Missional: Setting the Bar High
Last week, we started our series looking at what it means to be a missional congregation. We talked about finding our purpose, or rather, aligning ourselves with God’s purpose in the world. We heard Jesus announce that his purpose was to embody God’s good news, God’s purpose in the world, which focuses on extending welcome and special invitation to all those who are marginalized and oppressed. For us, who already have heard and received the good news in Jesus, our task is to work with and for Jesus to help make sure the whole world gets the message.
That sounds like a lot of work, doesn’t it? Sometimes, I think, we can be overwhelmed with a sense of helplessness in the face of the call of the gospel. Jesus wants to flip the world upside down, and we want to go with him, but this turning the world upside down leaves us a bit dizzy. Are we making discipleship too hard? Can’t we just try to follow the golden rule - do unto others as we’d have them do unto us - and be nice and kind - and call it a day? Isn’t that enough? It sounds very appealing, doesn’t it?
Yet, I can’t help but think of the Book of Acts, which we’ve been reading in our Bible Study class the last several weeks. I keep asking folks to pay attention to words and phrases that are repeated through the book, as that helps us understand what the author wants to focus on. And I keep noticing that the author of Acts repeatedly describes the followers of Jesus, the apostles who are working to spread the news of Jesus as bold. With boldness they do this. Boldly they do that. Their discipleship is bold. Risky. Attention-getting. Trouble-making, in fact. Their dedication to preaching the good news lands them in prison more than once.
But, we don’t have to do that, right, to be disciples? That path isn’t for everyone - right? This week at Annual Conference, Liz and I had the opportunity to hear Adam Hamilton teach over three study sessions. He’s the pastor of the largest United Methodist Church in the country, and he’s the author of a number of books, including the book Making Sense of the Bible that we studied together last year. I found him to be inspiring and challenging. At one point, he talked about how to know what God is calling you - individually, or as a congregation - to do. And he said he operates with a principle he calls “discernment by nausea.” If one of two paths feels easy and comfortable, and the other makes you a little sick with anxiety to think about doing, he said, guess which one God is probably call you to do?
Some of you have heard me talk before about whether we like to think of what God wants from us, ask of us, whether we like to think of the call and task of discipleship as something that is easy or hard. There’s an expression we use that comes from the sport of high-jumping, where athletes run and try to leap over a bar that gets progressively higher until only one contestant is left. If something is really difficult, if the standard for approval for something is strenuous, if a lot is demanded of someone in order to be considered successful, we might say, “Wow, the bar is set really high” for whatever that is. We might say, for example, that to become an astronaut that actually gets to go into space, the bar is set high, as you must be physically fit and well, knowledgeable, experienced, and generally at your peak in order to be chosen for a space mission. We might say the bar is set low if almost everyone and anyone could qualify something. Like if the Olympics handed out medals for participation, just for trying.
I think it’s pretty clear from the gospels that the bar of discipleship is set very high. What does God want from us? Everything! How hard is discipleship? Why, it’s so hard that you might say it’s easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for us to really enter into and get this kingdom of God and eternal life stuff Jesus talks about. I think we get tempted sometimes to say that what God asks of us as followers is easy. We’d like to start the bar out low, maybe even put it on the floor, so we can all get over without any help. Why can’t the bar be set at a level where we all might make it over? I don’t want that, though. And I don’t think we’re going to get that. I don’t think we see that in the scriptures - the bar set low. I don’t think Jesus ever suggests following him is easy, or simple. Instead, I think the bar of discipleship is set very high. So high, in fact, that often, we’re going to fall flat on our faces when we try to get over it. So high, that sometimes we’re like a camel trying to get through the eye of a needle when we try to follow Jesus.
So about that camel. A man came to see Jesus just as Jesus was about to set out on a journey. He knelt before Jesus, the action of a slave before a master, and called Jesus, “Good Rabbi,” a description – goodness – reserved for God alone. His actions express his commitment to getting some answers from Jesus. He’s serious. He really wants some guidance, really wants to do what God wants. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” Jesus responds by listing several of what we call the Ten Commandments – specifically, all the ones relating to how we treat one another. “These I’ve kept since childhood,” the man responds.
Jesus looks at him and loves him. Loves him enough to say some hard things: “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” The man is shocked, and leaves, grieving, because he had many possessions. The man was great at keeping all the commandments that had to do with how we treat neighbors. But those ones about our relationship with God: About there being just one God, and about putting nothing else before God – it seems Jesus got to the heart of the matter and pinpointed the very thing that would come between this man and God, between this man’s desire to follow Jesus, and his commitment to actually doing it. We’re not told what the man did when he left Jesus, only that he was shocked, and left grieving. He would be grieving either way. He could decide that discipleship had too high a price, and grieve because he couldn’t do what Jesus asked. But he could also grieve because he was about to give up what he so carefully had accumulated for himself. His possessions. His stuff. The work of his hands.
I think there is some grieving in our discipleship no matter what choices we make. Sometimes we spend a lot of time trying to shut out God’s persistent call, trying to quell that nausea-inducing tug that’s leading to a particular ministry path, to a particular action, to a pattern of living we know is right and just, and we grieve because we’re turning away from the life we know would be so much more satisfying than the stuff we settle for. But sometimes we’re grieving because our own plans sound so good to us, so right, something God could approve of – and we still have to walk away, because our plans are just that – a possession, something we own, something we create, a thing that just becomes one more idol, and any idol, no matter how shiny and bright, is still something that puts distance in between God and us. One way or another, there’s some grief in this journey of discipleship. We know that, don’t we?
But when we choose to follow in the way of Jesus, our grief always gives way to hope, to joy. Jesus tells the disciples that it is harder for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God than it is for a camel to make it through the eye of a needle – in other words, impossible by our own human efforts to do. But when Peter wonders if there is any hope, Jesus, we read “looks at them,” a phrase I think adds emphasis to his words, and says, “For mortals, it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
Following Jesus isn’t easy. He asks us for everything. He asks us for whatever we love most! He asks us to put following God before everything - and I mean everything - else. He asks us to take up a cross. He asks us to go to the end of the line. He asks us to open ourselves to ridicule and scorn. He asks us to reject the ways of the world and to choose him and his path first and always. He asks us to give our lives for others, to spend our days working relentlessly to bring ever nearer the kingdom of God where all are included, where justice reigns and the systems of oppression have tumbled to the ground. The bar is set so high that it’s hard to see from here on the ground. Making it over that bar? Impossible. But for God? Well, for God, all things are possible. And so we pray not that we might be good enough to get over that high bar, but that we might be wise enough, faithful enough, humble enough to let God lift us up. We pray that we might just give up our whole selves, put our whole lives into God’s hands, so that depending on God, we might be raised up with Christ. The only way I know to get a camel through the eye of the needle is God’s way. Up and over that bar set so high. We can’t do it. But God can. Thanks be to God. Amen.