Every Follower a Sacrament

1It was right before Christmas and, after a long conversation on the phone, I walked into a hospital room…surrounded by a loving family was the small bundle of a baby.  What should have been a room filled with smiles and joy was rather immersed in contemplation and watchful sadness.  It was not a tense situation, don’t get me wrong.  The room had the air of hope but also had been saturated with a life-altering reality – the baby was stillborn.  Instead of anticipating days and moments of life, the mom and dad and their extended family were embracing the wrap of swaddling clothes that encapsulated a lifeless, their lifeless, child.  I looked at little Olivia and I didn’t see those newborn’s eyes that are searching, trying to make sense of their new world…I didn’t heart the groans, coos, and squeaks that normally accompany such joy-filled seconds of new life.  What I beheld was that of a lifeless body…that “look” that is unmistakable – death.

As I walked into the room, I thought to myself, “why am I here?”  What possibly could I bring to this situation and to this grieving couple and family?  What words of hope?  What action of love?  What presence is needed?  As you might imagine, it is at moments like these that a follower of Jesus depends on only one thing – the love and grace of God.  It dawned on me as I crossed the threshold of the room that I was going to have the honor, the humility soaked, spiritually called and privileged honor, of being a “means of grace” to this couple and to these moments of their lives.  Yes, it occurred to me as it has escaped my consciousness and awareness before that I was bringing something into that room that was definitely of God’s heart – His presence, His mercy, His love, and the potentiality of transformation and hope.  No, it wasn’t about me…it was about what God wanted to do through me…to tell you the truth, I didn’t even know how and what the Spirit was going to do…all I knew is that I had the awesome responsibility and call to be His means of grace and hope in those moments.

That brings me to the “bigger picture” that is the subject of this article.  Ok – so here’s some things I’ve been thinking about…I’ve been teaching a bit on the sacraments while I’ve been helping families prepare their children for the receiving of communion in the worship experiences of Peace (by the way, that is the foundation of how decisions are being made in our faith community regarding communion readiness…they are being made by parents in consultation with me).  Yeah, for some of you, you have no idea what I’m talking about…but that’s OK.  Let me school you for a moment:

A classic definition of a Sacrament is this (straight out of Martin Luther’s Catechism, mind you):

A Sacrament is a sacred act – instituted by God Himself; containing certain visible means connected with His Word; by which God offers, gives and seals unto us the forgiveness of sins…essentially a sacrament is a means of grace”  

Also, another quote on the means of grace (these from the Book of Concord – yeah, look that up too if you need to, the BOC is a collection of confessional documents that provided and provide the doctrinal framework the historical Lutheran expression of Christianity) “a means of grace is a way God creates faith, bring about conversion, justification, and sanctification.”

Again, from a historical perspective, there have been debates denominationally on how many sacraments there are and what specific acts are defined as sacramental (or if sacramental theology even is relevant because, in some denominations, it is not).  Even so, I’ve come to the conclusion, after having a plethora of conversations and debates over the years, that I am not only one who proactively embraces this whole notion and deep theology of how God reveals Himself sacramentally to the world through and in the acts of ekklesia (that being the gathered faith community, i.e. baptism, communion and the Word of God) but also that those who follow Jesus, in other words, the WE of the Body of Christ are sacraments.

Oh, I know that there may be a few naysayers out there…so hear me out.  Look again at the definition of a sacrament – realize that God created you and me…that not only has God created us but God is always the initial “mover” in terms of a relationship with us.  In other words, the only reason we can know and love God is that God is the one who made the first move…He INITIATED and INSTITUTED our relationship.  Ephesians reminds us that we are “chosen” and called by God…established in a new identity because of new life in Jesus.  In fact, the whole Body of Christ idea…the whole discipleship thing…the whole mission and purpose of living our lives in and through His Spirit?  God’s idea!  So, we are instituted by God…secondly we, as people who love and follow Jesus, are a visible means that God uses to communicate the truth of His Word.  In other words, when you think of “visible means”, you think of the word, “incarnation.”  Jesus Himself was the incarnation of God’s love, will, purpose and heart for His world.  Jesus was God with skin in the “game” of the world…He was God made flesh and He who “moved into the neighborhood.”  Now, through the Holy Spirit, who is the contemporary “incarnation” of the presence of the Lord?  You guessed it…we are!  God is alive in and through us…we are the “temple of the Lord”…we are the hands and feet of Jesus today.  WE are the Body of Christ in the world…that isn’t just some mysterious, mystical definition but His Word made truth and made real in our lives.  So, second sacramental issue spoken to…how about the third?  Have you ever read about us being “God’s ambassadors (2 Cor. 5)?”  I bet you have…we are agents of reconciliation…we offer the love that Jesus gave to us to others…we love because He first loved us.  We love “one another as I (Jesus) have loved.”  We forgive each other…extend God’s healing hand through prayer…oh, the list goes on and on.

