Making disciples one seed at a time

My dad became a follower of Jesus in 1964. His unlikely conversion followed many months of weekly one-on-one meetings with an Anglican minister called Warwick Seymour in a little mining town called Carletonville. But the seed was first sown by a visiting preacher from London by the name of Dick Lucas. My dad says he can’t remember the sermon at all, but afterwards Lucas said something that troubled my dad greatly. Here’s the interchange as recorded in my dad’s biography, Branded by Grace:

“I stood there feeling out of place. All these holy Joes—not my types. The visitor walked up to me in the foyer after his address and introduced himself. He asked me who I was and what I did.

“I’m an engineer,” I replied.

“Are you a Christian?”

Gulping, I paused before responding, “Ja, well I try to be!”

“That’s impossible!” said Dick Lucas with a penetrating, piercing gaze…” (Branded by Grace, p70).

That short conversation with Dick Lucas left my dad feeling so exposed and uneasy that he was prompted to make an appointment with the resident minister to express his offence. It was this local pastor, Warwick Seymour, who watered and weeded my dad’s seedling faith. He removed the rocks of his objections and misconceptions. He walked him through the pages of Scripture and showed him why his best efforts to be a Christian would never be good enough. Then he led dad to the Saviour who changed his life irrevocably. This joint effort by two of Christ’s disciples generated a harvest that reaches down the generations. But ultimately we must look beyond the human sowers to the Farmer himself: It was God who enabled my dad to understand and receive his Word as truth; to personally confess that only Jesus has the authority to forgive sins; to ask His forgiveness in return for life and hope; to surrender his life to Christ as Lord. It was God who prepared the soil and germinated the seed in my dad’s heart. He alone is Lord of the harvest.

Five years after this great miracle, I was born, the last of four children. Warwick Seymour became my godfather and every year he gave me Bible stories and Christian books with a personal note scrawled on the front page. The message of those books had a powerful impact on my life because they spoke the truth of who Jesus is and how I could respond to Him, even as a small child. Once again, the powerful word produced a crop.

When I discovered the internet many years later, I decided to google the British man who had first scattered those seeds of truth in a backwater town in 1964. I discovered that Dick Lucas was a famous preacher with a huge church in London and many hundreds of sermons recorded online. I was curious about the man who had accepted an invitation to preach to a handful of people in a tiny parish on the West Rand, so began my own journey of listening to his sermons. I never forget the first message I heard from a series to businessmen in central London. It was on Jesus’ parable of the Sower, aptly titled “The Powerful Seed”. This parable has profoundly shaped the way I understand how disciples are made.

This is the parable of the Sower recorded by Luke. You will also find it in Mark 4 and Matthew 13:

And when a great crowd was gathering and people from town after town came to him, he said in a parable, “A sower went out to sow his seed. And as he sowed, some fell along the path and was trampled underfoot, and the birds of the air devoured it. And some fell on the rock, and as it grew up, it withered away, because it had no moisture. And some fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up with it and choked it. And some fell into good soil and grew and yielded a hundredfold.” As he said these things, he called out, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”

And when his disciples asked him what this parable meant, 10 he said, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of God, but for others they are in parables, so that ‘seeing they may not see, and hearing they may not understand.’ 11 Now the parable is this: The seed is the word of God. 12 The ones along the path are those who have heard; then the devil comes and takes away the word from their hearts, so that they may not believe and be saved. 13 And the ones on the rock are those who, when they hear the word, receive it with joy. But these have no root; they believe for a while, and in time of testing fall away. 14 And as for what fell among the thorns, they are those who hear, but as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature. 15 As for that in the good soil, they are those who, hearing the word, hold it fast in an honest and good heart, and bear fruit with patience. (Luke 8:4-15).

Led by the sower

A sower went out to sow his seed” (Luke 8:5). This statement at the beginning of the parable tells us the simple but supernatural means by which God’s kingdom comes to earth. Disciples are made when the word of God is proclaimed and received in the power of the Holy Spirit. We may get involved in all sorts of useful ministries, but the word is the centre pivot in God’s redemption plan. The word is the sprinkler system of Christ’s witness in the world.

In the context of this parable, Jesus is the proverbial sower who shows us what it looks like to sow seed. He spent three years of his life sharing the message of the kingdom with varied results. He modelled how to be generous and open-hearted while scattering the seeds of the kingdom of God from one town to another, being rejected by some hearers and accepted gladly by others (Luke 6:117:9). We might think it’s reckless to throw away seed on soil that’s unproductive, rocky and arid, but Jesus did it anyway. He didn’t avoid undeserving people, but preached and taught the good news of the kingdom in all manner of ways, and with great hope and power (Luke 8:14). He trained his disciples to do likewise when He left them (Acts 1:8Matt 28:18-20).

