“Then he began to teach them that the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again. He said all this quite openly. And Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him. But turning and looking at his disciples, he rebuked Peter and said, “Get behind me, Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” He called the crowd with his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For 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. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.” – Mark 8:31-38
“Jesus called the crowd together with his disciples and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
Jesus makes it clear that following Him will not be easy. It will be painful at times. There will be times of struggle. Preachers do us a disservice when they make following Jesus sound like the path to perfect health, wealth, and happiness. Jesus never promised any such thing. Jesus did promise that he would always be with us, and that he was preparing a place for us in God’s house.
So today I’d like to take a look at discipleship from two angles. The first angle is found in our reading from Mark, and centers on what Jesus has to say about following Him. The second angle is found in our Lenten series A Disciple’s Path, on what it takes to grow and mature as a disciple of Jesus.
Looking first at the reading from Mark: Jesus talks about discipleship in terms of taking up a cross and following Him. When Peter objects, Jesus’ rebuke strikes us as odd. Surely Jesus would understand that Peter doesn’t want Him to die? And then there’s the words Jesus uses: “Get behind me Satan! For you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.” What exactly is it Jesus is objecting to?
Mark’s Gospel doesn’t tell us what it was Peter said, but Matthew’s Gospel does. When Jesus says he is about to be turned over to the chief priests, Peter answers, “God forbid! This must never happen to you!”
As the authors of A Disciple’s Path point out, in order to read scripture with understanding we need to put it in context. We need to get into a 1st century mindset as much as possible. Peter and Jesus and all the disciples grew up hearing about the promised Messiah in synagogue: the Son of David, the heir to David’s throne; and one who would come to restore God’s kingdom. They also grew up under Roman occupation, watching false messiahs – people who tried to restore God’s kingdom by force – being nailed to crosses by the roadside. The Romans used crosses on a regular basis to keep the people in line.
Peter loved Jesus, and he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that Jesus was the Messiah. So when Jesus started talking about a cross in his future, Peter would have remembered all those false messiahs hanging on crosses and his heart cried out “Not you!! Never you!”
Peter wasn’t able to see beyond the cross to the resurrection, at least not yet. Peter didn’t understand yet that Jesus’ death on the cross would also mean the death of sin, and reconciliation between God and humanity. All Peter could hear was the end of hope and the end of the most amazing person he’d ever met.
In that moment Peter was acting more like a fan than a disciple. A fan is someone who idolizes someone from a distance; a disciple is someone who follows closely. A fan doesn’t really know or understand the object of their admiration; a disciple seeks not only to understand but also to imitate the Master.
Jesus says to his disciples, to all who follow Him: “those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it.”
So how do we react to the reality of our own mortality? Do we spend the time we have on things that only satisfy for a moment? Or do we spend the time we have on behalf of God and others?
This is the call to Christian discipleship. It is a call to death and to resurrection: dying to self and living to God; dying to the world and living into God’s kingdom. This Lent we focus on discipleship in order to learn how to follow Jesus more closely.
This week the discipleship focus is on the discipline of prayer. Before I head down the path of prayer, I want to share a few introductory notes from the book A Disciple’s Path for those of you who have not been able to join the study groups yet.
A Disciple’s Path shares a great deal from the teachings of John and Charles Wesley, the founders of Methodism back in the 1700s. The Wesleys were Anglican priests who believed in using spiritual disciplines in order to become true disciples of Jesus. There were three disciplines they focused on: (1) study of scripture; (2) daily devotions (Bible reading, meditation, and prayer); and (3) social outreach, especially to the poor, disadvantaged, children, and the imprisoned. The Wesleys were very methodical about these disciplines, which is where the word ‘Methodist’ comes from. Their ‘method’ sparked a renewal movement in the Church of England that spread like wildfire in the United States as our nation was being born.
There’s one other question that comes to mind when we talk about a path. If we are on a “Disciple’s Path”, where does this path go? Our path leads us into fellowship with God and life in the kingdom of heaven. It is a great and awesome thing getting to know the Creator of the Universe… and the bigger our concept of the universe, the bigger our God becomes. I love the contemporary praise song “God of Wonders”:
Lord of all creation
of water earth and sky
The heavens are your Tabernacle
Glory to the Lord on high
God of wonders beyond our galaxy
You are Holy, Holy
The universe declares your Majesty
And you are holy, holy
Lord of Heaven and Earth
This is the God Jesus is leading us to on our path.