Just to underscore…read about the sacraments sometime – they are “outward signs which have God’s command and promise” – isn’t that what our identity is to be all about as followers and lovers and children of God?  “The chief thing about sacraments is God’s Word” – isn’t it true, that this Kingdom deal isn’t about you and me but really all about Jesus, the Living Word?  “Sign of the covenant of grace” – aren’t we called as followers of Jesus to embody God’s covenant?  Light and salt to the world…a city set on a hill…go and do likewise…those are words of Jesus given to challenge and encourage you and me to bear His Word and will into our world.  I don’t know…I don’t want to make TOO BIG of a deal of this, but it is making more sense to me as I go along.  I don’t think God uses only a handful of means to communicate and reveal His grace to the world…He uses a multitude of expressions of Himself and His love through people who are part of His Body…you and me.  I underscore this doesn’t mean that WE do the actual work…we just bear the presence of the ONE whose work has been, is being and is going to be done in our lives.  Jesus is the one who saves, justifies, and sanctifies…His work alone.

So, I’ve been coming to this conclusion…we are a means of grace.  In fact, the more you think about, the more sense it makes.  The classic definition of a sacrament actually helps you and me (if we are followers of Jesus) to embrace our God-given purpose and call…we are “sent” to the world to “go and make disciples.”  We are a means of God’s grace in and through our mission…in that way, every follower is a sacrament…every person who loves Jesus that which is poured out, broken, bringing the washing of new life that only comes through Jesus into the presence of the relationships in which we have been blessed.

How’s that for clarifying who we are in Jesus?  We (as the gathered community of faith) not only handle the means of grace, we ARE a means of grace!  Every follower a “sacrament”…I don’t know, it seems to work for me.

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More on Discipleship…

discipleship-treeEvery day something crosses my desk or my computer screen that promises the “silver bullet” to our desperation in ministry.

There are the inevitable – 10 ways to stop driving away visitors or 8 Reasons why people aren’t coming back or 12 signs of mediocrity in the church or 7 ways to respond as people attend church less often or 10 reasons why young people don’t like church or 10 things you can do now to make sure your church will grow.

It’s out there every day…

So as you might guess…many people are looking for that Silver bullet – that one thing that could turn things around for the contemporary church.

Many are convinced…if we just have that one program…or that one doctrinal secret…or something that can “poof” and solve our problems than we will embrace it with all our might and turn this baby around.

But you know what?  There is NO Silver bullet – well, at least there isn’t a silver bullet that is something is easy to apply to our lives.

The ONLY silver bullet that exists out there is something called discipleship and trust me, discipleship…building disciples…building disciples that are not only faithful to Jesus but also are, by nature, reproductive is darn near impossible in what most of the contemporary church has become.  Discipleship takes a while.  If it wasn’t for the power of Jesus’ presence through the Spirit of God, I think it would be fair to say that we would be lost.

Discipleship isn’t about landscaping schemes or building blueprints…it isn’t about getting that right staff person or dynamic pastor…it isn’t really about a style of music or whether or not we celebrate communion this week or not.

And discipleship is definitely not about doing another church program or having the right sermon series…it just isn’t.

Discipleship is about ONE person who desires to follow Jesus learning from Jesus how to follow Him and then teaching and demonstrating to another how to do the exact same thing  And instead of this thing happening once in a while, it happens daily not in church buildings but in coffee shops, living rooms, break rooms, and restaurants around the community.

