Sermon for March 5, 2017
Discipleship Series #5
Exod. 18: 13-24; Acts 13: 1-3

Lord Jesus Christ, as we claim our discipleship, continue to teach us through your Holy word.  Give us ears to hear and hearts to act.  Amen.

Where Is Your Antioch?

Welcome to the Lenten Season.  If Lent is not in your vocabulary, then allow me to explain its relevance and practice.  The word Lent comes from an old Germanic word which simply means “spring.”  Around the year 500 CE, the Roman Catholic Church assigned the forty days preceding Easter Sunday to be a time for reflection, spiritual discipline, and preparation for the victory of Jesus Christ on Easter Sunday.  The number forty, of course, can be related to Jesus’ forty day fast in the desert.  Sundays are not included in the Lenten countdown because each and every Sunday is a mini-Easter, a reminder of the Resurrection.

This time of preparation is intended to help us, as disciples, reflect more deeply on the sacrifice in which Jesus participated out of unconditional love for us.  The Lenten Season invites us to walk the road with Christ toward Jerusalem and toward the cross.  Some people choose to do some sort of fasting, giving up something for Lent, such as chocolate or alcohol or Facebook, in order to remember Christ’s suffering.  Others choose to take on an additional spiritual practice, such as daily prayer time, more Bible study, or acts of charity.  Still others choose to do nothing different.  But wherever we are in our Lenten walks and however we decide to observe Lent, examining our discipleship is quite relevant.  Are we like the disciples who fell asleep during Jesus’ most poignant hour of need?  Are we like those who fled when Christ was arrested, embarrassed by him, or do we deny him like Peter or betray him like Judas?  How are we living out our commitment to the One we call Lord?

The sermons I've been preaching the past four weeks have been building on each other.  Before we can claim to be a disciple, a follower of Christ, we must identify our Lord, and so we began with that question:  Who do we really worship?  Once we confess Christ is that Lord, then we must examine how committed we are to him by asking “Who are We?”  Discipleship requires the presence and faithfulness of two people:  the teacher and the student.

Then we move to the question of growing in our faith by asking “Who is our Barnabas?”  Who is that person who models discipleship for us, encourages us, and teaches us?  And once we have learned from that person, then we ask “Who is our Timothy,” the one to whom we pass on the good news?

As it is becoming clear, living the life of a disciple involves more than simply saying, "Lord, Lord."  It includes a personal journey that has many layers and many roads and many choices and that involves an essential element:  Christian community.  Community is where we find ourselves this morning as we ponder the fifth question, “Where is Your Antioch?”

“Now at the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers” (Acts 13:1).  What, or where, is Antioch?  In the time of Christ, it was a city of chief interest to the Roman Empire because it was situated on the river.  Peter supposedly traveled there to evangelize it, a city of some 200,000 people in less than two square miles of space.  Antioch was the destination of Paul's first missionary trip with Barnabas, and its converts were the first to be called Christians. Today, its name is Antakya, Turkey.

Antioch’s significance to us lies in its significance to Paul.  Paul found a "home base" in Antioch, in a group of people who accepted him as he was and who included him in their lives, who taught him, encouraged him, cared for him, sent him out as Christ's messenger, and then welcomed him back home.  A pivotal part of Paul's Christian journey, Antioch provided a place and a people who blessed him so that he could then bless others.  We need our Antioch.  We need our church community, and we need small groups of faithful and encouraging friends.

Some years ago, a particularly meaningful Antioch composed of three other women and a man from my church blessed me.  We had each experienced a three-day spiritual renewal weekend, the kind known by different names such as Cursillo and the Emmaus Walk, and from that weekend we were invited into accountability groups.  These accountability groups were not intended to embarrass, shame, or cause guilt, but to keep those participating in them focused on three areas of Christian living:  our prayer lives, our study lives, and how we put both of those into action in the world. 

To tell the truth, the five of us were a pretty motley crew.  But overtime, as we met for an hour each week, we began to grow in our love of Christ and in our love for each other.  Together, we became stronger Christians.  

