St Michael’s 12th June 11
Disciple or Apprentice?
How many people here watch the Apprentice? I am not a big fan of reality TV shows and I have to confess I have never managed to watch a whole episode. But my understanding of the show is that, in the original format, a group of contestants came together to compete for the chance to work with Lord Sugar. Each week they carried out a task and at the end one of them was fired, until eventually in the last episode there was one person left standing and they heard the magic words “You’re hired!”. Is that about right?
Over the past few weeks at St Michael’s we have been thinking about the whole issue of discipleship. We have seen how a disciple is someone who recognises Jesus’ authority, who seeks to follow Him and aims to live for Him. The word “disciple” itself is in fact simply the Latin word for “learner” and if we consider ourselves a disciple of Jesus, it implies that we have embarked on a life-long process of learning from Jesus as Lord and Master and Saviour through prayer, through reading the Bible, through meeting together in worship.
So the question I want to ask this morning is this: in what ways is our Christian life as a disciple different from, or similar to, being an apprentice?
Adopted not Hired
For some people their whole Christian life is based on the hope that one day they will, so to speak, hear the magic words, “You’re hired!”. They see it as their duty to carry out the tasks they have been given to the best of their ability, so that somehow they might earn God’s approval. If you ask them whether they think they are going to get into heaven, you get an answer like, “Well, I would like to think I’ve done enough” or “I hope God will accept me”. It’s a view of God which is quite common even amongst experienced or long-standing church members, that if we work hard, and maybe serve on the right committees, or do enough good in the community, that our Master will take us on and call us His own.
But – and this is important – it’s not a view of God which is compatible with what we find in Scripture. Scripture makes it clear that God chooses us not because of anything we have done, or any favour we might earn from Him, but quite simply because He loves us, and adopts us into His family. In other words, our Christian life begins not when we decide to take Jesus’ teaching seriously and try to put it into practice. It begins when we recognise His call upon our life and place our faith and trust in Him. And why is this so important? Because it turns the Christian life from religion based on rules and regulation to a relationship with God as our Heavenly Father through His Son Jesus Christ. The one produces anxiety and a constant striving to do more, the other peace and assurance that, no matter what happens, we belong to God and in a very real sense, like the prodigal son, have come home.
Now of course it’s very easy to criticise those who turn the Christian life into mere dead religion, but maybe one reason why it happens comes from a very simple and very understandable question: how do I know God has accepted me? Yes, I’ve heard many times that I need to believe and trust in Jesus, and yes, I’ve tried to respond. But how I know deep down in my heart I have been forgiven, I’ve been reconciled, I’ve been adopted into God’s family?
The short answer is: because you have been given the gift of the Holy Spirit. It is Jesus’ clear and direct promise that at the point we ask Him to be Lord of our life He will come and live in our hearts by the Holy Spirit. Indeed in our reading from Romans Paul goes further and states quite clearly if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, he does not belong to Christ. Believing in Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit, are in fact, two sides to the same coin. As we come to Jesus and recognise His authority over our life, so Jesus comes to us and fills us with His Holy Spirit as a sign and witness that we now belong to Him.
Unfortunately I am aware that all too often the work of the Holy Spirit is widely misunderstood and sometimes folk can be afraid or confused as to what the Holy Spirit actually does. They may associate the work of the Holy Spirit with spectacular gifts or people who go round claiming to be “born again”. They may think they haven’t themselves received the Holy Spirit because they haven’t experienced a miraculous change in their lives or don’t have a certain special gift. But that is to miss the point of the Holy Spirit’s work. The Holy Spirit is a seal of ownership, a confirmation that we are now adopted as children of our loving Heavenly Father. That’s why Paul writes in verse 15: For you did not receive a spirit that makes you a slave again to fear, but you received the Spirit of sonship. And by him we cry, “Abba, Father”.
So while the Holy Spirit may bring about a dramatic conversion, or may equip us with a certain, unexpected gift, that is not His primary role. His primary role is to give us the confidence that no matter what happens, no matter what we go through, we belong to God, and we have an unshakeable bond that can never, ever be broken.
Learning to obey, and why we find it hard
We are adopted, not hired, and the Holy Spirit gives us proof of that wonderful fact. And yet that is not the end of the story. The gospel message does not end with an appeal to believe in Jesus, but continues with the constant challenge to follow Him. And in that sense there is a similarity between being a disciple and being an apprentice. Because just as an apprentice will devote his or her self to learning from their master and acquiring the necessary skills, so a disciple should devote his or her self to learning from Jesus and discovering His will for their lives.
That’s why over the past couple of weeks we’ve been looking at the two great commands of Jesus, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbour as yourself. Now of course in one sense it’s very easy to understand what these commands mean. They are not particularly difficult words which require a lot of head-scratching to puzzle out their meaning. But the actual process of learning to apply them to our daily lives is a lifelong process. When we hear the summary of the law at the beginning of our communion service our response is quite rightly Amen. Lord, have mercy. I don’t think anyone can ever reach a point where they can say they have these two commands taped and there is nothing more to learn.
