Maxie Dunnam ~ The Shape of Discipleship

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The sixth chapter of John’s Gospel begins with the words, “After these things Jesus went over the Sea of Galilee.”  Following a beginning like that, you would think that things are going to get calmer, less dramatic, and maybe you can catch your breath as you now read.

Wrong.

Our lesson today begins with verse 60 of that chapter, and began with these words: “when many of His disciples heard it, they said, ‘This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?’” So we need to go back a bit in our Scripture lesson to get the context for what Jesus is saying and why the disciples thought the teaching was so difficult.

He had been teaching his followers about who he was. He had fed the multitude by multiplying the loaves and the fishes. Following that dramatic miracle, the crowd followed him and Jesus was rather harsh. He confronted them with the fact that they were following him not because they realized who he was, but because their immediate hunger needs were being met.

Then there was an interchange about what signs were to be given. His followers called to mind that Moses had given the Israelites in the wilderness the sign of manna. Jesus reminded them that it was not Moses who gave the bread, but the Father who gives the true bread from heaven. And they responded, “give us this bread always.”

Then Jesus made that amazing claim: “I am the Bread of Life. Whoever comes to Me will never be hungry and whoever believes in Me will never be thirsty.”

That discussion continued — all centered around the image of the bread and the manna in the wilderness. Jesus closed that discussion, saying “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day… This is the bread that came down from Heaven, not like that which your ancestors ate, they died. But the one who eats this bread will live forever.” (verses 54, 58)

Is it any wonder that the disciples found those words hard to accept — hard to tolerate? They knew what Jesus had been saying. They knew that he was claiming he was the very life of God come down from heaven. If anyone was going to have eternal life they were going to have to accept and submit to him.

It was clear that the call to discipleship was a difficult call, a call that demanded making Jesus Master, and following him had to be the priority of one’s life. Some turned back and no longer went with him. As Jesus often did, he used that happening to focus on the inner circle — the twelve — and call them to consider their own commitment. He asked them the question, “Do you also wish to go away?”

Seeing this, Jesus keeps his focus on the twelve, asking “Do you also wish to go away?”

I’m not assuming that you are the inner circle in the sense that the twelve were. I am assuming that you are followers, or that you want to be, and are seeking to be a faithful disciple. So we need to think and talk about discipleship. I may ask you that question at the close of the sermon: “Do you also wish to go away?”

Discipleship is the most common theme in the church today, and rightfully so. I want to add my prayers and thoughts to the discussion, and I begin with a bridge observation.

Two issues have emerged in the church over three or four decades that have severely limited our understanding and practice of discipleship. One, too many have accepted a dichotomy between evangelism and social transformation. Two, we have practiced evangelism void of discipleship. These two failures have resulted in a church that has lost its power. To a marked degree, we have even lost our identity and integrity as the Body of Christ.

I’m going to speak in some broad generalities now, but please, register the point I’m trying to make. The evangelical church (don’t boo me now; I’m an evangelical, though I’m reticent to say so publicly given the presidential candidates who are claiming they have the evangelical vote, but I am…I am an orthodox, evangelical Wesleyan) – the evangelical church has been guilty of making converts, but not making disciples. Let that register: the evangelical church has been guilty of making converts, but not making disciples.

At least 75% of our population call themselves Christian. Over half of those claim to be “born again” Christians. We have to question what that means. If all “born again” Christians were disciples, would there not be greater signs of the transforming power of Christ at work in the world? Jesus certainly intended it to be so. Do you remember what he said? “You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under a bushel basket, but on a lamp-stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see you good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.” (Mark 5:14-16)Jesus expected his followers to make a difference in the culture around them.

Peter Kreeft, professor of Boston College, has perceptively noted that “the City of the World” increasingly oozes its decay.  Isn’t that a graphic image? “The City of the World” increasingly oozes its decay.  But what about the disciples of Jesus?  What about the city set on a hill?  What are we doing about the fact that the septic tanks on the hill are backing up and are overflowing into the minds of our children and youth and are poisoning our culture?

Do you hear the case I’m making? We evangelicals have been guilty of making converts without making disciples. But mark this as well. The more adamant among us, I being one, may say with equal conviction, the Mainline Church, and United Methodism is a part of the Mainline, the Mainline seeks to make disciples without making converts. Thus we reduce the Gospel to a political or social agenda. That’s the battle we United Methodist will be fighting at our upcoming General Conference.

Both groups, evangelicals and mainliners, perpetuate within the Church a deadly omission of the Great Commission to make disciples.

