The marks of a disciple

St Michael’s and St Barnabas 26th August 2012

Reading – Luke 6:12-26

So the Olympics are over. The gold medals have been won. World records have been broken, history books rewritten. I may be proven wrong, but I doubt we shall ever see as successful a competition for British athletes ever again. After all the doubts and the worries beforehand, these past few weeks in London really have been the greatest show on earth, and there have been so memories to treasure and to store up.

At times the levels of skill and endurance have been simply breathtaking. Someone like Usain Bolt winning the 100 metres can make his performance on the track virtually effortless. In his semi-final heat he appeared almost to stroll over the line – even though he covered the distance in only 9.87 seconds. Yet the reality is, even for a gold medal winner, participation in the Olympics is only the result of years and years of preparation. The end result is like the tip of an iceberg, with all the preparation hidden from view and often not fully appreciated.

So let’s think for a moment how a raw youngster turns into a true Olympian. What are the qualities that are needed to turn a promising young sportsperson into a top athlete? Does anybody have any suggestions?

I would suggest that first of all, that boy out on the athletic track or that girl swimming in the pool needs to have, if not raw talent, then certainly potential. I’ve lost track of how many interviews we’ve had with coaches up and down the country who spotted something special at an early age in a medal winner of today. Of course talent doesn’t in itself guarantee success. That talent has to be identified, to be nurtured, to be allowed to develop to its full extent.

And then alongside talent that youngster also needs a passion and an enthusiasm for what they are doing. Many youngsters fall by the wayside because although they have the skill, they don’t really love what they are doing. When the roar of the crowd and the excitement at finishing first no longer moves you, it’s time to move on. If you are simply going through the motions, you will soon be found out.

And then you also need discipline and determination. To get up for a training session at 4.30am not just when you feel like it or after you’ve had an early night, but every single day. To turn down the opportunity to study at university or get the job you’ve always wanted. Even sometimes to sacrifice friendships and family life so you can reach the one goal – it’s not easy. But in the end only that discipline helps you reach your ultimate dream of success – Olympic gold.

A medal winner needs talent, passion and discipline. What about a disciple of Jesus Christ?

Well, some people believe that Jesus only calls special people, people with a particular talent, say, for preaching or for leading worship or for evangelism. After all, when the church talks about vocation, isn’t that what it means? An appeal for vocations is generally understood as a challenge to consider whether you have received a call to some form of ordained ministry like a vicar or to a licensed ministry like a reader. Now if there is someone here this morning who feels this kind of calling is for them, then I would challenge you do something about it this morning.

But let’s be clear – anyone who is a disciple of Jesus Christ has been called by Him. Jesus isn’t interested in just a few special people with the upfront gifts, as if there are two classes of Christians – those with a vocation, and those who just sit in the pews. Listen very carefully to the start of our reading from Luke’s gospel this morning:

One of those days Jesus went out to a mountainside to pray, and spent the night praying to God. When morning came, he called his disciples to him and chose twelve of them, whom he also designated apostles…

Jesus could have just taken the twelve to one side, and told them in private they were chosen as apostles. Or he could have sent the other disciples away and broken the news to those who were left. But no, He called all His disciples to Himself and in their presence chose twelve apostles. Why did He do this?

I believe the answer was to show that He had called all His followers into His service. Yes, some of them would receive particular training for leadership and positions of authority as apostles. But Jesus wanted to show that the tasks the other disciples performed would be equally as valuable. So alongside the apostles we find in Luke 8:3 the group of women who served Jesus by supporting Him out of their own means. In Luke chapter 10 we find the 72 who are also trained and sent out in evangelism and healing ministry. No doubt there were others whose contribution was never recorded, but who also played a crucial part in spreading the good news of Christ’s kingdom. These unknown saints were also there when the apostles were selected. Jesus called them to Himself to affirm that the role they played was also important.

It seems to me that this whole idea of calling has been confused by two different issues. First of all, we believe and trust in Jesus because Jesus calls us. The Christian faith is all about God’s invitation to share in eternal life because of Jesus’ death on the cross for us. And that call is for everyone. God sees in each one of us the potential to become His child and a member of His family the church. But how that call works out in our daily life depends on the gift and ministry that Jesus gives us. Someone may be gifted in administration. Someone may be gifted in teaching. Someone may have the gift of welcoming the stranger and making them a cup of tea. Our worth in God’s sight does not depend, however, on what that gift and ministry may be. We are called by God’s grace and mercy, and what counts is that we use whatever gift we may have in His service out of love and gratitude to Him.

So are you using your gift? Maybe the answer to that question depends on whether you have a passion and an enthusiasm for Jesus. From my own experience it seems to me that when people are in love with Jesus, when their relationship with Him is growing and deepening, it’s then all kinds of gifts and ministries emerge. But when that love grows dull or weak, then people no longer offer themselves as willingly.

Now of course you cannot manufacture a real passion for Jesus. No matter how many worship songs are sung, or how many eloquent sermons are preached, the heart is only really touched when once again you come before Jesus and realise who He truly is.

