I am continually overwhelmed by all that is going on here at Grace. Sometimes my head spins thinking about all of the amazing things people are doing. Yet, in the midst of all of the action, I have to keep reminding myself that at the highest of levels, it all boils down to two things: we make disciples of Jesus and we launch them into the mission of God. Everything we do has to have something to do with making disciples of Jesus and then launching them into the Mission of God. And we want to be very clear about what we mean when we say this. To say we ‘make disciples of Jesus’ means we do all that we can to lead people to a place where they will, first, surrender their lives to Jesus and second, they will follow him. And when we say we ‘launch people into the mission of God’ we mean that we are always searching for ways to involve our people in bringing healing to the 6 broken places in our world. If you’ve been around Grace for even a short I’m sure you’ve heard us talk about bringing healing to the world’s six broken places. If you’ve been here any of the past four weekends during our series, ‘Your Story: Act One’ you’ve heard our call for you to be certain you’ve surrendered your life to Jesus. And you’ve heard how many people did just this the last four weeks. Well, today we begin ‘Your Story: Act Two’ a four week series focusing on what it looks like for you to seriously follow Jesus; in other words, what it means to call yourself a disciple of Jesus. And this is where the rubber meets the road… and the reason, as Dave said in his introductory video, why we put so much time in creating the way of discipleship for Grace. You see, Surrendering is just the beginning;now comes ‘following.’ Living into your best possible life through a character that is being transformed to resemble Jesus and a calling that He has designed uniquely for you to help change the world in His name.To be a follower is to be a disciple.
I looked the word ‘disciple’ up in a host of dictionaries and they almost all say that this word has two meanings. It has a religious meaning; it is the word used to refer to one of the original 12 disciples of Jesus and it is true that most people only think of those 12 men when they hear the word ‘disciple.’ The word also has a more secular meaning; it is someone who follows another person’s way of doing things, as in, “The minute you walk into her house you can tell she is a disciple of Martha Stewart.” Surprisingly, most dictionaries also say that this word, no matter how you use it, is considered archaic and obsolete. Just for the record, we don’t believe for a second that being a ‘disciple’ of Jesus is either archaic or obsolete. I do want you to know though that the word ‘disciple’ had a very distinct, specific meaning in the ancient world, different from any of our dictionary definitions. A first century disciple was someone who had asked a teacher if they could follow him, if they could live alongside of him and learn about life from him. Now, I know that this is different than we normally imagine since Jesus asked his disciples to follow him. But, what Jesus did was completely unknown in the ancient world. What normally happened was that a young man would ask a teacher if he could follow him in the hope that the teacher would say, ‘Yes.’ And if he did then over time, as the disciple lived his life alongside of his chosen teacher, he would learn about the things of God from him, he’d pick up his wisdom and most importantly over time his character would come to mirror the character of his teacher. This was so much the expectation that it was common for the teacher to get the blame if one of his disciples did something questionable. So, it is important to keep in mind that following a teacher, Becoming a disciple was purposefully meant to bring about a permanent change your character… it wasn’t necessarily about learning a skill or gaining great knowledge; it was about becoming a different person.
I learned a bit about this kind of change when I was a young man. My first couple of years in college were not defined by scholarship. I was a runner and class work was secondary to me. But during my junior year I had the opportunity to go to school in England and study Roman British archeology under a professor who perfectly fit the stereotype of a British scholar: beard and pipe; tweed jacket and corduroy trousers. Well, after the course ended, he, for some reason still unknown to me, offered me the opportunity to stay in England and work for him as his archeological site assistant. But even more surprising his offer included living near his family in a small, rural English village. I said, ‘Yes.’ And so, for most of the next year, my job was to follow him around, which meant going to his lectures, working long hours at Roman archeological sites, doing research in university libraries, going to meetings with other archeological scholars, talking to farmers in country pubs about what they might be turning up in their fields and overseeing volunteers and students… and by the end of that year I had changed. I’d picked up the value of serious study and scholarly pursuit; I’d taken in the importance of teaching from a deep well of knowledge. And this was all because one man had offered me the opportunity to follow him around. And when I came home to continue my studies, I was still a dedicated athlete but every single professor I’d had before I’d gone to England asked, “What happened to you? I’ve never seen anyone whose work changed so radically for the better.” I believe that year gave me the grounding to be able to do what I am so privileged to do here at Grace. And it also gave me a window into why it is that Jesus calls each one of us to be his disciples. Because in the process of following Jesus what will change is the core of who you are; what you value as important will change; how you respond to the events of life will change… in other words, your character will change. In fact, we believe with all of our hearts that when you become a true disciple of Jesus your character will be shaped into one of virtue and integrity. Jesus’ call to you is that you leave everything behind and follow Him. In fact, He promises that in following Him you will find that over time your old lifestyle will disappear and everything will become new.