Ultimately, the church is called to sow the seed of the gospel in the hardest, most weed-ridden, sin-soaked soils of the human heart. After all, that was the state of our own hearts before the Holy Spirit turned them from stone to flesh (Ezekiel 36:26). It is not our right to guess which soils look soft and fertile, or to select the seed we think most suitable to grow. We are called to speak only the truth God has given us in the Bible, to do so liberally, and then to trust the Lord who owns the lands and the harvest.

“If God’s word gets into the soil of your heart and mine, there’s no telling what God will do” (Dick Lucas).

The priority and power of the seed

The hundred-fold harvest of Jesus’ parable began on the day of Pentecost. It was not the spectacular signs that convinced people, but Peter’s long, Spirit-led sermon that cut 3000 Jews to the heart and brought them to their knees in repentance and faith (Acts 2:37). Luke tells us that it was “with many words” that Peter bore witness and exhorted his hearers to save themselves from their crooked generation (Acts 2:40). “Those who received his word” were the good soil that heard the word and “held it fast” that day (Acts 2:41Luke 8:15). In turn, these converts returned to scatter the gospel in their homelands all over the world.

All through the book of Acts, we see the same pattern of the spirit-filled word of truth spawning disciples everywhere (Acts 4:4;13Acts 8:4-5Acts 12:24). After the disciples made the preaching of the word a priority, even hostile priests heard the word and believed (Acts 6:2;7).

He who has ears

Words in themselves are not powerful or magical. Even the Bible itself has no power to redeem a person who doesn’t see the face of Jesus in its pages (John 5:39-40). But when the Spirit of God shines in our hearts to show us who Jesus is, there’s no limit to what Spirit-led words can do. As disciples, it may seem like our seeds are small and our words are weak, but we must remember that it is God who makes a plant grow (1 Cor 3:6-7). The thriving harvest in Jesus’ parable is not produced by our intelligence, rhetoric or wit, but by speaking the truth of the gospel simply and clearly, in formal and informal ways. It may be through preaching and teaching, but it may also be through writing, praying, an everyday conversation or message on a phone, even through a song. It is this conviction that should keep us scattering the message week after week, over a lifetime, no matter how few or many respond. Let’s also admit that our own rocky and thorn-infested hearts are often hard of hearing and not always receptive and ready to apply the gospel to our lives. Let’s ask the Holy Spirit to help us to truly listen and love the truth of God’s Word, so that it will grow a deep root and produce abundant fruit in our lives. Then we will sow back the seed into the hearts of others.

 

Pray

Father, you know that my heart is far from the good soil described in your parable. I am often dull to your Word and slow to respond to even what I do understand. You know that I’m often defensive and unwilling to change, too disengaged and preoccupied with the cares of life to listen and absorb your truth. Holy Spirit, open my heart to see the beauty of the gospel of grace and the empty, dead souls all around me. Stir me to speak your truth in unredeemed places and please prepare the soils. Give me conviction to keep scattering the seeds you’ve given me until the final harvest or the day you take me home. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Am I a distracted or devoted disciple?

It’s easy for us to look through a 21st century lens and miss the full weight of what it means to be a disciple who makes disciples. The Greek word for ‘disciple’ means ‘learner,’ but discipleship in the 1st century went far beyond the walls of a classroom. A disciple was someone apprenticed to shadow a teacher in order to learn a certain way of thinking and living in the world. For a first century Jew, being a disciple meant rigorous training of the mind to learn certain truths from a rabbi. But it also meant learning a person— his wisdom and how he applied those truths to complex issues of life and death. It involved careful watching, listening, practising and asking questions to grasp and live out the teaching. That’s how those first disciples would have understood Jesus’ invitation to come and follow him. By binding themselves to Jesus constantly, they would learn and imitate his ways. Although the original 12 disciples were all men, many women were also devoted followers of Jesus (Luke 8:1-3), a scandal for a rabbi in middle-Eastern Jewish patriarchal culture. Sisters, Mary and Martha, were two such women. One day Jesus visited and enjoyed a meal in their home in Bethany. Luke’s short account cuts to the heart of discipleship and asks three questions of all of us who call ourselves Christ’s disciples:

Do I have a teachable heart?

Have I fallen into the trap of a performance-driven life?

Am I a devoted or distracted disciple?

