discipleship

Building Blocks

Romans 15:1-6 (NLT)

We who are strong must be considerate of those who are sensitive about things like this. We must not just please ourselves. We should help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord. For even Christ didn’t live to please himself. As the Scriptures say, “The insults of those who insult you, O God, have fallen on me.” Such things were written in the Scriptures long ago to teach us. And the Scriptures give us hope and encouragement as we wait patiently for God’s promises to be fulfilled.

May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.


If you heard last week’s sermon, you’ve probably realized that today’s text is a continuation of what we heard last week, with a few subtle shifts.

After having encouraged all of his audience to live with flexibility about lifestyle rules and show tolerance for each other, Paul now focuses especially on the “strong” believers, the ones who are more mature in their faith. He says the strong have a special burden, a specific calling, to “help others do what is right and build them up in the Lord.”

As Methodists, we could apply one of our favorite 18th century words, “sanctification,” here. This is the idea that even after we are saved, God’s grace continues to shape us, growing us in spiritual maturity and our ability to love as Jesus loves. We see this as the primary work of the Holy Spirit in our lives once we have found salvation.

And while humans are completely dependent on God for grace, Paul is once again reminding us that Christians are invited to come alongside God and help with the great work being done, including the ongoing sanctification of believers.

So, how do we go about this work of building up others?

An Honest Look in the Mirror

Well, there’s an obvious first step. We have to assess whether we are really among the strong in faith. It is possible over time to fool ourselves. Time spent in church doesn’t necessarily translate into discipleship, although time in church certainly helps.

Some matters to consider as you make your assessment:

Do you get all the basic points in the Bible, particularly the stuff about the resurrection, and how we are saved by God’s grace through faith in what Jesus did through the cross? Do you know the important Bible stories well enough to tell them to others when appropriate?

Is your understanding of Christianity aligned with the core doctrines established by the larger church through the centuries?

Certainly we’ve made adjustments to doctrine over time. After all, this year is the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Those adjustments, however, usually have involved a return to the early church’s understanding of Christianity. They are adjustments for drift, designed to get us back on a course set by Scripture.

If you find yourself out of alignment with these biblically based truths and doctrines, further study may be in order. It is unlikely you are the first person to properly understand the Holy Spirit’s guidance after nearly two millennia of the Spirit educating billions of Christians.

Does your life reflect these truths? As we’ve heard in Romans, there is thinking and there is doing. Are you aware of your weaknesses toward sin, and working with God to overcome them?

If you’re confident in your ability to answer “yes” to these sets of questions, then you may be called to help build up others, perhaps as a teacher or guide.

A Willingness to Intervene

The next step may sound a little odd, but I think it’s important. We have to overcome the idea that what is going on in other people’s lives is none of our business.

Certainly, we don’t want to be nosy, rude or intrusive, and we cannot help those who give us the old Heisman Trophy stiff arm in response to our overtures. But if we see people off the Christian path and don’t try to help them find their way to it, we are actually going against the grain of Christian theology. When we look away, we are no better than the supposedly holy Jews in the parable of the Good Samaritan who gave their injured fellow Jew a wide berth.

This responsibility to intervene is particularly true when we see our Christian brothers and sisters off the path. By calling themselves Christian and joining a particular church, they already have sought community and accountability so they can grow as disciples.

Training for Action

Once we’ve overcome our reluctance to interfere, we have to discern how we are going to help others build their lives for the better. The ways we do this vary depending our personalities, abilities, and education. I will say this: In one way or another, we all need mentors.

I needed mentors as a lay person who was beginning to teach and lead. I continued to need mentors as I became a clergy person. If I’m trying to learn some new aspect of ministry, or deepen my spirituality in some way, I still need mentors, even after 15 years of professional ministry.

Paul knew the importance of mentoring. Look at his two letters to a young pastor named Timothy. It simply is easier to go somewhere new if you go with someone who has been there before.

Hearing all of this, some of you may feel a stirring in your heart.

I hope all of you feel a desire to mature as Christians, to get to a place where you feel you can answer “yes” to the assessment questions I raised earlier.

Some of you may be feeling it is time to make a real difference in the lives of people around you. If so, I want to hear from you. I want to spend significant time with you.

Together, we’ll figure out what God is saying.

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Choose Your Master

Romans 6:15-23 (NLT)

Well then, since God’s grace has set us free from the law, does that mean we can go on sinning? Of course not! Don’t you realize that you become the slave of whatever you choose to obey? You can be a slave to sin, which leads to death, or you can choose to obey God, which leads to righteous living. Thank God! Once you were slaves of sin, but now you wholeheartedly obey this teaching we have given you. Now you are free from your slavery to sin, and you have become slaves to righteous living.

