The Sixth Sunday after Epiphany, February 16, 2020
Would you please pray with me: Lord, open my lips, touch our hearts, and transform our lives with Your Living Word. Amen.
Brothers and sisters in Christ: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
But I, brothers and sisters, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?
This passage from our Epistle lesson today speaks strongly to what I’ve been doing at the clergy gathering this week. But before I get into that, I have four questions for you:
1) What does it mean to be a member of Miller’s Lutheran Church?
2) What does it mean to be a Lutheran?
3) What does it mean to be a Christian?
4) What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ?
In the 2 ½ years that I have been a member of the NALC, Bishop John and now too Bishop Dan have both taught, preached, and encouraged all of us pastors about the importance and centrality of discipleship. The staff has developed a variety of tools, and they offer some good training, such as we had this week, to help pastors and lay leaders to make, nurture, and encourage disciples and discipleship.
But to be honest, we don’t really use that “D” word in our church family here on Springs Road. And I find myself wondering why that is. Which is why I asked these four questions. I first asked them of myself, but now I am asking you. Let’s start with the first one: What does it mean to be a member of Miller’s Lutheran Church?
Do you know what our Congregational Constitution says? To be an “active” member of our church requires one of three actions: you must attend worship, OR you must partake of Holy Communion, OR you must give an offering within a set period. Do you know what that period is? Two years. One time in a two-year period you must do one of those three things. Not all three, just one of them. In two years. Now I ask you: by whose definition is that considered “active”? And why are these requirements so dreadfully lenient? If I only gave an offering once in 2 years, would you consider me to be a faithful giver? I suppose that depends on how much I give, right? Ok, so let’s look at the others: worship attendance and Holy Communion. They are separate, I think, so that our homebound members can still be considered active.
But for those who are not homebound, I think we can easily combine them. If you’re at worship on a Sunday where we have communion, then you’re most likely doing both. So, is coming to worship once in two years truly active? I’m sorry, but I am having a REALLY difficult time wrapping my head around that. I need all of us to pray about this and help me and the Council to come up with a faithful definition of what “active” membership is in our church. If someone is only coming to church once in 2 years, I’m not comfortable with that person having the same voting rights and decision-making authority as someone who is here more than 3 weeks out of every month. And our constitution makes no mention of Bible Study, men’s or women’s groups, committee or council service… Perhaps more importantly, would Jesus consider such infrequent attendance as “active” membership in this church? Brothers and sisters, we need to redefine “active membership.” Please help me with that.
Next question: what does it mean to be a Lutheran? This is much more clearcut. We in the North American Lutheran Church confess: The Unaltered Augsburg Confession as a true witness to the Gospel, acknowledging as one with it in faith and doctrine all churches that likewise accept the teachings of the Unaltered Augsburg Confession.
The other confessional writings in the Book of Concord, namely, the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the Smalcald Articles and the Treatise, the Small Catechism, the Large Catechism, and the Formula of Concord, as further valid interpretations of the faith of the Church. These are the teachings of Martin Luther and the other Lutheran Church fathers who put these writings together to explain what they stood for, why they disagreed with Rome (and with other new Protestant church bodies), and how they defended their beliefs using Scripture. These writings explain to us our understanding of a wide variety of topics, more than just what we learned in the Small Catechism. Whenever we as Lutherans have a question about Scripture, our first resource to seek explanation is the Book of Concord. It is rich with wisdom and faithful interpretation. I am doing my level best to share with you worship and teaching that are faithful to our Lutheran tradition. If I find something we do that does not agree with the Lutheran tradition, I bring it to the Council for discussion. If we are to call ourselves “Lutheran”, then there are boundaries within which we must stay, or we are no longer Lutherans. Brothers and sisters: I can say with confidence that we are, indeed, Lutherans.
So what does it mean to be a Christian? Well first, it’s only logical that while all Lutherans are Christian, not all Christians are Lutheran. True enough. I just spent a week with a hundred or more faithful, passionate Christians who are very clearly not Lutheran, but who very deeply and enthusiastically love Jesus Christ. They are unquestionably Christian. What does that mean? First and foremost, to be a Christian, you must first be baptized. This is what Scripture tells us. But more than that, to be a Christian is to believe exactly what we confess in the Apostles’ Creed. Say the second article with me: I believe in Jesus Christ, His Only Son our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. If you ever are asked that question “what does it mean to be a Christian”, think “baptism” and the Creed. This is what we believe. We are Christians. God claimed us in baptism, and we believe that He created us, He redeemed us, and He sustains us even now.
Which brings us to the last question: what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Do you think that’s different from being a Christian? I would submit this: I think that all disciples of Christ are Christians, but I don’t think that all Christians are disciples of Christ.
So what *is* a disciple of Christ? What sets that person apart? I think first and foremost, a disciple is someone who has given up the throne of their heart so that Christ may sit there, and not themselves or anyone or anything else. In other words, Christ is the Lord of their life. Christ guides their decisions. Christ drives their priorities. Christ is that person’s king.
Let’s use that as our definition. Let’s make up a fictional disciple, call her “Judy”. Judy has humbled herself and has allowed Christ to be the Lord of her life. He guides her decisions. Her priorities are Christ’s priorities. Can we call her a faithful Christian then? I think that’s an easy “yes”. No issues there.
