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Sermon illustrations

Discipleship

The Art of Followship

Editor’s Note: The following illustration came from one of my own (Stu’s) sermons, as I was trying to help the congregation make a paradigm shift from the church as a building, to the people of God:

So, what exactly is a disciple? On one level the answer is simple: a disciple is a follower of Jesus. Now in our culture, the word “follower” is often quite negative: a follower is the opposite of a leader. And we are all called to be leaders, at least according to our culture.

Leadership is an entire genre for books, for conferences, etc… If you can still find a brick and mortar bookstore, you will find a leadership section.

Interestingly enough, I’ve never seen a follower section in a bookstore, have you? Now “followers” as a term has gained some popularity in recent years because of social media. Instagram and Twitter enable people both famous and almost famous to try to build their own brand by gaining “Followers”. But again, the whole point is that you need to be a leader, so that other people can follow you.

So isn’t it interesting that the primary word for people who worship Jesus as Lord and Savior is the word “follower:? (disciple) Now in the context of Jesus’ day, a disciple was a follower not just in a general sense, but also in a particular way. A disciple tended to be either a pupil, someone that would sit at the feet of a master or be an apprentice in some sort of trade.

And I think there is something to this, that even for the first disciples, they never graduated into something else. They always remained disciples, that is followers of Jesus.

And one of the many reasons for this is that a disciple is always in a position of humility, right? They are never the master with all the answers, but always the ones who sit at the feet of Jesus. So being a disciple is to be a follower, but not just in a casual way. An apprentice or a pupil has essentially given up a whole variety of opportunities to follow the one master. We can follow a lot of things, sports teams, musicians, politicians, etc…but to be a disciple of someone is to turn your life over to them and ask that their wisdom might help direct your life. So that’s discipleship…it’s following Jesus every day, becoming more and more like Him.

Stuart Strachan Jr., Sermon: Matt.28: The Art of Followship.

The Christian Life is a Learned Craft

When we speak of Christian living as a learned craft, we have a particular image in mind, that of an apprentice serving for years under the tutelage of a master. This is what my (Rich) grandfather did.

At the age of fourteen he became an apprentice baker in Austria. Over more than a decade he learned a way of life as a baker. Finally, he became a master baker. He learned to master his craft by living with others who knew much more about it and could do it far better than he could. This is how we learn the craft of soulful relationships.

Others must teach us how to forgive, how to pray, how to give, how to be patient and how to be merciful. Fundamentally what we must learn is how to surrender our souls in faith to the God in whose life we participate. We must learn true-self living by living with others who are ahead of us in the journey of faith. Learning to surrender is fundamental.

All the other characteristics of the Christian life emerge from this. True surrender is not resignation or a passive giving up on life. Surrender is a Spirit-empowered act of courage. It is the willingness to offer our lives to God and trust him with the outcome. It is giving our lives to God each day, recognizing our dependency on him. It is trusting God even when what we are living is dark and confusing and something we never thought we would have to live.

Taken from The Relational Soul: Moving from False Self to Deep Connection by Richard Plass and James Cofield, Copyright (c) 2014, pp.122-123 by Richard Plass and James Cofield. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

The Danger of Discipleship

The great danger of Christian discipleship is that we should have two religions: a glorious, biblical Sunday gospel that sets us free from the world, that in the cross and resurrection of Christ makes eternity alive in us, a magnificent gospel of Genesis and Romans and Revelation; and, then, an everyday religion that we make do with during the week between the time of leaving the world and arriving in heaven. We save the Sunday gospel for the big crises of existence.

For the mundane trivialities—the times when our foot slips on a loose stone, or the heat of the sun gets too much for us, or the influence of the moon gets us down—we use the everyday religion of the Reader’s Digest reprint, advice from a friend, an Ann Landers column, the huckstered wisdom of a talk-show celebrity. We practice patent-medicine religion. We know that God created the universe and has accomplished our eternal salvation.

But we can’t believe that he condescends to watch the soap opera of our daily trials and tribulations; so we purchase our own remedies for that. To ask him to deal with what troubles us each day is like asking a famous surgeon to put iodine on a scratch.