One of the women was the wife of the pastor I mentioned a couple of weeks ago who died from a heart attack at 47.  Another of the women was diagnosed with MS, multiple sclerosis.  The brave lone male in our group entered the process of divorce during this time, a particularly difficult divorce because people in the church felt they had to choose sides.  He eventually left the church but not our group.  The third woman faced the reality of her husband’s brain tumor that left him physically healthy but with permanent short-term memory loss.  I was sending my firstborn child off to college and wondering what I would be when I grew up. Yes, we were a motley crew and definitely not a perfect crew, but we were a decent representative slice of all people.  Everyone, no matter what appearances look like, has some sort of struggle going on.  We weren’t just a support group to each other, though support was part of it.  But we prayed for, encouraged, and walked with each other through the valleys and deserts and through the tears and the laughter of our current situations.  Our presence to each other became the presence of Christ.  No one can do it alone.

Look at Moses.  We find him in today’s scripture passage trying his best to be a good leader, trying to be as faithful as he could to what God had asked him to do, but becoming ineffectual and worn out.  If you have ever been in any type of church leadership, you can relate to Moses.  What was the problem?  Moses attempted to do everything himself.  We, too, can sometimes get so caught up in trying to push toward the goal that we believe God has set for us that we overlook the individuals in the process, including ourselves.  We can believe so much in our mission that we assume we can accomplish it alone.  We can be like Moses who, when he realized he was called, said, “Yes, I will go.   Goodbye, God” forgetting that without God and his faithful people he was destined to fail.

So let's listen to his father-in-law’s cautionary words:  "The task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone" (Ex. 17: 18).   Perhaps we should all tattoo that on our foreheads.  The Christian walk is not a solitary one.  We need our faith community.  We need each other.  We need people around us who are, in Jethro’s words, “in awe of God and trustworthy.”  Otherwise we risk becoming overwhelmed or lost.  Thankfully, we need look no further than Jesus Christ as a role model.

In Mark’s gospel, the author tells us that "Jesus went up to the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him.  And he appointed twelve to be with him" (Mk. 3:13).  Even Jesus Christ, the Son of God, did not try to walk his walk alone.  Those twelve people became Antioch to each other, and what a diverse group they were. Fishermen and tax collectors and rebels and a Messiah and others we know nothing about.  They learned to serve together; they learned about God together.  The disciples followed Christ together and sometimes they got it, and sometimes they didn't.  They quarreled with each other and competed with each other, and some came to understand who Jesus was long before the others, and some never understood.  That group was as diverse as we are, and as human as we are, and they were the ones Jesus gathered at his last meal.  Though in his hour of greatest need, they all deserted him, they were also the ones Jesus "sent out to proclaim the message" (Mk. 3:14) because that small group had been nurtured, served, and loved by Christ and by each other in that particular Antioch.

So here we are today, in this particular Antioch.  Like the twelve disciples, we too have been called by name to be here.  Like the twelve, we are all different, with different gifts to share, uniquely designed by God for his unique purpose.  Each of us is at various places on our own faith journeys, as God intends us to be.  Who wants a cookie cutter Antioch?  Yet God has placed within this community of First Presbyterian Church everything needed to love each other, nurture each other, care for each other, encourage each other, and grow in discipleship.  

So where is your Antioch?  Where is, or who is, the small group that nurtures you, encourages you to take risks, to grow in your faith, to nudge you out of your comfort zone, and where is that small group that will also lovingly hold you accountable and stay by your side no matter what?  If you do not have an Antioch, will you pray for God to lead you to one or to form one yourself?  Imagine what might happen if this six week sermon series on discipleship actually turned into small group studies of the book The Disciple Making Church.   Imagine a church that had small groups in place that were ready to welcome a newcomer into their midst and into their Antioch.  Offering the gift of belonging is one of the most powerful gifts a Christian community can give.

Today as we hear the words of discipleship and gather at the table of the Lord, where he, the host himself, has invited us, we celebrate and give thanks for one another.  In his book, Life Together, which is an account of his own small group Antioch, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian who was martyred at the hands of the Gestapo in 1945, wrote:

"It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brethren is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.  Therefore, let him who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God's grace from the bottom of his heart.  Let him thank God on his knees and declare:  It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brethren."

 

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