Discipleship: Role Models of Faith

Introduction

In the first sermon in this series on discipleship, one of the things I said was “our belief in Christ – our view of Christ – has a profound impact on the way that we follow him.” And so in this sermon today, I wanted us to spend some time together looking at role models of faith – people who had those grace-touched moments in their lives when their understanding of and belief in Christ was revealed in how they responded to him, and the subsequent impact it had on their lives.

This is something we will all hopefully find to be both challenging and encouraging in our walk of faith and growth as disciples. The aim is that by considering role models of faith who we wouldn’t necessarily first think of, whose experiences can nonetheless give us food for thought, we might be encouraged to examine:

  • What we believe, and what is our understanding of Jesus Christ?
  • What things helped us to come that point of belief, and have continued to encourage us to grow in our faith?
  • How we might respond in light of that belief, and so…

Be encouraged to reflect on and review what impact being a Disciples of Jesus has in our lives.

If you want a concrete example of the impact that role models of faith have in our life, think of the times when people from the congregation have stood up and shared testimony with us here, and the way in which it has been deeply moving and / or encouraging and how it has helped to shape and inform our identity and character as a church.

Some of my role models

With that in mind I want to share with you some role models of faith from my journey:

John

John was an elder from a housechurch I attended for three years in Birmingham. He was like a second father to me. It is hard to explain why, but we simply connected. John was someone who mentored me, who was always happy to discuss the things of faith I struggled with and not stick to script on the church discipleship course all members were supposed to take.

Judy

I got to know Judy roughly 7 years ago as I began to get involved in a Fresh Expression of church that involved a form of online ministry. Despite the fact that she lives in America, and for the first 6 of those years we never met in flesh and blood, we made a connection. Judy became one of my accountability partners, someone who is constant and true, a ‘critical friend’; someone who sees Christ in me, and even though we have some profound theological differences, she has deepened my walk of faith and my journey of discipleship and always been there through my darkest and lightest times. She has seen me at my best, and at my worst and still loves me like a sister loves a brother.

Barbara

Barbara was a member of my former congregation who I used to visit and take home communion to. I always used to ask her if there was anything specific she wanted prayer for, and without exception her request was always for someone else and never about herself. She was always self-effacing, and never once complained about anything. She had a deep faith that was built on solid ground. One day when I visited she said she had something she wanted to share with me; she told me that she was dying from cancer and had been aware of it for quite some time. She wanted me to know because she had to go into hospital and didn’t want anyone to wonder where she was. Her faith, even to the end, was unwavering. She was grace-touched, deeply aware of the presence of Christ and ready to meet her maker. I was humbled.

These are some, but not all of my role models of faith from my lived experience. Now, if I asked you who might be our role models in the Gospel accounts, we certainly may well think again of the disciples. Don’t get me wrong – I think that rightly the disciples can and should be amongst our role models. If you remember last time when I spoke about failure and grace, I said that one of the reasons Mark chose to portray the disciples in the gritty realistic way in which he did, warts and all, failures and all, is to give us hope…hope to remind us very clearly that Jesus CHOSE these people to follow him…and such is his love, he chooses us to follow him too.

Despite this, it is still all too easy to set people on a pedestal. It is easy to think about the up-front public ministries as being of more importance than other forms of ministry. But show me someone who is an encourager, a helper, an intercessor or a nurturer any time – you know who I mean – the person who comes alongside you at just the right time and speaks words of truth, encouragement, life and affirmation to you, or the person who helps set up and clear away the tables and chairs or helps to wash up, the person who diligently prays for the people in this church and our local community without drawing attention to themselves, and the people who gently inspire those new to faith in the faith. All of these people are people who are grace-touched and have that revelation of Christ. You see something of Christ in them.

My role models from Mark’s Gospel

With this in mind, I would like to introduce you to 3 of my role models from Mark’s Gospel who were not disciples, at least not at first! These were people who simply got it!