Truth be told, the Bible contains many stories of people having a tremendous change in their character after becoming disciples of Jesus. There is one story, though, that I find particularly compelling, the story we find in the Gospel of Luke about a man named Zacchaeus. You’ll find the story in Luke 19 in the house Bible under the seats at the 146th Street campus and if you need a Bible at the Fishers campus just raise your hand and someone will bring a Bible to you. This story, by the way, is only found in the Gospel of Luke, which makes sense to me since Luke’s overall purpose in writing his Gospel was to show that Jesus’ message of the good news of the kingdom of God is for everyone, no matter who they are: Jew or Gentile, man or woman, saint or sinner. And in this case Luke introduces us to a man who was the essence of what might be called the chief of Jewish sinners. Let’s read the story. Verse 1. Jesus entered Jericho and was passing through.A man was there by the name of Zacchaeus; he was a chief tax collector and was wealthy. He wanted to see who Jesus was, but because he was short he could not see over the crowd.So he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore-fig tree to see him, since Jesus was coming that way. When Jesus reached the spot, he looked up and said to him, “Zacchaeus, come down immediately. I must stay at your house today.” So he came down at once and welcomed him gladly. All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.” But Zacchaeus stood up and said to the Lord, “Look, Lord! Here and now I give half of my possessions to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody out of anything, I will pay back four times the amount.” Jesus said to him, “Today salvation has come to this house, because this man, too, is a son of Abraham. For the Son of Man came to seek and to save the lost.” Verse one says, “Jesus entered Jericho.” Jericho was an eastern border town and most goods that entered or left Judea’s eastern border passed through Jericho. Now, the Romans made a lot of money by taxing goods as they were shipped and sold across borders and Jericho was a major location for Roman tax collecting. Verse 2 tells us that Zacchaeus was a chief tax collector. This is important. A chief tax collector was a person who’d made a grand deal with Rome that he would oversee the collection of X amount of money from boarder taxes over the next so many years. He didn’t collect the money himself; he hired others to sit at taxing booths along the roads and it was their job to stop farmers, businessmen, traders and such and collect taxes from them. The Chief tax collector was only obligated to give Rome what he’d contracted he would pay them and he got to keep anything left over. And Zacchaeus must have been over-collecting by a lot because Luke says he was ‘wealthy.’ I don’t know if I can express strongly enough how hated Zacchaeus would have been in Jericho. He was a Jew who’d made a deal with Rome to get Jews to extract taxes primarily from other Jews solely for the purpose of supporting the Roman occupation of the Jewish homeland. Saying he was a traitor is kind. He would have been shunned by everyone but the most corrupt and greedy of his fellow tax collectors. But verse 3 says, ‘He wanted to see Jesus.’ Literally the Greek says, “He sought to see him,” implying he was working hard to find a way to see him. Why, we can’t be sure, but clearly Jesus’ reputation had made this self-absorbed, greedy, untrustworthy man reconsider something. Verse 3 also tells us that because of his size, meaning under 5 feet tall, he couldn’t see over the crowd. Now, for most people needing a better view that day the thing to do would have been to go up onto one of the roofs of the houses along Jesus’ route. All houses had flat roofs and roofs were a part of people’s living space. My bet, though, is that Zacchaeus knew there wasn’t a person in Jericho that would have let him into their house and onto their roof. I’m sure this is why he ran ahead and climbed a sycamore tree. The reason your Bible may say sycamore-fig tree is that Judean sycamore trees are nothing like our giant, stately sycamores. They are more like fig trees: scrubby and bushy; there was nothing dignified about the tree or Zacchaeus climbing one. In fact, no dignified Jewish man ever climbed a tree, but this man really wanted to see Jesus. But the story also tells us that Jesus was looking for Zacchaeus! I love the literal Greek here. ‘Zacchaeus, make haste; come down! I must stay in your house!” What Jesus meant was, “I must eat with you, today.” And we have to keep in mind that Jewish people didn’t eat with just anybody. Eating with someone was a sign of a deep bond. And we know that this, ‘I must stay at your house,’ from Jesus cut Zacchaeus to the core in a good way because Luke tells us that ‘he came down at once and welcomed him gladly!’ Something earth shattering was happening to Zacchaeus. But the notice verse 7 says, ‘All the people saw this and began to mutter, “He has gone to be the guest of a sinner.”’ This ‘all’ by the way, most likely included Jesus’ disciples. Jesus was way out on a limb here and most people thought this was a terrible development. But look at the result: a public declaration of giving ½ of his money to the poor! ‘If I’ve cheated anyone’ 4x’s back! This was way more than Jewish law dictated in situations like this! And there is an interesting aside here as well: from what we can tell the only people he would have directly cheated were other tax collectors. Here was a man who had really been lost and Jesus found him, called him and saved him. And the result of Zacchaeus following Jesus, becoming a disciple of Jesus, was that his character completely changed! A once greedy, untrustworthy, cheating traitor of a man became repentant, generous and honest. And my bet is that he probably found a new profession or at least a new way to live out his profession that enabled him to regain respect in the Jewish community.