Taken from Run with the Horses by Eugene H. Peterson. ©2009, 2019 by Eugene H. Peterson.  Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove  IL  60515-1426. www.ivpress.com

Discipleship at Ground Zero

One of the first Bible study groups I ever attended was at the Sigma Chi fraternity house at Cornell University. We were a hodgepodge of academics, sorority girls, fraternity boys, star athletes, mature believers (there must have been at least one), nonbelievers, and quasi-believers.

I’ll put myself in that last category.The lacrosse player who introduced me to the group was a guy named Frank. Some time later, Frank shared with me his first experience with the group.

He had never attended a Bible study before, so he entered the second-story room sheepishly, and after surveying the one or two available seats in the room, he wormed his way between the three pretty coeds already squished together on the couch. The leader opened in prayer and instructed the group to turn to Ephesians 2 so they could read it together. Frank panicked.

He had no idea where Ephesians was, or even what Ephesians was. So he turned to the woman next to him and coolly asked, “Where’s Ephesians?” She replied, “Next to Galatians.” Great. As if he knew where Galatians was! Frank was in desperate need of some direction. He had no idea where to start, and he needed someone to come alongside and help him understand.

Mindy Caliguire, STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships, Zondervan, 2013.

Discipleship is like Learning a Language through Immersion

One of the fastest ways to learn a language is by immersion. This is of course when someone is put into an environment and they learn things simply by picking them up through their observations, what they see, hear, and so on. 

Watching a toddler learn to talk is perhaps one of the most enjoyable, often amusing ways to watch someone learn through immersion. My son Jack started to talk with sheer gibberish.

I mean, when words start coming out your child’s mouth you’re thrilled as a parent, but you also have no idea what they are saying…and then after some time, actual words start to emerge…but it’s still a process right, sometimes the words make sense, and other times they make sense to just the toddler speaking them.

G.K. Chesterton once said “If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing badly.” Learning to speak is worth doing, even if toddlers do it badly at first. Sometimes you don’t even know if their words have any meaning, or whether the toddler is just working their vocal chords.

As I already mentioned, this past year our son Jack has been in the immersion process of learning English. One of the words he would say all the time was “mino”. We really liked the word, it was cute, and he sounded cute saying it. But of couse we thought it was just gibberish, until one day when Colleen realized a “mino” was a tomato.

And I’ll never forget when he started saying tomato, okay, let’s be honest, “mato”, because for Jack any word with more than two syllables gets cut off at the beginning. So avocado is “cado” motorcycle is “cycle” etc…And so Jack, after day in and day out of hearing his parents, you all, our family and friends, continues to develop his language skills.

What started as gibberish has gradually began to sound like modern English. Just in the last few months Jack has started to string sentences together, even if he’s not quite sure what he is saying. We’ll say “good night Jack” and he’ll say “good night Jack” or I love you Jack and he’ll say I love you Jack…

So he’s getting it, but it’s a process and that’s how learning through immersion works. And the same goes for discipleship.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Discipleship Takes Time

The act of “being with” someone requires patience and sacrifice. It means putting the other person’s wants and needs above our own and being willing to invest as much time as it takes to make the person feel valued and loved.

As best we can discern, the Bible indicates that the disciples were with Jesus for about three years. Let’s assume they were with him ten hours a day, and for the sake of argument, let’s say they had a couple of days off each month. That would give them about 340 discipleship days each year. Now let’s do the math:

10 hours/day × 340 days/year × 3 years = 10,200 hours of discipleship with Jesus

John Ortberg, I’d Like You More If You Were More Like Me: Getting Real About Getting Close (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 2017), Kindle Electronic Version.

The Evolution of the Rose

A couple years ago I got to take a tour of the Huntington Library in Pasadena, California. The name is a bit misleading because what they are most known for are there amazing gardens. And so we were on this tour and I got to learn something about the history of roses. And it goes something like this.

There have been roses since we have been on this planet, but the wild roses in Europe, while all different colors and quite beautiful, would only bloom once a year, and so for most of the warm months you would be looking at a bunch of ugly green canes with thorns, no flowers. But then, some botanists in the late 18th century began experimenting by grafting the Chinese wild rose, which was only green, but bloomed all summer, with the European rose, and after a bunch of testing, created what we know to be the modern rose, which blooms from June through October, but not only in green, but in a myriad of colors. 