“Now as they went on their way, Jesus entered a village. And a woman named Martha welcomed him into her house. 39 And she had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to his teaching. 40 But Martha was distracted with much serving. And she went up to him and said, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” 41 But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, 42 but one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:38-42).

A teachable disciple

Attentiveness is a key trait of any disciple. Mary’s posture of sitting at Jesus’ feet, hungry to learn, reveals a teachable spirit. She comes to Jesus empty and expectant, waiting for him to fill her with his words of truth. This was the same Mary who had anointed the Lord Jesus with expensive ointment and wiped his feet with her hair (John 12:1-811:2). She was a devoted disciple who treasured Jesus more than anything. She hung onto His every word and listened to what He had to say about his upcoming death and resurrection, while other disciples were bickering about the cost of her alabaster jar of perfume (Matt 26:8-13). Mary had no doubt that the “one thing necessary” was to be where God had chosen to reveal himself — at the feet of his Son. Resting in her relationship with Jesus, she wasn’t driven or distracted by other demands or the perfection of a transient meal.

Mary’s attentive ear reminds me of the prophet Isaiah’s invitation 700 years earlier: “Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labour for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food (Isa 55:2).” Mary knew that the Bread of life was in her house and His nourishment was of eternal worth. That’s why she chose to sit at her Lord’s feet and listen to His teaching.

A performance-driven disciple

I’m sure you’re sympathetic with Martha, like I am! That’s probably because she reminds us a lot of ourselves. Isn’t hospitality a noble act for any follower of Christ? (Heb 13:2) Wouldn’t you also want to impress God’s Messiah with a wonderful dinner in your home? But Martha made a real meal of the task and soon got grumpy with her sister and her guest for allowing her to run herself ragged in the kitchen! Martha’s devotion to service eclipsed her devotion to Jesus himself, and soon she felt like a slave “distracted with much serving” (Luke 10:40).

Don’t we all know the frazzled and fragmented response that creeps over us when we allow our household affairs and family, our work and leisure, even our good Christian ministry, draw us away from our devotion to Jesus?

Martha made hospitality the “one thing necessary,” instead of the person of Jesus.

But Jesus saw the heart behind her service and loved his friend enough to confront her (John 11:5). Perhaps he knew Martha was driven by a quest to live up to her own standards as the perfect hostess or for approval, which soon morphed into demanding duty instead of joyful service.

“Lord, don’t your care?” is exactly the same accusation the disciples voiced in the boat when Jesus slept through the storm. It’s the same bitter tone of the older brother’s question in the parable of the prodigal son (Mark 4:38Luke 15:29-30). Life never seems fair and contentment is elusive to the performance-driven person.

Jesus reads Martha’s distracted heart and makes a gentle but direct diagnosis—“Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled about many things, but only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen the good portion, which shall not be taken away from her”(Luke 10:41-42). An apt warning for us too if we are distracted disciples!

Devoted to the good portion

Jesus’s observation of Mary and Martha cuts right to the heart of discipleship, even in the 21st century. What is the “good portion” to which Mary was devoted?

In the Psalms, David gives us a clue: “The Lord is my chosen portion and my cup; you hold my lot…My flesh and my heart may fail, but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever” (Psalm 16:573:26). Old Testament believers understood that only God could save, provide, counsel and protect them. He was the source of their inheritance as the people of God—their promised blessings in this world and forever. The covenant-God was their shield and very great reward, not the blessings themselves (Gen 15:1 NIV). John Piper describes what it means for a believer to say that the Lord is my chosen portion:

“If there are a hundred portions of food and drink spread out on the table, and one of them is the Lord himself — he is my choice. Nothing satisfies — nothing nourishes and sustains — the way he does. He is my greatest good. My treasure of all treasures. My highest pleasure. My chosen portion of sirloin. My cup of finest wine… In other words, when the dice are rolled, and the straws are drawn, and the wheel is turned — whatever happens to us comes from the hand of God. God holds my lot. God decides it. God rules over it. God is my sovereign, and I am glad to have it so. I don’t just affirm it stoically; I exult in it.”

When Jesus praised Mary’s devotion, He was also making a potent statement about Himself as God’s Son: “am the gift of God’s sovereign grace! I am your supreme, everlasting inheritance! Martha, if am your portion, you need nothing else. My grace is sufficient if you find your rest in me, not in your works.”

If you are a disciple, Jesus’ yoke of training and service is always undergirded by rest and relationship in Him. As co-heirs with Jesus, we have God’s forgiveness, full approval and the blessings of His Kingdom. Our performance means nothing if it doesn’t spring from devotion.