Could we call Judy a Lutheran? Well, if Judy has been confirmed in the Lutheran church, then she knows that Lutheran teaching pushes us to submit to God and to follow Christ. There is no conflict here. If Judy is true to her Lutheran training, then she is indeed honoring God’s Law, learning from Christ’s example, and studying the Scriptures. We can call Judy the disciple a faithful Lutheran.
Is Judy the disciple of Christ qualified to be a member of Miller’s Lutheran Church? If all she has to do is only one of those 3 actions one time in a 2-year period, does she qualify? If Christ is the Lord of her life, how often does she come to worship Him? If Christ is the Lord of her life, what percent of her income does she offer to Him? Does she come to adult Sunday School or Bible study and if so, how often? What does she say when asked to serve on a committee or on the Council? Does she visit the sick? Does she feed the poor? Does she lead anyone else to Jesus? Does she help anyone else to become a disciple…or to become a “better” disciple?
I hope you’re as uneasy listening to these questions as I was this week when these very senior pastors and bishops asked us questions like these. “Pastors – who are you discipling right now?” A lot of us kind of sank down in our chairs. It is one thing for me to stand here and bring God’s Word to you, to teach Confirmation, to lead a Bible study. It is something entirely different to take 2 or 3 people, meet with them on a regular basis and really talk deeply together about our walk of faith, to work intentionally on growing in faith, and equipping those 2 or 3 to go from there and help other disciples to grow.
This is uncomfortable language. Why? I think because of what Paul said to the Corinthians. “…I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way?” *I* have been consuming milk and not solid food…so how could I possibly have fed you with anything but what I myself have been eating? I have not been discipling anyone. And that means I have not been a good disciple myself. A good disciple is also one who makes disciples. I have let you down, and I have let Christ down.
As we approach Lent, we always talk about how that is a season for discipline…a word whose root is “disciple”. I want to encourage all of us to use the Lenten season to focus on our own discipleship. How can I be a better disciple? What do I need to start doing? What do I need to stop doing (this is what we call a “fast”)? What do I need to do more of? What resources do I need to help me on this journey? Let me help you with those questions…PLEASE. If you come to me for help with that, guess what: you’re helping me to be a better disciple! Because it *is* my calling to help each of you to be a better disciple. And all of us are called to make disciples. That’s an uncomfortable proposition; I freely acknowledge that. But that’s because we are still feeding on milk. When we move to solid food, we will be ready for that. It’s a process…a journey.
How do you feel about our definition of “disciple” now? Do you think you have to be a perfect Christian to be a disciple? No, there was only ever one perfect “Christian” and that is Christ Himself. No one else is – or can be – perfect. But I think a disciple is someone who wants to be more and more like Christ every day. Christ is, after all, the perfect Human Being. He *is* who we were created to be. The more we work to become like Him, the more we become our true selves. The high-fallutin’ theologian’s word for this is “sanctification”. We become more of who we were created to be. We become more truly human the more we become like Christ. And the best way to do that is to start by making room for Him on the throne of our hearts.
If this sermon made you uneasy, then I submit to you that means that you realize there is some part of you that is not what God intended it to be. There is some part of your life that is keeping you from being like Christ. This is true for all of us. Every.single.one. We all have this. It’s called “sin”. It’s something we struggle with daily. But it’s something that Christ has already battled and conquered for us, so we are free to be ourselves. We don’t have to be only sinners anymore. We can now be the saints that God made us to be. We only need to step down from the throne of our hearts and let the King of Heaven and Earth sit there.
How do you do that? That’s going to be a different answer for each person. What is it that God is telling you is getting in the way of your discipleship? What is it that is keeping you from growing closer to God? What is that part of your life that is pulling you away from Jesus? You are the only one who knows what that is… besides God.
Let me suggest some questions to ask yourself to prepare for this discipline of Lent…to set you on your journey of discipleship:
1) What is God calling me to do for Him in my family, my church, my community?
2) What is God calling me to stop doing that is getting in the way of my walk with Him?
3) What am I already doing that God wants me to do more of?
You are the only one who can answer those questions, but the wonderful part of being a Christian is that you don’t have to seek those answers alone. And the wonderful part of being a member of Miller’s Lutheran Church is that we’re all on this journey together. That means that we can help each other to find those answers, and we can work together instead of alone to grow in our faith.
There are disciples here in this congregation. And I know that all of you want to grow in your relationship with God, or you wouldn’t be here today. You are here because God called you here, and you listened to His call. You *are* seeking to grow in your faith, and to be more like Christ. He called and you responded. And that’s the very first step on the journey. And we’re on this journey together. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to follow Him, and that begins by listening and responding to His call. Now that you’re here, you’ve responded to the “where” part of that call. There’s also a “what” part of the call. What is He calling you to do or to be? Put another way, if Jesus were to take over your life, how would He live it differently?
These are tough questions. I’ve been struggling with them for days now. I’ve told you before that there are good things happening in our church family, and that has not changed. There are good things here. But last week and other weeks I told you that we are on the cusp of something … that God is leading us somewhere. I don’t know what that is yet. But I’m confident that we’ll figure it out together. And in the process, we’ll grow closer to Him. And that’s EXACTLY what He wants. Isn’t it awesome how that works?
And now may the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.