Discipleship for Grownups

Every time I read through the Sermon on the Mount, and John Wesley’s related discourses (as the published sermons are called), I find myself thinking, “This is Christianity for grownups.”  The thing is, once you commit to Jesus as Lord, then growing toward mature, fruit-bearing discipleship, is not optional.  While he will faithfully comfort, cheer and guide us, we don’t get to decide, “I think I’ll just stop here,” and stick with milk-not-meat faith.  We don’t get to choose the kind of discipleship we’ll pursue while we’re following him.  It’s kind of an all-or-nothing thing and it’s right there in the Sermon on the Mount.

As we think about John Wesley’s vision for full sanctification, let’s remember scriptures like these (from the New Revised Standard Version):

“No one can serve two masters, for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other…” (Matthew 6:24)

“And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as…infants in Christ.  I fed you with milk, not solid food.  Even now you are still not ready [though they should have been], for you are still of the flesh.” (1 Corinthians 3:1-3a)

“For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God.  You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness.” (Hebrews 5:12-13)

I can tell you, I would hate to hear these words spoken to me.  Oh, wait!  They are spoken to me.  And you.  I think these scriptures point quite acutely to a contemporary problem in the church.  We find ways of sticking to the easy stuff.  I know.  Lots of people are doing great things.  But when it comes to the harder teachings of the Gospel, we too often tend to minimize, reinterpret, or avoid altogether.

It is not only salutary, therefore, but positively necessary, for us to reflect on these harder passages of scripture.  And John Wesley is truly a goad and a help in this regard.  Let’s take one example from his discourses on the Sermon on the Mount.  Jesus said to his disciples, “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.  Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.  Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great…” (Mt. 5:10-12a)

I pick this example in large part because of confusion about what persecution actually is.  We recently have gone through another round of news items noting that “Mr./Ms. High School Valedictorian” was prevented from mentioning her faith in the valedictory address.  In one case, the student dropped his prepared remarks altogether and prayed the Lord’s Prayer.  Many Christians in our day put this situation in the “persecution” category.  I’m not so sure.

The kind of persecution that interests Mr. Wesley is the kind that comes on the heels of doing good for a neighbor!  He’s thinking in the context of the previous Beatitude of Jesus: “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.”  Wesley, working from the Greek, interprets  “peacemaker” here in a broad sense.  He says of the word, “It is well known that eirene [“peace”] in the sacred writings implies all manner of good—every blessing that relates either to the soul or the body, to time or eternity.”  In other words, “peacemakers” refers to the doing every kind of good far beyond attempts to minimize violence.

“If you do good, you will be persecuted,” Wesley says.  It just goes with the territory.  Simply trying to follow Jesus on a daily basis will, sooner or later, elicit some degree of persecution.  Somebody won’t like what you are doing and they’ll tell you about it, in graphic terms.  Some people will misinterpret your actions and accuse you of sinister motive.  (I remember my old mentor, Robert Tuttle, saying often, “The worst thing in the world is to mean well and be misunderstood.”)  Wesley, with more than a tinge of humor and irony, offers examples of invective that he no doubt himself heard said of Methodists trying to do good.  (If you’d like to see it, go to Sermon #23, Section 3, paragraph 3)

In other words, if we attempt at all to follow Jesus in public life, we will wind up on the receiving end of persecution.   Again Mr. Wesley: “This cannot fail: it is the very badge of our discipleship; it is one of the seals of our calling.”

So, how should we act in response?  Wesley’s first answer is, “Don’t bring it on yourselves.”  In fact, we should try to avoid persecution as much as possible.  And most importantly, we should take care not to use the word for people’s understandable reactions to our demonstrations of our own sinfulness.

But once we’ve cleared our consciences of wrongdoing, and we realize that we are in fact experiencing someone’s reviling, we do exactly as Christ taught.  We rejoice.  We express gladness to share with our Lord the wrath of people who misunderstand our motives and misrepresent our actions.  We act with joy.  We stay peaceful.  We’re no one’s doormat, certainly, but we also leave vengeance for a Higher Court.  We act, to quote Mr. Wesley just once more, “with invincible meekness.”  What a pithy phrase.

This is Christianity for grownups and if we want to be Christians at all, we want to be adult ones.  When I think of my sometimes shaky ego, my self-protective demurring, I stand convicted.  But oh, the joy of knowing that the grace of Christ both restores and leads to more steadfast, courageous discipleship, to a little more grown-up version of the faith.  That is always and ever the goal.

But those of us who do look to Mr. Wesley for guidance find much to challenge us.

Order Stephen’s book Aiming at Maturity: The Goal of the Christian Life.

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Dr. Stephen Rankin is a pastor, campus minister, professor, and chaplain, with particular interests in connecting sound thinking with practice of Christian discipleship and ministry. His focus is positive Christian witness and helping both individual Christians and groups (congregations, campus ministry units) develop biblically-sound, culturally-engaged ministries.

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