Discipleship and Christian Community

This is a sermon preached at Ocean Keys Baptist

Jesus said, “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” (Matt. 28:19-20 ESV).  We are accustomed to hearing sermons on this passage which tell us to conduct evangelism.  But that is not what I want to focus on today.  Jesus did not say Go and make converts, but rather Go and make disciples.  It is this which I want to consider this morning.  First, what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus as against simply a Christian convert?  And second, how can we help one another to grow as disciples of Jesus?

The first thing we know about disciples is that they follow Jesus.  One of the first things which Jesus did after his baptism in the Jordan was to call people to follow him.  “As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  ‘Come, follow me,’ Jesus said, ‘and I will send you out to fish for people.’  At once they left their nets and followed him” (Mk. 1:16-18 NIV).  This is the primary thing which disciples do, they follow.  Disciples, then, are people who follow Jesus.  It is also clear that following Jesus needs to be the priority of a disciple’s life.  When a disciple said to Jesus, “Lord, first let me go and bury my father”, Jesus told him, “Follow me and let the dead bury their own dead” (Matt 8:21-22).  In other words, don’t wait around for everything to be sorted out before you follow Jesus.  Follow Jesus now.

We don’t physically have Jesus here to follow around, but Jesus did give us some instructions which tell us what it means to follow him as his disciples.  When we follow Jesus our priorities are different to those who are not disciples.  Jesus told us, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matt 16:24 NIV).  The first disciples knew what crucifixion was about.  It was the most difficult, painful and shameful of deaths, something never spoken of in polite company or contemplated by civilized people.  Yet the first disciples were also aware that Jesus had told them, “The Son of Man is going to be delivered into the hands of men.  They will kill him, and after three days he will rise” (Lk. 14:26 NIV).  Taking up the cross and following Jesus means to walk to your death like Jesus did.  For some disciples this is a literal death.  For us this means dying to self, giving ourselves fully over to the will of God, which may involve sacrificing all that we hold dear.

Being a disciple may involve giving up your family.  Jesus said, “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters– yes, even their own life– such a person cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).  It may involve having to give up friends or possessions.  Again Jesus said, “In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:33).  These very strong sayings of Jesus make it plain that being a disciple of Jesus can be very costly.  There is nothing which can come before Jesus in the life of a disciple, not even your own life.  It is difficult being a disciple of Jesus.  Following Jesus is not easy.  It is simple, but it is never easy.  It is utterly worth all the sacrifice which it entails, since there is no other way to eternal life than being a follower of Jesus, but it is not easy.

This is exactly why we need to help one another to stay steadfast as disciples and even to grow as followers of Jesus.  We need Christian community.  Therefore, we find in the Letter to the Hebrews this instruction.  “And let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another– and all the more as you see the Day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25 NIV).  The Christians to whom the letter was written had experienced some persecution because of their faith.  Some, it seems, were considering going back to Judaism because that would have made life easier.  The whole letter is written to explain why Jesus is better than all the aspects of the Jewish faith and to urge them to hold fast as believers in Jesus despite what it may cost them.  This passage, then, can show us to we can help one another to be disciples of Jesus.

The word which is translated here as ‘encourage’ can be translated in four main ways: exhort, comfort, encourage or strengthen.  I want to consider ways in which we might help one another both to remain disciples of Jesus and to grow as disciples of Jesus, based around these four ideas.

First of all we need encouragement to keep on going when the walk is hard.  There are a few ways in which we can encourage one another.  The first is to remind one another that Jesus is coming back.  1 Thess 4:16-18 tells us, “For the Lord himself will come down from heaven, with a loud command, with the voice of the archangel and with the trumpet call of God, and the dead in Christ will rise first.  After that, we who are still alive and are left will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air. And so we will be with the Lord forever.  Therefore encourage one another with these words.”  When you feel like there is no reason to work hard at being a Christian because there is no reward for your labour, then you need to be reminded that Jesus is coming back.  When it is difficult to walk in the opposite direction to everyone else in our culture, we need a reason to hang on.  Because Jesus will return we know that whatever we do in Christ is not in vain (1 Cor 15:58).  Our hard work is worthwhile regardless of whether or not it is rewarded in the present.  We will share in the glory of Jesus (1 Pet 5:1).  So remind one another of this.  Help one another to view the Christian life in light of eternity.

As a consequence encourage one another to live godly lives.  One very important way of doing this is to live out the Christian life as an example which others can follow.  Paul tells the Corinthian church, “Follow my example, as I follow the example of Christ” (1 Cor. 11:1 NIV).  If we see someone else who is living the Christian life faithfully this is an encouragement to continue living as a Christian.  When we see the faith of others we are encouraged to continue having faith.  This means that if you are living as a disciple of Christ you can encourage others to do so as well just by being an example to follow.  We can all do this; we can all be examples for others to follow.  This does not mean that you have to be totally perfect before you can be an example for others.  We each have strengths in our lives which can help others to work on their weaknesses.  For instance, I am good at regularly reading the Bible, but not very good at evangelism.  So I can an example to others in Bible reading and others can help me to be better at witnessing because they are practicing this regularly.