  1. The man with an evil spirit (Legion) – Mark 5:1-20
    1. The man was in a terrible and desperate place few if any can ever really understand. He had been treated as sub-human, often bound in chains. The state of his affliction was horrific – he had lost control due to possession, and incapable of living with the dignity and esteem of his humanity. He was tormented and controlled by the forces of evil. He was possessed by an unclean spirit, and lived in the tombs amongst the dead bodies which would have been considered unclean, and his condition and circumstances meant that he was alienated from the society he was part of.
    2. He was deeply disturbed – tormented. He self-harmed, and would cut himself with stones and cry out. For anyone witnessing that it must have been deeply disturbing.
    3. When he saw Jesus from a distance, he ran and fell on his knees in front of him. We see Jesus’ power and authority at work – even though evil, the unclean spirit both recognised and acknowledged Jesus’ divinity. It is a powerful reminder to us that Jesus has the power, the authority and the victory.
    4. The man went on a journey of profound transition – from captivity to freedom, insanity to sanity, despair to hope, devastation to restoration, and unclothed to clothed. It was such a profound transition, that people who had witnessed how the man had been before were afraid.
    5. Jesus told the man “Go home to your family and tell them how much the Lord has done for you, and how he has had mercy on you.” So the man went away and began to tell in the Decapolis how much Jesus had done for him. And all the people were amazed.
    6. Do we ever write off people because we are judgemental, and have a lack of faith that God can and does transform lives? Do we ever struggle to acknowledge that God’s grace is sufficient for us?
  2. The woman with the issue of blood – Mark 5:21-43
    1. The woman had undergone all manner of treatments from physicians over the course of 12 years; she had spent all she had. She was triply outcast from society because she was in poverty, unclean (and could never undergo ritual purification (Leviticus 15:19ff) and she was a woman (and therefore considered lesser in a patriarchal society). And yet, she had heard about Jesus and expressed an incredible faith. “If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.” She didn’t need or expect to have Jesus’ full attention; she didn’t need or expect to be in the limelight and the focus of his attention. In some way she had a revelation of Christ where she recognised his power and holiness.
    2. She responded to Jesus with humility, reverence and honesty. She “…came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth.” When people “got” Jesus and had the deep encounter and revelation of him they tended to fall to their knees in worship.
    3. Jesus spoke of her as a “daughter”, i.e. no longer an outcast but one of the family. He affirmed her, blessed her and assured her. “Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.”
  3. The widow’s offering – Mark 12:41-44
    1. This short passage speaks volumes about the heart-attitude that the woman had. We see in her actions a true act of sacrifice and commitment. In our giving, it is not the amount that we give that matters to God, it is the attitude with which we give it. This doesn’t simply apply to our financial resources, but to our time and talents too.
    2. We are reminded of this in 2 Corinthians 9:6-8, “The point is this: the one who sows sparingly will also reap sparingly, and the one who sows bountifully will also reap bountifully. Each of you must give as you have made up your mind, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver. And God is able to provide you with every blessing in abundance, so that by always having enough of everything, you may share abundantly in every good work.

So there you have it; 3 of my role models of faith from Mark’s gospel. The full list of my role models in Mark’s Gospel is a long one! But I hope that these insights have given you food for thought.

Group Discussion

Introductory Activity and Questions

  1. In 2’s or 3’s, share with each other examples of people who have been your role models of faith in your own personal journeys of faith – people who you have encountered who have inspired you or encouraged you in your faith. Can you share who these people were?
  2. What was it about them that inspired or encouraged you?
  3. If you could make a list of the hallmarks or characteristics of a role model or Christian mentor, what would it include? Here is what mine includes:
    1. Humility – grace-touched, with a gentle spirit
    2. Aware of the love of God for them and others; someone who gives God the glory
    3. Someone with a grateful heart
    4. Affirming and encouraging – not possessing a critical spirit
    5. Challenging – able to speak the truth in love
    6. Availability and hospitality
    7. Good stewards of all God has blessed them with (time, talents and resources)
    8. Maturity of faith, and attitude – balanced and experienced, grounded in God’s word and secure
    9. Transparency – someone who is honest and genuine
    10. Good track record – a person of integrity, someone who practices what they preach, and is consistent across all walks of life
    11. Someone who is real and recognises that they are a work in progress
  4. What things helped us to come that point of belief, and have continued to encourage us to grow in our faith?
  5. How we might respond in light of that belief – what three things could we do between now and Christmas to deepen our faith OR the faith of others?

The man with an evil spirit (Legion)

  1. Think about any people you may have encountered who have gone through a massive change in their life as a result of coming to faith and share this in 2’s or 3’s.
  2. The people who saw the change in the man were afraid, perhaps doubting that the man really had come to a place of healing and wholeness. How do we avoid being judgemental and sceptical about people who have gone through a huge U-turn in life to come to a place of faith in Christ?
  3. We are all likely to have seen examples of where God has transformed people’s lives (including hopefully our own). When people don’t seem to grow or respond, what are the likely reasons for that?
  4. Do we ever struggle to acknowledge that God’s grace really is sufficient for us? Do we ever feel inadequate, not good enough, perhaps held back by events in the past? How can we encourage each other to enter into that deeper relationship with Christ? How can we develop tenacity and sticking power, to “run the race” – “Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame, and has taken his seat at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)

The woman with the issue of blood

  1. In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
  2. What does holiness mean? Discuss in 2’s or 3’s.
  3. How does our belief, and our view of Christ affect our worship?
  4. Is Sunday the end of the week or the beginning of the week for us? What is our hope and expectation of worship on a Sunday? Is it all about us, or is it all about God? Remember the primary reason for our existence is to worship and be in relationship and fellowship with God.

