Dear Friends in Christ, grace and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Stanley Jones was an American Methodist missionary, theologian, evangelist and author who spent most of life serving in India. During the time of the British Raj, he was a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi.  After Gandhi’s assassination in 1948, Jones wrote a biography of his life that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. attributed as the biography that inspired him to “non-violence” in the Civil Rights Movement.

Jones travelled and taught tirelessly well into his 80’s. When he came as a guest speaker to one seminary, he was asked by the students to describe his strong and vital faith.  His response enchanted the student body.  Jones said, “It was fun being a Christian at 25, 35, and 45.  And it’s fun being a Christian at 85.” And then he added, “It’s getting funnier all the time.”

Now E. Stanley Jones’ response may surprise and even shock you. Especially, in light of this morning gospel’s lesson.  Many men and women have been raised to believe that the Christian faith must be treated oh, so seriously. The invitation to discipleship is a dark and heavy matter. Faith is a burden to be endured rather than a joyful way of life to be embraced.  When Janna and I were living abroad, and she told her friends that her husband was a pastor, one of the women responded in a questioning voice, “Oh, poor you. Did your husband tell you he was a pastor before you were married?”

Perhaps, the words of discipleship spoken by Jesus in St. Mark’s gospel do sound severe, “Deny themselves, take up you cross and follow me.”  And so, there are those who understand the mission of Jesus and his disciples as simply to suffer and to die. But my friends, this morning, I would like to share with you two thoughts. What if E. Stanley Jones’ sense of wit and joy is also a part of the call to discipleship? Pure and simple.  Joy in discipleship is rather dependent upon your ability to live with sorrow and suffering.

Let us begin with my first conviction. When Jones’ was once asked the secret of this lifelong zest and joy in the Christian faith, he gave primary credit to two things- “grace and gumption.”  Grace, of course, is the undeserved mercy and power of God.  It is an external power that forgives and strengthens, enlightens and transforms.  And gumption is that personal, internal power- life’s “get up and go.”  It is the strength that takes on a task and sees it through.  Grace and gumption are two powerful components that color the way God’s faithful disciples see the world. Together that can change people’s lives and move mountains.  God’s grace and your inner gumption allow you to experience satisfaction and fulfillment doing things for others and lifting up your neighbors’ burden.

This pattern of joy was lived out most profoundly in the life that we see in Jesus Christ. He had the ability to make a wedding feast in Cana teetering on disaster into a wedding to remember.  And he turned every funeral he attended into a street party turning mourning into dancing.   His words of forgiveness have had the power to renew broken and problematic relationship ever since, and his words of hope can make one’s sorrowing spirits sing. Regretfully, we don’t always choose to follow in Jesus’ footsteps.  We want to believe that there is another alternative path with less pain.

I am reminded of the mother who heard her young sons quarreling. She was preparing pancakes for them, Peter, 5, and Thomas, 3, and they both wanted the first pancake.   Their mother saw an opportunity for a moral lesson, What Would Jesus Do?  “Boys, if Jesus was sitting here, He would say ‘Let my brother have the first pancake.  I can wait.'”  So the older brother Peter turned to his younger brother and said, “Thomas, you can be Jesus.”  Yes, we can all find ourselves saying, let someone else be Jesus.  We can all praise God for his invitation to “come to me,” but we often find ourselves turning aside when we hear his command, “go for me.”  We simply can’t see the joy in saying, yes.  My friends, through God’s grace and our inner gumption, Jesus invites each on of us  to follow in his footsteps.

Let us now turn to my second conviction.  The secret to Christina discipleship is dependent upon your ability to live with sorrow and suffering.  Jesus’s mission on this earth was not to die, but Jesus’ faithfulness to God’s healing mission would inevitably result in his death. We may all face that hour, when like Jesus we will say, “Now my soul is troubled” and crying out, Father, save me from this hour.”  It may not feel easy or natural to accept Jesus’ way of discipleship.

Peter understood that struggle, so he questioned and rebuked Jesus.  According to the human standards, one’s own life should always come first. Of course, we ought to be kind and generous and thoughtful toward others, yet human norms dictate the priority of our own safety or privilege or physical comfort. Jesus, however, invited his disciples to love life for the sake of their neighbor. In other words, he invited them to lose their life for the sake of the gospel in order to save it for eternal life. That choice, however will lead  to suffering and pain.

Over the years, I have discovered the some of the godliest people I have known were men and women who had been called upon to endure great suffering. Others experiencing the same circumstances might have fallen into bitter resentment- but chose to know the love of Jesus Christ, and they walked in the joy of his presence everyday. Their lives reflected the life of Jesus Christ in them. Through their choices, I have experienced that joyful people don’t necessarily have the best of everything; they just make the most of everything that comes along their way.

Several years ago, I received an e-mail from a friend.  The letter described a family who had discovered a butterfly slowly leaving its cocoon.  They saw the beautiful wings painfully breaking through the taught skin.  The family felt so sorry for the butterfly that they decided to hasten the process.  The father took a pair of scissors and carefully snipped an opening for the butterfly’s rapid release.  They expectantly waited for the butterfly to rise from its cocoon and fly away.  But it couldn’t.  They didn’t know it then, but apparently, the butterfly uses every painful step in its release to reach its full maturity.  The piercing of the cocoon allows the nutrients to spread through the expanding wings and the butterfly’s body structure to become strong.  Pain, suffering and sacrifice serve a vital purpose in the butterfly’s growth. They allow it to grow strong and to go free.  Jesus taught his disciples that suffering may be a part of your life of faith as well- in order for you to grow strong and free.

Most of us will not face giving our own precious life for the sake of another, but we will face questions every day of how we choose to define failure or success. In the struggle between human values and God’s values, you will be challenged to answer personally with your actions and words and choice.  No matter how strong and joyful your faith may be, you will be tempted to turn away from Jesus.   But remember sorrow and suffering need not rob of you of the ultimate joy Jesus longs to share with you.  For what will it profit you to gain the whole world and forfeit your own life?

My friends, are you experiencing the joyful fun of E. Stanley Jones’ being Christian?  “Yes, it was fun being a Christian at 25, 35, and 45.  And it’s getting funnier all the time.” Amen.

May the peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and mind in Christ Jesus. Amen.