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An Invitation to Discipleship: If Anyone Would...
Matthew 16:24 - 16:27
March 6, 2022
Reverend Jason Harris
More often than not, Jesus used the phrase "If anyone..." to extend an invitation to become one of his followers and to explain what such a commitment would require. In our first sermon of the Lenten series, An Invitation to Discipleship, we explore what it means to be a disciple of Jesus by considering the gospel offer, the gospel demand, and the gospel incentives.
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We're going to engage in a new series, as we begin the season of Lent, focused on the theme of what it means to be a disciple. It seems to me there's many people today who call themselves Christians, at least in private company, yet, there's very little about the way in which they think, or speak, or act that is distinctively Christian. They might subscribe to a thin veneer of Christian beliefs, but their words, their actions, their attitudes, the way in which they carry themselves, the way in which they relate to other people, is primarily influenced by their family background, or their social status, or perhaps their goals and ambitions in life. Or maybe they cling to some political ideology or economic school of thought, whether on the left or the right, that is far more important to them than anything that Jesus ever had to say. I would suggest that this is often the reason why Christianity gets a bad name. People call themselves Christian, but there's not much Christian about them.
It might be instructive to note that the word ‘Christian’ only appears three times in the New Testament to refer to the followers of Jesus. The preferred term was disciple. Of course, there were the 12 disciples whom Jesus named apostles, but broadly speaking, disciple was the way in which you would refer to someone who had committed themselves to following Jesus. The practice of discipleship was common in the first century. People would attach themselves to a rabbi to live with and learn from them, and oftentimes, disciples would literally walk behind their teachers. That's why they were called followers—followers of their master.
A parallel today to discipleship could be, perhaps, residency. A resident doctor is a doctor in training, someone who has graduated from medical school, and who can provide direct care. A resident can diagnose, and manage, and treat health conditions, but they must do it under the supervision, under the discipline of their attending physician. They're not allowed to perform open heart surgery unless they've learned how to do it from someone who knows what they're talking about. Imagine if you had an appointment at the hospital and you meet with your doctor and your doctor says to you, “We scheduled this procedure for you today, but I want to be honest, I've never actually done this before. In fact, I've never even really seen someone do it, but I'm sure it's going to be fine.” What would it do to the medical profession if residents ran around performing surgeries without actually being trained? What would it do to the church, if people ran around calling themselves Christians, but they refused to be trained by Jesus?
When Jesus calls people to follow him, he's not asking them to merely assent to a few ideas, but he's calling us to live under his discipline, under his supervision. He wants us to become students, to become apprentices of his way of life. That's why in Acts 9:2, the early Christian movement was referred to as ‘The Way.’ Have you noticed that before? The Way of Jesus. Jesus is our attending physician. He knows how life works best if we would only listen to him and learn from him. Let me ask you this question, if you call yourself a Christian, could you honestly say that you are an apprentice, a student of Jesus' life?
I've prepared this series for this Lenten season, first and foremost for myself. I wrote this sermon for myself. I've reached the stage in my own life where I don't want to go through the motions. I want to think through: How do I actually become more like Jesus? What I did in preparation for this series is, I went through all the gospels, and I culled out of them all those places where Jesus uses the expression “If anyone.” “If anyone,” more often than not, Jesus uses those two little words in order to extend an invitation to discipleship, and then explain what such commitment would require. In this sermon, I'm going to turn to one of the most well known, but let's be honest, also one of the most challenging places where Jesus offers one such invitation to discipleship. I'd like us to consider three things: The gospel offer, the gospel demand, and the gospel incentives, by looking carefully at Matthew 16. If you have a Bible, I'd encourage you to open up to Matthew 16. I'll be reading v.24-27.
24Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. 25For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? 27For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done.
This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love.
The Gospel Offer Is Free
At the outset, let me make one thing absolutely clear. The offer of the gospel is completely free. The offer of the gospel is completely free. Despite the fact that we have scorned God's love, broken his laws, and ruined his world, Jesus has done everything necessary in order to reconcile us in relationship to God and to renew the whole world that he loves, but had once lost. Apart from God's grace, the Scriptures tell us that spiritually speaking, we are dead in our trespasses and our sins. We might be alive in a certain sense—we can think, and act, and speak, and make decisions, but spiritually speaking, we are dead. We are as incapacitated as a corpse. If you're dead, then there's nothing that you can do to revive yourself, because you're dead!