Let’s  not forget, salvation is far more than forgiveness of sin; it is an act of the whole person, involving the mind, the will, and the affections, issuing in a changed life, committed to live in obedience to Jesus Christ as Lord. Scripture calls this the life of holiness or sanctification as we Wesleyans talk about it. And that’s what discipleship is all about.

Listen to me now…listen closely. Our ultimate quest as persons is to know who Jesus is and who we are in relation to him.  Let me say that again. If you are taking notes, write it down.  Our ultimate quest as persons is to know who Jesus is and who we are in relation to him.

I confess, I have not always been self-consciously aware of this as my quest, but as I look back over my life and ministry, the pattern is a clear expression of that quest: I have passionately desired to know who Jesus is and who I am in relation to him. As I have pursued this quest for over sixty years, in the past few years I have discovered what I believe is the shape of discipleship for our time. I call this the intercessory life.

The intercessory life is a pattern for our interior growth in prayer that is abiding in Christ, and the outward expression of a missional Christ life in the world.  It is a dynamic balance of paying attention to our personal spiritual maturity, and the call of Christ to minister as servants in the world.

My image is scripturally rooted in the Epistle to Hebrews. The teaching of this Epistle is that God has appointed his Son, Jesus, High Priest in the likeness of Melchizedek. He is our High Priest, ready now to offer the sacrifice once and for all, a “perfect and sufficient sacrifice for the sins of the whole world.” He offers it according to a new covenant that completely displaces and satisfies…get that now, completely displaces and satisfies the old covenant. He offers it in a temple not made with hands, eternal in the heavens.

Other priests’ ministries are limited because they die; not so with Jesus. He lives forever, therefore his priesthood is unchangeable, unalterable, permanent and perpetual. So the writer to the Hebrews concludes, “He ever lives to make intercession for us.”

I know I can’t say intercession without you immediately thinking of prayer…intercessory prayer. That’s normal, because at the heart of prayer is intercession. Listen closely now. Prayer is an expression of intercession, but that is not all intercession is. The Hebrew word for intercession is paga. It means, “to meet.” It also means, “to go between.” So intercession is not only prayers we pray; intercession is a life we live. Discipleship is intercession.

With all that in mind, go back to my dogmatic claim: our ultimate quest as persons is to know who Jesus is, and who we are in relation to him. Now, if that’s true, then if Jesus is our High Priest, who ever lives to make intercession, doesn’t it follow that as Christ-followers, we must ever live to make intercession?

400px-The_Go_Between_Bridge_(5196888948)
The Go-Between Bridge in Brisbane, Australia

Remember now:  prayer is an expression of intercession, but it is not all intercession is.  As I stated earlier, the Hebrew word for intercession is paga. It means “to meet.”  It also means “to go between.” That’s the dynamic of our discipleship: we meet…we meet with others and we meet with God. In meeting, we go between as the presence of Christ.
We are called to intercessory prayer, yes, a big yes, but the ultimate expression of our discipleship is to live an intercessory life.  Here is where the Gospel and living the Christian life become a radical matter. And again, here is where our interior spiritual life and our active outward expression of being a disciple of Jesus come together.  Listen to me now. The call is not be responsible to Christ; we are to be responsible for Christ.

Now that’s not double talk, so let me make it clear.  The normal stance of a person who wants to be a faithful Christian is to seek to be responsible to Christ. That’s the reason we talk so much about following Christ. We want to be responsible to him.  But, friends, we may have emphasized following Jesus too much. Don’t close your mind now, or get defensive. We may have emphasized following Jesus too much. I believe this emphasis is often distorted and it reduces Christianity to the level of other religions, diminishing Jesus to merely an example to follow. Jesus is not merely an example to follow. Jesus is Savior. Jesus is Lord. Jesus is sovereign over us and all creation.

Remember Jesus extended a dual invitation: One, come unto me; two, abide in me and I will abide in you. I know it is a dangerous oversimplification, but I will risk it. The first invitation is a call to Christ, to accept him as Savior; the second is the ongoing call to discipleship, not just to come, but to remain, to abide in Christ. Being disciples, living the intercessory life requires abiding in Christ.

Being responsible for Christ, then, is something different from following Christ, or being responsible to Christ; it is not seeking to be accountable to or to please Christ (hold your breath now); it is actually being Christ in the world, living and acting in our family and community as Christ living and acting there.

