Two or Three     (by Jon Shuler​​)

The simplest unit of the church of Jesus Christ is one believer gathered with another, intentionally, and explicitly meeting in Jesus’ name (cf Mt 18:20). Our Lord absolutely promises to be present whenever that occurs. How can any right thinking believer doubt him? If two are united in Christ they form the most elementary building block of the church that Jesus is building. This is why the marriage of two believers, to form a new Christian family, is so central to the life of the gospel being truly revealed in the local church. Holy Matrimony is the basic unit of the church, the basic “two.” Without marriages in which mutual encouragement to follow Jesus is occurring, what hope is there for the church to be a disciple-making community?

Sadly, any careful assessment of the marriages in a local church, in the West at least, reveals that far too few couples are living as disciple-making examples of the church (in miniature) of Christ Jesus. How can this be addressed? My experience is that it requires the reintroduction, to the men of the church, of the basic pattern of one discipling another. If the men of the church begin to understand and practice disciple-making with other men, it is only a matter of time until it effects their marriages. And when their marriages are renewed in the gospel, their children will be blessed. Soon the local church will follow, and in time the whole community surrounding will be changed.

According to the Lord, two is a sufficient number for his presence to be assured, but he does add “or three.” Some men may be comfortable meeting as a ” two,” but many more will prefer a “three.” Understanding the difference may be as simple as deciding if someone is an extrovert or an introvert, but in any case the road to healthy church life, in the gospel of Jesus, depends on men discovering how to disciple one another, and their families. Where to begin? Two or three men, meeting in Jesus name, is enough. But there needs to be at least one who understands the journey.

All of human experience attests that the life of any organism or organization will not rise above the leadership. If men are to learn to disciple one another, they must be led by a man who is also on the same journey. In a congregational setting that must be the pastoral leader. Disciple-making is not a program that can be delegated. It is a way of life for every follower of Jesus. It cannot be preached into existence, nor taught with words only. It must be lived. And lived in the fullness of God’s word and his Spirit. A leader reading this who wants it to be true must decide to make it true for himself.

Finding another man who is already on the journey as a disciple-making disciple is the first step after that prayerful decision. He must be found, and he must be godly. He may be near or far, but he must be found. Best is someone near, whose life you can witness, whose discipling patterns you can evaluate, whose integrity you can prove. Modern technology makes it possible to do this virtually, and God will honor that if all else fails. But what matters is the beginning. Find someone to disciple you, to walk with you.

Next Week: What Makes the Difference?

 Why Am I Afraid?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

It has been my experience that most of those who are active in the life of the church, in our time, are afraid to have serious spiritual conversations with other people. Why is that so?

Last week we talked about the central calling of all Christians to follow Christ, and the ordinariness of our responsibility to help others do the same. Indeed to not want to help others is perhaps a sign that we are not yet fully followers ourselves. It looks so simple in the life of Jesus and his apostles. “Come and see,” Jesus said. And then, “follow me.” Some did and some did not. It was undoubtedly ordinary Christian behavior, for many centuries, for Christians to do the same as their Lord. How did we let it become so difficult? What are we afraid of?

The first answer I would give is this: the church has greatly confused the central work of her corporate life. The vast majority of her efforts and resources are not going to the primary work of sharing the gospel until conversion, and then to the adequate nurture of those who are born again of the Spirit of God. Organizational participation has taken the place of heart change. Ask a true unbeliever to a church service, especially if they come once, and few ask another. The experience can be embarrassingly painful, and often ends the relationship with the outsider. Equating church attendance with beginning to follow Jesus is a grave mistake.

Further, my experience over a lifetime is that we (the church and her clergy) have also taught people that they do not know enough to be true Christians. Leaders model complex behaviors and teach complex theological opinions that confound many of those in the body of Christ. Keeping church traditions, almost all man made, are given priority over gospel living. Faithful worshippers, some who have attended over a lifetime, think that they do not know enough to help someone else. Or they think that to ask someone to come along with them to learn to be a follower of Jesus requires some supernatural calling along with superior knowledge.

Third, the ordinary churchman has no experience of direct, life on life discipleship. He or she has never seen it nor experienced it. To meet regularly with a few others, all who are seriously trying to understand how to live the Christian life, is not what they have learned. They have no natural, ordinary, path or pattern to invite someone to walk along with them. They are thus embarrassed or afraid. Sometimes both. Fundamentally the problem is this: they have not been discipled. They may indeed be deeply committed in an interior and personal way, but they do not know how to help another.