The widow’s offering

  1. In what ways does the woman’s example speak into our life?
  2. Discuss the following passage in 2’s or 3’s.

We want you to know, brothers and sisters, about the grace of God that has been granted to the churches of Macedonia; for during a severe ordeal of affliction, their abundant joy and their extreme poverty have overflowed in a wealth of generosity on their part. For, as I can testify, they voluntarily gave according to their means, and even beyond their means, begging us earnestly for the privilege of sharing in this ministry to the saints—and this, not merely as we expected; they gave themselves first to the Lord and, by the will of God, to us, so that we might urge Titus that, as he had already made a beginning, so he should also complete this generous undertaking among you. Now as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in utmost eagerness, and in our love for you—so we want you to excel also in this generous undertaking.” (2 Corinthians 8:1-7)

Advertisements

Discipleship: Failure & Grace

What does being a disciple mean to you?

At the beginning of this series on discipleship, I asked the question “What does being a disciple mean to you?” and together we explored how we might complete the sentence “A disciple is someone who…”  Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience.

It is very easy for us to think about the life and ministry of the disciples and in some ways set them on a pedestal, and to almost come to some sort of subconscious belief or view that we would never make the grade…or think that we aren’t good enough to be disciples. But perhaps surprisingly when we think about words we might associate with discipleship, another word I believe we should include is failure.

The Missionary George Smith

Many years ago, a Moravian missionary named George Smith went to Africa. He had been there only a short time and had only one convert, a poor woman, when he was driven from the country. He died shortly afterward, on his knees, praying for Africa. He was considered a failure. But a company of men stumbled onto the place where he had prayed and found a copy of the Bible he had left. Shortly after they met the one poor woman who was his convert.

A hundred years later his mission counted more than 13,000 living converts who had sprung from the ministry of George Smith.

How Mark portrays the disciples

I don’t know if you have ever worked through Mark’s gospel and looked at the way in which he chose to depict the disciples.  Some theologians say that of all of the Gospel accounts, Mark’s Gospel is the most critical about the disciples. It is easy at first glance to see why:

  • The disciples failed to understand Jesus’ parables (only Mark 4:13; cf. Matt 13:16-17, 51)
  • When they spoke with Jesus in the boat, they didn’t understand what he meant (Mark 8:14-21; cf. Matt 16:5-12; Luke 12:1)
  • After the first Passion prediction, Peter rebuked Jesus, who in turn rebuked Peter (Mark 8:32-33)
  • The disciples were unable to perform an exorcism (Mark 9:14-29; cf. Matt 17:14-20; Luke 9:37-43a)
  • After the second Passion prediction, the disciples argued about which of them was “greatest” (Mark 9:33-34)
  • After the third Passion prediction, James and John asked for “seats of honour” (Mark 10:35-40)
  • Judas betrayed Jesus to the authorities (Mark 14:10-11, 18-21, 41-46)
  • Peter denied even knowing Jesus (Mark 14:29-31, 66-72)
  • All the disciples ran away after Jesus was arrested (Mark 14:50-52; cf. 14:27)
  • The women left the empty tomb in fear and silence (Mark 16:8)

Their track record certainly leaves a lot to be desired doesn’t it? Are these the kind of people we should really put on a pedestal?  Are these the kind of people we should aspire to be?

Mark is also critical about the ways in which the disciples responded to Jesus because of their lack of insight and understanding:

  • The disciples “pursued” or “hunted for” Jesus despite Jesus having got up early for a quiet time to be with His Father (only Mark 1:36)
  • They were afraid during a storm and were reproached for lacking faith (only Mark 4:40; cf. Luke 8:25)
  • After Jesus walked on water, they didn’t understand about the loaves; their hearts were hardened (only Mark 6:52; cf. Matt 14:28-32)
  • They had eyes that didn’t see and ears that didn’t hear (only Mark 8:18-19; cf. Matt 16:12)
  • The disciples didn’t believe the resurrection witnesses (Mark 16:13, 14, 16)

Hope in the midst of failure

One of the most striking examples of failure in Mark’s Gospel can be found in the account of Peter’s denial of Christ.  “You will all fall away… before the rooster crows twice you yourself will disown me three times.”  Even in the starkness of this passage, we see something of God’s grace which at the time probably went completely over the heads of the disciples.  It is easy for us to miss it too.  Jesus said “But after I have risen, I will go ahead of you into Galilee.”  In other words, despite knowing how the disciples would desert him, and despite knowing that Peter would disown him three times, Jesus still gave an assurance that they would come back together once again after he had risen.  And as we know from the Gospel accounts, Peter was indeed forgiven, reinstated and also transformed.  God’s strength was made perfect in his weakness – he was grace touched for the rest of his life and ministry, and Jesus’ prophetic words about him became true… “And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.” (Matthew 16:18)

I think one of the reasons why Mark chose to portray the disciples in the gritty realistic way in which he did, warts and all, failures and all, is to give us hope…hope to remind us very clearly that Jesus CHOSE these people to follow him…and such is his love, he chooses us to follow him too.  And when, like the disciples, our track record leaves a lot to be desired and we too show a lack of insight and understanding, Jesus will be right there waiting for us – strength to prevail, and grace and mercy when we fail.

