I’d like to talk with you about discipleship. And in order to talk about discipleship we need to first say that it is not the same as being a volunteer. That is, listening to all the “volunteer” talk that goes on in church-talk, one might well conclude that Jesus called twelve volunteers rather than twelve disciples. I suspect that we simply equate the two: discipleship is the same as being a volunteer. The truth is that the two are very different. How so? Well, for one, a volunteer gives to charity; a disciple gives to God. Another difference is in how they give. A volunteer gives publicly and is, accordingly, publicly acknowledged. A disciple gives in secret and is rewarded in secret. And most important, perhaps, is why they are who they are. A volunteer is, by definition, a volunteer. They answer to no one else but themselves. Disciples, in contrast, are called and thus answerable to God.
These differences place the disciple and the volunteer in completely different realms of existence; they are completely different animals.
For some further insight into what it means to be a disciple go back with me to
Whatever else we may say of Paul, he was not a volunteer. Volunteers, for one, have more sense than Paul, and they might even be more likeable insofar that they look a lot more like you and me. Volunteers know enough to go home when it rains on the outdoor church picnic — you won’t find them adrift at sea, unless, perhaps they happen to be on a cruise in the Caribbean; volunteers lived balanced lives – it is considered bad form, after all, to incite a riot (that sort of thing is just not done among self respecting church-folk); volunteers give according to their gifts, which may explain why they give so little; volunteers are sensible, respectable, and likeable.
But we need to be clear about what they are not: they are not disciples of Jesus Christ.
Being a volunteer and being a disciple of Jesus Christ is not the same thing. Or at least, a volunteer’s identity is not a sufficient description of our Christian call to serve. To be a disciple of Jesus Christ is to answer a call that is from God. It is awesome. And a little frightening too. That may explain why there are more volunteers in the church than disciples. In any case, no matter where we are in relation to the question of discipleship, it seems appropriate for us, for those of us who would be serious about our Christian life, and perhaps especially in the season of Lent, to examine ourselves as it pertains to the quality of our answer to God’s call. The question, then, might be framed like this: How can we answer God’s call as a disciple? A call that comes not from some volunteer coordinator in the sky, but from Christ and his cross? What does it mean, at the end of the day, to be a disciple of Jesus? Being raised in the church all my life, I’ve wrestled with this question from time to time, and I think as a pastor I’ve seen congregations struggle with it as well. To the extent that my ruminations have produced anything of merit, let me offer you my thoughts for our collective reflection.
I. Jesus is Coming … Look Busy!
To begin with, I suppose most of us, including myself, might resemble the popular bumper sticker that says: “Jesus is Coming … Look busy!” There are a lot of Christians out there who are keeping busy. They may not be sure about why they are so busy, but that is not the point.
I remember a job I had for a while in Alaska. We were delivering luggage from the local airport to the different hotels where tourists were staying. The job itself was not so bad. Throwing bags into a truck and then onto the pavement might make one sweat a bit, but on the whole it wasn’t bad work. What was difficult was the downtime. There were long periods between the arrivals and departures of tourists. And during those times, there was nothing to do. Except, of course, look busy. We did not care about what we were doing – it was mostly pointless, but we kept doing it anyway, just in case someone was watching.
Perhaps the church is a little like that. We feel as though we are in a period of downtime. We fill our calendars (or perhaps our palm pilots) with things to do, committees to serve on, people to see, cards to write. But, in the midst of all of that otherwise good work, all the busyness of church life may actually obscure why we are the church in the first place.
Paul seemed to suspect this was part of our human condition. He says, roughly, if you think you are busy, just look at me, look at all that I have accomplished. I am noted in more ways than one: I am a Hebrew of Hebrews, ritually pure, a member of the people of Israel, as to the law blameless. “Yet whatever gains I had these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ. More than that, I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”
What can we take from this? Perhaps one message is this: that no matter how busy we may be, or what we have accomplished individually or collectively, it is nothing – and even less than nothing – when compared to the knowledge of Jesus Christ our Lord. It may be that Paul presses this point home not because he despairs of our contributions to the church, but because he despairs of us losing sight of why we are here in the first place. Not to be busy, per se, but to know, love, and enjoy God forever. That’s the point. Always has been, always will be.
If our life in service of God is oriented around Jesus, who is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, then that means we are not merely doing but praying, not merely working but worshiping – whatever the disciple does is a kind of doxology that points away from itself towards “the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” The work of the church is not busyness for business’ sake, but doxology for Christ’s sake.
II. When I’m Good Enough
Sometimes, we answer God’s call by, in essence, deferring it to some later date, when we are better equipped, so to speak, to be a disciple. Not long ago, while talking with a person who seemed to have a lot of knowledge about the church, I ventured to ask whether he was a pastor. He laughed and said, “Oh no, I have too much respect for the church.” I thought, “Well that’s original … never stopped anyone else . . . least of all me!” Of course, I suspect what he really meant was not so much that he had respect for the church but that he was all too aware of his shortcomings.
This focus on all too apparent shortcomings might be the way some avoid fulfilling God’s call in their lives. That should come as no surprise. Many of us struggle with feelings of inadequacy. It may even be that our culture preys upon these feelings of inadequacy, this sense that we are not enough. And just to be candid, I’m not immune. Personally, I’d like to have hair enough. And failing that, I’d like to be rich enough, if for no other reason that then, with enough money, I could buy enough hair. And while we’re at it, I’d like to have a big enough SUV. Just the other day, I saw an SUV that might just be big enough for me – it was called the Godzilla or some such and it’ll probably take up the whole interstate – run those VW Bugs right off the road!