1 Corinthians 11:1 “be imitators of me as I am of Christ.”  1 Corinthians 4:16 “I urge you then be imitators of me.”  I don’t see this as overly complicated – Paul seems to be saying plainly that imitation is a core part of being a disciple – you see everyone needs to be trained to be like his or her teacher, Jesus.  That’s what the disciples of Jesus did…that’s what we need to do – be about the process of imitation – that’s how we learn and that’s how we grow.

It’s always been that way – since we were little kids – we learned by observing and watching and listening and then ACTING out what we saw someone else “do.”

Friends, don’t let discipleship in your life be all about information – information doesn’t change the world.  Disciples are made on the mission field, not in classrooms.

So, this challenging dynamic boils down to TWO questions:

1 – Who are you watching?  In other words, who’s mentoring you…who do you have in your life whom you say, “there I want to love and follow Jesus JUST LIKE THEM.”

I’m getting to the point these days where I don’t feel any compulsion to teach you more information about God…but I do feel a HUGE accountability to make sure that you are mature in Jesus as His disciple and that you start acting on what it means to be a disciple.

2 – Who’s watching you?  Is your life worth imitating from a Kingdom perspective…and if not, why not?

Friends, it has taken us centuries to get to where we are today.  For many of us, we have spent our lives learning how to run a church, design a worship service, run a Sunday school or other church program…we are experts on budgets and buildings.  It will take us a while, in fact, we have to be completely retrained when it comes to relearning what it means to be a dynamic, organic community that is dependent on the Holy Spirit to see if new life can be breathed into us again.  A DNA or paradigm shift is occurring and it doesn’t happen overnight.

Discipleship … learning how to be disciples, train disciples, release disciples and make disciples will take some time.

In the meantime, we’ve got to learn to love and follow Jesus – be His disciples and pray that He will energize us to disciple others as He is discipling us.

 

 

More on Discipleship – Discipleship as JOURNEY

1Discipleship as Journey

Phil. 1:6 – “He who began a good work in you, will be faithful to complete it”
Phil. 2:12 – “…work out your salvation with fear and trembling…”
Matthew texts – the parable of seed growing secretly, mustard seed parable, the parable of the sower, fruit/growth principle
John 15 – Vine and branches
2 Peter 3:8 – “one day is like a 1000 years and a 1000 years are like one day”

Thesis – Discipleship is essentially and definitely defined as “following Jesus”. Discipleship is more of a journey than a destination. It is a journey of grace, mercy, love, and power through the Holy Spirit. It is a journey that closely accompanies the “ups and downs” of a person’s emotional and chronological maturity. To say that spiritual formation or growing “maturity” as a disciple “trumps” ones normal development would unfairly thrust a person into adhering to a performance-based maturity paradigm. A disciple never “arrives”…the gospels are a story of disciples being called, responding to that call, and engaging in a journey of discovery and discovering more of the “new and abundant life” that comes in and through Jesus. Discipleship is a journey that is specifically Jesus dependant…it is a move from immaturity to a growing maturity (that can be observed and monitored as it is “lived” out in one’s life). Discipleship cannot be reduced to a list of spiritual benchmarks. Even so, many people continue to describe discipleship as a list of “to do’s” that eventually reveal a performance-based discipleship paradigm.

Essentials of Discipleship

“Christianity who the living Jesus is inevitably Christianity without discipleship and Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”

“Only he who believes is obedient and only he who is obedient believes.”

A disciple is someone who follows Jesus.

Bonhoeffer commented on discipleship in Cost of Discipleship:

“Follow me” means “run along behind me”
Jesus gives us no intelligible program for a way of life. He gives us no goal or ideal to strive after…no cause which human calculation might deem worthy of our devotion…Jesus calls us to discipleship purely for the sake of discipleship…for the sake of that call and a relationship with Him.
A disciple “burns his boat and goes ahead.”