Because of the weakness of your human nature, I am using the illustration of slavery to help you understand all this. Previously, you let yourselves be slaves to impurity and lawlessness, which led ever deeper into sin. Now you must give yourselves to be slaves to righteous living so that you will become holy.

When you were slaves to sin, you were free from the obligation to do right. And what was the result? You are now ashamed of the things you used to do, things that end in eternal doom. But now you are free from the power of sin and have become slaves of God. Now you do those things that lead to holiness and result in eternal life. For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life through Christ Jesus our Lord.


Let’s start by looking at another important piece of Scripture in Acts 2:41-42, a picture of the church in its earliest days.

On Pentecost, after Jesus had ascended into heaven and the Holy Spirit had fallen on Christ’s followers, Peter preached to curious people gathered in the streets. It was a most effective sermon.

“Those who believed what Peter said were baptized and added to the church that day—about 3,000 in all,” the author of Acts tells us. “All the believers devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, and to fellowship, and to sharing in meals (including the Lord’s Supper), and to prayer.”

Certainly, the grace of God was at work. People don’t come to a belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior unless God is at work. But in response, the believers did something, too.

They “devoted themselves.” They devoted themselves to study. The apostles would have used the Jewish Scriptures, what we now call the Old Testament, to help everyone understand who Jesus is in the context of Judaism.

They also devoted themselves to deep, deep fellowship. The church, the body of people who believed, became the center of most members’ lives. And they prayed, fervently.

Let’s name the key action again: They devoted themselves. To borrow from the imagery of a theologian named Helmut Thielicke, the believers opened their mouths so they could drink from the river of sanctifying grace. They were changed in the moment of salvation, and the change became an ongoing process that, with a little effort on their part, would continue for the rest of their lives.

Such effort is what Paul is describing in Romans. Paul uses a metaphor that can seem offensive today. If it makes you feel any better, it was offensive then—he practically apologizes for using it, saying the metaphor is necessary in order to penetrate weak, worldly minds.

If you’re going to be a Christian, you need to start thinking of yourself as an obedient slave, he says. Escaping the slavery of sin, you now must deliberately enslave yourselves to Christ.

Paul’s audiences, including us, find this offensive because of a delusion we like to maintain, the notion that we live our lives beholden to no one. We are, to use a very American word, independent people.

Yeah. Right. I remember thinking when I was a child, “I cannot wait until I grow up, because then no one will be able to tell me what to do.”

I grew up, and did I ever get a surprise. I had to get a job; with that job came a boss. I did what she told me to do, and I did what a series of bosses afterward told me to do. Even when I was a boss, I had a boss.

I continued my schooling in both college and seminary, and discovered those professors also had a lot of control over me. I appreciated the freedom of thought many of them gave me, but in the end, I did what they told me to do to earn those pieces of paper hanging on my wall.

Some of you here may be thinking, “Well, none of this applies to me now.” Maybe you’re retired or own your own business. “No one tells me what to do.”

Right. Call the IRS and inform them of your independence.

From a spiritual perspective, once we overcome the delusion of being beholden to no one, we should be delighted we can choose the perfect master. We have the opportunity to enslave ourselves to one who gives perfect, sacrificial love.

Our time as a slave to Christ is returned to us in immeasurably vast ways. We enslave our finite lives and receive eternal life.

Jesus said in Matthew 11:29-30: “Take my yoke upon you.” (When Jesus spoke, we were  metaphorically reduced to beasts of burden!) “Let me teach you because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find a rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy to bear, and the burden I give you is light.”

I don’t know about you, but I want a master who speaks such words, a master I can trust. To go back to last week’s imagery, I want to work in a safe field under a gentle master, with the assurance I have nothing to fear. When Satan was my master, fear ruled my day.

So, what does the new master call us to do? What are the tasks that “lead to holiness and result in eternal life?”

I hinted at them before as we looked at Acts. There is Scripture, where God reveals truth to us. There is fellowship, life in the church, where we find we are never alone. There is prayer.

Or, to boil it all down, there is a deep, loving relationship with the master and with each other.

Let me ask a question of those of you who are or have been married. If you spend just two minutes a day with your spouse, how will your marriage fare?

And yet, that’s how many of us approach our relationship with God, if we spend that much time. A quick devotional and we’re off to the daily races. We find time for other things—and there are so many other things—but God gets two minutes. Or less.

