Pastoral Relief and Retreat

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Wethersfield, CT, United States
I am Pastor at Poquonock Community Church, Congregational (CCCC) in Windsor, CT. My wife Jama and I live in Wetherfield, CT. We'd like to invite you to Terre Haute -- High Ground -- That's what Jama and I call the retreat space on our property. We offer free intentional get-away retreats. We'll feed you and house you and give you space to be with the Lord. All are welcome; no questions asked. This blog is my daily devotional journal. I write it because it is so easy to go for weeks without ever taking the time to be alone with God. Writing helps me develop a discipline I need.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

Lord’s Day Message: The Beginning of Discipleship

John 1:43-51
The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”
Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” Nathanael asked.
“Come and see,” said Philip.
When Jesus saw Nathanael approaching, he said of him, “Here is a true Israelite, in whom there is nothing false.”
“How do you know me?” Nathanael asked.
Jesus answered, “I saw you while you were still under the fig tree before Philip called you.”
Then Nathanael declared, “Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel.”
Jesus said, “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You shall see greater things than that.” He then added, “I tell you the truth, you shall see heaven open, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.”

Beloved in Christ.

Last week we began what I believe may be the most important series this church or any church could embark on, because the things we will learn over the next six weeks will set the course for our ministry together here from the beginning.   The reason is that these are the foundations of a healthy ministry together.  We need these building blocks in order to grow an effective ministry. 

In case you weren’t here last week, or especially if you were here, I want to remind you where we began in this series on beginnings.  The Beginning of Vision comes when you go out and find twelve people, train them to be disciples, and then unleash them on the world.

But the moment we say that: “go out and find twelve people, train them to be disciples, and then unleash them on the world,” we have to ask the next question.  What does it mean to make disciples?  What IS a disciple anyway?  What does real discipleship look like?  How can I know if I am a disciple?

Brace yourself and listen carefully for a moment. 

“Whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith—that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Paul of Tarsus, AD 62

Paul was beheaded at Rome around 67 AD.  What could possibly make a man like Paul say that knowing Christ was better than having anything else in the world? 

"Now I begin to be a disciple. I care for nothing, of visible or invisible things, so that I may but win Christ. Let fire and the cross, let the companies of wild beasts, let breaking of bones and tearing of limbs, let the grinding of the whole body, and all the malice of the devil, come upon me; be it so, only may I win Christ Jesus!  I am the wheat of Christ: I am going to be ground with the teeth of wild beasts, that I may be found pure bread."
Ignatius of Antioch, 108 AD

Ignatius was thrown to the lions in the Colloseum at Rome, 108 AD.  What could possibly make a man like Ignatius choose to be torn apart by lions rather than deny Christ? 

Polycarp of Smyrna, around 160 AD
Polycarp, bishop of Smyrna, fed the guards who apprehended him.  He then asked them for an hour in prayer, which they gave him.  He prayed with such fervency, that his guards repented that they had arrested him. Still, he was carried before the proconsul, condemned, and sentenced to be burned in the market place.

After being tied to the stake the proconsul gave him one more chance, saying, "Swear, and I will release you; --reproach Christ."

Polycarp answered, "Eighty and six years have I served him, and he never once wronged me; how then shall I blaspheme my King, Who hath saved me?"

Polycarp of Smyrna was burned at the stake and stabbed to death when the flames failed to consume his body, AD 165.  What could possibly make a man like Polycarp choose to be burned rather than reproach Christ?

“All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Jesus of Nazareth, around AD 33

Jesus was beaten, flogged, nailed to a Roman Cross, and finally stabbed, around AD 33.  What could possibly make a man like Jesus choose an ignominious death for himself and for those who would truly choose the way he chose?

These few stories of people who chose Jesus over everything in the world and over being in the world itself have been multiplied hundreds of thousands of thousands of times over the last 20 centuries.  But those are the extremes.  Those stories are the END of discipleship.  Before we can find that kind of commitment, that kind of fidelity in ourselves, we have to know where discipleship begins.  And for that, we have to go back to the beginning of the gospel, back to John 1:43-51. 

Discipleship begins with invitation
Paul, Ignatius, and Polycarp all had one thing in common.  None of their lives began with anything like this kind of devotion to Christ.  Paul set out to be the very best Jewish scholar and Roman citizen he could be.   You see, disciples are not born that way.  Just as you weren’t born a Christian – none of us is – a Christian isn’t born a disciple.  They have to decide at some point that is the life they want to live. 

In Colossians 2:6 and 7 Paul says, “just as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”  You received Christ by an act of your will.  You came to know him by abandoning your claim on your life and turning it over to him.  And so discipleship isn’t automatic.  Living in Christ is just like coming to Christ.  It is a decision and an abandonment that always begins with a two-fold invitation.
John 1:43, “The next day Jesus decided to leave for Galilee. Finding Philip, he said to him, “Follow me.”  Philip, like Andrew and Peter, was from the town of Bethsaida.  Philip found Nathanael”

The discipleship of Philip began with Jesus inviting him.  “Follow me.”  But make no mistake: the discipleship of Philip also began with Philip inviting Nathanael.   The great moment doesn’t come just because you hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Follow me.”  That is a miracle in itself.  But the really great moment comes when you hear your own voice say to another, “Follow Jesus.”