One of the things that saddens me the most is when I see people who are too paralysed by fear – fear of so many things – to even try, people who can’t let go and let God.  And one of the things that perpetuates that fear is how critical the church – and I mean the church in general – can sometimes be.  Jesus said “…out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks.” (Matthew 12:34)  People who are critical often have critical spirits and are not at peace with themselves or with God; if they were grace-touched, and were truly aware of their poverty of spirit, they would also be grace givers.  We are called to disciple each other, and spur one another on toward love and good deeds.  Faith is being able to risk failure…“faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Hebrews 11:1)

A journey into grace

Mark’s portrayal of the disciples reminds us that we are not called to follow the disciples who have gone on before us, or even the disciples we journey with now; we are called to follow Christ and Christ alone.  The writer and Senior Pastor Revd Michael Foss said “Leaders in the church should not have disciples.  When they do, the community of faith all too often degenerates into a personality cult.  When the leader leaves, the church falls apart.  The leader’s call is not to gather people around himself or herself, but to gather them around Jesus.”  If you go into any church and expect to see perfection when you look at its leadership, then you will find your expectations dashed.  If you go into a church and hope to see a leadership that is grace-touched, hope-filled, alive with a knowledge of God’s awesome love with a heart to work out faith with fear and trembling, then you may find your hopes realised.  It is said there is no such thing as a perfect church and no such thing as a perfect congregation either.

People have dignity when they can make decisions and then live with the consequences of those decisions, even if the decisions that they have taken were wrong.  But when we have the freedom and ability to make decisions, we need to be clear we MUST accept responsibility for making them and be prepared to live with and journey through the consequences, as uncomfortable as it may make us.

Of equal importance is realising that in God’s economy it is only when we are in that place of failure can we acknowledge more fully our dependency on and need for God and his love and grace.  It is only when we recognise the depth of the poverty of our spirit that we can recognise and appreciate the enormity of God’s lavish grace.  If there are times when you feel that you aren’t good enough, the reality is none of us are…not one.  “But now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed, and is attested by the law and the prophets, the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God; they are now justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a sacrifice of atonement by his blood, effective through faith.” (Romans 3:21-25a).  In the knowing, the deep knowing that we are not good enough, there is an even deeper truth we must write on the tablet of our hearts – we are infinitely loved by a God who made us.  Sometimes we have to journey to come to a realisation of that.

The mark of a genuine disciple is someone who journeys well with and through failure, someone who in the depth of their brokenness can say like Job in all integrity “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I shall depart.  The Lord gave and the Lord has taken away; may the name of the Lord be praised.” (Job 1:21)

Michael Foss also said “Modelling discipleship means being honest and transparent about one’s own life of faith, admitting difficulties where they exist, owning up to mistakes, and making amends – but never as failure!  In a discipleship church, failure is not failure if we learn from it, grow from it, and change as a result of it.”  The mark of a disciple is when we are no longer in fear because we know the love of God.

The culture we must seek to foster together in being disciples is a culture of grace, forgiveness and self-sacrificial living; we must seek to put away “…all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children, and live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” (Ephesians 4:32 – 5:2)  Yes, there will be times when we might say something to each other that “gets our back up”; there might be times when we cause offence, and likely there will be times when we fail to live up to expectations.  But I ask you to exercise grace, I ask you to love each other sacrificially, I ask you to seek to look at one another as God sees you – as beloved children.  And I ask you to remember, always remember, this:

He said to me, My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness. So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.  Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Corinthians 12:9-10)

So when we go out this week, let our memory verse be this:  “Go and learn what this means…I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.  For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)

I hope you are encouraged by this aspect of discipleship.  I hope that you approach Mark’s gospel with a different perspective.  I hope you realise that God call people just like them, just like you, and just like me.  I hope you find courage to step out in faith, to try…God knows your heart.  He knows mine.  And every time we fail, as at times we will, then together let’s journey into a deeper knowledge of God’s love and grace.  And let’s celebrate those glorious times we truly shine with the light of Christ and his strength really is made perfect in our weakness.

Amen