The Presbyterian Pulpit
A sermon by the Rev. Dr. David E. Leininger


Delivered 8/11/96
Text: Mark 10:17-22

DISCIPLINE. Dirty word these days. DISCIPLESHIP. Not so dirty a word, but obviously related to the other. Discipline, discipleship, disciple...all come from the same Latin root which has to do with LEARNING. In fact, the Greek word which we translate in the English New Testament as "disciple" is mathetes, a LEARNER.

What brings this subject to mind is our continuing national fascination with the just-completed Olympic games and grows out of that wonderful biblical imagery used so regularly by the apostle Paul comparing the Christian life to athletics. Running, wrestling, boxing...with a crown of glory at the end to the winner. How does one attain the victory, and particularly in such August company? DISCIPLINE!

Now take that DISCIPLINE root and move to its etymological cousin DISCIPLESHIP. That is a word that is bandied around a lot these days. Churches all over the country are very much into "discipleship" programs, and that's GOOD. Jesus' Great Commission to the church was MAKE DISCIPLES (Matt. 28:19).

There is a problem with that though. And part of the problem is the fact that there are several definitions for the term DISCIPLE. In the context of the church, people might quote Jesus to provide a definition: "If any want to become my followers (or be my disciple), let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me." Or they might say "a disciple is one who has turned his or her heart over to Jesus Christ." That's far as it goes. It means discipleship is defined in terms of worship and of sacrificial service: doing acts of mercy, patiently enduring persecution, and so on. But if we get back to the original meaning of the word...MATHETES...a disciple is first and foremost A LEARNER. Discipleship is not only an act of the heart, but also an act of the HEAD.

Perhaps we can get a clearer picture of what is involved in the process by taking a look at someone who wanted to be a disciple...a MATHETES...but did not make it - the "rich young ruler" we read about in our lesson a moment ago. Most often, when we consider this passage, we think only in terms of what to do about money...and that is a valid consideration. But I think there is something deeper here. The story provides us a model for Christian discipleship...learners, a model for Christian teachers of those learners, and finally, a model for FAILURE.

Look what goes on. Jesus and some of his followers (the twelve and who knows how many more) were walking along the road. Suddenly, a young man came running up. He had heard about this remarkable teacher from Nazareth; he had been told of the miracles; he had seen how people were marveling at such wise teachings...and he wanted to know more. He was EAGER; he had to be to move so fast in all that Galilean dust.

Is EAGERNESS a good trait for a disciple? Most certainly. We talk about "eager beavers" and think in very positive terms of those who are so anxious to get the job done that they plunge enthusiastically into whatever task lies before them. What a valuable trait that can be for Christian disciples, Christian LEARNERS! Eagerly, we gather together to study God's Word to learn what we ought to do. Then we look around the world or a look in our own backyard and see so much that we KNOW God would have us change, and EAGERLY we set ourselves to the project. That is a good model.

ENTHUSIASM came up in that description almost without trying. I suppose it is possible to be eager to get something over with and thus to do whatever the job is without any enthusiasm. But eager probably is not the word we would choose to describe something like that; "anxious" would be more like it. The young man showed enthusiasm in just the way he made his entrance. He RAN UP to Jesus, ready for just about anything the Master had to say. Enthusiasm is GOOD for a learner.

If you want to test that out, think back to the most boring class you had in school. We have all had at least one. Think how much enthusiasm you brought to that class as the weeks wore on...NONE probably. Now think how much you learned from that class. It probably parallels the amount of enthusiasm you brought to each session. You learned little or nothing.

The same is true in the church. Needless to say, the chief educational arm of the church is the Sunday School. Most of us learned a tremendous amount of what we know about the Bible from our early Sunday School training. We heard great stories of famous heros...Moses in the bulrushes, David & Goliath, Samson & Delilah. We learned our first memory verses. And best of all, we learned about Jesus. And we enjoyed it; we actually had and flannel graphs and coloring books. We looked forward to Sunday School with childish enthusiasm. And because we had that enthusiasm, that FUN, we learned things that have stayed with us for our entire lives.

But then we began to grow up...teenagers. Sunday School was NOT so eagerly looked forward to anymore. From my own experience, I can say that the boys were interested in sports and girls and cars and girls and money and girls and...well, you get the idea. The girls? Not much different, I suspect. Sunday School rarely dealt with things we really cared about, so we spent a lot of time cutting up. Our teachers probably resented us because we were hard to handle and we resented them for being colossal BORES. No wonder we had no enthusiasm for it.

For many people, as they became adults and Sunday School was no longer something they went to because their parents made them go, they opted against it. It would be more enjoyable to get an extra hour's sleep than to sit through what they remembered as exceedingly boring. For many folks, Sunday School was a dead issue until it came time for them to bring their OWN little ones. Then the cycle repeated itself. Because eagerness and enthusiasm had been lost, so was the opportunity for learning.