In 1986 I was a young youth pastor over in Berlin, CT.  I had just begun my ministry at the Congregational Church there, and one day I mentioned to one of the kids in my youth group that I played racquetball.  I was trying to find some common interest that would give me the opportunity to share Christ with some of these kids.  The kid’s name was Steve.  Steve said he thought it would be fun to go to the YMCA in New Britain where the game was invented and play.  So we set a date and went and played a few games. 

A couple of weeks later, Steve asked if his friend Dave could come along and play.  After that set of games Steve and Dave and I all went out for ice cream at Friendlies.  That afternoon Dave began to ask questions about angels and that led to a discussion about Jesus. 

The next week Steve was busy and wasn’t able to come.  In fact, Steve rarely came to play racquetball again.  But Dave kept our appointments.  And over the next three years Dave and I played weekly down at the New Britain YMCA.  When he was 17 Dave went on a youth ministry tour with us.  One night as we camped out at a church in Bedford, NH, Dave gave his life to Christ.   That would have been remarkable enough after three years. 

The really amazing thing happened that fall when we decided to start a weekly Bible Study at my house.  That very first week Dave brought his friend Pete.  Right at the beginning of the Bible Study Dave said, “Tell Pete what you told me.” 

Right there.  That was the beginning of Dave’s discipleship to Christ.  Jesus had invited Dave and Dave had invited Pete.  “Follow me.”  And can you see that the only thing Philip, Andrew, Peter, and Nathanael seemingly have in common is that they were all from a little berg on the north end of the Sea of Galilee?  The only thing that Steve and Dave and Pete had in common was that they were all from Berlin, CT.  They were from quite different family backgrounds.  They had different interests and different plans for their lives.  Today Steve is in finance, Dave is a missionary working in Irian Jaya, and I don’t really know what Pete is doing.  But the thing they really had in common was that Jesus invited each of them, and he also used another person from their own town to invite them.

Discipleship begins with affirmation
Discipleship also begins with a two-fold affirmation that Jesus is the one the Law and the Prophets all pointed to.  Look at the text again:  Philip found Nathanael and told him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.”

Now this is tricky.  You don’t need to know anything other than Jesus himself in order to become a Christian.  Jesus never asked anyone to pass a theology exam before they could know him.  It is after you begin to know him, when discipleship begins, that he begins to teach you how the whole history of Israel was miraculously, inexorably about him. 

Over and over again as Jesus moved through his ministry with his disciples, he unlocked the Scriptures to them, telling them in the plainest terms that the Christ should suffer and die and on the third day be raised from the dead.   He showed them the Old Testament Scriptures that pointed to the coming of one who would sit on the throne of David and who would save his people from their sin.   

Beloved, you can become a Christian and sit in the pew week after week, year after year, and never really learn anything about the history of Israel or any of the prophetic things that were said about the coming Messiah and how all that history and all those prophecies pointed to Jesus.  But those who choose a life of discipleship dedicate themselves to be learners.  They want to know everything they can from their Lord and about their Lord.  Discipleship begins with learning.  Discipleship begins when you are able to affirm that Jesus is the One spoken of in the Law and the Prophets and when you begin to really know the richness of all that was said about him.

Discipleship begins with contemplation (questions)
The next place where discipleship begins is tightly allied with the last.   You see, the moment Philip told Nathanael Jesus was the One spoken of in the Old Testament, Nathanael started to ask questions.   The really remarkable thing about making the decision to become a disciple of Jesus is that, contrary to what you might think, discipleship isn’t the end of your questions about God, it is really just the beginning. 

It has been said that you can not own the answers until you own the questions.  Any good teacher knows that what is taught by rote is never really learned.  It is only when the student asks a genuine question that he ever learns something.   Nathanael’s first question is an “I don’t get it” question of the first rank. 

“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?”

Clearly, Nathanael had been to Nazareth.  The place was a kind of backwater, second-rate town up in Galilee of the Gentiles.  There was no Old Testament prophecy concerning Nazareth.  The town is never mentioned in the entire Old Testament record.  Nathanael’s question is a very logical one.  A lot of your questions are very logical ones. 

Beloved: God loves honest questions.  “Why is there evil in the world if God is in control of all things?”  “How come my friend or loved one died?”  “Can God really be like that?”  There are only two things God can’t stand.  He can’t stand your silence and he can’t stand your apathy.  No one ever became a disciple who didn’t ask questions.  And no one ever became a disciple who didn’t do the work and ask hard questions. 

When Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”   He was really bothered by something about what God might be doing that he didn’t understand.  Are you bothered enough to ask a genuine question? 

