Monday, February 22, 2016

Holy Habits of Discipleship: A Sermon for Lent 2C 2016

Lent 2C

Sometimes opposition and hardship bring out a person’s genuine character. 

That’s certainly true in the case of Jesus. 

 As we catch up with Jesus today, we encounter a man who has “set his face to go to Jerusalem,” the city that “kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it” (Lk 9:51 & Lk 13:34). Powerful people in Jerusalem are angry with Jesus. Many of them are actively opposing Jesus’ mission and seeking to enlist others to work against him. Some of them want to kill Jesus. So Jesus knows he’s heading straight into the heart of enemy territory. He knows he’s walking into a trap that will lead to his death. 

 Strikingly, Jesus’ response to the opposition, hatred, and murderous intentions is not to run and hide or to fight back. Instead, courageously stays the course, responding with love and compassion to the city that will take his life. With a grief-stricken heart, Jesus laments the tragedy that God’s people are unwilling to repent and prepare themselves for the coming Kingdom of Heaven. And so he weeps over the holy city Jerusalem. 

With so much mounting opposition, and with the shadow of the cross looming ever larger, how does Jesus find the strength to embody such courage, love and compassion? What keeps him grounded in his divine identity and mission? 

There are subtle clues in answer to that question scattered throughout the Gospel according to Luke. 

Early in Luke’s gospel, for instance, we’re told that Jesus “went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom” (Lk 4:16)

As was his custom.” 

Regular attendance at synagogue worship on the sabbath day was a habit for Jesus. Joining each week with other faithful Jews for worship of God, to hear Holy Scripture read and expounded in preaching and teaching, and to offer prayers - this was a way of life for Jesus. It shaped his heart, mind, and soul. It formed the kind of person he was. Indeed, Jesus was so immersed in worship and scripture that even when nailed to the cross he recited the words of Psalms in anguished prayer to the Father. 

We also discover another important fact about Jesus’ spiritual life in Luke’s gospel. Before each major turning point in his life and ministry, Luke portrays Jesus at prayer. Keeping company with God through regular prayer was a priority for Jesus. One verse sums up his practice: “But [Jesus] would withdraw to deserted places and pray” (Lk 5:16)

Immersion in scripture, worship, and prayer strengthened Jesus to actively minister to the needs of the lost and the lonely, bringing healing to the sick, freedom to captives, hope to the hopeless, and forgiveness to sinners. And it also empowered him to give the greatest of gifts: his life on the cross as an atoning sacrifice for the sins of the world. 

Jesus was a man of scripture. He was a man of prayer and worship. He was man of servant ministry and giving to God’s Kingdom. 

This has profound implications for the Christian life. For we not only worship Jesus as Lord and Savior. We also revere him as “an example of godly life,” acknowledging that we are called “to follow daily in the blessed steps of his most holy life” (BCP, p. 232). If we are to share God’s love and compassion, if we seek to stay true to our mission as the church, if we seek to be faithful disciples even when it’s difficult to do so, then we must adopt the same spiritual practices that sustained Jesus. 

Following Jesus, the holy habits of Christian discipleship are: 

  1. Reading and meditating on God’s Word, 
  2. Daily prayer, 
  3. Weekly attendance at worship, 
  4. Servant ministry, and
  5. Giving for the spread of God’s Kingdom.  

During the penitential season of Lent, we do well to reflect upon these holy habits and renew our commitment to them. So let’s briefly look at each one. 

 We start with reading and meditating on God’s Word. In our baptisms, we affirm Jesus as Lord. But we can’t honor him as Lord if we don’t know him - if we don’t know what he stood for, what he taught, what he did, or what he asks of us. So to follow Jesus, we must spend time with Jesus. We must cultivate a relationship with Jesus. We must listen to Jesus and act on what he commands. And to do that, we must read and meditate on Holy Scripture, particularly the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. 

One of the saints put it like this: “Read the Holy Gospel, be penetrated by its spirit, make it the rule of your life, your handbook; in every action and question of life act according to the study of the Gospel. This is the only light of your life” (St. Nikon of Optina)

Informed by our reading of scripture, we cultivate the holy habit of daily prayer. Jesus took time out from the crowds and their incessant demands to pray, particularly before major turning points in his life and ministry. If daily prayer was such an important lifeline for Jesus that he never neglected it, then surely it must be the same for all who seek to follow him. 

But while the Christian faith is always personal, it is never private. And so, as the example of Jesus underscores, cultivating an individual prayer life is not enough. We need the support and accountability of community. We need to find our place among the faithful gathered for worship. Just as Jesus made a regular habit of attending synagogue on the sabbath day, Christian discipleship calls us to the holy habit of weekly worship in church

Sometimes people say they can pray at home, or out in the woods, or on the golf course just as well as they can in church. Of course, people can pray anywhere. But such comments miss the point and fall short of the example of Jesus who not only prayed in private, but also regularly attended worship. 

For only in church do we encounter the Word of God read and proclaimed in Holy Scripture. Only in church do we offer our presence and gifts for the greater good of the Body. Only in church do our prayers join with the prayers of the faithful who, for over 50 years, have sat in these pews and knelt at this altar rail. Only in church do we have the opportunity to reaffirm our connection to the ancient faith of the Universal Church - a Truth so much bigger than our individual beliefs and opinions. Only in church do we renew our identities as adopted sons and daughters of God and brothers and sisters in Christ. Only in church do we take the life of the risen Jesus into our bodies and souls by receiving his Body and Blood in the Eucharist. 

We can’t get that anywhere else. So keep coming back! 

We come to each Sunday to the Lord’s table to receive the Eucharist not for solace only, but also for strength. We come not for pardon only, but also for renewal (cf. The Book of Common Prayer, p. 372). We come to be transformed into the likeness of Jesus, the one who came into the world “not to be served but to serve” (Mk 10:45). And so, after feeding on Jesus’ Body and Blood, we are sent forth to love and serve the Lord by serving the church, our neighbors, and our community. We are sent to use our gifts to serve the hurting, the hungry, and the needy, that others may be touched by the healing love and grace of God. We are sent out to do the work of servant ministry in Jesus’ name. 

As disciples of Jesus, we don’t just show up for church as passive spectators. Instead, we come to be active participants in the unfolding drama of God’s plan for the world’s salvation. We come first and foremost to love and honor God. And we come to receive strength to love our neighbors as ourselves by using our gifts for the work of ministry. 

And finally, out of gratitude for the amazing gift of grace we have received in Jesus, we practice the holy habit of giving for the spread of God’s Kingdom

All that we have is a gift from God. All that we have belongs to God. All that we have is given to us to be used in service to God and neighbors in Jesus’ name. And so we give our time, our talents, and our money to the work of the church as a thank offering “for all of the blessings of this life” and for God’s “immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ” (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 101). We give so that what we’ve been given may bless others that they “may know the power of [Jesus’] forgiveness and the hope of his resurrection” (The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 816-817)

Our lives in Christ are grounded in and sustained by reading scripture, prayer, worship, servant ministry, and giving to God’s Kingdom. These holy habits are the marks of faithful discipleship. They proclaim our allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior. And as we grow spiritually through these holy habits, our lives will increasingly bear the fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23)

May we renew our commitment to these holy habits, that they may deepen our faith, build up the church in love, and bear witness to the world that there is a better way to live - the way of Jesus Christ.