This distinction becomes clear as we reflect on two sayings of Jesus. In one situation after another, he identifies himself, in effect saying, “this is who I am.” In John 8:12, he made the expansive claim, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). But listen. He not only said, “I am,” he said, “you are the light of the world.” As radical as it may be, as Christ-followers, we are what Jesus was and is: the light of the world.

Am I making sense? If we are, as Jesus said, “the light of the world,” then we are not responsible to Christ, we are responsible for Christ.

I hope you hear what I am saying, though it may shock you. We are to be Christ in the world.  Over 40 times in John’s Gospel alone Jesus mentions the importance of having been sent by the Father. God had to have someone to re-present him, so he sent Jesus. Likewise, Jesus needs us to re-present him, just as he represented the Father. The language could not be clearer: “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.”

Don’t miss the implication of this. If Jesus is to do the will of the Father, he is sending us to do that same work. Listen to his words in Matthew 10:40: “He who receives you receives me, and he receives me receives the Father who sent me.” Live with this for a moment. It’s not difficult to think that if a person receives Jesus, that person receives the Father, the one who sent Jesus. But how radical is this? Jesus says to you, “Hey John, hey Bailey, he who receives you receives me.”

Think about that. Jesus is saying to you as his disciple, “He who receives you, receives me.” Think about it…think about it and tremble! We are living Christs here and now. As Jesus represented the Father who sent him, we represent Jesus who sends us.

That may sound simple, friends, and it is – simple in that it is clear, simple, but oh, so radical and demanding. I’ve come to believe that the grace of God, which we are called to express as we abide in Christ, and live an intercessory life – the grace of God is so radical that, when we express it, in its fullness, those around us may think we are accepting the lifestyles and the sins and failures of the persons we are seeking to serve. Are you hearing me? Really hearing me? The grace of God is so radical that, when we express it, in its fullness, those around us may think we are accepting the lifestyles and the sins and failures of the persons we are seeking to serve.

With that thought tumbling around in your mind, and maybe having knocked you a bit off balance, I challenge us as individuals and as a congregation to measure the state of our intercessory life by responding to these questions:

*Who are the people in our community who have yet to receive a clear message from you personally, and our church, that we deeply care for them and that God loves them?

*What about the recovering community – those folks seeking freedom from alcohol and drugs? Are you and our community of faith a place of welcome, a place of grace that will help them break the chains of shame and blame?

*What about the thousands of children in our city who don’t yet have access to a good educational opportunity?  A child’s zipcode should not determine her opportunity for that.  We have made a marvelous response in our founding and supporting Cornerstone School, and that school, as well as other creative enterprises, are proving that there can be excellent urban education in Memphis and in any city, but we are only scratching the surface.

*What about the immigrants in our community? Are you and our community of faith showing hospitality to these “strangers in our midst,” those who are culturally homeless? We have spent millions of dollars in the past going to them in faithfulness to the Great Commission. Now they are coming to us. Is the Great Commission still operative? Remember that word from Hebrews 13: “In welcoming these strangers we may be entertaining angels unawares.”

I could go on but that’s enough to grapple with and test our intercessory life, our discipleship.

My friend Bishop Prince Taylor was one of my favorite people. He died a few years ago, and I miss him. He was a great story teller. The last time we were together, he told me a marvelous story. He was visiting people in the heart of Liberia, where he served for a period of time as a bishop. When he arrived after a long, hard journey, the old chief welcomed him formally, and with a great deal of celebration. When the formal part was over, the chief said, “Bishop, we believe in God. But sometimes he seems so far away. You be God for us today.”

Don’t take that as sacrilege. People everywhere are asking that of us. They may not speak it verbally, but their lives cry out for it. We are to be living reminders of the Kingdom, by being living reminders of Christ. That’s the shape of discipleship and that’s what it means to live an intercessory life.

It was clear that Jesus’ call to discipleship was a difficult call, a call that demanded making Jesus Master, and being a disciple had to be the priority of one’s life. Some turned back and no longer went with him. As Jesus often did, he used that happening to force them to consider their own commitment. He asked them the question, “do you also wish to go away?”

I’ve been as honest and clear as I can be, so listen now. If Jesus is our High Priest who ever lives to make intercession, isn’t that our calling, to ever live to make intercession, to live an intercessory life? Will you say, yes, and mean it…or do you simply “wish to go away?”

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Maxie D. Dunnam is the former president and chancellor of Asbury Theological Seminary. He is now Senior Pastor Emeritus and Executive Director of CCGlobal at Christ United Methodist Church in Memphis.

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