What does it mean to be a disciple? What is a disciple – and who are we if we claim to be disciples? Google defines a disciple as one who is a follower or student of a teacher, leader or philosopher. As disciples, we have a specific teacher and leader we follow – that is Christ.
To better define us as we have a specific teacher, we would be better defined as Christian disciples – or disciples of Christ. We are students and followers of Christ.
If you look at the synonyms of the word disciple, you will find words like devotee and adherent. These synonyms give us a little more depth of understanding of what it means to be called a disciple. Using these descriptive words and considering the teachings of Christ, when asking what it means to be a disciple, it is easy to name that to be a disciple, one must be committed. To be a disciple of Christ, one must be Committed to Christ. For the coming seven weeks, we will be studying what it means to be a disciple by asking ourselves, “Am I committed to Christ?” Each week we will focus on a different aspect of Christian discipleship. We’ll ask ourselves, are we committed to prayer, to reading the Holy Scriptures, to giving of our time, our gifts, and our service.
This seven-week series will take us closer in our walk with Christ by considering the different ways we connect, receive, and respond to our call to be disciples of Christ. But before we consider some of these individual components of discipleship, today, we will first ask the question, are we committed as disciples to Christ.
When I was growing up – a youth in the suburbs of Atlanta – one of the phrases that I heard on a regular basis in my early Christian education was, “Have you accepted Christ as your Lord and Savior?” This question came up again and again – at church on Sunday mornings, at youth events in the evenings, at camps throughout the summer, and on retreats throughout the year. Even at Christian concerts, where I would go to hear the latest in contemporary Christian music, the musicians and their MCs would pause for an altar call. During this pause, everyone was invited to respond to the call to be a disciple of Christ. The invitation was offered to come forward and have a pre-designated person share in prayer asking the intrigued and interested individual – usually a youth – to accept Christ as their personal Lord and Savior for the first time.
I grew up in the church – in the United Methodist Church. I never knew a time when I was not involved in the church. I always felt like I had accepted Christ. I strongly believed that I was a disciple. But I also remember that as a teenager, there were moments when I really questioned my faith. There were times when I wondered if God was real. And more expressly, there were times when I wondered if I really needed God and Christ in my life.
John Wesley, who is the founder of the Methodist movement, which began in the 18th Century, writes of similar thoughts and feelings of his own walk with God. Wesley claims from an early age to have believed in God and Christ; Wesley knew faith was important for him, and felt it should be for others. But there were time when he also questioned if he were a true disciple of the Lord. In his journals, he writes of one evening in 1738, when for him his faith changed dramatically. He says:
In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while he was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone, for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.
I shared a similar experience to Wesley as a teenager. I found myself one evening done with faith, tired of the church, and exhausted for having worked so hard to make faith work for me.
What I’ve come to realize about that night is not that God saved me that night, but that God made manifest that evening in my life the work God had already begun many years prior. As Wesley says, what happened for me that night was that I was given the assurance that God had taken away my sin – even mine – and saved me from the law of sin and death.
That night for me does not capture the full story of my faith, but it offers what became the first time I really made a commitment to Christ. It was the first time I remember being thankful for the work of God in my life. I’ve had hard times in my personal and spiritual life since that evening. There have been other days when I questioned my discipleship. And there have been times when I have found myself having to again make a commitment to Christ.
As we journey though this series on being committed to Christ, I want us to pause this morning to consider our commitment to Christ. I want us to ask ourselves – are we committed to the call of God, or perhaps are we in a place where we need to recommit ourselves as disciples of the Lord?
Our passage today from the book of Acts tells us a story about Paul and his interaction with King Agrippa. Agrippa has come to speak with Paul because of a local roman governor, named Festus. This roman governor is at a loss of how to deal with Paul, who has been imprisoned because of how he has upset some of the local Jewish community. There is a bitter feeling towards Paul because of his claim regarding Jesus, who Paul teaches is the Messiah and was resurrected following his crucifixion.
Festus thinks Paul is a mad man – that he is psychologically or mentally ill. As such, Festus seems weary about sending Paul to Caesar because he’s not sure what charges he would bring up on Paul. Instead, Festus calls on Agrippa, a local overseer, for a second opinion on how to respond to this crazed individual.
