align with Christianity, choose their spouses based on their faith and actively raise their children within the Christian worldview.
But this whole Western Christian landscape is changing. What was once pretty equally split, amongst these types, is no longer. “Convictional Christians” (those who live out their faith actively in every aspect of their lives) are actually holding strong. But the “Cultural Christians” are a pretty small group these days, and “Congregational Christians” are disappearing at a great rate. …And their congregations are disappearing with them…
So, what does it all mean? Well, to me, it means that the church has failed to help our once primarily Christian culture to truly understand what it means to follow Jesus. That is, we’re a little fuzzy about what it means to be a disciple. And when we’re fuzzy, our faith isn’t very attractional. People aren’t attracted to the church because they can’t figure out what its about.
I’m convinced, that if we really understood it, if we really practiced it, the church would be irresistible to a culture that is frantically seeking authentic love.
But here’s my confession: I really struggled with this. In my first attempt at drafting this “iDisciple” sermon series I included several spiritual practices. Discipleship is about praying, and reading scripture, and listening for the voice of God. Another draft of the series was all about doing good things like serving in our community and living out our faith in practical ways.
But I realized as I was working on these, that they really sounded like more ways to be busy! Yet more things to do and feel guilty about not doing enough. They also reminded me a lot of New Year’s resolutions, which sound good at the outset, but never seem to amount to very much.
If you think about the first disciples, the ones Jesus called by name, they weren’t known for certain practices or habits. They weren’t really known for anything. They just traipsed along behind Jesus for a few years, watching him heal, and teach and love, mostly being confused about it all, until suddenly, one Sunday morning, standing outside an empty tomb, they got it.
So, eventually it dawned on me (A little later than I would have liked). Discipleship is really all about one thing. It’s about learning to love in the particular way of Jesus Christ. “All you need is love.”
But here’s the problem: what does that mean? Because that simple statement can be, and has been, twisted to mean all kinds of things.
You often hear people say things like, “All religions are basically the same – they all teach love.” But is that true? And which version of love do they teach? And if it is true, why not shed all those pesky religious particularities and just celebrate love? (Whatever that is). Unless, maybe those particularities matter…
Or, as we so often see in our broken old world, love can be contorted and stretched to mean just about anything. So often we are enticed down the rabbit whole chasing after love only to find some cheap facsimile which lures us in disastrous directions.
Our culture’s obsession with pornographic sexuality for example – a substitute for authentic love, no doubt.
Or maybe even our culture’s fixation on “inclusiveness.” Which is no doubt well intentioned, but often turns out to be yet another narrow-minded intolerant worldview that demands full and complete adherence to a dogma of its own.
But that’s not love. At least it’s not the kind of love our Lord and Saviour came to show us. To be a disciple of Jesus has to be something quite distinct from the culture’s muddled attempts at it.
I appreciate Eugene Peterson’s thoughts on discipleship. He says, “There’s a great market today for religious experience. Many have adopted the lifestyle of a tourist and only want the high points. But a disciple is not a tourist and your pastor is not your tour guide.”
He goes on to say, “Disciples are people who spend their lives apprenticed to our master, Jesus Christ. We are in a growing-learning-love relationship, always. We are people who spend our lives going someplace, going to God, and whose path for getting there is the way, Jesus Christ.”
I think that’s a beautiful way of expressing it – but no wonder “convictional Christianity” has become something of a niche market. In a world of tourists looking for “just the high points,” the thought of a lifetime project of becoming a disciple seems kinda weird.
Well, this morning we have begun to work our way through the famous “love chapter,” found in Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. Chances are you are already familiar with this passage. Maybe it was read at your wedding. Maybe you even have it framed somewhere or printed on a mug or something.
I think this is a great passage to read at a wedding, but of course, Paul didn’t write it for weddings. He wrote it for disciples. He wrote it for a particular community of believers who are a little fuzzy about what it means to be Christian.
Because Corinthians are convinced that following Jesus is all about acquiring special gifts of the Spirit (Charismata). You’re not a real Christian unless you have one of these gifts: miraculous powers, healing powers, great wisdom or knowledge, or speaking in tongues. In Corinth, these things have become the panicle of discipleship.
But Paul is writing them to say, “Yes, spiritual gifts are wonderful, but it’s not the point.” “Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Do all have gifts of healing? Do all speak in tongues? Do all interpret?” to which the obvious answer is “no.” “Then eagerly desire the greater gifts,” Paul says.
Greater gifts? What could be greater than healing? What could be more helpful than the ability to perform miracles? What could be niftier than speaking in tongues?
Paul says, “I’ll show you.” And what he shows them is what it really means to follow Jesus. It’s not about having your name on the roll at your local church. It’s not even about serving on a committee. It’s not even about how much money you raised for Morning Star Mission or which church gives the most to the Mission and Service Fund.
It’s about love. But what does that really mean? Well, that’s what the next three weeks will be all about.
But for today, perhaps it’s enough to recognize that, like the Christians in Corinth, we too have been given gifts. Some of you have the gift of being handy and the ability to build or repair things, some have the gift for compassion and a heart for the poor, while others have gifts for music or art, still others are gifted in hospitality and you can make a mean butter tart. Others have gifts of special knowledge, leadership or a sharp mind.
As Christians, we believe you have been given these gifts, by God, so that you can kneel before another in love and say, “I’m on a journey, by God’s grace, and that journey has brought me to you, so that I can practice using my gifts in love. So that God can make me a better disciple.”
You see, Christians believe that our faith doesn’t get us closer to God – God, in Jesus has already come close to us. That’s what Christmas was all about. And our faith doesn’t get us deeper inside ourselves – discovering our true selves – we already know who we are – people beloved by God and in need of God’s forgiving grace and healing. Who we are is disciples, sent – sent to be God reflectors of God’s love.
It’s so simple. It’s so beautiful. I suspect if we could be a little clearer about it, we might just need to put an addition on the sanctuary.
But more importantly, I suspect if we could make it our single-minded mission, we might really find what it means to be in a love relationship with the creator of the universe, and our little corner of the world would be a very different place.
Thanks be to God, Amen.