Scripture: Colossians 1:3-14
May I begin this sermon with a confession of sorts? When I started seminary I was a Bible illiterate for the most part. I hadn’t studied it, nor read it. What I knew about the Bible was only what I’d heard read in worship each week. And when only a handful of verses are read from week to week, that’s not much Bible.
I entered seminary seriously wondering why the N.T. contains 4 different Gospels—Mathew, Mark, Luke, and John. Don’t they all pretty much say the same thing and contain the same stories? Why can’t we just combine them into a single book? That was my line of thinking.
Well, one of the first required courses at seminary was Introduction to the Gospels. And to my pleasant surprise, I learned that there are significant differences between the 4 Gospels. Especially the Gospel of John, which is wholly unique among the four. Yes, there are a handful of stories that are shared between them, but even where the same story is told by different Gospel writers, each adds their own twist or wording or emphasis to the story.
For example, the story of Jesus cleansing the temple courts is found in all 4 Gospels. Matthew, Mark, and Luke all place this event during the last week of his life, after he makes his “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem on a donkey—what we now celebrate as Palm Sunday. John, on the other hand, places the cleansing of the temple courts at the very beginning of his ministry, soon after he attends a wedding and turns the water into wine, which John identifies as his very first miracle.
Some have looked at this timeline discrepancy and concluded that he cleansed the temple twice—once at the beginning and one at the end of his ministry. Others say—and this is where I come down—he only cleansed the temple courts once, mostly likely at the end, and that John had a particular reason for placing it early on in the narrative.
In the big picture, does it really matter if it happened earlier or later? When it comes to our faith and discipleship, is it imperative that we know for sure? Not really.
My point here is to highlight the fact that this is just one of many things that I didn’t know about the Bible when I started seminary. Going in, I had it all wrong. Each Gospel is unique, and we need all 4 of them! But I didn’t realize that until I started learning about it.
Now, does it take a seminary education to learn the Bible? Absolutely not! The only thing required is a heart and mind willing to learn and desiring to dig in. That’s it!
Last week I mentioned toward the end of my message that one of the signs of a healthy, vital church is that a majority of its people are actively engaged in their own faith formation. Today I’d like to clarify this assertion. One of the signs of congregational vitality is that a majority of its people are actively engaged in their own faith formation beyond the Sunday worship service. Please make no mistake; what we do here each week is vital to the development of one’s faith. But it was never intended to be the ‘meat and potatoes’ of faith formation. Weekly worship is fundamental to our spiritual growth, but in the big picture it’s the starting place for this journey called ‘discipleship.’
Let me ask you: how healthy would a person be if they ate only one day a week? What kind of progress would you see if a student learning to play the piano practiced only once a week, and that for only a brief period of time? How much work would be accomplished if an employee put in only an hour a week to their job? What kind of development would you see if a parent spent only an hour a week playing with their newborn infant? How much would students learn if they attended school only one day a week, and an hour at that? And yet, there’s a deeply-engrained belief within the Church that we can get all we need to be spiritually nourished just by worshipping for an hour or less once a week.
Please understand that I’m not intending to be flippant. I am, however, trying to make an important point by drawing some parallels between our spiritual growth and other types of growth we all undergo in life. And my point is this: spiritual growth takes place when we’re proactive about it.
So, let me underscore an important dimension of that sign of a healthy, vital church. Here it is again: One of the signs of congregational vitality is that a majority of its people are actively engaged in their own faith formation beyond the Sunday worship service. In other words, a disciple of Jesus Christ takes personal responsibility for their own spiritual well-being.
By a show of hands, how many of you provided your children with private musical instruction, such as piano lessons, or for another instrument or voice? If they were like most private lessons, they were given once a week and, depending upon the age of the student, lasted from 30-60 minutes. Did the instructor have the expectation that your children would practice between lessons your child would practice? As you recall, how many of you had to force or encourage your child to practice? And how many of you didn’t have to say a thing because they took it upon themselves to practice?
Here’s the question: of all the children taking private music lessons represented by you all here, which of them do you think made the greatest progress in their playing or singing ability—those who were made to fulfill their practice duty, or those who took it upon themselves to regularly practice?
Discipleship doesn’t happen automatically. Each of us has to take it upon ourselves to avail ourselves of the many and various opportunities we have to grow in our relationship with God.
One of my goals which I’ve shared with both the staff and our leaders is to create an overall environment within our church whereby all of us here grow in our desire to cultivate our faith. Like learning to play your instrument well, faith formation can’t be forced. No one should ever be guilted into joining a small group or Sunday school class, or even reading their Bible. Discipleship can’t be forced, but neither can it be ignored. My hope is that today’s teaching will be one means of helping to foster that environment whereby we desire to grow our faith.
Many years ago this church offered a wonderful faith-building class called Disciple Bible Study. Many of you here took this course. Some of you taught it. All who fully participated in it grew in their faith. If you took one of the Disciple courses, then you can speak to the difference it made in your own faith.
The Disciple Bible Study has turned lives around; it’s transformed congregations; it’s strengthened marriages; it’s brought countless Christians closer to God as well given them a much better perspective on ways they can put their faith into action. It’s designed to be a cross between a traditional class and a small group. It’s a class in that there is daily required Bible reading and writing in a workbook. It’s a small group in that it’s limited to 12 participants who meet weekly to both learn and discuss. The Disciple leader doesn’t teach as much as they facilitate the discussion.
The Disciple Bible Study is only one of many parts of the path of spiritual growth. In addition to courses like Disciple, the best discipleship paths are lined with a variety of opportunities to help us grow in our relationship with God and each other…no matter where we are along that path.
Is there a destination, a point of arrival? Well, not in this life. One of the things seasoned Christians who take their faith development seriously will tell you is that the more they learn and grow, the more they realize how much more there is to learn and grow! So when it comes to a destination, I suppose Heaven would be a significant point of arrival! But as it concerns this side of Heaven, I’m pretty sure that there’s always going to be room for growth. And thus, the imagery of the pathway; there’s always part of the path out in front of us yet to travel.
Here’s this morning’s bottom line: Christian discipleship is a choice each of us makes.No one forces it upon us. Each one of us is perfectly free to do as little or as much as we choose when it comes to our own faith development. I would argue that doing as much as you can results in a lot more joy and a greater sense of knowing your purpose in life than if you rely only on what you get here each week.
Both this week and last week I’ve been talking about the same aspect of discipleship. A disciple is a follower of Jesus Christ who is committed to becoming more like Jesus. Last week the message focused on becoming like Jesus through a life of obeying Jesus. Today’s message focuses on becoming like Jesus through a life of opening ourselves to Jesus. Please note that I’m not suggesting that we “be open” to Jesus. That’s a passive posture. Rather, I’m encouraging us to be more proactive. My hope is that each of you will take the active posture of opening yourself to Jesus Christ.
May what Paul said of his congregation in Colossae be said of Adrian First United Methodist:
We always give thanks to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, for you. You have this faith and love because of the hope reserved for you in heaven. You previously heard about this hope through the true message, the good news, which has come to you. This message has been bearing fruit and growing among you since the day you heard and truly understood God’s grace, in the same way that it is bearing fruit and growing in the whole world. We’re praying that you will produce fruit in every good work and grow in the knowledge of God; that you will be strengthened through his glorious might so that you may endure everything and have patience. (Col. 1:3ff.)