I’ve got a shock for you: your pastor is not the theological answer man.  My job is to get you to ask your own questions.  God’s is the one who will wrestle with you until you ask the questions.  The role of a pastor in your life is to shepherd you to a place where God can feed you, to teach you to be a good listener, and to help bring around you others who are asking hard questions so you and they can live in community together while you sit at Jesus’ feet.

Nathanael followed his first question with another.  When he finally met Jesus, he said, “How do you know me?”  What bothered Nathanael wasn’t just that Jesus had read his proverbial mail.  What bothered him was that Jesus really did seem to know him.  That is also the beginning of discipleship: when you realize just how thoroughly God knows you and it bothers you.  The scariest, most terrible thing a disciple can discover is that they are known by God, not just in the general sense or even with the recognition that God knows I’m a sinner.  But in the thorough sense: every motive, every thought, every desire, every sin, every joy, every ambition, every sorrow, every pain, every loss, every way in which someone has hurt you or helped you, God knows. 

Nathanael asked two questions, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” and “How do you know me?”  And the answers to those questions changed his life. 

Discipleship begins with investigation
You see, discipleship begins with investigation.  The only way Nathanael was going to find out if anything good could come out of Nazareth was if he did what Philip suggested.  “Come and see,” Philip said.  What would have happened if Nathanael had stayed wherever he was when Philip found him?   When someone comes to you and says, “I think I’ve had an encounter with Jesus.  Would you like to come to the Bible study; would you like to come to Iron Sharpens Iron; would you like to come to youth group; would you like to come to worship – do you know what happens to you when you say to them, “I don’t think that would be for me.  I’m too busy just now?”   Do you know what happens to you? 


 If you are so apathetic – you’ll mask that by saying you’re too busy or too tired – to actually come and actually see, you’ll never begin to ask the questions that are on your heart.  You’ll forever be too busy or too tired to really investigate.   Most of you come to church each week.  Maybe you’ve got that down.  But if that’s all you do it will become for you like signing up for English 101 and spending eight semesters repeating the same class.  You’ll be going over and over the mechanics of English that you learned the first semester and never encounter Chaucer or Shakespeare.  If all you do is get in the habit of going to church you can sit here week after week, year after year and never look deeply into the things of God.

You have to come and see to find out if anything good can come out of Nazareth.  And if you come and see Jesus will always be there with deep things you could never have imagined.  And when he speaks to you, no matter what he says, it will drive you to the next question and the next: “How… do… you… know… me?”  You will ask.  And it won’t just be a rhetorical question.

Discipleship begins with declaration
Finally, discipleship begins with declaration.   Nathanael said, ““Rabbi, you are the Son of God; you are the King of Israel!”  That was the beginning of discipleship for Nathanael.  Thomas declared, “My Lord and my God!” after he touched the nail prints in Jesus’ hands.  His discipleship really began after the resurrection.   Peter’s declaration came when Jesus began to ask his followers who they thought he was.  Peter said, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Conversion can, and often does happen much less dramatically than that.  Conversion is recognition.  Discipleship begins with declaration.  You may not be able to pick a Christian out of a crowd because so many Christians today look exactly like their unbelieving counterparts.  Nothing about their habits or patterns looks anything different from those of their friends and co-workers in the world.  But you will know a disciple because he or she has made that dramatic, earth-shaking, life-altering declaration. 

Nathanael called Jesus Rabbi.  Teacher.  Not just someone’s teacher.  MY teacher.  My Rabbi.  He also suddenly realized that Jesus wasn’t just a teacher, that he was the very offspring of God, the promised one spoken of in the Law and the Prophets, the one who would sit eternally on David’s throne.  And with that declaration, for Nathanael, there was no turning back.  If he didn’t go with Jesus from that day forward he would have turned away in crushing sadness over the missed opportunity.

Beloved in Christ.  Have you heard God’s invitation to you today?   Are you ready to affirm that Jesus is who the Law and the Prophets claim him to be?  Are you here with your questions – with your questions, not just the rote answers you’ve learned from years of Church?   Are you ready to come and see Jesus?  Have you had that moment of declaration that causes the dividing between everything about how you lived before and how you will live with Jesus? 

If so, there’s work to be done.   The Master’s Plan is still the same as it has always been: go out and find twelve people, train them to be disciples, and then unleash them on the world.  Last week I said that if there were twelve of you who were ready to do the work and move forward with Jesus, I wanted to know your names.  Jesus already knows your name.  Long before I called you, He saw you sitting under your own fig tree.  Jesus knows you and he wants you to be his disciple.  Last week I said that if there were twelve of you who were ready to do the work and move forward with Jesus, and not one person stopped me after church to say, “I think you meant me.”  Maybe you thought I was speaking rhetorically.  Maybe you thought that was just pulpit talk to get you thinking. 

NO, I wasn’t.  I really meant it.  Just like Jesus really meant it when he said, “Follow me.”

If you’re really interested; if you’ve really heard Jesus calling you today, then come and see.  We’ll work out the details as we go, but I need to know who you are.   All you have to do is walk up to me after church or at coffee hour or call me on the phone and say, “I want to be his disciple.”  

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