Work with a posture like Mary

As Jesus’s disciples today, we need to learn a radically different way of living that only Jesus can teach us. In our digital age, endless distractions will threaten that diligent training. That’s why we have to catch ourselves when our daily quiet time, Church, Life group or family meals begin to slide off the wagon of our hectic lives. Disciples need time to learn and think and grapple with what Jesus was like—the Son of God who came to show us the Father and Creator of the universe. To listen to Him, we need to read and digest his Word, the Bible, in nourishing chunks, rather than nibbling titbits to keep us going another day. We need to carve out time to think through how to apply God’s truth to our lives and to pray deeply, alone and together. If even Jesus needed to withdraw into remote places to spend time with His Father, sometimes praying all night (Luke 5:166:129:1811:1), surely He’s our example to imitate?

Of course, the context of this story also doesn’t allow us to opt for a life of meditation and mysticism, seeking ‘spirituality’ as we spot dolphins from the beach! Our previous devotions in Luke 4 and Luke 14 show us that Jesus doesn’t call disciples to a life of comfort, nor to a cloister or pure academia, but He invites us to join Him in his work as fruitful fishers of men. In fact, when Jesus visited Mary and Martha, he had just sent 72 disciples into the towns on foot as “lambs among wolves” to heal the sick and preach the gospel (Luke 10:1-11). He’d just praised the Good Samaritan, whose love for God and his neighbour demanded costly service, not just words and good intentions (Luke 10:33-35). Mary herself lived an active life of secure and confident faith.

But in this story of the two sisters, Jesus is reminding us that disciples must first gather at His feet and listen attentively to his truth and teaching. Only then can we be sent into active service. A disciple must remain a lifelong learner, because we cannot give what we do not have.

Prayer (Psalm 73)

Yet I am always with you;
you hold me by my right hand.
You guide me with your counsel,
and afterward you will take me into glory.
Whom have I in heaven but you?
And earth has nothing I desire besides you.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
but God is the strength of my heart
and my portion forever.

In Jesus’ name, amen.

Discipleship: No hidden costs

“Whoever does not carry his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple… In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples” (Luke 14:2733).

Have you ever started renovating a house, armed with zeal, grand plans and an impressive bank balance, only to realize months later that you’ve got neither a roof over your head nor funds to complete it? Unlike commercial contracts, there are no provisos or hidden costs in becoming a disciple of Jesus. Nor are there amendments, fine print and addendums attached. Unlike the White Witch of Narnia with her box of turkish delight, Jesus doesn’t entice or manipulate us to follow Him with fake promises of power, prestige or pleasure. Instead, he presents us with the whole deal up front and the preamble states that discipleship involves suffering and dying. He assures us that it won’t be easy.

Discipleship is a way of life, not a program or stage in the Christian life. No matter what our age or generation, the goal of being a Christian is always to follow Jesus as our greatest Treasure. It is to be with Him, to trust and learn from Him as Deliverer, Teacher and Friend to the end. But if Jesus himself is our great reward, He is also the suffering Servant-King who demands surrender of our whole heart in undiluted, unswerving devotion. All other allegiances are secondary. Jesus’s terms remain the same for disciples today, even if we don’t literally risk our lives to proclaim the gospel or attend church on Sunday. Today we will look at two ways we must accept Christ’s call to die and to live with him, a call that will bring suffering but much more joy. Our text is Luke 14:25-33:

Large crowds were traveling with Jesus, and turning to them he said: 26 “If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple. 27 And whoever does not carry their cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.

28 “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Won’t you first sit down and estimate the cost to see if you have enough money to complete it? 29 For if you lay the foundation and are not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule you, 30 saying, ‘This person began to build and wasn’t able to finish.’

31 “Or suppose a king is about to go to war against another king. Won’t he first sit down and consider whether he is able with ten thousand men to oppose the one coming against him with twenty thousand? 32 If he is not able, he will send a delegation while the other is still a long way off and will ask for terms of peace. 33 In the same way, those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.

  1. Dying to my comfort

It’s always been costly and uncomfortable to pursue the person and mission of Jesus, who carried his own cross and paid everything to purchase us as His own. We walk in Christ’s steps, and his path led to suffering in Jerusalem before rising in triumph from the tomb. The earliest disciples literally gave everything they had to follow Jesus– their possessions, community and lives. It’s still the same for many of our Christian brothers and sisters across the world today. (Click for sermon on the cost of discipleship)

But the danger for us living in a country where freedom of worship and association are protected is that we may be lulled into thinking that there is no cost to discipleship. Our modern individualist culture makes us believe that Church is somewhere we go to feel good about ourselves. At times we may feel guilty about our comfortable middle-class life and wonder whether we’re giving up anything for the sake of Christ. We may be asking ourselves, “What cross is Jesus calling me to bear?” The Bible narrative shows us that not every disciple follows Jesus in exactly the same way, but every disciple must die to whatever competes for our devotion to Christ and his gospel. We must crucify our idols, so that we are freed to become Christ’s disciples who make disciples. My greatest idol is comfort.