Is there any way to break free from this reality? I believe the Lord stands ready to give the Holy Spirit to anyone who desires that freedom. Pray and ask God to guide you to someone who knows what “make disciples” really means. And then ask someone else to join you. Two or three people is enough. What are we afraid of?

Next Week: Two or Three

The Simplest Steps      (by Jon Shuler​​)

Who has not heard the saying; “Keep it simple stupid?” The acronym KISS has become one known to most of us. But is it true for a disciple of Jesus who wants to help others become followers?

Some years ago I was doing my best to draw another man into the Anglican missionary world that I inhabited. He was a leader of men, and a disciple-maker, but had grown up and been formed in another tradition. We were clearly called to much the same work, and their was a strong pull in both our hearts causing us to consider joining forces. But it did not happen. I set him a challenge he could not fulfill. He could not in good conscience become an Anglican.

I will always remember the day. He said to me: “I had to take a course on the Koran in graduate school, and I found it easier to understand Islam than the complexity of modern “Anglicanism.” My heart sank, and we eventually parted ways. At the time I could not understand what had happened. He was a very bright man, and certainly capable of learning anything he set his mind to. And he has served the Lord faithfully all his life, I have no doubt. But when he tried to understand our Anglican ways, he believed they were taking him away from the simple work Jesus had given him – to make disciples.

Many years have gone by, and today I realize I asked him to embrace what is clearly not the simple truth of gospel ministry. I asked him to embrace, unconsciously, two thousand years of church tradition, and he had already given his life to serving only Jesus. For him, the path I was on seemed a diversion from the clear and simple focus of the Final Command. I now believe he was right.

The Lord of the Church, which is his body, the community of faithful followers, gave very clear first steps to all who would hear his voice. ‘Come to me. Follow me. Learn from me. Keep my word. Obey my commands. Go where I direct you. Do what I tell you. Worship only me.’

Most reading this post will understand that those simple directions eventually require all that is within a man to be conformed to Christ. Body, mind, soul, and strength. Most know that it will be all embracing, and will require great effort, stamina, and mental focus. Depending on the particularity of an individuals call it may even involve great scholastic learning, in order that they rightly convey “the whole counsel of God.” But learning to be a disciple begins with the simplest of steps. If they are learned and lived, the life of a follower will be used of God to change others. There will be more disciples when they die than there were when they began to follow. Only God will know how many more, but there will be more.They will not just bear fruit, they will “bear much fruit.” If you were to sit down tomorrow with another person at a coffee shop, could you help them to begin to be a follower of Jesus? A true disciple?

Next Week: Why Am I Afraid?

Our Lord’s First Year      (by Jon Shuler​​)

When the Lord Jesus Christ began his public ministry, did he do anything we cannot do? I want to ask my readers to answer that question for themselves, and apply it to their ministry. What did Jesus do?

I am asking you to also come with me to the record that John the Apostle has left us. I want to assume that you share with me a confident trust in the truth of the scriptures, and that you believe that what John wrote is exactly what happened. After all, he was there.

We see in the first chapter of the Gospel of John that our Lord called together a small band of men from the first day of his public ministry. Five men became his followers in the first few days. He gave them a clear invitation, and they accepted. They would follow him. They would get to know him, they would learn from him, they would be given their assignments by him. They would become his disciples from the very first moment they agreed to follow him. Becoming a disciple of Jesus is about “becoming” not “arriving.”

They did not understand everything he was about to say or do, but they were now in close proximity to the one they would come to call Lord. They were truly following him. They watched him, they listened to him, they questioned him, and they began to receive his teaching. The more time they spent with him the more they realized the consequences of following him. Eventually they gave up their own lives to serve only him, which really meant that they gave themselves wholly to the God and Father of their Lord. They modeled for all who would come after what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.

Now ask yourself: “is that what I am doing with my life?” Are you on that same journey as the first five, or not? When the Lord Jesus left them and returned to the Father, they began to imitate what Jesus had modeled. Are you modeling that same behavior? It has essentially only two steps: I am discipled by someone who is following Jesus, and I begin to disciple others who hear the call to follow him.

Now it is critical to note that the essential heart of both steps is relational. Jesus does not hand out a workbook. He does not establish a program for them to complete. He does not herd them into a classroom. He calls them to live alongside him. They are to share his life and thus to be changed, day by day, by observing what it means to be wholly given to God.

And when the right time comes, they are to do the same with others. They begin to become disciple-makers. They imitate our Lord’s first year.

