In John 8:31 Jesus introduces a phrase that is absolutely essential for anyone who wants to be a mature Christian disciple. He says, "If you continue in my word, you are truly my disciples." This phrase is so subtle, we could almost read past it and not fully realize what Jesus is trying to tell us. He is speaking at that point to a group of Jews who already believe in him; they already acknowledge that he is the Messiah. But there is something he wants them to understand clearly.
In those days, to be a faithful Jew was a simple thing. You were born of a Jewish mother. You were circumcised by a Jewish priest. You obeyed the Jewish laws as brought by Moses. The question they had for Jesus was what did it mean to be his disciple?
That is the question that I want to raise today. What does it mean, what does it look like for us to be the disciples of Jesus? In verse 31 Jesus gives the answer. It does not matter who your parents were. Genealogy is not important. It does not matter whether or not you have been circumcised. The only thing required to be a disciple of Jesus is that you continue in his word. That is to say, every day of your life, for as long as you live, you make a concerted and determined effort to follow the teachings and the personal example of Jesus Christ. Discipleship requires daily disciplines.
Let us approach this as if we were trying to lose weight and get our physical bodies into shape. Far too many people act as if all they need to do is eat a salad once a week, or order a diet soda with their high-fat, high-calorie meal. Too many people are trying to get in shape by doing something once a week, maybe even less frequently than that. If you want to lose weight , you have to work at that every day. You have to exercise and careful diet on a regular basis. Nobody loses weight by giving up chocolate cake today but having cheesecake tomorrow. Some things must be done as a matter of daily discipline.
Jesus tells his followers, then and now, that discipleship requires discipline. It is not enough to attend church once a week, though that is an important part of being a disciple. Feeding your soul only once a week will result in spiritual malnutrition just as surely as feeding your body only once a week will result in physical malnutrition. Some things must be done every day. Some things must be engaged in on an ongoing basis. Some things must become the disciplines of discipleship.
Some months ago in the Wednesday night Bible class, I shared six spiritual disciplines that I picked up from Haddon Robinson, one of the great preachers of our time. I want to share them with you today. While the six terms come from Robinson, the explanation of their meaning comes from me. It is my belief that by following these six simple steps on a daily basis, you will be able to do what Jesus commands of us in John 8, to continue in his word. Let me list all six steps first, and then we will discuss each one in turn. They are:
1. Live simply|
2. Love generously
3. Serve faithfully
4. Speak truthfully
5. Pray daily
6. Leave everything else to God
Let me start with the first discipline, which is "to live simply." Stated another way, this means that we should not spend so much time buying and spending, shopping and consuming. Some people live modest lives without becoming overindulgent or obsessive. Other people are extravagant to a fault. They wake up worrying about what to wear. They are always spending more and more on themselves, their homes, their wardrobes, their cars, their hair and nails. Whatever someone else has, they want to have it as well. They spend until their cash money is gone. They use credit cards until they have reached the credit limit. They put things on layaway that they cannot afford to take home today.
There are two problems with this approach to living. The first is that many people get themselves into financial trouble, piling up bills they cannot pay to buy things they really do not need. I heard a report on National Public Radio that said the average American spends every dime he or she earns each month. While people in other nations around the world are saving 6 to 16 percent of their annual income, most Americans spend all they have. The report also said that the consumer debt index is at and all-time high. That means, after we spend every dime we have, we keep shopping with credit. But since we have spent all of our money, we do not have enough left to pay off our credit cards, so we get killed with 18 to 21 percent annual interest on the amounts we owe. Most people will remain in consumer debt for the rest of their lives. If only we could learn to live simply.
This problem of living beyond our means has another negative consequence that impacts us at the level of our second spiritual principle. It is difficult "to love generously" if you consume all of your financial resources by living lavishly. When I speak about loving generously, I am speaking in light of the teachings found in 1 John 3:18 which says, "Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action." For the writer of 1 John, "love" is not a word that is spoken. It is not a verbal statement. Telling somebody that you love her or him does not mean much if your words are not followed by some actions that put your love into practice. We do not show our love for the people in Honduras and Nicaragua whose lives were devastated by Hurricane Mitch simply by telling them that we love them. Out of our material resources, we need to show them our love in action. We should love generously.
