What makes a disciple?

Scriptures: James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23

Before I get into the sermon today, I wanted to note something. We skipped some verses in that second reading. I don’t know about you, but whenever I find the lectionary has skipped verses, the first thing I do is go read them to see why they skipped them. So I encourage you to read those verses, and I’m not going to tell you why.

We’re going to look today at what makes a disciple. First of all, what does it mean to be a disciple? Christ, in his Great Commission, told us to go and make disciples of all nations. How can you make a disciple if you don’t know what a disciple is?

Like most people these days, I went and Googled it. This is Merriam-Webster’s definition of a disciple: “one who accepts and assists in spreading the doctrines of another: such as, in Christianity, one of the twelve in the inner circle of Christ’s followers according to the Gospel accounts; or a convinced adherent of a school or individual, such as a disciple of Freud.”

That wasn’t very satisfying to me. So I keyed off the word follower in the definition of disciple, and I looked up the word follower. Under follower it said: “one in the service of another , such as a retainer; or one that follows the opinions or teachings of another; or one that imitates another.”

So there are apparently some aspects of being a disciple or a follower of someone, or something, that involve learning and understanding, involve service, and involve imitation or doing.

Let me give you some possible examples of disciples or followers, and you can tell me what you think. Please feel free to speak up. And I will tell you what I think, perhaps, in a couple of minutes.

First, Paul says in Romans that if you believe with your heart and confess with your mouth that Jesus Christ is Lord, you shall be saved. We do that when we become members. Does that make us disciples, if we do that?

Paul also says in Ephesians that we need to “walk worthy of the calling to which we have been called.” He then goes on to describe some things to do and to avoid. So if we follow those rules, are we disciples?

Our bodies are called the temple of the Holy Spirit, and we want to keep them pure. So should we avoid all smoking, drinking of alcohol, artificial sweeteners, drugs even as mild as caffeine, or trans fats, etc., to be disciples? If we don’t avoid them, can we call ourselves disciples?

Jesus said we should love our neighbors and pray for our enemies. So if we do anything to hurt them or offend them, can we really be disciples of Christ? Even if we think it’s for their own good?

A lot of people these days like to say “What would Jesus do?” in order to be a disciple. In John, Jesus overturned tables and made a makeshift whip to drive people he decided were blaspheming God’s house away from the temple. It was righteous indignation, we say.

So would it be OK if I picked up this stool here and threw it at you for talking during the offertory or the prelude? We have lots of extension cords around – I could braid those into a whip, to lash at you. Should I do that, if I am to be a disciple? I suspect that most of you would take a very dim view of me, if I did that.

We need to understand what it means to be a disciple, if we want to complete Jesus’ Great Commission to make disciples. Part of knowing what it means to be a disciple is knowing the boundaries for being one.

In our two passages today, from James and Mark, we see boundaries set, and we see two extremes. In the passage in James,we note that he says “faith without works is dead.” That is, true faith will always have some accompanying actions that prove the change in mind and heart that comes from regeneration by the Holy Spirit.

Salvation must come before discipleship, but salvation does not equal discipleship. Our belief and confession is absolutely necessary, but it is just the beginning. James was addressing those at that moment who simply mouthed the words and said they believed, but then did not act. It wasn’t just religious stuff.

In fact, he kind of denigrates a lot of that. He’s talking about day-to-day living, when he says true worship is this, to help the widow and the orphan and be pure in heart. We need to do something. You can’t just say, “I’m a Christian,” and then let it go at that.

We have that problem in the United States today. Almost three-quarters of the people in the United States still say they believe in God, and over half call themselves Christians. Average church attendance on any given Sunday is about 15 to 20%. There’s kind of a gap there.

In the passage in Mark, we see the other end of the spectrum, Pharisees who can point to all the things they do for sanctification and to honor God, yet in their concern for all the little laws and rules, they’ve lost sight of the reason behind them. They have become, as Jesus says elsewhere, “whitewashed tombs, pure and clean on the outside, but full of rot and dead men’s bones on the inside.” Kind of a graphic description, isn’t it?

But there are those that believe that as long as they do everything, as long as they check off all the boxes – went to church on Sunday, maybe even read my daily devotional, said a couple of prayers to God, maybe I served in the ministry of the Clothes Depot, so I’m OK. It’s not that these are bad things, we want to do these things, but it’s not a checklist. They’re certainly not a reason for us looking down on somebody else, thinking “I’m a better Christian than they are,” or “that that’s all I need.”

Being a Christian is all about heart. And being a disciple has several parts to it. We need to confess. We need to serve. We need to worship. And we need to witness.

If you are, as a disciple, supposed to follow the doctrines of someone, doesn’t it help you to know what those doctrines are? We have a source for that, a textbook, if you will, right here [holds up Bible]. Let me ask you a question. All of you have been through school, up through high school. Many of you have been through college. If you did not read your textbook, would you have done well on the test? I wouldn’t have.

In fact, I’d write notes. My memory was not so good, even back then. If I hadn’t had my notes and I didn’t review my notes, I still wouldn’t have done real well on the test. By the way, it’s all right to put notes in your Bible. It’s not sacrilegious to write in your Bible.

It took me a couple of decades to get over that, but you can too. You can underline things, highlight things, you can even write in the margins if there is enough space. Then the next time when you come to read that passage, you might be able to say, “Wow, I’ve figured something different out. This is cool.”

