Sunday, September 19, 2010

The Cost of Discipleship

Texts: Philemon 1:1-21; Luke 14:25-33

DID YOU KNOW WHAT YOU were getting into when you became a Christian? Probably you were baptised as a baby. Most likely you went through Confirmation Class as a young teenager. Maybe you came to faith as an adult.  However it was, there was probably some event or process in your life when you chose to identify yourself as a follower of Jesus Christ. Did you sit down and consider the consequences? Or was being a Christian just the ordinary logical thing for someone in your time and place to be?

Jesus our Lord says we should count the cost before we commit to being His disciple. Now, on the divine level, from God's point of view, we have no choice at all. He has elected us from all eternity to be His, as it says in Ephesians 1:4 and 5: "For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Christ Jesus, in accordance with his pleasure and will." His grace calls us to faith without our being able to resist it, as it says in John 6:37: "All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away." His providence, not our works, keeps us bound to Christ for all eternity, as we read in John 6:39: "And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given to me, but raise them up at the last day." But God works out His sovereign will for our salvation on the level of this world. He has us experience it from our human point of view. To those who find the idea of following Jesus attractive, our Lord says, "Take a good look at what believing in Me will mean. Come into it with your eyes open. Count the cost."

Luke says in Chapter 14, verse 25 that large crowds were following Jesus. He was preaching the kingdom of God, something all good Jews were looking forward to, especially in those days with the Romans occupying Israel. The kingdom of God would mean joy and feasting and power, with the saints of God-- that is, the Jews-- supreme over the nations when the Messiah came to rule the world. Jesus of Nazareth was talking and acting more like the Messiah all the time; who wouldn't want to follow him around and be there when He was crowned and king and started handing out the benefits?

In the same way, thousands, even millions of people nowadays are attracted to Jesus and Christianity by what they think it can offer them. Even people who call themselves Evangelicals. At the worst you have the Health-and-Wealth prosperity gospel types who believe that it's God's will that all Christians should be rolling in mansions and Rolls-Royces, you just need to exercise the power of faith. More subtly, and, I think, more dangerously, you have the people who think that being a Christian means discovering "God's wonderful purpose for your life" and learning the formula for having "your best life now." For them, Christian preaching means talks on improving your marriage and how to raise well-adjusted kids. As a lady at a church I used to pastor once said, "We want something nice to take home with us."

Jesus is adamant: None of that is what being His disciple means. He turns to the following crowds (and by His Spirit He turns to us) and says, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters— yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."

So much for "gentle Jesus, meek and mild"! Does Jesus literally want us to violate God's commandments about honoring and taking care of our families? Is He ordering us to go against every law of human affection? Some cults would have us think so. But no. He is using a form of speech called hyperbole, because He wants to shock the multitudes-- and us-- out of our idolatrous visions of what being a disciple of Jesus is all about. Yes, you are to love and honor and cherish your father, your mother, your spouse, your children, your siblings. But compared to the love you have for God in Christ, that love should amount to hate. Yes, you are to nourish and protect your own body and not recklessly put yourself in the way of disease and danger. But compared to the new life Jesus offers, this mortal life should mean nothing to you at all. And if your love for your dearest friends and relations makes you compromise your commitment to Jesus, you cannot be His disciple. If you would rather deny Him than be persecuted or tortured or killed for the sake of the Gospel of Christ and Him crucified, you cannot be His.

Count the cost, you who would more than His follower be. Discipleship entails self-discipline. Jesus says, "And anyone who does not carry his cross and follow me cannot be my disciple." Not follow Him around like groupies trailing after a rock band, but walk in His footsteps as He toils up the hill of Calvary. A cross always meant death to those Jews following Jesus. Once the Roman soldier had laid that cross on you, you were going to die. Not all of Jesus' disciples have been called to undergo actual crucifixion or some other death for His sake. But all of us He calls to be dead to this world, dead to our own desires, dead to even the best things this life has to offer, and alive only to His mastership and His will.

What is the cost of being Jesus' disciple? Simply, everything. Everything we have and everything we are. Nothing can be allowed to take precedence of Him.

Jesus hammers the point home by giving us three parables or figures: the builder, the weak king, and salt.

I've gradually been renovating my house for the last seven years. The other day I got a call from a contractor wondering if I was ready to redo my bathroom. No. Not now. The funds just aren't there. Jesus speaks of a man who wants to build a tower. If he's sensible, he'll make the same sort of deliberations. A half-finished tower is really visible and will bring a lot of derision. In the same way, anyone who wants a part in the kingdom of God has to be aware that everyone will be looking at his life expecting it to reflect what they know of Christ and His lordship. Living the Christian life will not bring ease and earthly fulfillment; it'll take everything we've got.