One of my favorite movies is My Fair Lady, a movie based upon the novel Pygmalion, by George Bernard Shaw. It is the story of a girl named Eliza Doolittle who sells flowers on the streets of London until she runs into a speech teacher named Henry Higgins who attempts to improve her speech and pass her off as a woman of nobility. At one point in the movie a young man is attempting to tell Eliza how much he loves her, but she quickly responds to him by saying, "Don't talk of love, show me."
That is what 1 John means by not loving in word, but in truth and action. That is the meaning of the second principle of loving generously. The time will come in the lives of every disciple of Jesus when we will be faced with a tough choice. Will we spend our money on ourselves for something we may not really need, or direct those funds to people who face great and urgent needs, and who have no place to turn except to us.
I am reminded of a Peanuts cartoon I saw years ago. In the first scene, Snoopy is standing outdoors in a driving snowstorm. Icicles have formed on his face. His body is shivering from the cold. Frost is blowing from his mouth and nostrils. He is freezing. In the next scene Charlie Brown comes walking by, bundled up from head to toe. He is wearing a cap, coat, scarf, gloves, and boots. Every part of his body is covered. As he walks along the street he sees poor Snoopy shivering in the cold. In the third frame, Charlie Brown looks at Snoopy and says, "Be Warm!" He does not share any of his clothing, or offer Snoopy any money with which to buy even so much as a warm cup of coffee. All he does is say, "Be Warm." In the next frame, Snoopy looks at Charlie Brown with a big question mark arising from his head. Charlie Brown may have thought he was showing concern for Snoopy, but it was in word, not in truth and action.
Loving generously means that we are able to prefer others above ourselves. We cannot just say that we love our neighbor, but must actually show that love in tangible ways. And remember that we are talking about daily disciplines. These are not actions that we are expected to do only once in our lives. This is a discipline that Christ wants to see as a part of our daily lives. That is what he means by "continuing in his word."
The third principle is "serving faithfully." At this point, the issue is doing the very best job you can do on any task that is assigned to you, and to work hard at it every single time. Almost anybody is capable of giving a maximum effort once on any given project. Almost everybody knows what it is to have gone above and beyond the call of duty on one occasion. However, what this third principle calls for is remaining as faithful tomorrow as you were today, or on any given day in the past. To be faithful means to be consistent. To serve faithfully means that God can count on us on a daily basis.
Terrible things can happen when people who should be faithful every day decide to relax just once. If an airline pilot does not serve faithfully every time, hundreds of lives can be lost. If a surgeon does not serve faithfully every time, the patient may die. If the person who cooks our food does not serve faithfully, people can become sick with food poisoning. If the entertainer we pay money to see does not serve faithfully, we will complain and ask for a refund.
There are those moments when we simply have to realize that the problem or need that confronts us exceeds our resources.
I enjoyed watching the made-for-TV movie about the Temptations, the Motown singing group. I sang along all the way through Sunday and Monday night as the public and private lives of those young men were examined. I grew up singing those songs. I knew every dance move they made. I cannot tell you how many times I have seen them appear live in concert. I can tell you this, however: no matter how many times they have sung "My Girl" in the past, everybody in the audience each night expects them to sing it with all the passion and polish they possessed when that song was first recorded in 1965. We expect them to serve faithfully.
Should God have to expect anything less from us than we expect from those who fly us through the air, or treat our medical conditions, or prepare our meals, or entertain us by singing our favorite songs? I think not! We need to make it our intention to serve God faithfully on a daily basis. This is one of the disciplines of discipleship.
The fourth principle is "speak truthfully." Life is much easier to live when you and I always tell the truth. Then we never have to figure our what our last lie was so we can retell it in exactly the same way. In a court of law you place your hand on a Bible and you "swear to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God." If you lie after taking that oath you are guilty of perjury, or lying under oath.
Jesus says we should not need that much prompting to tell the truth: "Let your word be 'Yes, Yes' or 'No No'" (Mt 5:37a). Just tell the truth. The risk of being known as a liar is great. Like the boy in the fable who kept crying wolf when there was no wolf in sight, people will not believe you when you finally do decide to or have to tell the truth. This is a sound and solid principle. It does not need much explanation. Just be honest. Just speak truthfully, and do it every day of your life.