Isn’t that interesting, so roses as we know them are really a modern invention, and because of the grafting of the wild Chinese rose with the roses of Europe, we have this stronger, much more beautiful flower than we ever had before. And that is what Paul is getting at, but instead of it being one wild rose and another, we are grafted into Christ, God incarnate, and our lives should therefore look different than they used to.

Stuart Strachan Jr.

Following: Harder than it Looks

In her book, Invitations from God, Adele Ahlberg Calhoun shares a great analogy of the difficulty of faithful discipleship: it’s not always easy to follow:

Recently I had to follow another car to a destination. Sounds easy, right? The responsibility of getting where I needed to go rested on the shoulders of the leader; all I had to do was follow. But I found out that following is not for the faint of heart.

The leader squeaked through yellow traffic lights; I got stuck on red. As I waited, more and more cars got between me and the lead car. I determined to catch up, so I shot through yellow (or red) lights and hoped that the lead car would wait somewhere up ahead. I caught up.

Then dutifully trailing behind, I followed the leader as we headed out of town and onto open road. Maybe this will be easier, I thought. But no: the lead car went faster than I liked and took passing risks that made me cringe. Furthermore, when I wanted to stop for gas, the leader disagreed and said that we could make it to the gas station at the next exit.

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Invitations from God: Accepting God’s Offer to Rest, Weep, Forgive, Wait, Remember and More, IVP Press.

The Genius Of Jesus

It is no good giving me a play like Hamlet or King Lear, and telling me to write a new play just like it. Shakespeare could do it; I can’t. And it is no good showing me a life like the life of Jesus and telling me to live a life just like it. Jesus could do it; I can’t. But if the genius of Shakespeare could come and live inside me, I would then be able to write plays like he did.

And if the Spirit of Jesus could come and live inside me, I would then be able to live a life like he did. This is the open secret of how to live as a Christian. It is not about us struggling in vain to become more like Jesus, but about allowing him, by the power of his Spirit, to come and change us from the inside. Once again we see that to have him as our example is not enough; we need him as our Saviour.

Taken from Basic Christianity The IVP Signature Collection  by John Stott. Copyright (c) 2019 by John Stott, p.136. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Getting Out of the Boat

[Peter getting out of the boat to walk on water] is about extreme discipleship.

…Your boat is whatever represents safety and security to you apart from God himself.  Your boat is whatever you are tempted to put your trust in, especially when life gets a little stormy.  Your boat is whatever keeps you so comfortable that you don’t want to give it up even if it’s keeping you from joining Jesus on the waves.  Your boat is whatever pulls you away from the high adventure of extreme discipleship.

John Ortberg, If You Want to Walk on Water, You’ve Got to Get Out of the Boat (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2001).

An Invitation

He invites us to leave our burdensome ways of heavy labor—especially the “religious” ones—and step into the yoke of training with him. This is a way of gentleness and lowliness, a way of soul rest. It is a way of inner transformation that proves pulling his load and carrying his burden with him to be a life that is easy and light (Matthew 11:28-30).

The perceived distance and difficulty of entering fully into the divine world and its life is due entirely to our failure to understand that “the way in” is the way of pervasive inner transformation and to our failure to take the small steps that quietly and certainly lead to it.

Dallas Willard, Renovation of the Heart: Putting On the Character of Christ, NavPress.

A Life of Discipleship

Jesus didn’t tell his friends, “Go into all the world and make Christians.” But he did tell them to go into the world and make disciples. In fact, the Bible uses the word disciple 269 times. As Dallas Willard writes, “The New Testament is a book about disciples, by disciples, and for disciples.”

Jesus’ Good News is that eternal life—life with God and for God, life under God’s care and life by God’s power—is available now. If you want that life, the logical step is to become a disciple—a student, an apprentice, a follower—of Jesus…Simply put, discipleship is the means by which we learn to live the life that Jesus offers. Christianity was never intended to produce Christians. Just disciples.

the New Testament presents a community of disciples that looks much more like a centered set than a bounded set. The center is Jesus. He defines and incarnates life in the Kingdom of God and makes it available to others. This life is a call to love God with all that you are and to love your neighbor as yourself.