You need to learn, study. Disciple, at its root, means to learn. The standard definition of disciple is someone who adheres to the teachings of another. It is a follower or a learner. It refers to someone who takes up the ways of someone else.

Applied to Jesus, a disciple is someone who learns from Him to live like Him, someone who, because of God’s awakening grace, conforms his or her words and ways to the words and ways of Jesus. Or, as you might say, as others have put it in the past, disciples of Jesus are themselves “little Christs.” You know what that word is? Christians. “Little Christs.”

So at its root, a disciple is somebody who learns, who is a student, a study-er of Jesus, what He said and what He did.

Secondly, we are worshipers. We need to follow Jesus by worshiping Him exclusively. This is at the heart of Jesus’ ministry on earth. As he told the woman at the well, the Father is seeking true worshipers. Not false worshipers, but true worshipers, those who worship Him in spirit and in truth. Which means, as it did in her case, we shouldn’t be so quick to change the subject.

If we would follow Jesus, we must worship God through Jesus, because He is our Mediator, and we must worship Jesus Himself, because He is God. In all four of the Gospels, by word and by deed, He put forth the claim that He was God. Don’t let anyone ever mislead you about that.

This is a bit of self-promotion, but next week we’re going to start an in-depth study into the Gospel of Mark, starting at verse 1 of chapter 1 and we’re going to go all the way through the book. I hope and pray that you guys will come, and you can see where these claims are made, and how it affected the people around Him – those that would be His followers.

Nothing will irritate our pluralistic society more than being an exclusive worshiper of Jesus. Lots of people are cool with Jesus, at least their own notion of him, and even following the ways of Jesus when it leaves out the exclusivity part.

Jesus the moral teacher. Jesus the nice guy. The “judge not lest you be judged” motivational speaker. Or what was one of my favorites in the late 70’s, when I was a teenager and graduating from high school, Jesus my “homeboy,” my “bro,” arms around each other’s shoulders, going everywhere together (except I don’t surf).

That’s not the real Jesus. That’s a man-made figure, and a far cry from the portrait that Jesus gives Himself.

The third thing that makes a disciple is you are a servant. In the Gospel of John, he shows us a picture of the Jesus we are to worship, and this time he is kneeling before the disciples to wash their feet in John 13. I know it doesn’t sound right, especially when we think of Him as the object of our exclusive praise. It didn’t sound right to Peter either, until Jesus said, “If I do not wash you, you will have no part with me.”

Jesus came to earth, not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. That’s what it says in Mark 10. As a servant, and not just to the disciples that night, but as he healed people, as he taught people, it was always with their betterment in mind, not for his own glory and recognition. He was following the will of the Father, serving the Father. At one point he said, “My food and drink is to do the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

As a servant, Jesus says to his disciples, “If then, your lord and teacher has washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet, for I have given you an example, that you also should do just as I have done to you.”

In one sense, the posture of a servant should characterize Jesus’ disciples on all fronts. But in another sense, being a servant like Jesus has a particular focus on the disciples serving the disciples. That’s what Jesus did in the upper room, not to the crowd of thousands that he fed. It’s a family thing. “Let us do good to everyone,” Paul said, “and especially to those who are of the household of faith.”

If we cannot serve one another, then we cannot truly serve those outside the church. If we cannot love one another within the church, we cannot reflect and channel God’s love to those outside the family of God.

This doesn’t mean there’s no conflict. This doesn’t mean that you don’t have debates and discussions. I hope not arguments, because an argument is when somebody wants to win no matter what. But discussions and debates – we Presbyterians love this, it’s an integral part of us.

But in the end, we are unified by our belief in Christ and our discipleship to Him and our support for the family of God that He has put us in the midst of. If we cannot do that, then we certainly cannot serve others.

And if we don’t know what Christ said and did, and if we don’t worship Christ on a regular basis, corporate or personal (and corporate worship is different – the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, there’s a synergy that occurs), if we don’t know who He is, if we don’t worship Him, if we don’t serve, then we cannot be a good witness.

Jesus said to his disciples, again in John 20, “the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” I’ve already mentioned the Great Commission in Matthew. This means that Jesus’ disciples are on a mission. It means in the broadest sense that they are missionaries, that they are envisioned and empowered to step into the world, not to be of it but to be in it and sent into it, as His witnesses.

Jesus was sent for a purpose, to reveal God and redeem sinners. He set his face like flint to see it accomplished. We too, as His disciples, filled by His Spirit, are sent for a purpose: to tell His good news to all and to make disciples.

To be a disciple of Jesus, in the broad sense, means to point people to Him. It means to tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love, so that others would know Him and worship Him. I was struck by the fact that we call Communion, in the Presbyterian church, “the sign and seal of God’s grace.” It is not the means of God’s grace, unlike in some denominations such as the Catholic church.

Rather, it is a sign that points us to Christ, as we remember the sacrifice He made, our desperate need for Him, as we remember His love for us, as we remember His victory, given to us through the cup of salvation. It’s a seal of God’s grace, as we believe that Christ is with us in spirit, strengthening us, and we spend time in the presence of God. It’s not a magical thing, but it’s more than a remembrance. It’s a sign, a sign that points you to Jesus.

In a way, we’re kind of like living Communions, each and every day, as we point people, through the gospel of good news of Jesus Christ, to the love and mercy and grace that can only be experienced through Him. May you be a learner, a worshiper, a servant, here and in the larger world, and a faithful witness, in all that you say and confess, and all that you do.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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