Next Week: The Simplest Steps

If I Could Do Only One Thing?      (by Jon Shuler​​)

When I was imagining this title, I was thinking of my brother clergy who make decisions for the work of their year about this time. I was also thinking about my current parochial responsibilities. After nearly three weeks of prayer I have my own answer to my question. I am going to work as hard and as faithfully as I can for one full year to see this parish become a “Great Commission Parish.” What do I mean?

It has seemed to me for many years that there really is only one mission that the Lord Jesus gave to the universal church. “Go and make disciples.” I truly believe that to be so. Every other thing he commanded us is incorporated in that wonderful last, or as I prefer, Final Command. The Lord seems to me to say: “make all the people in the world, however organized or however distinguished, the focus of your prayer and all your actions. Pray that they would become my followers along with you. That they would become your brothers and sisters in the household of God. Preach the gospel to them. Love them, speak to them, comfort them, feed them, heal them, forgive them, laugh with them, and dance with them into my kingdom.”

What could be a more worthy year than that? What could make that focus anything other than to be desired? Who could give themselves to that year and not hear “Well done?”

Of course all who read this and who have been engaged as volunteer, or vocational, ministers in the church will know the answers. For a year of this to be at the center of a parish’s life almost every other thing the church is now doing would have to stop. Indeed almost every thing most of us are doing would have to be revisited. We would have to ask ourselves: “Is this work really making new disciples, or just fattening old ones? Is this ministry, that is taking so many hours and so much energy, and so many people, really producing any fruit that will truly last?”

We recently went through the data base of the parish, built up over the last five years, and there were dozens of names that no one on the current staff could even recognize. When the active parishioners list was compared to the previous one from years ago, there was hardly any change. In effect, we had scores of people pass through our parish worship and other activities, but the holes in our nets were so wide that they almost all were lost. What can we do, besides repent?

It is an old truth that if you do not know what you are aiming at, you will probably not hit it. What is the outcome we are seeking? Do we have a clear vision of the purpose of all out activity? Is it simply that more people will come to our services? Is it only to be sure we make this years budget? Or, God forbid, that we just keep our job for another year? Could we instead begin again, this year, where our Lord began? With the same goal? He called men to follow him into the kingdom.

Next Week: Our Lord’s First Year

Home By A Different Way     (by Jon Shuler​​)

It is an almost casual line in the last verse of the Epiphany gospel reading (Mt 2:1-12), but it has new meaning for me this year. The three Wise Men had every human reason to honor their word to Herod, but God intervened to show them they were lied to. They needed to go home without going back to Jerusalem. Herod wanted to destroy any opponent to his reign, he did not want to worship the new born King, he wanted to kill him.

There has been much in my 2020 that wants to put to death the revealed truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. Much that would prefer me to not live by his law, to not honor his teaching, and to not honor him above all others. There have been political, economic, educational, journalistic, and societal voices – which though sounding benign, are actually working on the side of the Enemy of my soul. They would be pleased to see me gone rather than oppose them. And then there is my own fallen self, warring against the Spirit. So what am I to do?

It seems to me that the Lord is challenging me to “go home by another way.” I have seen no angel in a dream, but I have the deep and persisting sense that my 2021 is not to be like my 2020. What could that mean? I am not sure, but I am praying over this inner conviction. What do I see? There is a sense in which each of us, especially me, is going “home” to the place prepared for us by the Lord Jesus. This year is another part of my journey home. God wants me to be more effective and more productive for his kingdom. (II Peter 1:8)

Many external events have buffeted the church in 2020, and I pray with all of you that this year will see some of them ease. But it does not take external change for many things done in 2020 to be amended, improved, added or dropped. What are doing as the church that is not helping the kingdom, or not making the impact that it should Can we face that? Can we push back the advances of the enemy? Can we improve our readiness to obey?

I sure, that for me, what I am “hearing” relates to things I can change. It is not, for me, about things that are out of my control. I cannot change the course of the pandemic, I cannot alter the political landscape, or change the decline of higher education. But I can choose to be more faithful to the Lord Jesus. I can “work, pray, and give” more effectively “for the spread of the kingdom of God,” as I was taught by the catechism of my youth. These things I can do.

What about you who are reading this? Do you have any personal guidance from the Lord for 2021? Are you hearing his “voice?” Do you have responsibility for others, and the authority to make changes for the kingdom? What would you do if this was the year you would have to give and account for? Would 2021 be just like 2020, or would you “go home by another way?”