Well, you name it, we want enough of it, and until we get enough of it, we simply won’t be satisfied. Of course, the reason we keep pursuing the holy grail of enough is that the closer we come to it, the more elusive it becomes. Translating this tendency into our relationship with Christ is tragic: we defer answering God’s call until we are mature enough, tithing enough, like Jesus enough. And what happens? Well, not surprisingly, we conclude that we are not enough.
Some years ago, while in Peru, I met a missionary kid. He was an extremely handsome guy of, say, 25 or 27 years of age. While we were having a drink at one of the cafes in the downtown quarter of Iquitos, he asked me, in an almost conspiratorial voice, “Do you know who I look like?” I thought for a moment, and while the male super model, Fabian, came vaguely to mind, I admitted that I was stumped and desired fervently that he should tell me.
“I look like Jesus,” he said.
And I answered, “Oh, well, that’s nice ….” He then went on to say, if he ever decided to answer God’s call to preach, he’d be powerful, this young man who said he looked like Jesus. That might be cause for concern, but I didn’t have to worry much, because something was holding him back, some sense of inadequacy that even his good looks and considerable ego couldn’t make up for.
Of course, not all of us are as obvious as this, but it appears in most people in some form or other. I don’t know, but maybe it’s a form of perfectionism, this insatiable desire to be enough? Anne Lamott describes perfectionism as “the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people. It will keep you cramped and insane your whole life.” “Perfectionism,” she continues, “is based on the obsessive belief that if you run carefully enough, hitting each stepping stone just right, you won’t have to die. The truth is that you will die anyway and that a lot of people who aren’t even looking at their feet are going to do a whole lot better than you, and have a lot more fun while they’re doing it” (Anne Lamott, Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life, 28).
Instead of taking what we have and offering it to God freely and joyfully, we obsess over how we could answer the call if only we were spiritual enough, intelligent enough, patient enough – and in so agonizing give nothing at all. It is precisely here that Paul opens his own struggle to us, in language that is both vulnerable and confessional. Let me give a rough paraphrase: “I don’t think I’ve attained the goal, I’m not enough in myself, I know that better than anyone else.” But for Paul this is not cause to defer God’s call till later, but cause to rejoice, or in his own words “because Christ Jesus has made me his own” I press on, not looking back, not regretting what I could have been, what I should have been, or might have been, but rejoicing in what God has done and will do in my life.
Paul was and could be called a disciple of Jesus for the same reason you and I can be called disciples: because Christ had taken hold of Paul long before Paul had taken hold of Christ. Paul might not believe in himself, Paul might not even like himself, but God, according to God’s wisdom – not ours – God chose Paul to be a follower of Jesus. And it is out of this conviction that every follower of Jesus must live: Long before we loved God, God loved us. In those words, we might just find the courage to answer the call to discipleship.
III. Suck, Grip, and Cry
Just a few more words and I’ll sit down. As of late, Rebecca and I have been reading a lot of pregnancy books. This, as you might guess, is not merely a casual interest. She’s pregnant and we are expecting.
What I am learning, and what many of you already know, is that you can get wildly different opinions about what to eat, what not to eat, symptoms, etc. I tend to classify the books as the good, the bad, and the ugly. Having a rather sensitive stomach, I tend toward the “good” category. Rebecca, I must admit, is bolder than I am, as she reads with abandon not only the good, but the bad and the ugly as well. I guess that stands to reason, since, after all, her body is considerably more involved in this whole process than mine.
In any case, one of these “good” books said something that I think is worth recalling. According to this book, babies learn three essential skills for survival in this world. They learn to suck, to grip, and to cry. And they learn most of them, except for crying, in the womb. Of course, while in the womb, the fetus is learning to make faces, which, as anyone can tell you, is ingredient to the cry itself – there’s no such thing as a good cry without a substantial cry-face to back it up!
May I suggest that if you can do these three things you are ready to follow God. If you, like the Psalmist, will become like an infant nursing at her mother’s breast, if you will grip with all your heart, all your mind, and all your soul the love of God, and if you will cry out to God with all your hope and your hurt, with your whole voice, and, yes, your whole face, maybe even your cry-face – if you will do these things – rest with God, grip God, cry out to God — you are ready to answer God’s call as a disciple. You are ready because Christ is enough to supply all your needs and yes more than your needs.
He is enough for every baby that ever cried and for every man that ever prayed, he is enough. He is enough for the woman who dreams and the child that plays. Enough for the mother who grieves and will not be comforted because her children are no more, he is enough. Enough for every heart that ever loved and every heart that ever broke in its loving, he is enough. He is enough for the stars above and the earth below, enough for the wind that blows and the trees that sing, he is enough. He is enough for the world ten times ’round . . . and he is enough for me.
Could it be, might it be possible, that when Jesus calls your name, you will say, yes, Lord Jesus, you, and you alone, are enough for me? May it be so for all of us.
In the Name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit, Amen.
Robert P. Hoch -Westminster Presbyterian Church, Madison WI