Then Jesus talks about a king. A king with the bigger force is coming at this king's little city-state: what should he do? For attacks are sure to come at us from the world, the flesh, and the devil when we identify ourselves with the cause of Christ. Will we be ready to fight the good fight of the faith, or will we just cave in?

John Calvin, in his Commentary on the Gospels, writes this: "The statements which our Lord makes to this effect must not be applied . . . as if we were to enter into any compromise with our spiritual foe, when our strength and resources fail. It would be idle to treat parables as applying in every minute point to the matter in hand. But our Lord simply means that we ought to be so well prepared, as not to be taken by surprise for want of a proper defense, or basely to turn our backs . . . The design of Christ, therefore, is to warn his followers to bear the cross, that they may prepare themselves with courage." Troubles will come even though we are Christians! Troubles will come because we are Christians! Jesus says we have to give up everything to be His disciple, including the foolish idea that being His will mean everything will be easy and safe and secure with us.

People of Muslim background who become Christians experience this firsthand. For them, letting "goods and kindred go, this mortal life also" is not just a line in a hymn, it's a daily reality. It comes with being Christ's disciple. They know what giving up everything to be Jesus' disciple is all about. If we live our lives thinking belonging to Christ is supposed to be easy, we'll compromise with the world, the flesh, and the devil the first time a real difficulty presents itself.

And then there is the image of salt. Jesus, and Luke, assume that His hearers will know that the figurative salt that preserves and purifies in this present age is the word of God and the people of God who take that word into the world. Jesus says, "Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again?" Physical salt, sodium chloride, can lose its saltiness by being so mixed in with other elements that it becomes corrupted and impure. Or the salts can be leached out of it by outside influences. Either way, it's no good even for the compost heap. Indeed, it'd do the soil a lot of damage if you put it in.

So if our lives are preaching a false, corrupted gospel, or if we corrupt and falsify the gospel to give an excuse for our unChristlike lives, we are like that worthless salt. No, we have to be ready to stand up for the pure faith once for all delivered to the saints.

What is the cost of discipleship? Taking up our cross in total surrender to our Lord Jesus Christ. It costs us everything we have and everything we are.

But I've noticed: Often we can accept the possibility of physical martyrdom for the faith, at least in theory. There's something stirring and noble about the idea. What's harder is when God calls us to bear the cross in lesser matters, every day of our lives.

Think of the situation of Philemon of Laodicea. Clearly Philemon is a man of position and means. He lives in a commodious house. He owns slaves. Philemon is also a Christian, converted by the apostle Paul himself.

We can assume that his whole household, slave or free, professed faith in Christ at the same time. But not the slave Onesimus. One fine day he helped himself to some of his master's goods and ran off for Rome.

And now he has been found, and has returned to Laodicea, bearing a letter. Philemon had every right to sell such a worthless slave (ironic, since "Onesimus" means "useful") to the salt mines, or to the arena to be fodder for the wild beasts. He had every civil right to demean him as a worker and as a man. Philemon's pagan neighbors would have expected no less.

But the letter Onesimus bears is from Paul himself. Onesimus, he writes, has become his son in their common faith. He now belongs to Christ. So Paul is sending him back to Philemon, "no longer as a slave, but better than a slave-- as a dear brother." And not just as any brother: Philemon is to receive this formerly thieving, useless, runaway slave as he would St. Paul himself!

Did Philemon have any idea that that was ahead of him when he committed to being a disciple of Jesus Christ? What would such unthinkable mercy mean for his relations with his other Christian slaves? What would the pagan neighbors say? Why, if such unmasterlike behaviour caught on, it could disrupt the economic system of the entire Roman world!

But the duty to welcome Onesimus back wholeheartedly and with honor was now Philemon's cross and the cost of his discipleship. Church history tells us he accepted that burden, for it tells us that Onesimus ended up as the beloved bishop of the church in Ephesus.

This is the kind of cross-bearing God demands of us when we heed Christ's call to be His disciple. He doesn't want imaginary dramatic sacrifices we may never be called to make; rather he requires the ordinary, everyday self-denials we may wish were none of God's business. Like saying Yes to service we'd rather shirk. Giving time to others when we'd rather have it for ourselves. Remaining faithful when a loved one dies or when the doctor tells us we have a terrible disease. Saying No to desires and activities and even people when they come between us and the lordship of Jesus Christ.

Because, you know what? When God's good grace makes us Jesus' disciples, we become His slaves. We belong to Him totally, for He has bought us with His precious blood. You might say, "In that case, I've counted the cost and sorry, Jesus, I'm out of here. I'd rather live free." Ah, but if you will not be a slave of Christ and owe everything to Him, you will remain a slave to sin, and your wages will be death.

Humanly-speaking, it's impossible for us to make the total surrender Jesus requires. But God Himself gives us the strength and will to be His disciple, through the merit and mercy of His Son Jesus Christ. His word is His preserving and purifying salt in us, and His Holy Spirit enables us to be salt in this dying world. The price that would be too much for you to pay He has paid for you.

