DISCIPLESHIP AND CHURCH LIFE

by Bishop Demetri (Khoury)

 

Address to Midwest Region Spring Delegates’ Meeting

Spring Valley, IL — April 3, 1998

 

This evening, I want to speak to you about the important subject of Discipleship and Church Life. During the Lenten Season, we are called upon to increase our prayer and worship, to fast, and to increase the giving of our time and resources to our Church and to those in need. As we come to the completion of our Lenten journey, and are in anticipation of the glorious Resurrection of Our Lord, it is critically important to reflect on these goals and to contemplate on what it means to be a Christian and a disciple of Christ, and how this should be expressed in our life in the Church. Pascha provides the perfect opportunity for us to celebrate the promise given in the Resurrection of Christ and to make His teachings our own. Truly, the message of Christ and His Resurrection is one of triumph and victory. Therefore, let us consider what it means to wear the Holy Name of Christian and to be a true servant of Jesus Christ, worthy to be called a disciple of Christ.

Each of us here call ourselves by the name "Christian", but how often do we give serious thought to what it means to bear that name. Consider the popularity of crosses that people wear around their necks, carry in their pockets, or hang from their ears. There is a special significance attached to this emblem for the Christian, but for those who wear that symbol, both Christian and non-Christian, you will find an assortment of other motives.

In Greek, Christianos, or Christian, means simply "a follower of Christ." Although this name is so very familiar to all of us, it is interesting to note that the name "Christian" is found only three times in the New Testament.

The first verse that uses the word "Christian" is found in Acts (11:26), "And the disciples were called Christians first in Antioch." Before this time, the Jewish converts were simply called, among themselves, disciples, believers, saints, the Church, or assembly; and, by their enemies, Nazarenes, Galileans, the men of this sect. But given the name "Christian," they were identified with their Lord and Master. The theory, adopted by many, is that this Name was given by the enemies of the faith as an insult. This is groundless, as is very clear from the consideration that there is nothing in it that is belittling. To call the followers of Christ "Christians" is so obviously proper and natural that it might have occurred to almost any one acquainted with the Greek language; and this renders it difficult to determine whether it was given by unbelievers, or by the disciples themselves.

But as was evident in Acts, bearing the name of Christ is often misunderstood. The well known pollster George Gallup writes that: Fewer than ten percent of Americans are deeply committed Christians. Interestingly, he adds that these people "are far, far happier than the rest of the population." Committed Christians are more tolerant than the average American, more involved in charitable activities, and are "absolutely committed to prayer."

While many more Americans than this ten percent profess to be Christians, adds Gallup, most actually know little or nothing of Christian beliefs, and act no differently than non-Christians. (Mat 7:21 NASB) "Not everyone who says to Me, 'Lord, Lord,' will enter the kingdom of heaven; but he who does the will of My Father who is in heaven.

Bearing the name of Christ is more than being a Church member, sitting a pew or calling yourself a Christian. Being a Christian requires a commitment to follow Christ. This is not always easy, but it can be glorious. After testifying for Jesus, the apostles were beaten. Acts 5 records their reaction: (Acts 5:41) "And they departed from the presence of the council, rejoicing that they were counted worthy to suffer shame for his name." Early Christians were proud of their name, even when it hurt.

This brings us to the second verse containing the word "Christian": (1 Pet 4:16) "but if anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not feel ashamed, but in that name let him glorify God." The key phrase in this passage is: "Let him not feel ashamed," which was written by one who understood what denying the Lord meant. How many times in one night? Three?

Our most difficult trials are not in lion's dens. Nor are they when confronted by skeptics that scorn our beliefs. Our greatest trials come in the form of temptation. The temptation may be gift-wrapped in Greed. The temptation may be enveloped in Envy. The temptation may be armed with Anger, loaded with Lust or cloaked with Convenience or decorated with Deception. The temptation may be momentary, slowly thought out, or anxiously anticipated. But no matter how it presents itself, the potential result is the same.