That was not the case with the young man on the road though. He brought eagerness and enthusiasm with him. But more than that, he brought CONVICTION...conviction that as smart as he was, as confident as he was, as wealthy as he was, this man Jesus was one who was special and one who could teach him something. "Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

That is not particularly startling. Anyone who is convinced that there is something they wish to learn from another will take the time to seek that individual out. In all my years in school (and there were a lot of them), I noticed that the most interesting teachers always seemed to have students dogging their steps. There would be little gatherings around the teacher's desk after class or conversations walking across the campus. Students had the conviction that extra time spent with this or that teacher would be time well spent.

It is the same with Christians. That is one of the reasons we come to God's House in the first place. We KNOW there is something special here for us so we set aside the time to seek it out.

"Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?" asks the potential learner. Now we come to some lessons for you who are teachers. How does this teacher respond to the question? "Why do you call me good? No one is good except God alone." Here was a teacher with tremendous competence...who did not have a big head about it. Jesus saw the enthusiasm which the young fellow brought and began to channel it in the proper direction from the very first moment.

Too often, latter day teachers would not make such a distinction. It would be SO EASY to just be pleased with someone addressing us as GOOD that we would never think of correcting them. And that in spite of the fact that the BEST teachers know how really inadequate to the task they are.

One of the great preachers of the last century (I don't remember which) used to pray, "Lord, don't make me a great PREACHER; make me a great MESSENGER." Good Christian educators will make sure that students have their eyes focused upon God and not on themselves.

Notice what else happens. Jesus dealt with the issue that was concerning the man. He did not say that that would be covered in the lesson series a month from now or a year from now. He did not say that there was something else that was being taught right now, so just bear with the program. The teacher met the student where the student needed to be met, not the other way around.

That was one of the problems with Sunday School for so many people as teenagers. The students wanted to hear how the Gospel related to sports and girls and cars and girls and money and girls and would ask hard questions about it, but the agenda for the class just never got around to those answers. If someone is willing to be a learner, the teacher should be willing to deal with the issues that are proving troublesome.

One more thing should be pointed out. If Jesus is our model of a Christian teacher in this story, we should note that his teaching was BIBLICAL. The first thing he did in response to the young man's question was to quote scripture. "You know the commandments: 'You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.'" Jesus had a SOURCE BOOK, an AUTHORITY to which he could appeal that held general acceptance.

But a biblical foundation is not enough for a teacher, unfortunately. There has to be an element of tender compassion and concern...even love...for any real communication to take place. The Gospel writer made a point of noting that characteristic in Jesus. The Lord saw that young man in his eagerness, enthusiasm and conviction; he dealt with the needs that were expressed with the scripture as foundation. Then we read, "Jesus, looking at him, loved him..."

I think of one of my seminary profs...Charlie Sigel...the one whom every student regarded as the toughest on campus. He expected excellence in performance, gave PLENTY of outside work, and was never easy on grades. But his classes were always full and people finished his courses saying that they learned more from him than anyone else. Why? Because he was a brilliant scholar? That was a part of it. Because he demanded so much? That was a part of it too. But I think the real reason that he was (and still is) so loved is that no teacher made more of an effort to help students GET the material. If he had to sit up till midnight to aid someone in understanding a particularly difficult point, he would do it without batting an eye...and he did it with concern and love. To do well in his class required a commitment to learning, but because he loved us, we were glad to do it.

Speaking of commitment, that is one more thing we learn from Christ's model in Mark 10. He was not content to simply share a few choice morsels of truth with the young seeker; he led the man to the point where he had to fish or cut bait...the point of commitment. The task of the teacher was not simply to provide an intellectual exercise; it was to lead to a changed life. "You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me."

Christian teachers must lead people to the point of commitment or else their teaching falls short. One of the biggest indictments that can be made against the educational ministry of the church is that lives are not changed by it. Sometimes it is the teacher's fault, looking at people as vessels to be filled rather than clay to be molded; or information is presented without any call for a response in daily action. But more often, the fault lies with the student; the words of life are given, but no effort is made to appropriate them as a part of day-to-day living.

And that is the final model we find in this story: a model for failure. Everything looked good right up to the end. The student was eager and enthusiastic with the conviction that this was a worthwhile teacher; the teacher had his priorities straight, was willing to meet the needs expressed by the student with both scripture and love, and then called for commitment...a marvelous picture of the way things SHOULD work in the teaching ministry of the church. What finally made it fall apart was when the student refused to go on any further. He had learned all he wanted to learn.

Make no mistake; that young man's heart was in the right place. He had a need; he was anxious to meet it; and he was willing to go to Jesus as the only one who could meet that need. But, as we said, true discipleship demands a commitment of both heart and HEAD. This fellow's HEAD was not up to it; what he learned was too uncomfortable. He could never commit to that. And that is why he failed.

What kind of commitment to learning do you have? Is it the kind that the rich young ruler had, the kind that wants to know nothing more than that what you are doing is sufficient, the kind that wants only some personal affirmation? Or is it the kind that responds to a commitment to keep on learning even though it is going to take effort and even though what you learn might not be just what you want to hear? The decision is up to you, just as it was up to the young man on that Judean road that day so long ago.

The discipline of discipleship...LEARNING. "Lord, I want to be a Christian ina my heart, ina my heart"...and ina my HEAD too.


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