(Message given at Newberg Friends Church on July 3, 2016. We spread the four sections out throughout the service.)
Community of Disciples
You’d think that Jesus, the Son of God, would have pretty much everything he needed for earthly ministry…all by himself. Right? God in the flesh. Clear understanding of his task. Skills and power to do it.
But all the gospels agree that Jesus didn’t work on his own. All the gospels agree that one of the very first things Jesus did was to ask 12 people to follow him everywhere. All the gospels agree that there were also women who supported him financially, and that crowds of people found a sense of belonging by being around Jesus.
What a group those 12 disciples were! Listen to their names in the book of Matthew, chapter 10, v. 2.
These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon (who is called Peter) and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; Simon the Zealot and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him. (Matthew 10:2-4, TNIV)
Two sets of brothers head the list: Simon Peter and Andrew, James and John. They were all fisherman, unschooled, not natural material to follow a Rabbi around. And they were Galileans like Jesus, outsiders, backcountry folk. Peter always spoke first and thought second, and James and John were known as the “sons of thunder”…hardly descriptions of quiet, easy to get along with sorts of people.
Thomas, Philip and Bartholomew were also from Galilee, outsiders…but then we get to Matthew the tax collector. That doesn’t just describe his job, it says a lot about who he was. He was a Jew, but he was collecting taxes for the Romans. That made him the worst; a traitor, a sinner, hated. When Jesus asked Matthew to follow him, he was making sure there would be tension in the group!
But Jesus didn’t stop with one outcast, one tension producer.
Jesus also asked Thaddaeus and Simon the Zealot to follow him. Both of these men were Zealots, which meant they were zealous, they were passionate for the nation of Israel…a nation that hadn’t existed for hundreds of years. They wanted so badly to make Israel its own country again. They wanted to fight the Romans and hated what the empire was doing to the Jewish people.
Thaddaues and Simon would have looked around the disciple circle and seen Matthew as everything they were against. How could you collect taxes for those horrible people who we should fight and from whom we should take back our nation? All the other disciples probably struggled with zealots, because their desire to fight and make trouble made it really difficult to just follow God and be an obedient Jew in peace. They rocked the boat and gave Jews a bad name with the powerful Romans.
And we haven’t even yet mentioned Judas, who ended up being the one to betray Jesus.
What a group!
This is the crazy, diverse, tense, disagreeing community that Jesus brought together. Why? He didn’t even really need anyone, did he, as the Son of God? And if he was trying to create, like, a social movement, why such diversity? Why not stick with people who thought the same way?
I think this is huge! It seems that to follow Jesus means you are called to be part of a community, a crazy community, a community with all kinds of major differences. What brings this community together isn’t same beliefs or even the same goals…what brings this community together is a complete commitment to follow Jesus wherever he goes, to love what Jesus loves, to do what Jesus did. To be a disciple is to say yes to Jesus’ call and to follow him.
And when you add in the women who shouldn’t have been allowed at that point to follow a rabbi around…when you add what happens in the early church with non-Jews joining the community as full members…it’s really clear: To be a disciple is to be a part of a community that includes all kinds of people who are going to struggle to get along, but who need to try and do it for Jesus’ sake.
Listening to God
Picture a typical, crazy day in the life of Jesus. The Pharisees are trying to catch him saying something wrong. Sick and dying people are brought to him as people ask for help, and he heals many. He’s teaching. And sometimes arguing and being challenged.
Each day was full and challenging! And tiring. How did Jesus make it all work? Turn with me to Luke 5:15:
Yet the news about him spread all the more, so that crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their sicknesses. But Jesus often withdrew to lonely places and prayed. (Luke 5:15-16, TNIV)
Jesus OFTEN withdrew to lonely places and prayed. God in human flesh made time to stop, get away, listen, reflect, pray, ask for help, recover, rejuvenate, get fresh vision from God. Jesus himself took time to listen! What a reminder that we need this too. To be a disciple of Jesus is to intentionally take time alone to pray and listen… often!
Listening, retreating, praying, discerning…it’s important for us each to do it. But it’s also important to do it as this crazy community that Jesus is calling together.
In the early church, as non-Jews were following Jesus’ call to follow and obey, there was a lot of struggle to figure out what was right.
The first Christians were Jews, and they had all sorts of things from God that they obeyed regarding what they ate and how they worshipped and who they were with. Even as they began welcoming non-Jews into the community, they disagreed…do they have to follow all our laws from God or not?
So they decided to get everyone together, talk about it, pray about it, and listen for how the Holy Spirit might lead them. This is so important! It was an important decision without an easy answer, so the community wanted to get it right. So they listened to God together.
I love this part of the letter they sent out after they came to a decision…listen to Acts 15:28
It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you with anything beyond the following requirements… (Acts 15:28, TNIV)
“It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and us.” In other words, we define what seems good to us only after we listen and figure out what seems good to God. We listen. It’s another powerful reminder: to be a disciple is to take time by ourselves AND as a community to let God guide and lead and direct us; we take time to listen.