What is the cost of Christian discipleship? All you have and all you are. What is its reward? Jesus and all His riches in glory. I'd say the sacrifice is worth it. And now in the name of Christ I ask, is it worth it to you?

Sunday, September 5, 2010

God at Work

Texts: Romans 3:1- 4:8; John 6:24-29

WHEN I WAS A KID, I COULD NEVER see the point of the Labor Day holiday. The day was about labor, right? So why did people get the day off?

Of course, I learned in time that Labor Day doesn't celebrate labor, it celebrates laborers. Especially workers who often were taken for granted for long centuries of human history. It was established in 1894 to highlight the achievements of men and women who worked in the mills, the factories, and the mines of America.

And America's workers have a lot to be proud of. Historically, we have the most productive labor force in the world. It stands to reason that labor should have a day to boast in what they've done for America and the world.

But it's not just America's workers who want to take pride in their accomplishments on the job. Everywhere in the world laborers want to feel that their efforts count for something. We have a basic human need to stand on our own feet and know we've got things under control for ourselves and our families. As it says in Ecclesiastes 2:24, "A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God . . . "

That's how it is in this world. We can say that's how things should be in this world; "under the sun," as Solomon puts it.

But human labor and human capability has a limit. There's one job only one Worker can do, and that's the job of reconciling lost and sinful humanity to the almighty Creator of heaven and earth. That one Worker is God Himself, the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We humans can do a lot in this world to keep body and soul together and find fulfilment doing it. God gives us the time and talents and strength to make our living, and we have to put our backs into it ourselves if we want to get along. But only God Himself by Himself can accomplish the work of salvation and sanctification that brings us into His kingdom of everlasting life. Only He can overcome the sin and wickedness that separates every human creature from Himself.

But as we know, human history has been one long process of mankind disagreeing with that principle. We think that when it comes to our salvation, God helps them who help themselves.

From the dawn of time, every tribe and nation in this world from has been aware that there is a High God to Whom they owe worship and right moral behaviour. Every person ever born has it written on his or her heart that certain things are right and certain things are wrong; that there's a good way and a bad way to treat God and our neighbor. It teaches that God has the right to expect good behavior from us. This is called natural law, or conscience. It's not the possession of any particular faith or religion; it's what God has put within us because we are human beings made in His image.

Then there's also a distinctive people, the Jews, and the Lord God revealed to them His spoken and written Law. They didn't have to guess at what they had to do to please God and live; they had it down in detail.

But Jew or pagan alike, humankind has always distorted the law of God and watered it down into something they could manage. They felt that they could do enough to please God, and God would reward them for their hard work with prosperity in this life and maybe even eternal blessedness in the world to come.

Was the Creator of heaven and earth impressed? Did He look down on humanity and say, "Oh, my, you're doing your best, you should be so proud of yourselves! You've worked so hard, I'm going to give you a Labor Day parade!"

No. Rather, in Romans 3:19, the Apostle Paul, speaking by the Holy Spirit, says "Now we know that whatever the law says, it says to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be silenced and the whole world held accountable to God." The pagan peoples stand guilty because they've perverted and departed from the natural law written on the heart. The Jews are convicted because they have disobeyed the Law revealed through Moses. What's just as bad or worse, when they were supposedly trying to work to please God, everyone to whom Paul writes has been trying to earn their own righteousness by observing the law according to their own version of it. But the Scripture says that no one can stand righteous in the sight of God by doing that, no matter how hard they work.

But what about us, citizens of the United States and the western world? We live after the cross of Christ. Even if we don't actually belong to a church, our ethics and morals are pretty much based on the law of love that Jesus preached, right? If we just follow Jesus as our good example, and do the things He would do, won't that will be okay with God?

All the time we hear people say, "I work hard to do what's right. God will let me into heaven because of that." People say, "God knows I'm doing my best. He knows my heart, that'll be enough."

But even for us today, that is not enough. "Doing our best" and "making a good effort" is still us trying to justify ourselves by works of the law. We've lowered the standard for what it means to love our neighbor as ourselves and to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, but even so, we're still laboring to earn God's favor, so we can boast that we deserved it.

The Scripture, however, is clear. We are all defendants in God's courtroom, and every mouth is silenced before Him. The whole world is accountable before God, including ourselves. No one will be declared righteous by works of the law; rather, the law-- the revealed law and the natural law-- the law full and forceful from the hand of Almighty God-- shows us what great sinners we are. Jesus Himself proclaimed that the fountain of wickedness is us is the very heart that we think will earn us our ticket into heaven. And once the law makes us truly conscious of sin, we won't be boasting that God will accept us because He knows our hearts. We'll want to run and hide from His righteous anger.

What can we do? Our condition is nothing to have a parade about! Not unless it's a parade to the gallows.