Next Week: If I Could Do Only One Thing

The Joy and the Challenge of Epiphany    (by Jon Shuler​​)

The celebration of the feast of the Epiphany, the manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles, is one of the high points of the Christian Year. The Light of Christ has come into the world, and we are followers of the Lord because of it. He came not only to Israel, he came to us. This knowledge brings to the faithful almost unspeakable joy. Alleluia! But Christ Jesus came for all people, all nations, and this challenges us. it calls us to face the pitiable state of the contemporary Western church and her confusion about mission. We have a mission to the nations, and we have largely forsaken it.

What do I mean? First and foremost I mean the continuing decline in the number of believing Christians in the USA, Canada, Wales, Scotland, Australia, New Zealand, and South Africa. Especially (I write as an Anglican) the decline in the community of the Anglican Churches of those lands. Most staggering of all is the terrible state of the church in England. Pretending that all is well among us is not only foolish, it is sinful. There has been a massive departure from the central faith and work of the church of Jesus Christ for generations. We have been called to live the truth of Christ, and share the Light of Christ, but we have forsaken that truth and hidden that light under a bushel.

But I do not despair. One of my mentors, Peter Drucker, taught me that “to despair is a sin for a Christian.” I  have often commented that there is great sanctity still to be found within the family to which I belong. Over a lifetime as a priest I have known deeply devoted servants of God in every parish, and in every nation, where I have served. The goodness of many, the generosity of some, the holiness of a few has always sustained me. There is undoubtedly a faithful remnant. But my soul is troubled.

It is the scriptures that undo me. Take the events of the day after Pentecost, as Luke records them, as an example. “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.” (Acts 2:47) How was this so? Does it not bring an honest priest to his knees when in the typical American parish there has almost certainly not been a half dozen converts in the last year? A year of worship, of effort, of programs, of extraordinary expense, and less than six new men following Jesus? Three? None?

When so much effort, so much money, so much time, is given to an enterprise in continuing decline, what is to be understood from those facts? Clearly there is something amiss in the whole way the work of the church is being understood and carried out. Does the community of Christ Jesus exist just so a small and declining number, and especially an ordained minority, can enjoy the inheritance of the centuries of faith? Have the doctrines, sacraments, and discipline of Christ been received for only a few? Are only a handful of faithful laity to rejoice in the liturgical and theological heritage of our patrimony, while the vast majority of our own children drift away from the church entirely, and the world grows darker day by day?

These questions must be faced. The Lord calls us to repent.

Next Week: Home By A Different Way

The Hardest Three   (by Jon Shuler​​)

In only another few hours the church will begin to celebrate again the birth of the Savior of the World. It will be a time of beloved memories, family gatherings, and joyful adoration before the one born to be king. The church has tried valiantly to take captive the mid Winter Solstice of ancient Europe, and for many of us this will be a time of true worship and joy. But there is also this painful reality to face: most of the Christmas Celebrations of our land will not be about Christ Jesus. The cost of following him is too great.

That brings us to the last three verses where Jesus tells us what he means when he calls someone his disciple. They are all found in the fourteenth chapter of Luke. The first is stark. We are to “hate” our very own family and our very life. (14:26) The perceived harshness of this word has caused many to block this passage from memory, but our Lord says if we will not do this we cannot be his disciples. How can this be? He is using the word hate in a very Hebraic way, to mean a thing in absolute contrast to what is right. He is making clear that if we put any loyalty higher than him we are not understanding rightly what it means to follow. He must be the center. And if he is, he will teach us to love our family as he loves us. He will not make us hateful to them, or them to us, he will make us Christ to them. And if we lose our life we will gain it.

Second we must take up our “own cross” or we “cannot be [his] disciple.” (14:27) Cannot. How are we to understand that word? It must certainly mean we are to gladly take up in every day and in every way the work that God has for us to do. To die to self to live to God.

Third, and last, we are told that we must “renounce all” we have or we cannot be his disciple. (14:33) It is as if he is hammering home the same message for the third time. To follow Jesus, to become his disciple, we must want only what God wants for us. Nothing else can come between us and him. If it does we must move it to a secondary place. Three times he has emphatically told us “cannot be my disciple.” These words were not spoken in vain. They are from the heart of the Father’s love for us  through his most beloved Son. They are to lead us to joy, but they are costly.

As we sing “Joy to the World” in only a few more hours, let us all remember the amazing reality that is the call to be a disciple of the one born in Bethlehem. Let us not take it lightly, but reverently. And let us affirm to him once more that we desire his life to be lived in us. We want to truly abide in him. We want our love to show forth his glory. We want our lives to “prove” we are his disciples.

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The Next Blog will be posted on January 6th, 2021. May God bless your Christmastide!