Third, we can encourage one another by being present.  Paul wrote lots of letters to churches and we still read these today.  There is real encouragement in reading the Bible.  But he did not just send letters, he sent people.  “We sent Timothy, who is our brother and co-worker in God’s service in spreading the gospel of Christ, to strengthen and encourage you in your faith” (1 Thess. 3:2 NIV).  When you are discouraged there is something about having your friends actually physically present which is very helpful.  If you want to encourage others in the faith then gathering together in the same place cannot be underestimated.  This might be in church on Sunday morning or in a mid-week Bible study.  It might also be a smaller gathering of just two people who can pray together or talk together to encourage one another to keep going when things are hard.  If you know that a certain person is struggling, then visit that person.  You don’t necessarily need to say or do anything profound, but being there for each other can really make a difference.

Another way the word ‘encourage’ in Heb 10:25 can be translated is as ‘comfort’.  There are lots of experiences in the Christian life which make us want to be comforted: when a friend leaves, when a relative dies, when a job is lost, when tragedy strikes, when a house burns down, when an accident causes a disability, or when a long-held dream is shattered.  We can each comfort one another since we have all experienced the comfort which God gives.  “ Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God” (2 Cor. 1:3-4 NIV).  Once you have received the comfort of God in some difficult situation you are able to comfort others.  There is not a special class of people who do the comforting.  Each of us can comfort another because we have each experienced pain and received comfort ourselves.

At one time or another every one of us grows weary.  This can happen when there is a long period of stress or illness or simply because of the general wear and tear of life.  In 2 Corinthians 8 Paul urges the church to collect money to send to the Christians in Jerusalem who were experiencing a famine.  He tells them, “Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality.  At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need (2 Cor 8:13-14).  This passage is about money, but it shows that there are times for giving and times for receiving help.  There are times when others are stretched too far and you can provide practical help.  Other times it is you who needs help and others in the church will help you.  Give one another practical help when necessary: shopping, meals, money, child-minding, transportation, a listening ear, help with getting a new job, an invitation to dinner for someone who is lonely, help with organising a funeral or just a shoulder to cry on.  These things can help relieve the burden of another Christian and may well prevent the person giving up on the Christian life due to weariness.

Another very important means of strengthening one another is prayer.  We are together in a battle against spiritual powers in the heavenly places (Eph 6:12).  It is not just your family or your next door neighbour who are opposed to you being a Christian.  The devil actually does not want you to succeed.  He makes war against the saints (Rev 12:17).  The most powerful weapons we have against this attack are the Word of God and prayer (Eph 6:17-18).  Of course you can encourage each other with the promises of God.  You should also pray for one another.  Pray for each other that you might be mature in Christ and fully assured in the will of God (Col 4:12).  Pray for one another when someone is struggling.  Pray about each other’s needs, spiritual and practical.  Pray for protection and unity.  One of the major reasons for Christians meeting together is so that we can pray together.  Perhaps you have experienced what it is like to have other Christians uphold your life in prayer.  You can feel the difference that it makes.

The final suggestion that I have regarding helping one another to be disciples of Jesus is possibly the most difficult.  Sometimes it is necessary to rebuke another Christian because of sin.  This is not something which we really like to do.  Many people think that it is none of their business what other Christians do and others prefer to gossip about the situation.  Neither is a way of helping the person who has sinned come to repentance.  If we are to be disciples of Jesus, then there are occasions when rebuke is needed.  Since the kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom 2:4) receiving a rebuke can be a good thing and something which helps us to grow as disciples of Jesus.  It is better to have someone confront you in your sin than go on doing something which is not pleasing to God.  As Psalm 141:5 says, “Let a righteous man strike me– that is a kindness; let him rebuke me– that is oil on my head.  My head will not refuse it.”  The tricky part is doing this well.  It takes humility and grace to rebuke another Christian.  Pray beforehand.  Take the person aside and privately discuss what you believe is the problem.  Listen carefully and don’t judge.  If you succeed in turning another Christian from their sin you have done that person a service.

Let me sum up the things I have spoken about:

1)      Being a disciple of Jesus is important but not easy

2)      There are things we can do to help one another be disciples

  1. Remind each other that Jesus is coming back
  2. Be an example
  3. Be physically present with one another
  4. Comfort the hurting
  5. Give practical help when it is needed
  6. Pray for one another
  7. Rebuke and correct when necessary

All of the things I have outlined here require genuine Christian community.  We cannot rely on a special class of people to do these things for us.  Certainly in the case of Oceans Keys Baptist, there is no clergy whose job it is to make the church into disciples.  Even where there is professional clergy it is still the job of all Christians to help one another to become genuine disciples of Jesus.  We need one another and we need to take responsibility for one another.  Helping others to become disciples of Jesus will involve getting to know each other well.  If the church is merely a group of people who come together on Sunday morning for Church – singing, offering, the Lord’s Supper, sermon – then there will be minimal growth as disciples.  The things which happen in Church are all good things, but they are not enough on their own.  We each must take responsibility for getting to know one another and to love one another in order to help one another to become disciples of Jesus.  This kind of relationship can be personally challenging since it involves a degree of effort and a degree of vulnerability.  But, there will be rewards as we all grow together in our walk with Jesus.

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