Several of the books of the New Testament are letters written by the Apostle Paul. Paul was someone God worked through to share the message of Jesus all over the known world…he’s really one of the main reasons people follow Jesus all over the world today, instead of just a few Jewish people in a tiny part of the world.
But, he didn’t start out on Jesus’ side AT ALL. In fact, he did the opposite: he spoke against, arrested, and even had followers of Jesus put to death. All because he thought Jesus was going against what he believed as a faithful Jew.
What a huge change!! His beliefs, his actions, how he lived his life…everything changed dramatically, and it happened when he met Jesus in a blinding light on the road to Damascus. Acts chapter 9 tells us about that dramatic story.
When Paul is writing to Christians in a town called Galatia, we get much more of the story; he tells more than just the Damascus story. Listen to all the things that happened which helped change and equip Paul for the ministry of his life.
For you have heard of my previous way of life in Judaism, how intensely I persecuted the church of God and tried to destroy it. I was advancing in Judaism beyond many of my own age among my people and was extremely zealous for the traditions of my fathers. But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, my immediate response was not to consult any human being. I did not go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went into Arabia. Later I returned to Damascus.
Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Cephas and stayed with him fifteen days…Then after fourteen years, I went up again to Jerusalem, this time with Barnabas. I took Titus along also. I went in response to a revelation and, meeting privately with those esteemed as leaders, I set before them the gospel that I preach among the Gentiles. I wanted to be sure I was not running and had not been running my race in vain. Yet not even Titus, who was with me, was compelled to be circumcised, even though he was a Greek…For God, who was at work in Peter as an apostle to the Jews, was also at work in me as an apostle to the Gentiles. James, Cephas and John, those esteemed as pillars, gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship when they recognized the grace given to me. They agreed that we should go to the Gentiles, and they to the Jews. All they asked was that we should continue to remember the poor, the very thing I had been eager to do all along. (Galatians 1:13-18; 2:1-3; 2:8-10, TNIV)
I like this reminder! When we meet Jesus, Jesus changes us. Sometimes dramatically like Paul, sometimes in smaller ways…but the truth is, to follow Jesus means things change in us. The things we’ve done wrong can be forgiven. Our behavior can change to be more like what God cares about. Our desires can move more toward what God is doing in the world than just what we want with our lives.
What I also like about what Paul writes here is that while it is true that Paul’s life changed dramatically on that road in an instant, it’s also clear that changes kept happening over a long time. He went into the desert of Arabia to hear from God. He went to Jerusalem to learn from others, once after three years, once 14 years later.
In a moment AND over years! To be a disciple, to be a follower of Jesus means letting Jesus be in charge. It means yielding, allowing, choosing to let God’s priorities change what I think and how I act and what I pursue in life. Change and transformation are essential as we follow Jesus!
Acts of Love
Listen to some beautiful words from John’s first letter in the New Testament.
Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God…Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. (1 John 4:7, 11-12, TNIV)
God started with love! God loves us! God began connecting with the people in this world because God couldn’t stop (and didn’t want to stop!) this great love for you and me. And what is absolutely clear, absolutely beyond doubt, is that to follow Jesus means to let God’s love pour over us and out of us to everybody!
That’s what John is saying here: Since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. God’s love changes us to be able to then love others…and love isn’t a feeling, love is action.
And that message is all through the bible! Jesus, when he said to love your neighbor, told a story about how to do that, and it involved action. He said imagine somebody got robbed and beat up and was lying by the side of the road. All the people you think of as good people, loving people…they ignored him. But the one everybody looked down on and hated, the Samaritan, he put him on his own donkey, gave him a place to stay, got him medical care and food to eat. He’s the one who actually loved. He’s the one who made love real and concrete.
You can’t miss it when you read the bible. Following Jesus, listening to Jesus, being changed by Jesus, it all leads to people making sacrifices to love. Not just TALK about how they love others…it leads to doing something.
The Good Samaritan. Lydia, who opened her home and fed everyone after she followed Jesus. Philip in Acts 9, going wherever the Spirit told him to go, walking alongside someone and answering questions.
To be a disciple is to do things which make God’s love concrete, visible, touchable, huggable. “Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”
Today I just took a few stories from the bible to show us some of the key parts of what it means to follow Jesus, what it means to be in the community of disciples, what it means to be the church.
Some of you may have noticed the pattern to these stories: they match our vision statement here at Newberg Friends. This vision we have for our community is rooted in these biblical examples…and many more, of course. We want to be a growing COMMUNITY, LISTENING to Christ, CHANGING in the Spirit, living out LOVE.
This is our vision because this is what it means to follow Jesus! It puts us in community with all kinds of crazy people who also are following and obeying Jesus. We have to listen because life is sometimes confusing and difficult. We must be changed because on our own, we make wrong choices and decisions often. And all of it is part of God’s plan for God’s unending love to pour out, through us, everywhere! On every one! In actual actions, not just with words.
What story, what challenge, what encouragement will God’s Holy Spirit help change you a little bit today? Let’s take time to listen in open worship.