One thing is certain, Zacchaeus would have known what God expected from Jewish men when it came to generosity and cheating others and turning your backs on your own people. Jesus called him a Son of Abraham, someone who would have been taught from an early age what the scriptures had said about greed and lying and being a traitor. And yet it is obvious that Zacchaeus’s lust for wealth had cost him his reputation with everyone. But I can’t imagine that Zacchaeus hadn’t wondered about things when he was alone; wondered about the life he was living; wondered if it was all worth it; wondered if there wasn’t something better. I’m sure that he knew full well how flawed his character was. Now, I’ll admit this is just conjecture on my part since there is no way to know for certain what Zacchaeus was thinking, but what I do know is this: most people that I talk to are aware of themselves…. They know when what they are doing and how they are living is keeping them from being people of integrity and virtue. But the pull of things like money, power, greed, sexuality, gossip and such is so strong that they feel helpless to change. I am confident that there are many here today who are living in the guilt and frustration of feeling defeated by things you know are wrong… things you know would damage your character if they were made public. Well, I can say with great confidence, if your life is plagued by sin, even secret sin, your character is being compromised in some manner and others feel it even if they don’t know the specifics of your secret life. The reason Luke gave us this story, this real story of change in Zacchaeus’ life, was to give you the confidence that if his life could be so radically changed by becoming a serious disciple of Jesus then anyone’s character can change by surrendering to Jesus and following him. And we really believe this. We stand strongly in the belief that anyone’s character can be changed through being a serious disciple of Jesus. This was much of the motivation behind our taking the time to create the way of discipleship for the community of Grace. We know that when you spend time seriously following Jesus, especially with another trusted follower of Jesus, when you spend time together earnestly considering spiritual practices such as self-denial, moral integrity, material generosity and loving others well your character will change. You will become a different person. I know this is true. I’ve seen it happening both in my own life and in the lives of the men that I’ve been blessed to lead as we’ve been walking the way of Discipleship together. Truth is some of the men that I’ve asked to follow me as I’ve followed Jesus didn’t have deep character issues in their lives, but even so they became more aware of their need to allow God’s spirit to change them and make them even more like Jesus. But I have spent two years with a Zacchaeus of sorts… not an evil man but just a man who wasn’t fully aware of how strongly his words and actions were impacting those around him… at home… at work… in social settings. And what I’ve witnessed over the last two years and can I add that his life circumstances can only be describe as continually and unendingly difficult and primarily not due to anything he was doing wrong, I have witnessed a change, a change that in my mind is almost as profound as the change in Zacchaeus’ life. And while I’ve been there to speak into his life and to push the issues at some level the truth is you can’t spend time with Jesus seeking to follow in his footsteps in areas of life like moral purity and loving others without either rejecting it all and pushing it all aside or surrendering and becoming more like Christ.
The message today is a simple one: if you have not surrendered your life to Jesus now is the time to do so; if you have, now is the time to get serious about following Jesus. In four weeks Dave is going to tell you a good deal more about a way you can do this. But in the meantime, today would be good time to take a serious look into your own heart and be honest with yourself and admit it if you find places in your life where your character is more like Zacchaeus and less like Jesus. Jesus is looking for you. He wants to spend time with you. He wants to change you. He wants to make you a woman or man of virtue and integrity. And He is giving you the opportunity to leave behind the old things and become a disciple whose character mirrors the character of Jesus. He wants to make you into a person who people after spending time with you say ‘The minute you walk into their life you can tell they are a disciple of Jesus.”