February 28, 2021 / 2nd Sunday in Lent / Richard Holmer
1st Reading Genesis 17:1-7, 15-16/ 2nd Reading Romans 4:13-25 / Gospel Mark 8:31-38
Called To Be Disciples
The minimum requirements in order to be considered a member in good standing this congregation are these: Receive communion at least once a year and make a contribution of record. In other words, to stay on the membership roster, all a person needs to do is to show up at one service, take communion, and put a dollar in the offering plate. You could come on just Christmas or Easter – you don’t even have to attend both. That’s a pretty low bar. Most of us can feel like we are exceeding expectations by a wide margin. We attend worship a lot more than just once a year. We give regular offerings. We volunteer in a number of ways. We take church membership seriously. We consider ourselves to be good and faithful members. And we are.
And then we encounter what Jesus has to say in today’s gospel reading. Jesus isn’t talking about membership. Jesus doesn’t speak of minimum requirements. Jesus addresses what it means to be his followers. He’s talking about discipleship. He makes no mention of minimum expectations. Instead, he sets a high bar for those who want to follow:
"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?
There is a huge difference between the low bar that is set for church membership and the high bar that Jesus sets for discipleship.
I am quite familiar with these words of Jesus – as are many of you. Yet every time I hear them, I am troubled. These words raise some serious questions:
Am I settling for being a good member when I ought to be doing more to become a faithful disciple?
As a congregation, are we making disciples for Jesus – or are we cultivating members of St. James?
Our mission statement says nothing about church membership. We are called to follow Christ, make disciples, and live the gospel. We can all agree that we can’t fulfill that mission by communing once a year and making a contribution of record. Yet are we actively doing enough to be considered more than church members – enough to be called disciples of Christ? Dietrich Bonhoeffer points us to the challenge we face as Christians: “Salvation is free – but discipleship will cost you your life.”
You and I have done nothing to deserve the grace we have received in Holy Baptism. God has welcomed us as his daughters and sons. Christ died for us while we were yet sinners, the righteous for the unrighteous. God’s grace is free and unconditional. In Christ we discover that God loves us just as we are: sinful, broken, imperfect. And today we are again reminded that Christ loves us too much to allow us to remain just the way we are. Christ calls us to become something more – to grow. He calls us to repent, to lose our old selves, to deny our sinful, selfish selves. He calls us to become more like him.
How are we doing? How are you doing?
I confess I find myself identifying with Peter. Like Peter I am inclined to tell Jesus to ease up – go easy on the talk of suffering and sacrificing and dying. I’m only human. Jesus tells Peter, “you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” Well, that’s because we are human! What do you expect ?!?
What Jesus expects, I presume, is that we keep growing – however slowly, by fits and starts. We know that Peter grew as a disciple. Sometimes for Peter it was one step forward, two steps backward, three steps forward, one step backward – never in a straight, unbroken line. Ultimately, Peter grew to be worthy of the name Jesus gave him: Peter, the Rock, the Rock on which the church would be founded. He followed Jesus even to the point of dying on a cross.
Not all Christians are called to be martyrs. We all are called to be disciples. We all are called to seek first the kingdom of God. We all are called to love God with all our heart, and to love one another as Christ loves us.
I don’t believe there is any grading scale when it comes to discipleship. You don’t get a C+ or an A-. Maybe it’s pass/fail. You follow – or you don’t. Week by week we confess the many ways we fail to love God and neighbor, how we fail both in what we do and what we neglect to do. But we don’t fail completely or finally as long as we keep trying – as long as we want to follow Jesus, as long as it is our heart’s desire to be loving, faithful, hopeful.
On our own we cannot even believe in Jesus – much less become like Jesus. It is by the leading of the Holy Spirit and the power of the Holy Spirit that you and I can grow in faith and hope and love. Like Peter, our progress is likely to be slow and uneven. Yet also like Peter we can keep getting back up when we fail and fall short. We can ask God to give us the strength and the guidance of the Holy Spirit. We can encourage one another – and even hold one another accountable to the mission to which God has called us.
There is a balance between expecting too much of ourselves and expecting too little of ourselves. We can get burned out by over-committing and over-extending ourselves. We can also find excuses for staying as we are and not trying to grow. It’s hard to know exactly where that the tipping point is found – our conscience certainly provides some clues. In reflection on our discipleship, we can ask a few questions:
Am I looking to be served – or to serve others?
Am I interested in being understood – or trying to understand?
Am I aiming to be loved – or to love?
Am I trying to gain this world – or the Kingdom of God?
Who do I want and hope to become?
It’s been said: The Lord comforts the afflicted – and afflicts the comfortable.
When God sees that we are troubled or discouraged, or questioning our place in God’s Kingdom – God answers us that nothing can separate us from his love, that his grace is sufficient.
When God sees that we are seeking other things before his kingdom, when we place ourselves ahead of everyone else – God pricks our conscience, reminding us of his call, and that our lives are not our own.
It is God who calls us. We must ask God to support us.
Let us pray:
Gracious God, open our hearts to Christ’s call to follow him. Send your Spirit to help us grow as disciples. Keep us faithful in the way of love – and when we fall short, raise us up and set our feet on the path that leads to you. In Jesus’ name, Amen.