So why then is our obedience so difficult? First of all, although we now belong to Jesus, we are still involved in a conflict between our old fallen self and our new life in Christ. This is what Paul is talking about when he contrasts the sinful nature with life in the Spirit. Because the plain fact is, we still love so many other things more than the Lord our God. When push comes to shove, the most important thing in life is not our relationship with God but our family or our home or our work or our hobby. And let me add, it’s as true for a church leader wearing a dog collar as anybody else. To place your confidence not in your Heavenly Father but how well others think of you, or how many people turn up on a Sunday, or what the bishop asks you to do. There is this constant pull of the sinful nature trying to drag us away from Jesus and telling us there are more important things to do than follow Him.
And of course the conflict we experience is not just an internal one, between our old and our new natures. For if we are really set on obeying Jesus’ teaching, if we want to lead a radical new life of love, then we will come up against others who live by a very different set of priorities and who may treat us badly because we call ourselves Christians. So when Paul writes in verse 17 about sharing in Christ’s sufferings he isn’t talking about a vague possibility or a theoretical danger. He knew from his own personal experience the cost of following Jesus, and the many times He had been in acute hardship. And in our gospel reading Jesus warns His followers quite explicitly what we may expect – arrest, trial and even death.
Now for us in the West we haven’t experienced this level of persecution for over 1500 years. But all the evidence it suggests that we are starting to come under increasing pressure because we choose to follow Jesus. At the moment it’s a few high-profile court cases here and there. But as the values of our society move more and more away from their Christian foundations, so those who love Jesus above all else will find themselves in a position of great vulnerability.
How the Holy Spirit helps us
This is why we need to learn to keep on living in the power and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Because first of all it is the Holy Spirit alone who is able to bring about the change that we need in our fallen human nature. Paul is quite clear in our reading in verse 13: if by the Spirit you put to death the misdeeds of the body, you will live. Self-improvement, or a dose of religion, or good works, can’t defeat the power of sin. But the Holy Spirit can. Sometimes dramatically, more often gradually, step by step, almost imperceptibly.
And one of the most important things we need to learn to do as disciples of Jesus is to actually let the Holy Spirit do His work. When you are challenged by a passage of Scripture, take up that challenge. When you are praying and something is laid on your heart, do something about it. And if you’re not sure whether it is the Holy Spirit speaking to you, then find the counsel of wise and experienced Christians who can help you discern His call. Let’s not forget that Paul wrote his letter not to a group of individuals, but to a church, where it was expected folk would help one another discover the will and good purposes of God.
What, then, about this question of suffering? Well, Jesus doesn’t offer much in the way of cheap comfort in our gospel reading, or even provide assurance we will be protected and shielded from harm. But what He does do is give an amazing promise: “When you are brought before synagogues, rulers and authorities, do not worry about how you will defend yourselves or what you will say, for the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what you should say.” (Luke 12:11-12). And from time of Stephen onwards, Christian history is full of men and women who have borne witness to the truth of Jesus’ words. Read their biographies; watch films about them, and you will learn just how much the Holy Spirit can and does equip us in our hour of need.
Is it worth it?
There’s much, much more to be said about the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives day by day. But you may be wondering if all this talk of conflict and suffering and persecution is really something you want to get involved with, whether it is frankly worth all the hassle and aggravation to be known as a follower of Jesus. If that’s the case for you, then listen to these words of Paul from Romans 8, verse 11: And if the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you, he who raised Christ from the dead will also give life to your mortal bodies through his Spirit, who lives in you.
Because the Holy Spirit is nothing less than the resurrection power of God, who gives us new life now, and will one day raise us up with Christ to be with Him forever. Yes, we may have all kinds of battles with our old self, and, yes, we may experience all kinds of suffering. But if we know and love Jesus, we will have the Holy Spirit in us constantly reminding us that there is a reality beyond this world and pointing us to a glorious future where there is no more pain or sorrow or sickness or even death. For the glorious truth that Paul sets out in this passage is not only that we are children of living God, but heirs – heirs of God and co-heirs of Christ (verse17). And when you begin to realise that you have – as Peter writes in 1 Pet 1:4 – an inheritance that never perish, spoil or fade you begin to realise that, yes, following Jesus is well worth the effort, that indeed there can be nothing more important or precious than following Him because one day you will the inheritance of God’s kingdom and the blessing of being in His presence forever.
So how to sum up all I’ve been saying so far this morning? In brief, that the Christian life begins, continues and ends with the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit who confirms our adoption as God’s children, who helps us overcome our sinful nature and aids us in our suffering, and who guarantees our future life with Christ.
OK, let’s get practical
So let me ask you: what is your experience of the Holy Spirit? It might be that no-one has told you before of the connection between following Jesus and receiving the Holy Spirit. If so, then today is an opportunity to ask the Holy Spirit to come once and for all into your life. It might be that your experience of the Holy Spirit is a distant memory, and you have been living on these memories for longer than you care to remember. If so, then today is an opportunity to cry out to the living God to renew and refresh you. Or you may feel cut off from the presence of God by some circumstance of life or some sin. If so, then all you need to do is humbly confess your weakness and ask for a new sense of peace through Jesus Christ.
At the end of the Great Commission which is the basis of our current sermon series Jesus makes this promise: I am with always, to the very end of the age. The Holy Spirit isn’t just a gift given to the early church at Pentecost, or a gift we experience at our conversion. The Holy Spirit is a gift for each and every one of us always, no matter where we stand before Jesus this morning. Claim the Holy Spirit for yourself; learn to live in His power and His grace, and be open to what He wants to do for you and through you, that you might worthily serve Jesus our Lord and Master and Saviour all your days. For His name’s sake. Amen.