That is why you can picture yourself like this spiritually. Imagine that you have been knocked unconscious and have drifted to the bottom of a swimming pool. Yet Jesus jumps in and drags you out of the pool, and then resuscitates you. If Jesus brings you back to life in that condition, then that means that you had nothing to do with it. It was entirely the result of his work. You have nothing to add, nothing to contribute to your salvation. It is all a gift of his grace. It is all the result of his finished work. Jesus doesn't need your sincere devotion. He doesn't need your good behavior. He doesn't need your tearful remorse. He doesn't care how sad or how sorry you are for what's happened in the past. That's important, but that doesn't add or contribute anything to your rescue. Your rescue is completely the result of his work. It's like you find yourself there lying beside the pool. You don't even know what happened, but you're just coughing and sputtering water out of your lungs. It's all the result of his work. Jesus lived the life that you should have lived. He died the death that you deserve to die, and so you find new life in him as a gift. You simply receive it by faith. Faith is simply empty hands that receive what God gives, and what God gives is himself. All of which goes to show us that God's love for us is not conditional. He doesn't love you because of who you are, or what you've done, or because of how sorry you feel. His love is even better than unconditional love. He doesn't merely love you as you are. No, his love is contra-conditional. He loves you despite who you are, despite what you've ever done.
That is why the offer of the gospel is completely free. Anyone can receive it, and that's why Jesus begins this invitation with those words, “If anyone.” If anyone. The gospel is for everyone: Men and women, young and old, regardless of the color of your skin, or how much schooling you've received, or how much money you have in the bank. And that is what makes Christianity the most inclusive of religion in the entire history of the world. It's not reserved for some privileged few. It doesn't matter where you're from. You don't have to speak some particular language or be from some particular place. No, Jesus invites any and all to come to him, no matter who you are, where you're from, or what you've ever done. That includes you—if anyone. Have you received the free offer of the gospel? That's where we have to start.
The Gospel Demand Is Total
Just because the gospel is free, doesn't mean that it's cheap. In fact, the gospel can never be cheap because it cost Jesus so very much. Here, Jesus shows us that the demand of the gospel is as total as the offer is free. Following Jesus will require forsaking lesser loves and loyalties. Jesus releases us from the down drag of sin not so that we are free to go do whatever we want, but to follow him. To follow Jesus means forsaking lesser loves and loyalties, and therefore, in this brief little passage, Jesus illustrates for us what that forsaking entails.
First of all, he says, “‘If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself.’” If you're going to follow Jesus, you must deny yourself. But notice that Jesus is not calling us to deny something to ourselves, but to deny our very selves. Oftentimes, during a season like Lent, people might give something up. Maybe you're giving something up for Lent right now in order to focus your heart and your mind on Jesus. Some people choose to go without meat, or chocolate, or ice cream or cocktails. That's all good. There's nothing wrong with that, if that helps you. As long as you realize that, at the end of the day, I don't think Jesus cares all that much if you eat a piece of cake or not because Jesus is calling us to something so much more radical here. He's not calling us to deny things to ourselves, he's calling us to deny ourselves. The verb that Jesus uses here is the same verb that is used to describe Peter, when he denies ever knowing Jesus. To deny yourself means to completely disown yourself, to repudiate yourself, to renounce yourself.
Here's where we need to be careful because you could hear that and think that Jesus is saying that we should be filled with self hatred. No, he's not telling us to engage in self-loathing, and to act as if we are worthless or valueless. No, to do so would be to deny God's image in us. God knows you, the real you, because he made you. He loves you. He sees the full potential in you and only he can draw that out so that you might become the greatest version of yourself. When he calls you to deny yourself, he's not calling you to deny your personhood, but rather, he's calling you to deny your ego—that aspect of yourself that is dominated by sin. God knows that in order to deny yourself, you must turn away from the idolatry of self-centeredness.
That leads to this second statement, “'If anyone would come after me, let him…take up his cross and follow me.’” If you're going to follow Jesus, you have to deny yourself, and you have to crucify yourself. Sometimes people use this kind of language to say, we all have our crosses to bear. We all have our own unique problems that we have to confront as we navigate our way through life. That may be true, but when we use that language in that way, we are trivializing the image that Jesus has laid out before us. If you lived in Palestine in the first century, and you saw someone actually carrying the horizontal cross beam of a Roman cross along their shoulders, you would know that there is only one place where they could be headed. That is a condemned person headed to the place of execution. When Jesus calls us to take up our cross and follow him, he's upping the ante. He's telling us that we have to ruthlessly attack the ego, the sin dominated aspect of ourselves. We have to put it to death. Put it to death.