This story is told in full in the 26th chapter of Acts. Paul is defending himself before Agrippa. He confesses to his conversion to believe in Christ as the Messiah. He also confesses and gives account of his teaching and preaching regarding Christ as Lord. This isn’t the first time Paul has been asked to validate and speak to his claim of the resurrection. Bishop William Willimon, a renowned theologian and retired United Methodist Bishop, directs us back to Acts 22, where Paul is making a claim for Christ’s resurrection and Lordship to a gathering of Jews. In his Acts 22 defense, Paul takes on a persona that relates himself very closely to the Jewish population. He intentionally placed himself in the tradition of the Jews. In Acts 22, he begins his defense by saying, “Brothers and fathers …” He connects himself as family with those to whom he is speaking. “I am a Jew,” he says, “born in Tarsus in Cilicia … educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today.”
Paul is wise, and so he tailors his defense of Christ’s resurrection to the crowd that stands before him. With the Jews, his defense relied on a shared heritage. Here with Agrippa, who is not a Jew, and for all we know is not a religious person save a possible belief in Caesar as Lord, Paul seemingly separates himself from the Jewish community to whom he had previously related. Paul is no longer speaking to someone who is of faith. Instead of connecting himself with the Jewish community, Paul is emphasizing his personal experience with Christ, which has led him to believe in Christ as the resurrected Messiah.
Paul’s testimony of his faith in Christ – his decision to be a disciple – is not a story of conversion as many a testimony is today. Bishop Willimon says that for Paul, religion was not about self-fulfillment. There is never a moment when Paul claims he gave his life to Christ or accepted Jesus as Lord. Instead, Paul’s faith and testimony are all about how God found him. He says, “To this day, I have had help from God.”
King Agrippa responds, “Are you so quickly persuading me to become a Christian?” Paul responds as any person with full conviction in the Lord might. Paul says, “I pray to God, that not only you but also all who are listening to me today might become such as I am.”
Paul knew his calling. He believed it was the will of God for his life, the intention and purpose of his ministry, to be faithfully committed to Christ and to invite every person he met to believe in Christ as Lord.
Bishop Willimon sums up what this should look like in our lives today: “The Christian faith,” he says, “is not about feelings, even very deep feelings, but about something which has happened, something which has happened to us: the fact of the risen Christ.”
Being committed to Christ is not about knowing the facts of our sacred text; being committed is not simply claiming you have a relationship with the Lord.
For one to be committed to Christ, there must be a constant intentionality toward discipleship. Being committed to Christ means breaking the mold of what has come to define American Christianity. Our society tells us that what is most important in our personal lives is that which gives us pleasure. Perhaps what drives us is power, fame, wealth, the right job, the right house, the honor student bumper sticker and the ivy league graduation certificate. As that has come to define our personal lives, it has leached into our faithful lives, and has infected the way worship, serve, and grow. Christianity has become less about worshipping God and more about being religiously right.
Perhaps to make ourselves feel better about how society is pervading our faith, we work to separate our personal lives from our faithful lives. We don’t talk about our Lord outside our circle of church friends. We tend to only allow our faith to guide our decisions if the decisions are church related.
But Paul says that true discipleship is not about what pleases us at any point in our life. It doesn’t matter if it’s a decision that seems out of the realm of the church, or if the decision is blatantly connected to the life the congregation. Christ, risen, should transcend every aspect of our being – every experience of our lifetime.
Our commitment to Christ is not a one and done kind of deal. This journey of discipleship is not an invitation to say a salvation prayer of initiation and then to ignore the call of Christ in your life. My moment in high school of commitment, while a significant point in my journey with Christ, is not what makes me committed disciple today. The decision to be a disciple, is the decision to wake up each morning and recommit ourselves to the work of God in the world.
Every time we make a decision that is personally motivated and not motivated by the Cross, we need to recommit our lives. It’s too easy in this country to blur the lines between how we’re told we should live and what it faithfully looks like to live as a disciple of Christ.
Today, I want you to consider, when is the last time you committed yourself to Christ? Does the call to discipleship drive your life? In the risen Lord visibly and perpetually revealed in your life?
Praise God that the risen Lord gave his life on the cross that we may live ever in and through the love that is God, which reaches out to us to call us as committed disciples of our Lord. Amen.