You are witnesses

art 04We’re offering gifts to the confirmands today. We should offer a warning instead. Their mentors are giving them good study Bibles that will serve them for a lifetime. I’m giving them copies of Three Simple Rules, a modern restatement of John Wesley’s guide to faithful living. Not meaning to seem indelicate, I feel we ought to warn them to run for the exits. Or we should force them to sit with us as we study the fine print in the contract with God that Christian discipleship is about.

Annie Dillard wrote somewhere about the danger of the faith we profess: “On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”

Drawn out to where we can never return is a good description of what happens to someone who takes this faith of ours seriously and becomes a disciple of Jesus. I’ve spoken before of the little boy who, while being comforted by his mother one night, tried to explain how he fell out of bed. “I guess I just lay down too close to where I got in,” he said. Frankly – and let me put this bluntly – most church members are always living on the near edge of faith, always at risk of falling out. British theologian and literary giant G.K. Chesterton wrote, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult; and left untried.”

Most folks in our part of the world get into the church about as far as it takes to make them feel good about themselves and manage their problems and recharge their emotional and spiritual batteries, or because they like the people there. The point where they lay down and go to sleep and fall out is the point where they discover that the only reason God draws us into a relationship with Christ is to give us a job to do, a sacred job (John 6:44; 1 Peter 2:9), and that the price of answering that call and doing that job is our life, everything we have and everything we are (Luke 14:33; Matt. 10:37-39). Don’t sign up to be my disciple, Jesus warns us, unless you’re willing to pay the price (Luke 14:28).

Why would anyone pay that price? I know why I’d pay such a price. I’d pay it to gain something worth a lot more. I’d pay it to be like that fellow who found treasure hidden in a field and went and sold all he had to buy that field. I’d pay it to be like the merchant who went in search of fine pearls and who, on finding one pearl of great price, sold all he had and bought that pearl (Matt. 13:44-46).

Jesus said he came so we could have more and better life than we ever dreamed of having (John 10:10 The Message). He not only announced that the reign of God on earth had begun. He extended the invitation to enter into it; he warned us not to let any lesser commitment interfere with accepting that invitation (Luke 14:15-24); and he promised that whatever we give up for it now, we’ll get back a hundred times over, here and now, with the bonus of eternal life in time to come (Mark 10:29-30). He lived and died in the radical faith that what he said was true, and God raised him from the dead as a testimony that he was right.

“You are witnesses of these things,” Jesus told his disciples as he left his work in their hands to continue in his name (Luke 24:48). He was referring to the power and effect of God’s love in his life and teaching, in his suffering and death, and in his resurrection. Still today, we are witnesses of these things.

Becoming a disciple of Jesus means three things to me. It means I’ve made a commitment to learn from Jesus how to live the quality and depth of life he lived, because I’ve caught a glimpse of that life, and I know it’s worth the price. It means I’ve made a commitment to live that life as well as I can, with all my faults and failures, knowing God is at work in my trying (Phil. 2:12-13). And it means I’ve made a commitment to do the sacred work God has given me to do, to share that life with others so they can learn it and live it also.

According to our Book of Discipline, “Every layperson” – you know who that is, don’t you; it’s not your pastor or the church’s professional staff; it’s all of you who sit in the pews – “is called to carry out the Great Commission [to make disciples of all the world, teaching them to observe all that Jesus commanded] (Matthew 28:18-20). The people of God, who are the church made visible in the world, must convince the world of the reality of the gospel or leave it unconvinced. There can be no evasion or delegation of this responsibility; the church is either faithful as a witnessing and serving community, or it loses its vitality and its impact on an unbelieving world.”1

That’s a big task, and frankly I don’t know if I’d be up to it at all if it weren’t for others who struggle as I do to make the good news real in this life. The good news is that the reign of God, the abundant life we have hoped for, has begun, and Jesus invites us to turn our lives around and live as if it’s true (Mark 1:15). Whenever anyone confirms his or her faith – I seem to be doing it almost every time I turn around – we begin again the lifelong journey toward loving God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving our neighbor as ourselves (Mark 12:28-31). Today these confirmands begin a new phase of their journey, and the rest of us have the opportunity to begin again.

 

note — 1. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 2012), ¶ 127, 130.

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