Saturday I saw some evidence of what it’s like to be in a community of people who take Scripture and prayer very seriously. Connie and I went to a gathering of the Wesleyan Covenant Association. It is a reform group within the United Methodist Church calling us as a denomination back to our roots as Jesus-centered, Holy Spirit-filled people rooted in Scripture.

I was sitting in a lecture on “The Call to Holiness” and the speaker referenced the image in the sixth chapter of Isaiah of the angels surrounding the throne of God, crying out to one another … .

Well, that’s when it became interesting. A large ballroom filled with people suddenly resounded with, “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is full of his glory!” The crowd had finished his sentence without missing a beat.

The speaker stopped in his tracks, his eyebrows raised in surprise.

Perhaps he was taken aback at being in a room full of Methodists who actually knew their Bible. Not only that, they knew their Bible well enough to speak in confidence and in unison.

Their knowledge also clearly enhanced their prayer lives. For you see, in their unified voices, they joined in a prayer of praise that we believe goes on for all eternity.

It was a Holy Spirit goosebumps sort of moment.

I want us as a little church in Ten Mile, Tennessee, to have such moments. I want us to all know the stories. I want our prayer lives to be rich.

Here’s what I will devote myself to today: I will do all I can to make such moments happen. It is my particular job as a particular slave to Christ to help us toward such moments.

I cannot do it alone, however. If you are willing to devote yourselves, come let me know, and we will find a way.

Grateful to the End

Luke 17:11-19

The lack of gratitude shown by nine of ten lepers remains astonishing. As I’m sure many of you know, lepers were complete outcasts, the walking dead of their day.

They could have been suffering any of a host of skin diseases. There was the modern-day leprosy, now known more formally as Hansen’s Disease, a bacterial infection that in Jesus’ day led to large lesions all over the body. Other skin diseases like eczema or psoriasis could get you labeled a leper, too.

And once you were diagnosed as such, you were to keep your distance from everyone else. The Mosaic law didn’t prescribe a precise distance, but some rabbis thought about 50 yards, half the length of a football field, to be acceptable.

That’s why lepers lived and traveled in groups. The only meaningful human contact they could have was with each other.

As we’ve seen in our gospel story today, one of these groups encountered Jesus, humbly cried out for healing, and received the sought blessing. The healing happened as the lepers made their way toward the priests who would declare them clean. But only one, seeing the healing, returned to thank his healer. Oddly enough, he was a Samaritan, a man considered by the Jews to be unholy simply because of his birth.

And just in case we wonder whether God really expects gratitude from us, God Among Us, God in Flesh, Jesus, commented rather directly on the situation. “Was none of them found to return and give praise to God except this foreigner?”

Consider the healing they had received. It was more than just physical. They were restored in many other ways.

They were restored to family. Some of them may not have been able to draw closer than shouting distance to family for years. The close embrace of spouse and children likely was returned to at least some of these lepers. For the ones who did not have such relationships before going into exile, the promise of such happiness now was in their futures.

They were restored to community and all its benefits, including the ability to worship with others, earn a living, and benefit from the protection offered by the larger group.

They also were affirmed in a kind of righteousness many people would have assumed they lacked. One of the subtleties of the laws surrounding leprosy was that the isolation imposed on lepers had little to do with community fear of cross-infection. There’s a lot of evidence lepers weren’t always forced out right away—for example, people suspected of having leprosy might have been allowed to complete a scheduled marriage or stick around for the holy days before being formally inspected by a priest and declared unclean.

In other words, in Jesus’ non-scientific time, skin diseases were seen as being a direct result of sin. The sinner had been marked. If you were healed, you were seen as being back in God’s good graces.

Healing from such an affliction was a big deal, a life-changing event, one worthy of deep gratitude. In the grand sweep of Jesus’ ministry, though, the healing of the lepers was a relatively minor miracle.

We have all been healed in far greater ways. It is a healing offered to everyone and accepted by many. Here’s a classic Bible verse every Christian should know: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life.”

Left to steep in sin, we would rot away to nothing, vanishing from the sight of God. Whatever hell is like, it is nothing but despair. Because of Christ’s work on the cross, however, we are rescued and restored.

From the moment we turn to Jesus and cry out, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!” we see our healing begin. As we walk through life, the lesions of eternal death fade. Even though we may face a temporal death, we know we are walking toward eternal life.

And yet, do we return to give appropriate thanks? Do we rush to the places where God expects to find us?

Are we in worship as often as we can? Surely an eternal healing requires a regular routine of thanks and praise.

Do we thank God by responding fully to the calls he has placed on us, calls to discipleship and service to others? Surely the gift of eternal life calls for extreme dedication of this worldly life to God’s mission.

