In the name of one God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, Amen.
As a preacher, there are days where I read the slices of Scripture, the lectionary readings, that we get for the day (in case anyone ever asks you, the seminary word for such slices is, pericope) and I am amazed at how the chosen pericope for the day fits just perfectly with what my heart and soul tell me to preach. . . . And then, there’s today.
Now don’t get me wrong. I love this Gospel passage from Matthew. It has a lot to tell us about how Christians should settle disputes. And today, we also get the wonderful Passover story from Exodus. Those are great readings. But today, at St. Barnabas, we are embarking on a spiritual renewal program and a new year of church ministries, and we are about to baptize another wonderful baby boy, James Charles Capdepon. And frankly, those readings don’t really speak to this day, place, and time. So, let’s look at the Epistle to the Romans.
In Paul’s preeminent writing, he introduces himself to the Church in Rome and lays out his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Most scholars break this letter into several sections, and what we read today comes from the third section, which addresses what it means to live by faith in Jesus. Or stated differently, what it means to be one Jesus’ disciples.
In chapter 12, which immediately precedes what we just heard, Paul says, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God –– what is good and acceptable and perfect.” He was laying out the argument to his first readers, that in order to be good disciples of Jesus, they must discern God’s will and then try to conform their lives to that will.
In today’s reading, Paul tells us that we should owe no one anything except love. Just as God gives us ongoing love, we too should love all of God’s children endlessly. The great biblical scholar, Walter Bruggeman said of this passage, “While some Christians feel that they can fulfill (this) love obligation by ‘a superficial and saccharine profession of love for the entire world, … Paul calls for the difficult task of real love for real people who are met in everyday life, not theoretical love for humanity as a whole.’”
If we want to know what that sort of real love for a real person looks like, all we have to do is go back again to chapter 12 of this epistle, in which Paul says, “If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (12:18) –– and “If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink: ....” (12:20)
Paul told the Romans that loving their neighbors — that is ALL human beings — as they love themselves, is the absolute fulfillment of the law of God. In other words, as Jesus said, all of the law and the prophets, every other part of the Bible, hangs on loving God and loving other humans the same way we love ourselves.
So, this glorious Sunday on which we are kicking off the RenewalWorks program and restarting our ministries, and bringing another new Christian into the family, we are reminded that being disciples of our Lord is all about how much we can show our love for other people. And we are reminded to seek to become better disciples in all that we do.
I was reading quite a bit about discipleship this week. A baptist pastor from Texas had an interesting story about his church members who believe that simply being baptized, as James Charles is about to be, is sufficient to make one a fully formed, instant disciple. He said,
There is no such thing as an instant disciple; like the word, it takes discipline. (The 1980s) Russian comedian, Yakov Smirnoff talk(ed) about when he first moved to America, he was amazed at the variety of instant products he could buy in the store. There’s powdered milk: just add water and you have milk. There’s powdered orange juice: just add water and you have orange juice. Then he saw Baby Powder and thought, “What a great country! If you want a baby, just add water!” Some people think that’s how discipleship works. You take a believer, add a little baptism water, and “poof” you have a fully-devoted follower of Jesus–a real disciple. But it takes more than water to make a disciple. Disciples are made, not born.
Pastor Dykes is really onto something there. While we Episcopalians believe that baptism is truly all that it takes to be a Christian and a full member of the Church, it is NOT all that it takes to be an effective disciple. In order to become a true disciple of Jesus Christ, you must have what modern writers have referred to as the “Marks of Discipleship.” And those marks include:
1. Daily prayer. Meaning that you must have devoted prayer time in your day, every day. And that that prayer time should be systematic — as in praying the Episcopal Daily Office.
2. Weekly worship. This is the height of preaching to the choir, but this means that you need to make the effort to be here every week. Not only because worshipping as a community has power that worshipping alone just doesn’t have. But also because it is here — gathered around this altar, receiving the Body and Blood of our Lord and Savior, that we are spiritually fed and nourished for the continuing work of discipleship.
3. Reading and studying the Bible. I know that this is asking a lot, but the best way for you to do this, is to become a part of an on-going bible study. I pray that this year we will begin new groups through St. Barnabas, in which people can meet with people with whom they share things in common, and study Scripture together. But do you know what? This may be a big shock to some folks … but we do this kind of work EVERY SUNDAY during the Christian Formation hour, and you are ALL invited.
4. Developing and growing spiritual relationships. We must keep expanding our circle of friends and the sphere of our spiritual relationships. Doing the work of Jesus in the world — the real hands and feet kinds of work like feeding the poor and clothing the naked — begins by building relationships with other people and finding out what their needs are, so that we can become part of their solution.
5. Engaging in work in the community. One of the goals of the months of self-study we are about to start, with the RenewalWorks program, is to determine what we should be doing to reach out to the community around us and to be engaged in local works — as a congregation. Feeding the poor and clothing the naked, giving drink to the thirsty and visiting those in need is important and widespread work. We just have to determine where we should plug in to do some good.
6. Sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ with others. I know, that sounds like the four letter word — evangelism (yes, I do know that evangelism is more than four letters). But do you know what evangelism really is? It is sharing something you love with people whom you would like to have what you have. That’s all. Share the story of your Christian journey with people you know, and see what happens.
7. Practicing generosity with your time, talent & treasures. Give of yourself, your time, your money, your skills and abilities, in ways that can make a difference. We will be talking much more about this in weeks to come.
That is it. That is what it takes to become a full, capable disciple of Jesus Christ. You can get a copy of this sermon on-line, staring this afternoon. Just go to saintbarnabas.us and follow the link. Then print out the list and put it on your refrigerator, with everything else you don’t want to forget. And let’s begin working on this list together. Starting today, when you go across to Ramsay Hall and find a new ministry in which to share your gifts.
God bless you all. Have a great day and find new ways to serve.