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May 31, 2016, 8:52 AM

Disciples--Is It Well With My Soul?

Exodus 18:13-18  CEB
13 The next day Moses sat as a judge for the people, while the people stood around Moses from morning until evening. 14 When Moses’ father-in-law saw all that he was doing for the people, he said, “What’s this that you are doing for the people? Why do you sit alone, while all the people are standing around you from morning until evening?”
15 Moses said to his father-in-law, “Because the people come to me to inquire of God. 16 When a conflict arises between them, they come to me and I judge between the two of them. I also teach them God’s regulations and instructions.”
17 Moses’ father-in-law said to him, “What you are doing isn’t good.18 You will end up totally wearing yourself out, both you and these people who are with you. The work is too difficult for you. You can’t do it alone.
Luke 6:12-19 CEB
12 During that time, Jesus went out to the mountain to pray, and he prayed to God all night long. 13 At daybreak, he called together his disciples. He chose twelve of them whom he called apostles: 14 Simon, whom he named Peter; his brother Andrew; James; John; Philip; Bartholomew; 15 Matthew; Thomas; James the son of Alphaeus; Simon, who was called a zealot; 16 Judas the son of James; and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor.
17 Jesus came down from the mountain with them and stood on a large area of level ground. A great company of his disciples and a huge crowd of people from all around Judea and Jerusalem and the area around Tyre and Sidon joined him there. 18 They came to hear him and to be healed from their diseases, and those bothered by unclean spirits were healed.19 The whole crowd wanted to touch him, because power was going out from him and he was healing everyone.
A few months ago I attended, with some church members, the “District Day” gathering of United Methodists in our Oneonta District. The keynote speaker that day was Rev. Colleen Preuninger, then chaplain at Syracuse University (now new chaplain at Shenandoah University). She came to talk with us about our Wesleyan Heritage—our inheritance as United Methodists from our founders, John and Charles Wesley. She began by talking about our connection to one another, a living and moving connection across our district, conference, country, and world. Then, she began to share about our beginning, the renewal movement started by the Wesley brothers. She asked us to pair up with someone we didn’t know and to ask each other one of the favorite questions John Wesley asked the leaders of the renewal movement regularly—“How is it with your soul?”
It was an awkward moment in the gathering. That is a really personal question. Can you imagine if I asked all us gathered here, people that most of you know rather well, to pair up and honestly answer that question with one another? But John Wesley felt it was intensely important to do just that. He gathered the leaders of the Methodist movement quarterly and asked them about the state of their soul. How has the last quarter been? Have you been practicing your devotion? Have you engaged in works of mercy? How is it with your soul?  Wesley was seeking to rekindle the fire in his beloved Church of England—to create a community of disciples across the church. And he believed that all people of God are called into intentional and authentic discipleship—a balance of acts of piety and acts of mercy. We are called into intentional and authentic discipleship.
“Disciple” is the churchiest of churchy words. We have several words that we use in church regularly—such a salvation or grace—but rarely define. And ‘disciple’ is the churchiest. We use and hear that word all over the place in the church and just assume we all have the same understanding and definition.  “Disciple” literally means ‘student,’ or ‘apprentice,’ or ‘follower.’ It is someone studying something or learning new skills and information. But God has a pretty clear definition of what it looks like, what it is to be a disciple.
Exodus! When we hear that word ‘disciple’ we usually think of the Jesus movement, the stories and letters from the New Testament. We see it as something Jesus started with his ministry, calling followers on his journey, students of Jesus’ Way. But God has been discipling people from the very beginning—calling people to live God’s way in contrast to the world’s way.  Chapter 18 of the book of Exodus is a beautiful story of being a disciple. Moses and the Israelites did it. They made it out of Egypt, across the Reed Sea, and into the wilderness. Now they are a brand new community, learning to live together and to live God’s way in the desert. News of their journey out of Egypt made its way to Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law. So Jethro packs up Moses’ wife, Zipporah, and their two sons, and makes his way to Moses in the wilderness. 