John Ortberg, Eternity Is Now In Session: A Radical Rediscovery of What Jesus Really Taught About Salvation, Eternity, and Getting to the Good Place (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale Momentum, 2018), Kindle Electronic Version.

Jesus Contained?

When our daughter Sara was four years old, she burst into the house carrying a water-filled baggie in which swam a wide-eyed burst of sunshine. “Look what they gave us at the birthday party!” (Gee thanks.) We dumped the pet into a fishbowl and gathered around to select a name. Sebastian won. He quickly became the star of the family.

We actually set the bowl on the dinner table so we could watch him swim while we ate. The ultimate fish dinner. But then we got bored. Can’t fault Sebastian. He did everything expected of a family fish. He swam in circles and surfaced on cue to gobble fish food. He never jumped out of the bowl into the sink or demanded a seat on the couch.

He spent his nights nestled amid a green plant. Quiet. Novel. Contained. Like Jesus? The Jesus of many people is small enough to be contained in an aquarium that fits on the cabinet. Package him up, and send him home with the kids. Dump him in a bowl, and watch him swim. He never causes trouble or demands attention. Everyone wants a goldfish bowl of Jesus, right? If you do, steer clear of the real Jesus Christ. He brings a wild ride. He comes at you like a fire hose—blasting, purging, cleansing. He will not swim quietly. He is more a force than a fixture, flushing away every last clod of doubt and death and infusing us with wonder and hope.

Max Lucado, Jesus, Thomas Nelson, 2020, pp.3-4.

The Laboring Crew

Many churches today remind me of a laboring crew trying to gather in a harvest while they sit in the tool shed. They go to the tool shed every Sunday and they study bigger and better methods of agriculture, sharpen their hoes, grease their tractors, and then get up and go home. Then they come back that night, study bigger and better methods of agriculture, sharpen their hoes, grease their tractors, and go home again.

They comeback Wednesday night, and again study bigger and better methods of agriculture, sharpen their hoes, grease their tractors, and get up and go home. They do this week in and week out, year in and year out, and nobody ever goes out into the fields to gather in the harvest.

Paul W. Powell, The Complete Disciple: Thirteen Areas of Dynamic Discipleship.

A Literal Kind of Following

A rabbi’s followers, known as his talmidim in Hebrew, went everywhere with him, not just to hang on his every word and learn theology from him. They followed him everywhere so that they could mimic what he did. They didn’t just want to know what he knew; they wanted to do what he did, live as he lived. Ann Spangler and Lois Tverberg note:

To follow a rabbi…involved a literal kind of following, in which disciples often traveled with, lived with and imitated their rabbis, learning not only from what they said but from what they did—from their reactions to everyday life as well as from the manner in which they lived…. This approach to teaching is much more like a traditional apprenticeship than a modern classroom. Jesus still says to us today, “Follow me.” He never told us to gain a lot of knowledge about him, but rather, to be with him, to remain in him (see John 15), and then, to live as he would in our place—to do what he did.

Keri Wyatt Kent, Deeply Loved, Abingdon Press, Kindle Locations 4-11.

Oaks of Righteousness

In his excellent book, An Unhurried Life, Alan Fadling contrasts our overly busy lives with a vision of the kingdom from Isaiah chapter 61:

Isaiah envisioned a kingdom in which those people in need of grace become, over time, solidly rooted in God’s grace, enough so as to be able to extend his grace to others. He envisioned a kingdom where we would experience favor, comfort, blessing, honor, new perspectives and deepening roots that enable us to do the rebuilding, restoring, renewing work in places, structures and persons who have long been ruined (Is 61:4). These characteristics of oaks of righteousness are the fruit of apprenticeship.

Further, we, as these oaks of righteousness planted by the Lord, put his splendor on display, a display quite different from human excitement, enthusiasm and thrills. Splendor is quieter, stronger, less hurried and more deeply rooted. Oaks take a long time to grow. A newly planted acorn can take between two and three decades to provide significant shade, and these slow-growing oaks can live more than two hundred years. One reason for their longevity is the taproot they send deep into the earth that makes them very drought-resistant.

Oaks are indeed solid, stable, reliable, majestic trees—but it takes them a while to get there. Do we take that same long view of growing in Christ ourselves and helping others do the same? If so, what can we do to help others become attentive and teachable apprentices to him so that one day they will shine with his splendor and flourish in the fruit of his Spirit? Whatever it is that we do, I believe it will require a less hurried, longer perspective approach than we have commonly taken.