After forty years I’m still learning that my greatest joy comes when my heart is undivided and Jesus is in first place, before and above every other attachment, purpose or comfort. Before and above my home, my security, my money, my family, my holiday, my schedule and my convenience. Ironically, the greater the apparent cost to my comfort, the more intense the joy of following in Jesus’s steps, even when the path is hard or tiring. Conversely, I’m most dissatisfied and restless when I’m living like salt that’s lost its saltiness, insipid and wavering in my loyalty to Jesus (Luke 14:34).

Jesus knows that we’re a lot like Gollum, the swamp dweller who holds onto his Precious and will not let it go! There’s no sadder person than a disciple who is desperately clasping and grasping onto the treasures that detain us. The Lord knows the idols of our hearts and insists that we shatter them into a million tiny pieces. The irony is that the moment we die to our comforts and cling to Him, we are at last free to enjoy the friendship, wisdom, joy and peace that only Jesus can give. Christ told the rich young ruler that eternal treasures in heaven would cost him all his possessions: “Sell what you possess and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; and come, follow me (Matt 19:21)”. Jesus insists that we die to our comforts too, to make Him our ultimate Treasure.

  1. Dying to my ego

The deadliest enemy of every disciple is selfish pride, which must be crucified daily if we want to pursue the person and mission of Jesus. Following Jesus always happens in the context of each other rather than me, myself and I.

Independence must die to make way for inter-dependence and love.

John Piper, now 74 years old, is one of the most godly and respected Christian pastors of our time. Yet, he is honest enough to admit to four effects of selfishness which he is taking steps to slay in his own life. These emotional responses resonated with me:

Anger: the strong emotional opposition to the obstacle in my way. I tighten up and want to strike out verbally.

Self pity: a desire that others feel my woundedness and admire me for my being mistreated, and move to show me some sympathy.

Quickness to blame: a reflex to attribute to others the cause of my frustrating situation. Others can feel it in a tone of voice, a look on the face, a sideways query, or an outright accusation.

Sullenness: a sinking discouragement, moodiness, hopelessness, unresponsiveness and withdrawn emotional deadness.

Of course, the effect on marriage is that my wife feels blamed and disapproved of rather than cherished and cared for. Tender emotions shrivel. Hope is depleted. Strength to carry on in the hardships of ministry wanes.” (Why I love the Apostle Paul, John Piper).

Through months of frank self-assessment, Piper realized that if Christ’s death had cancelled his greatest sins, the Spirit of Christ would also empower him to break the grip of selfishness in his life. He repented of his passive attitude to his selfishness and actively set about killing, not coddling these cancelled sins. Piper’s confession is an encouragement to us all to crucify the subtle effects of ego and selfish pride in our lives. Only then will we be freed to live with such integrity and joy that we will help others take one step closer to Jesus.

Bearing my cross

Jesus never hid the costs and benefits of discipleship. He warned his original disciples that even though they would be reviled, persecuted and falsely accused on account of Him, they would still be blessed (Matt 5:10-11). The cost of being Christ’s disciple has always meant death to everything we once held dear and life in the person and mission of Jesus. It could mean a complete upheaval from our job, family and comfort. Or it could entail subtle forms of hostility, exclusion and ridicule. Even in a constitutional democracy like ours, there is always a cost to following Jesus and becoming a disciple who makes disciples. Taking up our cross is not just for the martyr or dedicated Christian in ‘full time’ ministry, but for every Christian who has accepted the invitation to God’s wonderful kingdom banquet (Luke 14:15-24).

“For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it” (Mark 8:35).

Prayer

Lord Jesus, thank you for inviting me to participate in your death, resurrection and gospel mission. I know that I did not seek you, but you pursued me and bought my salvation and adoption into your family. Thank you for giving me a new heart and spirit to transform me into your disciple, so that I in turn may disciple others. Lord, help me to follow you so closely that I am always ignited by your Spirit, truth, love, power and mission. Show me where my heart is divided and bring me to the place where I count my comforts, possessions and even my life as nothing compared to the joy of knowing you and helping others take one step closer to you. In Jesus’ precious name, Amen.