I could illustrate this in a somewhat humorous way from a story by Malcolm Gladwell. Years ago, he wrote a little article in The New Yorker about a father of a 12-year-old girl who signed up to coach her basketball team for the National Junior Basketball League, sort of the Little League of basketball. He shows up at one of the first practices and he sizes up all these 12-year-old girls, including his daughter. He realizes that these girls don't know how to dribble, they don't know how to pass, and they don't know how to shoot. The prospects for the season look terrible, but he was a thoughtful person. Originally from Mumbai, he was more familiar with sports like soccer. He couldn't understand why, for much of the sport, in basketball, the opponent would be allowed to get halfway across the court before you started playing defense. That seemed like you were wasting an opportunity. He figured that the only way that this team of 12-year-old girls was going to win a game is if he taught them to put on a full court press every second of every game. That's precisely what they did. Despite the fact that they couldn't dribble, they couldn't pass, and they couldn't shoot, they could play defense. As a result, they made it all the way to the national championships for this Little League of basketball.
In a similar way, that's what Jesus is telling us in this passage. We've got to go on offense. We've got to be aggressive. We have to ruthlessly root out the sin in our lives. To crucify the self means to kill every thought, word, action, attitude or habit that we know to be wrong. You don't entertain it, you don't coddle it, you don't try to manage it, you don't dance around it, you don't try to toy with it, you kill it. You kill it. You put it to death. If you're not sure if something is right or wrong, don't be too overly influenced by other people around you, rather, go with the clear teaching of Scripture and the promptings of your own conscience. Jesus has an incredible way of putting his finger right on the spot. When he puts his finger on that spot and says, "This has got to go!" You have got to listen. You have to ruthlessly root out the sin in your life. To take up your cross might mean that you have to kill an unhealthy relationship, or a bad influence, or a destructive habit. Or perhaps a guilty pleasure. Or you might need to crucify an attitude of pride, or jealousy, or resentment, or an unforgiving spirit.
Jesus is dead serious. If you are going to follow him, then there is no room for half measures. But let me also acknowledge that I know that this is hard. If you're anything like me, you might feel like, I've tried so many times in the past and I failed or nothing really changed. Sometimes that only deepens the feelings of hopelessness and despair. You might find yourself saying, I guess this just isn't for me. I guess this is just the way it is. God might be able to change the lives of other people, but I'm not one of them. No, God never asks us to do something without giving us the grace to carry it out. Whatever he asks, his grace will supply.
Let me encourage you with this truth. He has given us two powerful weapons to fight indwelling sin in our lives. First and foremost, he has given us the power of the Holy Spirit, so don't rely on yourself. Rely on the power source that he has given you. Secondly, you're not alone because he has given you the community of the church. We have one another. That's the reason why we're in relationship with one another. If you are struggling, I would encourage you to reach out, reach out to one of the pastors, one of the leaders, some of the staff here at the church, reach out to a friend, your Community Group. We are here to help you. Let me say, between Chris and me, we've got literally decades of ministry experience in New York. You know what that means? It means it is very hard to surprise us at this point. We have heard and seen it all. This is New York. There's no guilt. There's no shame. There's no judgment. Just come. We are here to help you, but if you want to change, you're never going to be able to do it on your own. You have to rely on the power of the Spirit, and you have to rely on the community of the church.
Finally, Jesus says that if you want to follow him, you have to deny yourself, you have to crucify yourself, and you have to lose yourself. “‘For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.’” Some people worry, if I were to become a Christian, or take my faith more seriously, that would mean that I would lose my individuality. But no, because while Jesus does call us to subordinate our desires, our wishes, and our ambitions to him, Jesus never obliterates our personality. When you give your life to Jesus, you don't become a different person. No, you become the truest version of yourself. Why is that? Because God loves you. He made you. He knows you, and you only discover who you really are, in light of who he is. He knows everything about you. He knows what makes you unique and special, but he also knows those aspects of your personality and your character that do more harm than good. God sees the real you and he is committed to unlocking that. But if you want to become the truest version of yourself, then you have to realize that whatever God loves, whatever God desires, whatever God affirms, forms the real you. Whereas everything that runs counter to his intentions for you, is only going to warp and distort and misshape you. If you want to follow Jesus, the demand is total.
The Gospel Incentives
Jesus isn't messing around. He says, you have to deny yourself, crucify yourself, and lose yourself. Most of us tend to think that we can tack on Christianity to the rest of our life, while everything else can remain unchanged, as if we're simply taking up a new hobby or a special interest. Or we think that there's no rush. We can take our time. We don't need to run headlong into anything. But it doesn't work that way. If Christianity is false, it is of no importance. Forget it. But if Christianity is true, then it is of infinite importance. The one thing that it can't be, is moderately important. But that's how we often treat it. We treat Christianity as moderately important. But no, it cannot just be an additional extra in your life. It has to be the center, the hub of the wheel around which everything else revolves. Your relationship with Jesus must be more important than your family, your relationships, your academics, your career, your artistic pursuits. If you are going to answer the call to follow Jesus, it's going to change you. It will change the way you use your time, your money, your resources, your relationships, your sphere of influence. And if it hasn't changed you, then that means that you haven't really heard it, or you haven't really understood it. The question is, how can we respond to such a challenging, all encompassing demand? The London Pastor John Stott put it like this years ago, he said that we can only respond to the gospel demand if we appreciate the gospel incentives. Why should you submit to Jesus' demands? Do it for your own sake. Do it for the sake of others. And do it for Jesus sake.