It is easy to take our healing and simply walk back to life as it was before. It is easy, but it is not right.

Freedom from Death

Exodus 15:13-18

Last week, we heard how God overcame Pharaoh’s mighty army as he saved the Israelites at the edge of the Red Sea. Once God’s chosen people had crossed through the parted waters and saw God close those waters back upon their oppressors, they had much to celebrate.

The Israelites had learned, at least for a short time, to fear not. They had learned that when God is for us, who can be against us? And their response was appropriate—they worshipped.

Our text today is part of a song sung in that worship, that glorification of God. The song re-tells the miracle of what has just happened; at the same time, it declares truths about God’s loving, redemptive nature. It also is in many ways prophetic, predicting so much of the story to come, the story where God defeats death and changes the way we should view life.

Those of you who have declared yourselves followers of Christ know how the story goes. God’s exercise of power does not end with the defeat of great kings who oppose him. Just as God redeemed the Israelites from slavery, God has redeemed us from sin through Jesus Christ. Just as God moved the Israelites toward his “abode,” the place where he reigns “forever and ever,” God moves us toward eternal life in his presence.

The truth that we are freed from death’s bonds should change us from the very moment we grasp it. We should view everything in the light of eternity, and that light should shine in every corner of our lives now.

Note the “shoulds.” Realistically, I understand how much we struggle with the concept of death. The possibility of our own deaths naturally unnerves us. The possibility of losing those we love can rattle us even more.

If you look at the story of the Israelites, you don’t have to go far at all beyond the song by the sea to see where they wavered in their trust of Moses and God. And every time they doubted, it was the fear of death controlling them, despite the incredible evidence of God they had seen.

At this point, it would be easy to give what we called in seminary a “musty lettuce” sermon. That’s where the preacher says, “We must, we must, let us, let us.”

Simply telling you to trust God and get past the fear of death wouldn’t be helpful, however. Death is a troubling reality we contend with on an all-too-regular basis, despite an intellectual understanding that death has been overcome. I have struggled and continue to struggle myself.

As I pondered this sermon, some images flashed through my mind:

My granny’s passing. She died a very difficult death from a very painful kind of cancer when I was 14. Death seemed to have great power then, and how she died troubled all of us, in particular my mother, who had been my granny’s primary caregiver.

More than two decades later, while I was in seminary, my mother asked some very specific, metaphysical questions about where Granny is now. I knew she wasn’t talking about locating her in heaven or hell; we had seen my granny put her faith in Jesus Christ. The questions simply had to do with what Granny was experiencing in the moment.

As we discussed the fact that we’re promised an immediate experience of God at death, along with an experience of full resurrection at the end of time, I realized what my mother and I were doing. We were letting Granny go, placing her in the story of redemption and eternal life we had embraced as believers.

Those who handle death particularly well. There is Jesus, of course. He seemed to model how to handle grief in Matthew 14, when he learned of the senseless death of his cousin John the Baptist, the prophet who had announced the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Even Jesus needed to withdraw to a quiet place, taking time to process and grieve. When he saw there was work to be done, however, he quickly leaped back into ministry. Death could not stop the work of the kingdom.

I’m also reminded of a man who died in our church recently. He knew death was coming; he made the decision on his own to end medical care and let death come, telling me, “That’s about enough.” There’s a word for what he exhibited: aplomb. His confidence in what was coming was incredible, an inspiration to me.

Those who don’t handle death particularly well. My mind also went to a woman at a previous church I served who panicked when she learned she had cancer. She told me she had been in church all of her life, but had just then realized she had never taken her relationship with God very seriously. As she faced a grave diagnosis, she wanted to know how she could make up for all that lost time and really understand what her faith was about.

I would like to say she was able to absorb it all quickly, but that wouldn’t be true. She became very sick in just a few weeks. It’s hard to be an intense disciple when you’re desperately ill. Before she died, she did accept that all she had to do was trust God’s grace. At the same time, I so wanted her to have the comfort a lifelong walk with Christ could have given her.

Those images lead me to a renewed understanding of the importance of discipleship, in particular the time we spend in worship, prayer and Bible study. When preachers talk about discipleship, it often starts to sound like they’re giving you a set of rules for salvation that would make any Pharisee proud. But I’m reminded of the real reasons we spend time in discipleship activities—they give us repeated encounters with God.

When we see or experience God, we free our minds from this temporary world still bound by sin and death, and we live into the promise Jesus has made us. Yes, death still hurts. Yes, we still miss those who go on ahead of us, knowing we are apart for a time.

What we have, however, is perspective. Death has no power; death has been defeated. Ultimately, the grace of God prevails.