Dare to Be a Disciple: How Far are You Willing to Go?
Matthew 17:1-8: Philippians 2:12-16
This morning we are ending our sermon series, Dare to Be a Disciple. For the past few Sundays, we’ve looked at the lives of several of the disciples to see what they can teach us about this way of life called discipleship. Each Sunday we’ve seen a different side to what a commitment to Christ looks like: keep asking questions and seeking answers, above all else love others, don’t be afraid to be daring in your faith, remember that no matter how many times you get it wrong – and you will – God loves you and always forgives, and, above all else, keep your focus on Christ and don’t lose faith. This morning is Transfiguration Sunday and so our look at what it means to follow Christ doesn’t come from a disciple, but from an event.
Transfiguration Sunday remembers a day when Jesus went up on a mountaintop with three of his disciples, the inner circle of Peter, James, and John. No sooner had the four of them arrived on the top of the mountain when we are told that Jesus “was transfigured before them” – his face shone like the sun and his clothes became dazzling white. Can you imagine the reaction of these three men who had been with Jesus for about three years by now? When I read these words about the change they saw in Jesus, I am not at all convinced that it was Jesus who changed. What I believe happened is that Jesus reverted, for that moment in time, to his true self. Jesus was both human and divine, but up to this point his humanity was mostly on display. Now that changes and his disciples truly saw, perhaps for the first time, who and what Jesus was. Their perception of Jesus was transfigured.
But even as their view of Jesus changed, their understanding of him apparently did not. As Ethan read for us, Peter, having caught a glimpse of the divine, wanted to stay on that mountaintop and hold onto it for himself. Because as if Jesus wasn’t enough on his own, suddenly they were joined by the great Old Testament prophets, Moses and Elijah. What was Peter’s first thought? “Lord, it is good for us to be here; if you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah.” Peter wanted to build shelters because he wanted to hold onto what he had just seen and experienced. It was “good for me to be here” he was saying. Peter had been with Jesus long enough to know that the good news was for everyone; but it was so overwhelming his focus was just on himself. Imagine if you were suddenly in the presence of the three people in history you would most want to meet. Think of who they would be. Maybe it’s three great figures from history or three great authors or three great musicians. You finally are with them and have the chance to talk with them and ask questions – and wouldn’t you want to hold onto that for just yourself? But the mountain top is not a place to stay. Not for Peter and not for us. Jesus wasn’t, and isn’t, about us few; he was, and is, about us all.
It’s a lesson the church certainly needs to learn. We long for those moments in worship when we experience in a very real way God’s presence. But worship should always be a call to action. Worship, which begins inside of us, should move us outward to discipleship. Matthew tells us that as soon as the worship experience was over, they went back down the mountain. As disciples, followers of Christ, we take encouragement and strength from our mountain top experiences, but we live on the plain and in the valley.
On the mountain, Jesus was transfigured, his outward appearance changed. Jesus, who was perfect and without sin, didn’t need inward change. We, on the other hand who aren’t perfect, don’t need transfiguration, we need transformation. Both words are describing a metamorphosis, but in a different context. Transfiguration would allow us to change how we look on the outside without really changing who we are inside. But when we are transformed, our character – how we think, act, what we view as priorities – all changes. Our lesson about discipleship this Sunday is that we can’t be a disciple of Jesus unless we are willing to be transformed by Jesus. Transformation is not forced on us; it’s a choice. So, how does this transformation take place?
First, we have to keep looking at Jesus. You would think that when Peter and the others came down from the mountain, they would have been immediately transformed in their understanding of Jesus. But if you read the Gospels, they weren’t. They still didn’t understand his ministry, his message, or his mission. They will still doubt him, desert him, and deny him. But, and here’s the key, despite all of that, they stayed with him. How do we begin to transform? We look at Jesus. We study his life. And we remember the parable where Jesus said: “Now go and do likewise.”
Second, we have to decide to be transformed. It begins in the mind. Romans 12:2 says: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind, that you may prove what is that good and acceptable and perfect will of God.” We make the decision to turn away from what this world says we should want, to focus on the will of God for our lives. It’s a mental shift away from me and my wants to God and God’s desire. Humans measure greatness by talent, intelligence, charisma, appearance, and achievements. 2 Samuel 16:7 says: “God does not see as man sees, for man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Third, we have to commit ourselves to the transformation process. It’s not going to happen overnight. In fact, for most of us, it will take a lifetime. We commit ourselves by spending time with Jesus. John 15:4-5 says: “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me … Without me you can do nothing.” In the end, we don’t make ourselves disciples; we allow ourselves to be made into disciples. So, how would you do on a transformation or discipleship test? How are you doing at becoming more like Jesus? The Apostle Paul, in Philippians 2:12-16, gives us our test questions.
Question 1: Are you working on your life of salvation? Are you growing in your faith? If your faith is the same this year as it was the year before and the year before that, you’re not doing well on this one. Are you learning more, reading the Bible more, studying more, praying more, serving others more?
Question 2: Is God at work in you, giving you energy to do what he is calling you to do? Is your faith alive? Where does God rank on your list of priorities?
Question 3: Are you loving and serving God cheerfully – no second-guessing or bickering allowed? Are you shining like a star in the world? Are you a breath of fresh air? When people see you, do they see Jesus?
Question 4: Are you providing people with a glimpse of the living God? Do you love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength? Do you love others as you love yourself? Do your words and actions reflect that love?
There comes a time when Jesus is trying, yet again, to explain this thing called discipleship to those he’s called to be disciples. We might expect, at this point, for Jesus to tell them to grow up and get with the program. Act like adults. But, as usual, Jesus does the opposite. He says, “I tell you the truth, unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Notice Jesus doesn’t say become little children – there is an analogy at play here.
What does he mean “become like little children?” Days when our preschool is in session, I see and hear children in our hallways and classrooms. Some days I hear one or more meltdowns. But every day I hear laughter and singing. I hear teachers’ voices explaining new words and new ideas. I hear questions. We say hi in the hallway and I get high-fives and fist-bumps. I think what Jesus was telling his disciples was:
- Be open-minded like children who are taking so much in for the first time.
- Be accepting of other people like children who don’t see differences as much as they see potential friends. Play nicely on the playground together.
- Learn like children. Admit you don’t know it all and ask a lot of questions. If you don’t understand, say so. Ask “why” a lot. Don’t worry if your questions are irritating; ask anyway.
- Focus on Jesus like children focus on their parents and grandparents. Children watch the adults in their lives and they compare what they are told to what they see. Does that make you uncomfortable? Jesus wasn’t worried about his disciples watching him for insight into how to live.
- Ask for help when you need it. Children know they can’t do certain things. Some things are beyond their reach; some things they haven’t figured out yet; some things they know they have to be older to do. They expect adults, parents and teachers, to help them or to do for them.
- Children enjoy giving, oftentimes more than getting. Have you ever been given a gift by a child – something they drew or made or bought with their own little bit of money? When they give “whatever” it is – and you may have your own difficulty figuring that out – the joy of giving is on their face.
- And, finally, children aren’t afraid of failure. We adults are the ones afraid to fail. Children expect that they won’t always get it right the first, second, or third time. Henry Blackaby – the author of “Experiencing God” – wrote: “We should attempt things so great that they are doomed to failure unless God intervenes.” What might God be calling you to attempt? What might God be calling us as a church to attempt? Wouldn’t it be fun to try something great, give it our best shot, and then see what happens when God shows up?