Today while writing this post, I googled “the one thing Jesus taught us to do.” I was looking for an image to illustrate the reflection that I usually write about the previous Sunday’s sermon. The results of my image search were very interesting. Can you predict which result was the most frequent? Prayer. I guess the algorithm guiding the search keyed in on the famous verses where the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray and he taught them the Lord’s Prayer.
But that’s not what I was looking for. I guess my search was misleading. As I thought about it, I realized that there was not just one thing that Jesus taught his disciples. So I rewrote my search terms to “the most important thing Jesus taught us.” Guess what happened? A lot more images of prayer. There was more variety this time, though. The first image in the list said “serve others.” I thought for sure “Love one another” would be there. Or “Love the Lord your God”. But those phrases were not there, or maybe they were buried so far down the list, that I stopped looking before I scrolled to them.
I do searches like this every week trying to find the right image for blog posts and PowerPoint shows to illustrate sermons. It is most often a matter of word-smithing the search phrase in such a way that the results return what I’m looking for. But this time I was curious as to what Google’s algorithms would come up with in regard to Jesus’ teachings. Those results could be said to be a representation of what people believe to be Jesus’ most important teachings. Therefore the internet is saying that Jesus’ most important teaching is about prayer.
Before you think this is a post about prayer, let me also point out that it was noteworthy what was missing from the search results. This is not actually a post about prayer. While I think prayer is very important, there is another teaching that Jesus gave his disciples that should be at the top of the list. Why did it not show up on Google’s image search? Perhaps it is an indication that we American Christians have not placed proper importance on this one extremely important teaching of Jesus.
Last week I suggested that there are two things that Jesus did NOT tell us to do, but that we do a lot of, and there is there is one thing he DID tell us to do that we don’t do. The two things we do a lot are (1) the building of church buildings and (2) holding Sunday worship services in them. Neither are bad activities, but they can consume our focus, whereas Jesus asked us to focus on something else.
What was the one thing Jesus told us to do?
We often call it the Great Commission. Make disciples. Jesus made disciples and he asked his disciples to make more disciples.
Jesus did not say “I want you to make believers.”
Instead he said that if anyone would be his disciple, that person must deny themselves, take up their cross daily and follow Jesus.
So when Jesus says that we are to make disciples, he is saying that he wants us to interact with people in such a way that they, too, deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him. He does not want believers who keep their thoughts about him in their minds. He wants disciples whose lives are transformed so that they look more and like him, so their lives look more and more like the way he lived his life. That means when people get connected to the family of Faith Church, we do not want them to just be Sunday morning worshipers and fellowshippers, we want them to be people of whom it can be said, they are denying themselves, taking up their cross and following him.
If you say “Well, I believe in Jesus,” you should not be assured that you are actually a disciple. If you say “Well, I believe in Jesus,” and you look at your life and you see that your relationship with Jesus is focused on attending Sunday morning worship and fellowship, you should not be assured that you are actually a disciple.
What does it mean to be his disciple? His central teaching was that to be his disciple, we must deny ourselves, take up our cross and follow him.
What is taking up your cross? How do we do that in 2016?
Jesus taught that discipleship was a life of learning from him. To be his apprentice. To learn from him how to live. Gradually he molded his disciples into the men and women who could take over the mission of God’s Kingdom for him.
We need to address what taking up your cross is NOT. We hear the phrase in our culture: “that’s my cross to bear”. Is that what Jesus is talking about? Not necessarily. People can say “that’s my cross to bear” for all sorts of reasons.
“Well, I have to take care of my elderly parents. It’s my cross to bear.”
“My boss is a jerk. It’s my cross to bear.”
All kinds of situations can be our cross to bear. But that’s not what Jesus meant. Usually we say that phrase as a “poor me”.
Instead a disciple carries his cross daily and follows Jesus. Jesus meant that his way, his life becomes our focus. We learn to do what he did. Even if it is difficult. Even if it is putting your life at risk for Jesus and the advancement of his Kingdom. Even if it means you don’t get to experience the pleasures of this world, like you see your friends and neighbors and co-workers doing.
Jesus described it perfectly when he said that taking up your cross starts with denying yourself.
Taking up your cross is a figurative picture of giving up everything to follow Jesus! It is saying to Jesus, “I give you permission to do what you want with me. I give you permission to have control of every area of my life.” And then actually changing whatever areas of your lives he wants to change.
But how do you do that?
- An extremely important way to begin is to humbly and teachably read his word and ask the Spirit of God to convict you of any sin in your life that needs to be changed.
- The next step is to share this with people who will speak honestly with you. Invite people who are also disciples of Jesus to speak the truth in love to you. To hold you accountable to make the changes you know God wants you to make.
- Finally continue in this until you are making changes that God wants you to make so that you can see you are being transformed.
Before you start thinking that I’m describing a pretty horrible way to live, let’s look at what this life is actually like. All this talk of self-denial and being changed and letting Jesus control you can sound really bizarre. Until you look at Jesus’ actual life. I urge you to do that. Read one of the stories of his life: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Decide for yourself. I would submit that if you are not that familiar with Jesus’ pattern of life, you will be astounded by the grace, the joy, the peace, the attractiveness, the mercy and the love that flows from him. His way of life was the happiest, best way of life. A disciple is learning from Jesus how to live.
One aspect of being Jesus’ disciple, therefore, is putting off the old selfish way, and putting on the new way of Jesus. The apostle Paul used that image in Romans 13:14 when he said “Clothe yourselves with Christ.”
It is like clothing. I go out to mow the grass, work in the garden or split and stack wood. I get very sweaty and dirty. Those dirty sweaty clothes represent the old way of life, the selfish way, where certain sins reside in our lives.
I come inside, cool off, get a shower, put on new clean clothes. Those clean clothes, Paul says, represent the new way of Jesus. His way is the way of a transformed heart and life. Paul calls it the Fruit of the Spirit, where the good things of Jesus are growing inside us, and those good things naturally come out.
Jesus taught us, “By their fruit you will know them.” I look at my berry bushes and I know what kind they are. The ones on the left have black berries and the ones on the right have red berries. Then there are also plants with similar leaves growing up in the middle of the berries. But those plants, though they look similar, have no berries. They are weeds.
You know a person by his or her fruit too. If you find within yourself, or if others tell you, that you are regularly grumpy, complaining, angry, upset, selfish, hiding away, escaping to fantasy, manipulative, lying, hurting others’ feelings, rough, harsh, talking too much, having to be the center of attention, then those are the fruits that are coming out of your life.
Here’s the thing though: so often they are coming out of our lives but we are more than willing to let ourselves off the hook and say “Well, I’m not so bad.” Or “Tough, that’s just me.” “Deal with it, that’s how God made me.” If you ever hear phrases like that coming out of your mouth, or even if you think them, you should be very concerned about yourself. You need people to confront you, to tell you the true story of who you are, and you need to listen to them.
So while a relationship with Jesus begins by believing, by trusting in him, it will not be a relationship very long if the trusting and believing is not followed by obeying.
“Trust and obey,” goes a classic song that we teach our children, “for there’s no other way.” Or as James says in James 2, “faith without works is dead.” Even Satan and the demons have faith, James reminds us. They know Jesus is the truth, but of course they do not obey him. That’s where a true disciple is different; a true disciple not only believes and trusts in Jesus, they also give their lives over to deny themselves, take up their cross and follow him.
So are a you a true disciple of Jesus? What does it look like for you to deny yourself, take up your cross and follow him?