The answer is, we can do nothing. God, the great Worker of salvation, does it all. As Romans 3:21 says, "But now--" Now, that we have been declared guilty and worthy of condemnation-- "Now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known." The law and the prophets all testified that this righteousness was coming. It came to us through Jesus Christ our Lord; He brought us perfect redemption through His sinless life, His atoning death, and His glorious resurrection. God Himself has worked to give us access to His own righteousness through faith in Jesus, and not even that faith was a work of ours. As it says in Ephesians 2, "It is by grace you have been saved, through faith-- and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God-- not by works, so that no one can boast."

Our salvation is God's great labor from start to finish. Only He could have done it. The righteousness and justice of God demanded that sin be paid for. We couldn't pay it. No matter what we did, we could never be good enough to ward off the wrath of God that we deserved for our sins. But it was also the loving will of God that He would justify His elect. What was God to do?

What only God could do. God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, came into the world as a perfect Human Being and died as a sacrifice of atonement to God. His blood covers all our sins. That way, God's holy justice is satisfied and He is able to say to those whom He calls to faith in Christ, "You are perfect and righteous in My sight."

This is what God did for you when He brought you to faith in Christ by the voice of His Holy Spirit. This is what He may be doing for you even now as the power of His word works in your life, convicting you of your sin and convincing you to trust in Christ alone for your salvation. This is God at work! This is the Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ, may His name be praised forever!

But you may have noticed something about yourself; I'm sure I've noticed it about me. It's that even after God has called us to faith in Jesus Christ, there's still that old sin nature hanging around in us. And it whispers, "You really did part of the work in your own salvation. God must've saved you because of something good you did or were!"

And isn't that what unbelievers think we Christians believe about ourselves? That we think we deserved to be saved because we're actually holier or better than other people? Heaven help us, sometimes we give them good excuse to think that. Let me ask you this, what is your attitude towards flagrant sinners? What do you think about homosexuals and drunkards and bitter-tongued gossips and adulterers? What's your attitude towards corporate CEOs or government officials who apparently are cheating the public? Does that immediately drive you to pray for their salvation? Or . . . ?

Let's admit it. The temptation is to say, "Thank God I'm not like that! Those people should try harder to do what's right! God should punish them and give them what they deserve!"

I hope you resist that temptation. I hope you flee it with every fiber of your being. It's true, people like that don't deserve God's mercy. Neither did you or I. Romans teaches that none of us has the right to boast of being holier-than-thou. We are not, not, not justified by our works of righteousness, or by anything we earned or deserved. No, we were saved by Christ's work of righteousness imputed to us by the one God of all.

We don't used this word "imputed" or "imputation" every day, but it describes what God does for us. Think of somebody who's horribly in debt. And a kind and rich person comes along and credits the entire amount of the debt to the debtor's account and totally pays it off. That money is reckoned as his and he gets the good of it. What he can't do is boast that it's his own money or that somehow he deserved it.

That's what God did for Abraham and what He does for us. Abraham simply believed that God had accepted him and he believed God's promises of blessing to him. Ultimately, Abraham's faith looked forward to the Messiah Jesus who was his many-times-great grandson. In the same way, it's not up to us to earn our righteousness, but simply to accept the righteous sacrifice of Christ in our behalf.

The Galileans who saw Jesus feed the 5,000 chased Him back to Capernaum because they wanted more of the physical bread He'd given. Jesus says, No, that's not the bread you should be working for, but the food that endures to eternal life that He, the Son of Man, would give them. These people were like us. They wanted everlasting happiness with God and they wanted to know what they had to do to get it. We'll work for it, Master, we really will! That's what we say, too. "What must we do to do the works God requires?" And Jesus answers, "The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent."

This isn't "your work" that you have to do. It's the work of God that He does within you! God is the one worker of our salvation, He is responsible for it all. He saved us and He can save the most flagrant of sinners, regardless of who or what they may be.

And it's His work, not ours, that keeps us in His grace. Maybe you've picked up the idea that you were saved by Christ's death on the cross, but now it's up to you to make sure you stay saved. Brothers and sisters! It's all a gift! It's all God's workmanship! We can't brag about our salvation and we can't brag about how He's making us holy! Right now He's working in you by His Holy Spirit, forgiving your sins, making you more like Christ, drawing you to love your fellow-Christians and also all the poor dying sinners who need the Savior just like we do! It's all God at work!

So now, take a holiday from your own works, because God has put in all the labor for you. As you do His will, know that it's His Spirit working in you. With all God's justified and grace-imputed people, sing with King David that

"Blessed are they
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the man
whose sin the Lord will never count against him."

Blessed of the Father, rest in the work He does for you. And if anyone wants to boast, let him boast joyfully in the Lord.

To whom be all honor and glory, wisdom and strength, now and forever. Amen.