But there’s more than that. Jesus shows us a God who is not only holy, but a God who is also the very definition of love. God is kind and gentle. Scripture says:
“a bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”
When we feel like we’ve got nothing left to give, God is there, keeping the flame alive.
This is the God Jesus is leading us to on our path.
The question then becomes, how do we stay on the path, and stay as close to Jesus as possible?
John Wesley had a lot to say about that. He talked a lot about grace. Grace a tough word to define, but basically it means unmerited favor. Wesley talked about three kinds of grace. If you grew up in the Methodist Church you’ve heard these:
- Prevenient grace – the love of God that is active in our lives before we know God.
- Justifying grace – which we experience in conversion. Someone once called this “God’s Riches At Christ’s Expense”.
- Sanctifying grace – the love of God that never quits, that catches us when we fall, forgives us and guides us into holiness.
Grace is all God’s work. There is nothing any of us can do to save ourselves. Our part as disciples is to cooperate with the process. To take our part in the relationship. Because to be a disciple is to be in relationship with God.
And essential to every relationship is communication. Which brings us to the Path of Prayer.
The authors of A Disciple’s Path lead off with an interesting factoid: when doctors tell patients to make lifestyle changes like quitting smoking or losing weight, “only one in seven patients actually makes the lifestyle changes… that could save their lives”. One in seven.
If this is true of our physical lives, how true is it of our spiritual lives? If the greatest commandment according to Jesus is to “love God will all our heart, soul, mind and strength” – how can we love someone we hardly ever talk to?
Prayer needs to be our #1 priority. John Wesley said:
“You may as well expect a child to grow without food as expect a soul to grow without private prayer.”
The problem is, many of us feel like we don’t really know how to pray. We may have been taught to say grace before meals, and we probably were taught the Lord’s Prayer when we were kids, and those are good places to start. But then what?
Prayer is basically conversation with God. I like to kind of chat with God throughout the day – while I’m doing the dishes or working in the yard. But there is a need for more structured prayer too.
John Wesley taught his family and friends to begin with reading Scripture. He said to do this daily. He said to read with the intention of knowing God better, to ask the Holy Spirit to teach us as we read, and show us how to apply what we learn.
Prayer itself can take many forms. One form of prayer that many people find helpful is outlined in your bulletins this morning: the ACTS form of prayer. The letters stand for Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, and Supplication. Begin with Adoration – telling God what we appreciate, how wonderful God is. Then move into Confession – which includes bringing both our shortcomings and our gifts to God. Confession should always include both the negative and the positive, putting both in God’s hands. Then we move into Thanksgiving for God’s gifts, and then into Supplication – which involves bringing needs to God – our needs and the needs of others. This is where people’s prayer requests would fit in.
Because the ACTS format is so easy to remember and use, A Disciple’s Path recommends it for your daily use this Lent, and so does your pastoral staff.
For those of you who have already used ACTS in the past and may be looking to try something a little bit different, there is another form of prayer that the Wesleys used that’s mentioned on page 28 of A Disciple’s Path. It’s an ancient form called a Collect. I like this form because it’s easy to remember and work with. A Collect is made up of four parts:
- The address – that is, who you’re praying to
- A characteristic of God that you appreciate and need to depend on
- A request based on the characteristic of God that you pointed out in part 2
- Bring it back to God
This is an example of a well-known Collect:
To you all hearts are open, all desires known, and from you no secrets are hid;
Cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit, that we may perfectly love you and worthily magnify your holy name;
Through Christ our Lord, AMEN.”
But a Collect can be very simple too, something like this:
- Dear Lord,
- When you walked on this earth you healed the people your disciples brought to you
- We your disciples bring to you now our friend (name) who needs your healing.
- We ask in Jesus’ name, Amen.
I like this format because it begins and ends with God, and bases our requests on the character of God. It helps keep us focused on Who we’re talking to, and it helps prevent us asking for things that are not in the character of God.
So there you are: the Collect. If you like it, use it!
A Disciple’s Path also recommends keeping our prayers written down (or on the computer if you like.) Keeping a written list helps bring to memory the many things God has done for us.
So this week, as we walk the Disciples’ Path, let’s focus on getting to know God better by reading Scripture and talking with God in prayer. And as you see God moving in your life, share what you see with one other person – a pastor, or a friend, or someone who isn’t a Christian yet – share what God is doing in your life.
May God bless us this week – and may we bless God – as we walk the disciple’s path toward eternity with Jesus. AMEN.
Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church and Spencer United Methodist Church, 3/1/15