Taken from An Unhurried Life: Following Jesus’ Rhythms of Work and Rest by Alan Fadling Copyright (c) 2013 by Alan Fadling. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Sharing Through Showing

Because I was raised in England, drinking tea is a central part of my cultural identity! Whatever the situation—a celebration, a welcome, a crisis, an afternoon break—the response of a good Brit is to put the kettle on and brew a pot of tea for everyone in the room to share. Coming to the United States was quite a shock, mainly because everyone drank coffee and seemed ignorant of the vital role of tea…

So I took a new approach. I brought an electric kettle and some tea into the office and simply made my own cup of tea. One of my colleagues was standing nearby and asked what I was doing. When I explained that I was making a cup of tea, she replied, “That looks nice—could you make me one?”

As I did, I showed her the importance of boiling the water and allowing the tea to brew and explained why milk works better than cream. So she went off to her desk with her cup of tea…The next day she saw me and declared that she’d really enjoyed her tea, and could I show her again how I made it just right, which of course I gladly did…

A couple of days later I was walking down the corridor and passed one of my other colleagues, who was carrying what looked like a cup of tea. “That looks nice—do you drink tea?” “Not until yesterday, but I saw Su drinking tea, so I asked her to make me a cup as well…

Over the next few months the number of tea drinkers slowly went up, the supplies of tea in the staff room increased, and the coffeepot looked lonelier and lonelier. Tea drinking had become the dominant source of refreshment, and the shift had come about through a process of discipleship by imitation.

Alex Absalom & Bobby Harrington, Discipleship that Fits: The Five Kinds of Relationships God Uses to Help Us Grow.

Taking Learning Very Seriously

In ancient Judaism, discipleship was taken very seriously. It was taken so seriously that eager disciples would ty to follow their rabbi (teacher) everywhere they went. Why? Because they wanted to see the rabbi, not just in a classroom setting (though there were no “classrooms at the time), but in real life. They wanted to see how their rabbi treated his family, handled his money, did his chores.

Disciples would even compete to be present while their teacher made meals and, get this, when he went to the bathroom. According to the Talmud (a set of teachings on the Torah), one disciple was so eager to learn from his master that he snuck under the bed of his rabbi to see what happened when the rabbi and his wife went to perform the marriage act. When he was found, his response was surprising: This too is Torah, and I need to learn!”

Stuart Strachan Jr.

When the Mission is Clear

A documentary about Ernest Shackleton’s early twentieth-century exposition to the South Pole shows the classified ad Shackleton put in a London newspaper:   “Men wanted for hazardous journey, small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful. Honor and recognition in case of success.” Ernest Shackleton.

Men responded to Shackleton’s advertisement in droves.

Why? Because the mission was clear. The cost and potential loss both drew the right men and made sure the wrong men didn’t sign up. God’s mission, similarly, is not for the faint of heart. Even becoming a Christian, according to Jesus, should be weighed heavily. Luke says, “Suppose one of you wants to build a tower. Will he not first sit down and estimate the cost to see if he has enough money to complete it? For if he lays the foundation and is not able to finish it, everyone who sees it will ridicule him, saying, ‘This fellow began to build and was not able to finish”’ (Luke 14:28-30).”

Hugh Halter, The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community, Missio Publishing.

Writing out our Faith

We all desire to learn from our role models, but some take this ambition to the next level. The writer Hunter S. Thompson was so obsessed with the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and specifically his book, The Great Gatsby, that he began typing out the entire book, just for himself, in order to learn its secrets. His hope was to experience what it was like to write a masterpiece, word for word. What might we learn from Thompson and his dedication to his task?

Might we consider writing, for ourselves, the greatest masterpiece of all time? Might we attempt to experience what it was like for the Holy Spirit to guide the writing of the Torah (the first five books of the Old Testament) or the gospels, Paul’s letters, or the book of revelation? What might we experience if we took the time to manually write out the great books of Holy Scripture? How might we emulate those great saints who came before us, who showed us what it was like to be inspired by God?

Stuart Strachan Jr.

See also Illustrations on Following, Jesus, Learning

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Discipleship. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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