What is worse? Renouncing your faith when you are persecuted? Denying your Lord in the High Priest's garden? or Taking the easy way out when faced with two choices: Your way or Christ's way? In all situations we should asks the question, what would Our Lord do? Even if we do not like the immediate answer, we should ask, what would Our Lord do?

We can see what He would have us to do in (1 Peter 2:21) "For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps." Yes, this is the Jesus that suffered humility before Herod, scourging before Pilate, and death before the people of God. But He is also the Jesus that is our High Priest. We are indeed blessed that, not only do we have a Saviour who understands our trials, but also has experienced our temptations as the verse in Hebrews says, (Heb 4:16) "Let us therefore draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and may find grace to help in time of need."

Now consider the last verse in which the word "Christian" appears (Acts 26:28), "And Agripa said to Paul, ‘You almost persuaded me to become a Christian.’"

How could anybody turn down the invitation to become a Christian? Being a Christian not only has the wonderful eternal rewards, but it also grants us with so much here on earth. Surely, there are times we are set apart from the rest of the world, or we suffer because we are Christian, but there is such joy and peace and love in bearing the Name.

You must ask yourselves: Am I a Christian or just wearing the name? Why did I become a Christian? Out of Conviction or Convenience? Was I pressured by family or peers, or love to Christ by their lives and their prayers? Am I separated from the world in my recreation, language, literature, habits & morals? Am I devoted to His Church?

Does the Church come first in my life? — Do I, "Seek first His kingdom?" (Mt. 6:33) Do I love the brethren or have no time for them? — Do we, "love one another" (John 13:34) Do I faithfully attend the Divine Services? Do I give liberally of my time, talents and resources? Do I appreciate strong preaching, and good teaching and are my ears and mind and heart open to His word and His will for my life? Am I easily entreated or hard to approach when in error? Have my defenses kept me from growing in Spirit and Truth?

As a Disciple we must Learn. As a Follower we must Imitate. As a Child of God we must Obey. As a Servant we are to be Loyal.

There is a great difference in wearing the name and being a Christian. Therefore, to be worthy to bear the name "Christian", we are to follow Christ — HE is to be our role model in shaping both our attitude and our actions.

In that He "did not come to be served, but to serve and to give His life a ransom for many", we too must become a servant. Let us now turn to examine and explore the challenge of serving — of being a servant to Christ in a way that is pleasing to Him.

At the beginning of his ministry, Jesus was tempted to use his abilities to serve himself—to make himself comfortable and to become popular and powerful. We can understand this temptation because we experience it also—the temptation to use our abilities to serve ourselves and to have as our primary goals in life attaining our own happiness and fulfilling our own desires.

When we focus only on ourselves and what we want from life, we have little interest in serving others or in serving God, except as we think serving God or others will somehow make our lives better. Then, we may seem to help others, but the clear expectation is that this is good for us, good for business, good for reputation, good for making others indebted to us. When we are self-centered, we may appear to serve God, but our expectation is that this sort of behavior is the way to get God to do what we want and give us what we want. So, although from the outside it may appear we are serving others and God, we are really serving ourselves.

As you remember from the story about the temptations of Jesus, he rejected the temptation, not merely out of some super willpower, but by staying focused on his purpose. The purpose of his life was serving God.

As we attempt to commit our lives to serve God, we are met with many challenges. Certainly one of these is the challenge to stay focused on serving God, regardless of the cost. This is especially difficult when we are aware that our doing what we know God wants us to do is going to place us at risk and probably cost us in some way.

Another challenge in serving is presented when dealing with the interruptions that God may send our way. When we think that we have some idea about what God wants us to do, it is easy for us to develop tunnel vision. We can be so convinced that what we are trying to do is so important that we fail to see some of the surprising ways God offers us the opportunity to serve. There are several stories in the four gospels about Jesus serving in one way, only to interrupted and offered the opportunity to serve in another.

When we take seriously the role of servant, one the major challenges we face is dealing with the fact that what God needs for us to do to serve Him in this world is so much greater than what we can possibly offer. All too often, we just give up because the effort of trying appears to be a total waste of time, energy and resources. When offered to the service of God and blessed by Christ, a miracle can happen. The service that we have to offer becomes not only enough to meet the need, but somehow even more than enough.