Upon their arrival, Moses happily welcomes them, and then invites Jethro—a priest from another peoples, another faith—into the tent of meeting, the tabernacle, the holy of holies, to share with him all that Moses has experienced since he left Jethro for Egypt. Jethro rejoices in hearing all that God has done to free Moses’ people, confesses his belief in Yahweh, and then engages in the most ancient form of worship—he makes an offering to God in the tent of meeting. Jethro dedicates himself to living God’s way in the world, enters into a life of discipleship. The next day he observes how Moses is dealing with the needs of this new community—sitting alone in a judgment tent from early morning until night, hearing about conflicts, issues and needs, and making decisions. It is tedious—thousands of people waiting in lines, Moses exhausted. Jethro sees instantly that Moses has missed a crucial element of discipleship—disciples always exist in community, working together, never alone. Disciples exist only  within a community of disciples, working together, supporting one another, traveling the way of God in community.
Luke! When we hear the world ‘disciple’ we often think of the twelve. We associate ‘disciple’ with the twelve that Jesus called and commissioned—Peter and Andrew, James and John—and we inadvertently exclude ourselves. This reading from Luke helps us see that Jesus had a crowd of disciples—students of the Way. These twelve, whose names we just heard in the reading, we commissioned to help in the journey—much like Moses’ need for leaders in the wilderness.  Consider the metaphor of mountain climbing—a team of climbers working together to reach the summit. One leads the way, setting the pace, guiding the team. Others fill in the middle, receiving support from the ones ahead of them, reaching back to give support to those behind. And another experienced climber brings up the rear, making sure no one is lost or left behind, calling out words of encouragement and support to the team. The twelve are called to be leaders on the climb, to model the life of Jesus. After the outpouring of the Spirit on Pentecost—an outpouring not on twelve but on 120—these leaders are sent out to create discipleship communities across the known world; communities where people live as disciples with intentionality, and invite others to join them.
Discipleship happens in community and it absolutely includes us. It is very much embodied in the image of the team of mountain climbers. The journey of discipleship can be tough. It is hard work. On the climb there are people at different places, but they are all working together. The more experienced climbers lead the way or bring up the rear, the newbies enter the climb with excitement and energy. Mountain climbing discipleship requires commitment and dedication. We don’t begin with Mount Everest. First, we commit to the work and all that entails. We build our stamina and endurance, the needed skills and muscles. We practice and train together as a team. We gather the needed tools. And most importantly, we build the trust in one another so we can truly rely on each other on the climb.
This is what John Wesley was trying to create in his beloved Church of England and in the Methodist renewal movement. He developed a covenant prayer—a prayer of commitment found on #607 in your UM Hymnal—to be prayed every year as a re-dedication to living as disciples of Jesus Christ. He shared disciplines (from the same root as disciple) of piety for people to engage in as individuals and even more in community: worship, bible study, prayer—shared in small groups. He required the small groups to engage in acts of mercy—caring for the widow and orphan, feeding the hungry, caring the ill. And he called together the leaders of this movement quarterly to ask some tough, personal, and vital questions—How is it with your soul? How has it gone the last quarter? Have you engaged in those acts of piety and mercy? These were the leads of the mountain climb. He needed to be sure of the commitment and dedication; their piety and mercy; their relationship with God and their team of climbers.
This is what it means to be a disciple—to be committed to the climb, to practice and train, to build the tools needed, to engage in authentic community where such questions can be safely asked and honestly answered. “Have we been truly convinced of God?” Most days, yes, but there have been times… “Have we truly turned our lives toward God?” Not all of my life—I am still easily distracted by worldly pressures. “Is all this evidenced by our life of service?” Better and better each day. “Does the world see Jesus in us?” That is the critical question. Does the world see Jesus in us? Discipleship.
How is it with my soul? How is it with your soul? Can we develop a community where we can ask each other that question without fear? Can we dedicate ourselves to the journey, to the climb, together? Can we practice and train together as disciples of Jesus Christ? And can we gather regularly and sing with boldness—“It is well, with my soul. It is well, with your soul. It is well, it is well, with our souls?” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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