Christians: Apprentices to Jesus

"We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life" (Ephesians 2:10).

In the final sermon in this short series of four, I want to turn to the specific issue of one's decision to follow Christ as his disciple. To this point, we have explored the nature of faith and the rock-solid grounding of Christianity in the character, deeds, and resurrection of Jesus from the dead. What if someone has begun now to look at reality through Jesus' eyes? What if she is willing to trust Jesus to guide her up the mountain? What if he is willing to be tethered to Jesus as his jumpmaster? In the most practical terms possible, what would that mean?

Last week I showed you a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade that I don't like. On my view, it misrepresents the nature of faith as one's willingness to step off a cliff blindly, to take an absurd risk for no adequately evidenced reason. It is the cinematic version of H.L. Mencken's definition of faith as "an illogical belief in the occurrence of the improbable."

Shortly after that scene, however, comes one that I really like for its implications about the ultimate choice involved in faith. Do I go my way or Christ's? Do I travel my own roadmap or follow his? Do I yield to him in part or in whole? Do I give one hand to him and use the other to grasp for this world or give him both hands and live for eternity?

After Indy finds the Holy Grail and saves his father, a seductive woman named Dr. Elsa Schneider asks him to flee the cave with her and their prize. But Jones knows the Grail cannot leave the cave in which it had been hidden for so many centuries. "The simple cup of the carpenter" cannot be used by Elsa either for her personal gain or to serve her Nazi cohorts. When she tries to take it away, the whole mountain begins to collapse. A scene follows in which she has to be saved from certain death by giving both her hands to Indiana Jones or try to hold onto him with one and reach the cup with the other. After she makes a fatal choice, Indy himself has to make the same choice with his own father ready to save him.

"Indiana. Indiana. Let it go," pleads his father. It's both hands in his - or death! That scene represents the stark choice to which faith brings us. Both hands in God's and willing to let the things we deem valuable here go - or death!

Faith Demands a Choice

Money, sex, and power. Aren't they supposed to be the "big three" - the holy trinity - of this world? What Paul wrote about money can be said with equal force about the other two: "But those who want to be rich fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to be rich some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains" (1 Tim.6:9-10).

Are the apostle's words any less true if they are edited to read this way: "But those who live to their erotic fantasies fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For lustful obsession is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their obsession with pornography, massage parlors, and heterosexual or homosexual liaisons some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains"? Or this way: "But those who want to have power over others fall into temptation and are trapped by many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of control is a root of all kinds of evil, and in their eagerness to bully, oppress, and tyrannize others some have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many pains"?

At its lived-day-to-day structure, faith is turning lose of the things that tempt us to desire them more than God. It is releasing our grasp on people, things, and experiences that take us from God in order to grasp him. "Rubel. Rubel. Let it go!" he has said to me more than once. Let go of the anger and desire to get even. Let go of the silly desire to live above your means and drown your spiritual life in debt. Love the one woman I gave you, and know that your eyes, heart, and body cannot pursue another. Quit elbowing to the front of the line and trying to outdo somebody else, or your ego will be your undoing. Forget about being in charge at home or at work; learn to take care of your family, serve your church, and wash the feet of your friends.

Each of the four Gospels preserves some form of the following challenge from Jesus: "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it" (Mark 8:34-35; cf. Matt.10:37-39; Luke 9:23-24; John 12:25). Being a disciple of Jesus means putting both our hands in his and learning the way of life God has always intended for those who know him.

Apprentices

In using the term "disciple," however, I admit to some misgivings. It is a perfectly good word. It has the same root as our word "discipline" and identifies one who subscribes to the teachings and lifestyle of another. My fear in using it is simply the concern that it has become a churchy word that leaves a wrong impression. What if we used the word apprentice for a moment to describe those who put our spiritual welfare in his hands?