But this kind of service is not just busyness for the sake of being busy, nor is it a solitary act. It is becoming apparent that often beneath the hustle and bustle of activity around the parish there is something wrong. The goal has never been to run the busiest beehive possible, but rather, through the church, to bring healing to a sick world, wholeness to a broken community and to dispel the sense of being alone. This difficulty has reached epidemic proportions within our parishes as people become less involved. Some have found that, no matter how active they are or how much time they spend working on projects like putting together a food fair and dinner, or serving on the parish council, they feel as if they are alone in their efforts. It is critical that Christians understand that they are part of a body, a community of believers, and that alone they cannot truly be a Christian.

Saint Paul drew his picture of the Church as a body. The Church is the Body of Christ and the characteristics of a healthy body is that every member performs its own function for the good of the whole. Unity does not mean uniformity and therefore within the Church there are differing gifts and differing functions. However, every one of them is a gift of the same Spirit and designed, not for the glory of the individual member of the Church, but for the good of the whole.

This brings us to ask a vital question: What is this community, this Body, this Church? Who is the Church of Jesus Christ? Is the church just the bishops, priests and deacons? Is the church just the laity? In fact, the Church of Jesus Christ consists of every person in it. The Church is a fellowship of clergy and lay people, pulling together and working together, to proclaim and to live, the good news of God's love in Jesus Christ. You no doubt have read in the Scriptures that the community of Christians are described as a "priesthood of all believers" This principle maintains that each and every Christian is a minister of Jesus Christ. It maintains that all of us—whether ordained or lay—are called to be ambassadors for Christ. Without exception, each and every one of us is called to conduct our personal life and the life of our church in ways which allow God's love in Christ to shine through us, for the benefit of others.

There are times when we clergy and laity fail to live up to our high calling from God. There are times when we fail to let God's love in Christ shine through us. There are times when, at the very least, we Christians are blindly insensitive to the people around us who seek to share the fellowship of Christ's Church with us.

How easy it is for selfishness to creep into the life of a church. We often lose sight of the church's mission to reach out with God's love to others. Thinking only of ourselves, individual Christians, and begin to cling very possessively to: my pew, my favorite Divine Services, my personal likes and dislikes in the programs that the church offers, and my personal group of church friends and family. In such selfishness, the needs, interests, and spiritual experiences of others are discounted and excluded.

How easy it is in the church to view people, not as persons to be valued in themselves, but rather as work units who are needed just to keep the institutional wheels of the church spinning. The ministry of the church, does depend on the willingness of people to commit their time, their talents, and their resources generously. But we must never forget this basic truth: The Church of Jesus Christ exists for the sake of people. People don't exist for the sake of the Church. As you will recall, Jesus said a similar thing about the Jewish Sabbath of his day: "The Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath." And so it is with the institutional church. Of course, the church encourages people to support its many ministries in Christ's name. But first of all, the church must love and value its people, for their own sake. Otherwise, people are merely used as objects, to satisfy the church's ambitions.

The Apostle Paul gives us guidance as to what Christian discipleship and church life should be like. In that deeply meaningful passage, Paul counsels us Christians to clothe ourselves with compassion and kindness, with humility and meekness, and with patience for one another. Paul calls us Christians to forgive each other our shortcomings, as God has forgiven us. Paul also tells us, that above all else, we Christians should clothe ourselves with "love, which binds everything together imperfect harmony."

So let it be so for us, my beloved brothers and sisters in Christ. On that wonderful and joyous day on which we can boldly proclaim "Christ is Risen", the Great Feast of Feasts, may be all be able to call ourselves Christians with a true understanding of what it means to take on that Holy Name. May we also understand what we must do as we live our lives in Christ, becoming a humble servant just as Christ was a humble servant of God. And as all this truly becomes the foundation of our being, we can proclaim this Pascha and always, that we are with out doubt, disciples of our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ.

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