A disciple is:

Called out of their old life.
Completely surrendered to Jesus.
Called out of “finite and into infinite possibilities.” (Bonheoffer)

Is not a “mere theological, doctrinal system which renders discipleship superfluous and following Jesus inconsequential.”
Is called to a life of love and obedience to Jesus.
One who embraces a life of obedience to Jesus, suffering with Jesus and sacrifice for Jesus.
A disciple’s character is transformed (made clear through traits exemplified in the sermon on the mount in Matthew 5).
A disciple is a part of a “visible community” – salt and light to the world.
A disciple practices the “righteousness” of Jesus – the Kingdom lifestyle that is made real in and through a Kingdom LIFE in Jesus.
Lives a Kingdom “call” where the reign of God is experienced in every area of life (e.g. seen in how we care for others, love God, experience/share peace, experience and share wisdom, it is one that is rooted in God’s story, lived out in memorial experiences, seen in our values and worldview, and lived through our vocation and relationships). A Kingdom life permeates all aspects of life.
A disciple grows in Jesus Christ…”making disciples” is at the core (in the very essence of one’s spiritual DNA) of a disciple’s identity.
Being a disciple involves denying self, picking up a cross-marked identity, and following Jesus.
Being a disciple involves the disciplines of prayer, bible reading and study, worship, growth in the knowledge of God, growing clarity/ownership of one’s identity in Jesus, being filled and empowered by the Holy Spirit, being obedient to Kingdom living as revealed in Christ and His Word, experiencing spiritual warfare and sharing of the resources that God has given graciously.
Being a disciple involves INCARNATIONAL, MISSIONAL, and RELATIONAL living (Leonard Sweet).

Being a disciple occurs in the context of our REAL lives…we experience physiological development (we have bodies); we experience emotional and relational development (we are inherent “image based” beings – multi-faceted, spiritual, emotional, complexities that are a reflection of the God in whose image we were created); we are fragile and have life experiences that can derail us in our growth and development; frequently change/transformation occurs following times of “wilderness” (i.e. emotional, relational, or situational breakdown); we are connected with other life “systems” that require us to change. Frequently, each “breakdown” in life throws us or propels us to embrace issues and developmental realities that have occurred in our past. In other words, we return to “younger” or “less mature” stages in life as we process life’s challenges. That’s why growing spiritual maturity/discipleship can never been seen as a linear process…it is a journey filled with joys, sorrows, victories, and defeats…it is not an ascending into perfection program but rather a lifestyle of dependence upon a loving and transformative God in whose life we have discovered our true identity.

“In, through, over and above so-called normal development the human spirit surges, struggles, sustains, submerges, and reemerges with the newness of life. Those who have seen spiritual transformation in its wondrous and joyful intention to transcend linear expectations and repeatedly reconfigure life’s set patterns, yet without loss of continuity in selfhood, have little difficulty in recognizing and accepting the analogy between this and the rebirth of life after death according to God’s promise of resurrection and redemption for all creation beyond time and history…in actuality, human development is never experienced as a cycle or a sequence, it often feels more like a few decades of searching, finding, and losing an uncertain fulfillment…when the longing for that intimacy is satisfied by the spiritual presence of Christ, the face of God…a lifetime is an unfinished act of God’s love….as each life unfolds, gets torn open, stripped of its survival techniques and its passing pleasures…it appears from under the surface that we have been created for nothing less than the pure love of God…” James Loder, Logic of the Spirit

Human life unfolds over time – clocks, calendars, “to-do” lists, benchmarks of spiritual performance and maturity “lists” cannot supply a definitive framework for spiritual formation.

The Holy Spirit causes transformation of a disciple’s life IN THE REAL LIFE of the disciple. New life and our new identity IN JESUS takes shape over time but does not necessarily “trump” the God’s creative process and the miracle of human development embedded into each unique individual. God is in the sanctification business yet that work is NOT a linear work…it is best described as a journey…a circuitous journey that closely parallels the ups/downs of one’s growing, emotional maturity. Can a “miracle” of growth that astounds one’s emotional development occur? Yes, most definitely. Even so, spiritual formation appears to be closely related to how a person grows and develops emotionally and psychologically during the duration of their lives.

Significant questions – what can we realistically expect out of a person’s growth as a disciple? What transformation potentiality is there at any given emotional development stage? Could it be that we are expecting something to happen in one’s spiritual, discipleship maturity than we can realistically anticipate given one’s emotional and chronological development? Are specific spiritual formation traits more apt to emit and demonstrate their “aliveness” in one’s life given the specificity of their age and maturity in development?