The fifth principle is "pray daily." I need this reminder because I sometimes allow my life to become so busy with things that I believe to be important, I leave very little time for this simple, but necessary spiritual practice, Pray daily. This can be an actual time of conversing with God, allowing adequate time for you to talk to God. And without rushing on, leaving some time for a quiet moment when God might be able to talk with you. Prayer is not just what we do when we gather on Sunday, or at the Prayer Meeting on Wednesday night. Prayer is what every believer can and should do as a discipline of discipleship.
One of our members told a story during our Fall Revival about an older woman she knew when she was growing up who used to say that she "prayed all through the day." That seemed strange to our member when she was a younger woman. However, she reported to us that now she also finds herself "praying all through the day." Prayer is not what we do only before we partake of a meal, although many people do no pray even then. Prayer is how we stay in touch with God without the need for a congregation, a preacher, a Bible, or a melodious choir. It is the creature reaching out and up for the creator. Its is the wind-swept soul in search of a resting place in the midst of this sinful world. Pray daily.
I do not think I have ever felt worse about my spiritual disciplines than I did during a trip to Senegal, West Africa, a few years ago. It was a combination study and sight-seeing tour. Senegal is a 95 percent Islamic nation, and our tour guide and bus driver were devout Muslims. I remember one afternoon during a busy tour schedule when both the driver and the tour guide left the group, pulled off their socks and shoes, unrolled prayer mats, and began one of the five regiments of prayer that devout Muslims engage in every day. What a sight. Here were a bus load of Christians and Jews anxious to continue their sight-seeing, and off in the distance were two Muslims who had stopped what they were doing to engage in the discipline of prayer.
I suddenly felt filled with shame. Here I was, a Christian minister angry with these two men who seemed to be wasting my time. In fact, it was I who was wasting time, rushing around all day and not leaving enough time for prayer. If we are to continue in the example of Jesus, we must make prayer as much a part of our lives as he made it a part of his. Pray daily.
The final principle may be the most important, and the most difficult. Leave the rest to God. This principle tries to suggest that there comes a time when life is out of our hands and beyond our direct control. We will have done everything we possibly can, and, still, something remains beyond our reach. A loved one is suddenly thrown into a cycle of sickness. How will they make it? How will you make it without them? Some things we have to leave to God. We raise our children with love and care. Then we send them off to a college campus, knowing full well that they will be exposed to people and practices that can have lasting, negative consequences upon their young lives. But we cannot watch over them every moment. We do not know where they are every second. They are beyond our sight, our reach, our call. But we do have recourse. We can leave the rest to God.
I remember last summer that our son was part of an international wrestling team that went to Khazikstan, Kyrgistan, and Turkey. For two weeks he ws in a country whose name I could barely pronounce, whose spot on the map I had to struggle to find, and whose environment was a throwback to the nineteenth century. They had no telephone system in Khazikstan, so he could not call us, and we could not contact him. Our only son was on the other side of the earth, and as much as we loved him, there was no way for us to make contact.
However, our comfort came in the knowledge that what we could not do, we knew somebody else could. We reminded ourselves that when God created the heavens and earth, that included the land now called Khazikstan. God knew where it was, and God knew where our son was. My wife and I said our prayers, and then we left the rest to God. Two weeks later our son returned home, and all we could say was, "Thank you, Lord, for doing what we could not do." It may be hard sometimes, but there are those moments when we simply have to realize that the problem or need that confronts us exceeds our resources. That's when it is time to exercise this sixth and final principle, and leave the rest to God.
That is what Jesus had to do in Gethsemane when he cried out, "Not my will but thy will be done." That is what Jesus had to do on the cross when he cried out, "Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." And that is what we have to be wise enough to do, as well. This is not weakness. This is confidence in the power of an all-wise and loving God who simply wants us to trust when the storms of live are raging. You and I cannot continue in the words of Jesus if we are not willing to follow the example of Jesus. Sometimes that involves the realization that we have done all that we can do. Now the time has come to "let go and let God." It is time for us to combine the fifth and sixth principles. Say your prayers daily, and "leave the rest to God"
Marvin McMickle is Pastor, Antioch Baptist Church, Cleveland, Ohio, and Associate Professor of Homiletics, Ashland Theological Seminary, Ashland, Ohio.
David Gross was Pastor of St. Peter's United Church of Christ, Amherst, Ohio.