This may be why in today’s reading after the disciples are called they go with Jesus down to a level place where all kinds of miracles take place. As verses 18-19 tell us: Those troubled by evil spirits were cured, and the people all tried to touch him, because power was coming from him and healing them all. Now I have no idea what exactly was going on, but I know I would have loved to be there. Jesus was visibly changing lives before people’s eyes. His Holy Spirit was reaching into broken lives, and damaged minds, and causing instant, permanent transformation.

And these verses remind us – if we need a reminder this morning – that we worship a powerful Saviour to whom all authority on heaven and earth has been given. So if following this Saviour has become for you a chore, if you are here today out of duty or because it’s your turn on the rota, then may I suggest you need to look again at who Jesus is. Take time to reflect on these miracles we’re looking at in Luke’s gospel, and as you do so, dare to ask the same Holy Spirit to touch and transform your attitude to Jesus. Because Jesus doesn’t want followers who are lukewarm about Him, who think of Him as maybe a good idea, or an emotional support when times are tough. He wants people who are on fire for Him, who live in the power of the Holy Spirit and have a story of lives changed by His healing presence. And, yes, He even wants you.

So here are the first disciples. They have been called by Jesus. They have witnessed His amazing power to heal. They have heard His wonderful words of wisdom. You can imagine how excited and keyed up they must have been by the whole experience. But now imagine their shock when in the midst of all these spectacular events Jesus turns to look at them and says:

Blessed are you who are poor… Blessed are you who are hungry now… Blessed are you who weep now… Blessed are you when men hate you

What’s going on? Is Jesus saying it is good to be poor or to hunger or weep? And in any case how does any of this teaching relate to wonderful miracles that have just taken place?

Well, maybe the way to answer these questions is to think just who was being healed. The people who came to Jesus were not the rich and powerful people who governed the country. They were quite content with their positions of influence and prestige. Nor were they the teachers of the law and the Pharisees who controlled the religious life of the nation. They were quite content with their own codes and rituals, and indeed didn’t want anyone to interfere with them. No, the people who came to Jesus were those who quite literally had nothing: the poor who couldn’t afford medical treatment, the destitute who went hungry, the broken-hearted who were seeking comfort.

And the powerful lesson Jesus wanted to teach His disciples is that we can learn so much from this desire to seek after Him. You see, the problem with all the comfort and material wealth we enjoy is that it can dull and dampen our thirst for God. We no longer feel that we need Him, or have to rely on Him. When we are Mr or Mrs Popular with the house of our dreams, and a wide circle of friends, and a good job, why should we bother with following a crucified Jesus who demands that we our take up our cross and follow Him? The answer, of course, is that the good things we have in this life are given to us by a good and generous God and one day we will have to give an account to Him who is judge of the living and the dead.

So when Jesus says: woe to you who are rich… Woe to you who are well fed now… Woe to you who laugh now… woe to you when all men speak well of you He is not necessarily telling us to give up everything we possess. Of course, there are some who have interpreted our Saviour’s command in this way and we would do well to learn from their example. But He is reminding us of the danger of letting other things get in the way of our discipleship.

If I think for a moment about those who have left the church over the years, in most cases it hasn’t been because they have suddenly woken up one morning and had a crisis of faith, or ended up having a big disagreement over some doctrine or other. But their story is something like this: they have come to Jesus at some low point in their life. They have heard Jesus’ call to follow Him and they have responded in faith. They may well have experienced some miraculous event in their lives or seen some wonderful answer to prayer. They may even have exercised some ministry in the church for a time. But then life gradually settles down again. They find work again, and of course the long hours and the training eat into their free time. They pick up on their old friends who are happy they are back in the swing of things.

For a while they carry on attending church – at least, when they can. They pray and read the Bible – at least, when all the other demands on their time allow. However, bit by bit, these habits begin to fall by the wayside. Yes, they remain profoundly grateful for all Jesus back then when they were at their lowest. They would still call themselves Christians. But they no longer have that passion and desire to seek after Jesus, and to find out His will for their lives.

Brothers and sisters, if we are to be effective disciples of Jesus, we need not only to know we are called by Him. We need not only to have a passion for Him. We need also to maintain discipline in every season of life of seeking after Him. If an athlete can get up at 4.30 every morning and forego late nights, what is it that stops us from seeking Jesus’ will day by day? As we heard at the beginning of our reading, Jesus – despite all the demands of His ministry, despite His tiredness and the growing spiritual opposition – went out on a mountainside to pray. We may think it was easy for Jesus to go about His Father’s business. It was not. He constantly spent time in prayer making sure He was carrying out the will of Him who sent Him. And we can be sure Luke records this detail of Jesus’ life as a lesson for us.

So today may I challenge to seek out your own mountainside – a quiet place between you and God. Lay aside that long list of jobs to do. Turn off the TV at the wall. Put your mobile on silent. Allow yourself to be silent, to be still before the Lord. Listen to Jesus and His call upon your life. Bring before Him your deepest needs and desires, and allow yourself to experience His healing power. And above all else, commit yourself to following Him, not just for a brief season in your life, not just when He seems near to you, but this month, this year, and forever. And if you don’t know how to do this, or if all this seems strange and new to you, then don’t be afraid to ask. There is no greater thing that anyone can do than learn to follow Jesus and respond to His call.

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