An apprentice is someone attached to another person or group in order to learn a skill. Only a few generations ago, most everyone who learned skills ranging from shoeing horses to making fancy pastries to practicing medicine did so through the apprentice system. For a given period of time, someone who was already proficient at a trade would take on a young aspirant and guide him or her toward a career in that field. The process involved discipline (i.e., training) and presumed a master-disciple role between the established craftsman and the would-be practitioner.

Even though we have more standardized educational structures to teach such things now, we still haven't abandoned the apprenticeship model completely. Painters, athletes, and surgeons still enter their respective disciplines through a process of observation and imitation. They learn techniques for doing certain things under the watchful eye of someone farther along the way who can instruct, correct, and demonstrate.

The church was God's original design for apprenticeship in spiritual things. It was intended to be fairly simple and was supposed to work something on this order: With everyone in the group committed to Jesus Christ, they would encourage one another to grow in faith, character, love for one another, and service to their own and the larger community around them. God certainly never intended for the trappings of religion to damage people and inhibit their spiritual growth.

I doubt that God ever intended for religion to be as powerful, wealthy, or rigid as it has become. I know of a certainty that he never meant for religious leaders to be isolated from people or insensitive to their hurts. And it is positively evil when they use the world's unholy trinity of money, sex, and power to pursue their agendas in this world. When that happens, they've clasped hands with the enemy (i.e., Satan) rather than with God!

Where Seekers Find God

When people are seeking for God, they should be drawn to the church as a place where faith in God, love for him and others, and kindness to everyone - even whatever enemies that church has - are the routine. That person should experience nonjudgmental acceptance by people who are committed to purity and holiness. That seeking man or woman should see peace and joy in that church, not guilt and meanness. She should find such an atmosphere that she senses immediately that she can be honest about everything in her life. He should find out quickly that he will not be made to answer to a legalistic set of expectations imposed by the group but will be allowed to grow at his own pace within a context of accountability and teaching.

In such a church, worship is going on in every aspect of its being - in assemblies, in families, in one-on-one conversations, even at work. Every thought of these people is being surrendered to Christ as they learn to read the world through his eyes. When its members are gathered for shared worship events, everyone is trying to tie his or her personal life story into Jesus' story through music, prayer, and teaching.

For this community of faith, character formation is always in process. The younger and more inexperienced are watching and imitating the people who have been following Christ longer. Yet those older believers seem not be taking themselves too seriously - saying that Christ alone is an adequate model of what they want to be and showing infinite patience with their younger apprentices in faith. Something really beautiful takes place in these settings.

That something "beautiful" has no semblance of phoniness or superficiality about it. These are real people with real hurts, struggles, and failures in their lives. They get sick, lose jobs, and have car accidents. They struggle with alcohol and drugs. They even admit their struggles with greed, lust, and manipulation. You don't get the sense that they are proud not to have overcome any of those things. It's just that they are trying to be honest with one another about where they are in climbing the high mountain called life. As they struggle, climb, and slip, these apprentices keep talking about "waiting" - waiting for Jesus to come back. No fear. No dread. Just a sense of what looks to the seeker in their midst like eagerness!

For these people, faith is not a dry intellectual pursuit. It is the daily passion of their lives. It shapes, guides, and gives ultimate meaning to everything in their experience. Seen in that way, a visitor or seeker set down in their midst is almost compelled to want to know more about how that community came to be - and to want to be part of it.

Conclusion

When lost people surrender to God, sinners become saints. When worship of the self-idol gives way to faith in Christ, egoism gives way to compassion. When apprentices become skilled practitioners, sinful humans-as-are have become God's humans-as-meant-to-be. "But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God's own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light" (1 Pet.2:9).

When that holy result comes to pass, the glory belongs to God. Someone dead in sin has been made alive, united with Christ, and transformed by divine power. As Paul put it at the end of his affirmation of salvation by grace, the outcome is faith at work to the glory of God: "We are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life."

This change is possible for those who stop their wavering between flesh and spirit, self and God. It happens when you put both hands in God's - and let him hold you secure. For anyone who wants the experience of the new way of life he has prepared, he is ready.


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