Only Nine Verses     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Perhaps you will be as surprised as I was to learn that only nine times in the Gospels is Jesus recorded as saying either “my disciple” or “my disciples.” The word disciple is used descriptively hundreds of times, but on the lips of Jesus it is only used with the modifier “my” nine times.

Three of these references are clearly parallels, as they record our Lord’s concern to gather his disciples on the final night of his earthly life. He wanted all those who were genuinely his disciples to be present with him. John records for us, in five dense chapters, the substance of that evening. It is arguably the most critical section of the entire New Testament if we are to build our theology on the teaching of our Lord.

Three other references give great specificity to what Jesus means when he says someone is “my disciple.” All of these verses come to us from the beloved John. The first is found in the eighth chapter. “If you abide in my word you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth and the truth will set you free.” (8:31,32) Note well the word “truly.” To abide in the word of Jesus means to know it, to have received it, to have internalized it, and to be living it. To abide in that word is to be connected to life, and to be cut off from it is to die. This abiding is the evidence that we are truly his disciples.

The second clear reference comes during the passover meal with his disciples. “A new commandment I give unto you that you love one another as I have loved you. By this all men will know that you are my disciples.” (13:34,35) Here we come face to face with the call to the church to model a way of life that is their witness. It is not words alone that will speak to the world, it is the love lived among the brethren. Even those who are not followers will know that the way of life of the church is directly because of Jesus. The world will recognize true disciples.

And third, the Lord makes profoundly clear that there is an outcome that shows a life to have been lived in the shadow of the Master. “ …bear much fruit and prove to be my disciples.” (15:8) There will be other followers because of all true followers, There will be other disciples because of one true disciple. This is not the fruit of the spirit, changing the inner character of the believer. This is the fruit that is another life laid down at the feet of Jesus. There will be more men following because one man followed. There will be more women following because one woman followed.

Pause with me and take in what these three passages in John tell us. They do not mention anything that requires money, nor buildings, nor programs.They do not speak of degrees, or offices, or positions of responsibility. There is no mention of hierarchical authority, no necessary governing systems, no certificates for our walls. Simply to be found in Jesus. To live in him as he in us. To love the believers. To make disciples. Next week we will look at the last three of the nine verses.

Next Week: The Hardest Three

Who Defines?     (by Jon Shuler​​)

Alice in Wonderland faced the statement of the Red Queen: “Whenever I use a word it means exactly what I want it to mean.” Previous generations have always understood that statement to be a recipe for error, if not for tyranny. No community can flourish if words are constantly changing their meaning. But who defines? Modern publishers are changing the words printed in their dictionaries on an almost weekly basis, and it is contributing to the collapse of Western (Christian) Civilization. Is the church different?

From the first moment men and women followed Jesus they were taught, by those appointed by him to lead in the church, that his word must be obeyed. Centuries later C.S. Lewis taught that “obedience is the golden key to discipleship,” and he was surely right. If that is so, and for any true Christian it must be so, then how do we know what we are to obey?

Every member of the Lord’s church knows that he said to his first followers: “Follow me.” There is a sense in which this is the universal word that he speaks to each of us when we are conscious that he is calling us. We begin to follow Jesus. But then what? Who helps us know what following him means? Who clarifies for us his distinctive voice? His unique word?

There are basically only two answers: the church teaches us in her own language and traditions, or the church leads us to the Holy Scripture, to the Word of God, to teach us. The former answer is that of the Roman Catholic Church, and the latter is that of the Protestant Church at her best. Now it is indisputable that both great divisions think of themselves as on the right path. Each of them, when faithful, want to bring their people into the presence of the Lord Jesus for eternity. But though their methods may differ, both generally produce the same results. The vast majority of their people know “what the church teaches” with very little reference to what Jesus teaches. What if instead we let the Lord Jesus define what it means to be his disciple?

The question is so simple, but applying the answer is so difficult. That is unless we say:  “Of course we must let the Lord Jesus define it for us.” Why is that so rarely the case? It is most assuredly because we have erected church systems and preserved church traditions that are far removed from what the Lord himself taught. We long ago, perhaps unconsciously (?), accepted that much of what he taught is unrealistic or culturally dated or just wrong. We would never say that out loud, of course, but it is how we sometimes live. In practice we have often become servants of other masters, while we say we have only one. Our lives frequently show that we sometimes serve our systems and traditions more faithfully than we serve the Lord. Are we willing to repent of that?

A starting point on the journey of repentance and return, if we say “Yes”,  would be to reexamine the precise words of Jesus. What did he actually say that could give us clarity about what he means if we are his disciples?

Next Week: Only Nine Verses