On the one hand, following Jesus is far easier than jumping through all the hoops of moralistic religion. Jesus is not going to pile arbitrary rules and regulations on top of you. But at the same time, following Jesus is far harder because Jesus doesn't merely say, I want so much of your time or your work or your money. No, Jesus says, I want you! All of you—which means that if we're going to follow him, we can't just engage in a little self-improvement. He doesn't want you to make some behavioral modifications to your natural self. He wants you to kill it, to kill your natural self. Yet the irony is that self denial is the pathway to self-discovery. If you lose yourself, you will find your true self. Remember, Jesus said that he came into the world so that we might experience life to the fullest. He came to bring abundant life. But you will not begin to discover your truest self until you lose yourself in service to Jesus. Jesus backs up this statement with an analogy drawn from the world of finance. He puts this in simple terms of profit and loss. From the standpoint of strict self-advantage, Jesus asks, “‘For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul?’” Do you see the problem there? Number one, you can't gain the whole world, even if you tried. Number two, if you did, it wouldn't last. Number three, while you had it, it wouldn't satisfy. That's why C.S. Lewis famously said,
“Give up yourself, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. Submit to death, death of your ambitions and favorite wishes every day and death of your whole body in the end, submit with every fiber of your being, and you will find eternal life. Keep back nothing. Nothing that you have not given away will be really yours. Nothing in you that has not died will ever be raised from the dead. Look for yourself, and you will find in the long run only hatred, loneliness, despair, rage, ruin, and decay. But look for Christ and you will find him, and with him everything else thrown in.”
Follow Jesus from a purely selfish point of view. Do it for your own sake, but also for the sake of others. In Mark's telling of this same passage, in Mark 8, Jesus says, “‘Whoever loses his life for…the gospel's will save it.’” What does it mean to do something for the gospel's sake? Jesus is suggesting that we should submit to the demands of the gospel for the sake of sharing the gospel, proclaiming the gospel to others. Jesus said that his followers are called to be the world's salt and the world's light. As salt we’re called to help preserve that which is good, true and beautiful from corruption and decay. As the world's light, we're called to illumine the places of darkness and despair all around us. The news that God has broken into human history in order to put right everything that once went wrong through the person of Jesus is the greatest news the world has ever heard. When we share it with others, we give them the opportunity to discover the difference that Jesus can make. We give them the opportunity to discover the true story of which their lives are also a part. We can't keep it to ourselves. It has to be shared.
Submit to the demands of the gospel for your own sake, for the sake of others, but, of course, the primary reason why we should do so is not because of what you can get, nor because of what you can give but because of what Jesus already gave. You have to understand that in this invitation to discipleship, Jesus is not asking you to do anything for him that he has not already done for you. Yes, it's true, in a manner of speaking, that Jesus asks you to take up your cross and follow him. Picture that in your mind's eye. Imagine that you were to take up that horizontal cross beam, place it on your shoulders, and then you follow Jesus to the place of execution. What would you discover when you get there? When you come to Calvary, what would you see? You're ready to take up your cross and follow Jesus, but when you get there, you realize that your place has already been taken. Metaphorically, yes, we can take up our cross and follow Jesus to Calvary. Yes, we can deny ourselves. We can crucify ourselves, and we can lose ourselves. But you cannot die for yourself because Jesus already has. Your spot has already been filled. Jesus already died a horrific, shameful death, not because of anything that he had done, but because of what we have done. Jesus died in your place, as your substitute for your sin, so that you might live in him. Our crosses are nothing in comparison to his. Jesus died, so that you might live. Now he calls you to live no longer for yourself, but for him who died and rose for you. Here's the question. Do you call yourself just a Christian, or do you want to be a disciple? Do you want to be an apprentice? Do you want to be a student of Jesus? Do it for your own sake. Do it for the sake of others, but most of all, do it for Jesus' sake in light of what he's already done for you.
Let me pray for us.
Father, we acknowledge that there are so many people running around calling themselves Christians today, but there's nothing distinctively Christian about them. We know that's what gives your church, that's what gives you a bad name. Father, we pray that you would rescue us from that condition. We pray that we would respond to this free offer of the gospel and make it our own by faith and that by doing so we would follow you as your disciples, as your students, as your apprentices, by denying ourselves, crucifying ourselves, and losing ourselves so that we might discover our true identity in you. Help us to do that, for our own sake for the sake of others, but most of all for your sake. It's in Jesus' name we pray. Amen.