Sunday, November 12, 2017

The Art of Discipleship: What Sun Tzu Didn't Write (But Should Have)

He saw the worst of it firsthand – felt it with his own body. The First World War was no walk in the park; and the Battle of the Somme, one of the bloodiest battles in all of human history, most certainly wasn't. And he was there. It was his third time on the front lines, this captain – Captain Liddell Hart. On the first day, his battalion was essentially exterminated; the British Royal Army lost over 57,000 men that day. Captain Liddell Hart survived. During the next couple weeks, he was hit three times. But he kept fighting. Until the gas warfare nearly claimed his life, and he was sent away from the front lines for good.

He spent the remainder of the war away from the ferocity of action – after recovering, Basil Henry Liddell Hart trained new volunteer units and wrote booklets about the process of infantry drill and training. Nearly two years after he was so horrendously gassed at the Battle of the Somme, he married his assistant adjutant's daughter. And seven months later, the fighting was done on the Western Front. Early in the morning of November 11, 1918, in a carriage in the French field marshal's private train, representatives of the French, British, and German governments signed a ceasefire agreement – an armistice – to officially go into effect six hours later, at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The world was exhausted by the incredible carnage of the war. A year later, President Wilson issued a message commemorating the anniversary as “Armistice Day.” Congress made it a federal holiday in 1938, and it was renamed as Veterans Day in 1954. We observed it yesterday – a day of solemn remembrance.

As for Basil Henry Liddell Hart, his talents did not go unnoticed. He became a military correspondent for a couple major papers, wrote books on military strategy, even became an unofficial advisor to the prime minister, and after the Second World War carried out extensive interviews with captured German generals. But in the wake of yet another exhausting round of war, he wrote that “civilization might have been spared much of the damage suffered in the world wars of this century,” if only the military readership had familiarized themselves with just one book. And although Basil Henry Liddell Hart was a pastor's son, he wasn't thinking of the Bible. He meant another book. That book would later become a favorite of the American general who drove the Taliban into hiding in Afghanistan and overthrew Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. That same book is now taught as part of the curriculum of the war colleges of the US Army, the Navy, the Marine Corps, and the Air Force – yes, all four of them. And I have it in my hand this morning.

It was written by a Chinese general and mastermind, known often to history as Sun Tzu, who may have lived around the time of Esther. Written on slips of bamboo, his book wasn't translated into French until 1772 or into English until 1905. And the whole book has commonly been understood as being about one key thing: How to decide whether or not to go to war, and how to win if you do, preferably without even having to fight a battle. And to this very day, over two thousand years after it was written, that book is still being read and studied by the generals who hold command over our armed forces.

Four or five hundred years after the book was written, thousands of miles west in a place called Galilee, a crowd gathered around another teacher, a man named Jesus. The crowds had come in hopes of learning from him a few tidbits of teachings to apply to their lives, and call themselves his students. But Jesus challenged them with a couple short stories. One was about a man building a tower, and how any sane person undertaking a building project is going to calculate the overall cost before they start – because a half-finished tower is just a waste, and its builder is a laughingstock (Luke 14:28-30). But the other parable is interesting, too. “What king, going out to meet another king in war, won't sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet the one who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who doesn't renounce everything he has can't be my disciple” (Luke 14:31-33).

I've always thought that was a strange and confusing parable. It doesn't sound very much like the other parables you read in the Gospels. It's all about how the decision to follow Jesus as a disciple is a lot like the decision a king makes to launch a military campaign – both require serious thought, calculation, and sacrifice, because they can be such costly endeavors. How do you make a decision like that? Only by taking it seriously and with a great deal of care. And that has me thinking this morning. If the life of a disciple is an enterprise that Jesus compares to a military campaign, what if Sun Tzu had been there that day in the crowd? What would Sun Tzu, this brilliant military strategist, have said or done? What if he believed and followed? What if he'd written the book he should have written: not just The Art of War, but The Art of Discipleship?

The truth is, some of his insights are profoundly applicable to what Jesus tells us about taking up our cross and following him. And so this morning, Sun Tzu is going to teach us a bit about The Art of Discipleship. From the very beginning, Sun Tzu had said that the art of war is vitally important, for it is “a matter of life and death” for a state and so can't be neglected: “It is imperative to examine it,” to think very carefully and clearly about it (1.1-2). And the same is true for discipleship. It is literally a matter of life and death for your body and your soul. Too often, the church is willing to soft-peddle discipleship: Jesus is comforting, Jesus is kind, Jesus is nice, if that's what you're into. In today's culture, the life of a disciple of Jesus – what's popularly known as “Christianity” – is thought of as a fine option – or, for some today, not so fine – but still an option, one item on the menu to be chosen by personal taste, of little ultimate consequence or relevance for the remainder of life; it's seen as one quirky hobby to be enjoyed moderately and quietly. And there are plenty of churchgoers, or 'private Christians,' for that matter, who buy in to that idea. But that isn't what discipleship is. Sit down at a restaurant, and no item on the menu is a matter of life or death. No hobby can make you alive or get you lynched. But discipleship can. This is life-or-death serious, and we need to pay attention and quit playing games.

No, discipleship is a matter of life or death – it is a momentous decision, as big as a declaration of war – and so it requires the same amount of thought. Sun Tzu writes that the general who wins victory makes many mental calculations before the battle starts, and the general who loses makes only a few – so he bids you decide which kind you'd rather be (1.24). Jesus tells his would-be disciples in this crowd the same thing. And Sun Tzu tells us that, if someone is deciding whether or not to go to war, there are five conditions, “five constant factors,” that you have to take into account (1.3). And they're the same things we need to weigh carefully for the prospect of following Jesus. After all, an authentic disciple is nothing else, Paul says, than “a good soldier of Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 2:3).

So first, there's the terrain – literally, the condition of earth – meaning “distances, great and small; danger and security; open ground and narrow passes; the chances of life and death” (1.7). And that's seldom encouraging. Because if you want to follow Jesus, he'll lead you a long way. It will be tiring. You'll be lugging a cross. Not every patch of ground you cover will be easy to keep your footing on. Some will be slippery. Some will require climbing. Some will be filled with people who mock you, take advantage of you, bankrupt you, hurt you – there's plenty of peril out there for disciples of Jesus. There are large numbers arrayed against you in the world – powerful forces, human and otherwise, that will resist you. In some contexts, being a disciple will very literally mean being ready to die at any moment. Don't believe me? Visit a little Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, where twenty-six of our brothers and sisters in Christ were gunned down last Sunday as they worshipped.

For the rest of us, “in [our] struggle against sin [we] have not yet resisted to the point of shedding [our] blood” (Hebrews 12:4), and yet we do have some difficult and draining terrain to cover sometimes, don't we? And make no mistake, if you start that journey, there will be points where you look at the distance yet to go and want to give up the march. There will be sections where you're squeezed tight and have to abandon some supplies. There will be parts where it's easy to trip, and at the very least you are guaranteed to get scuffed up and sweaty. That's a very real cost, and Jesus does not want us to be ignorant of it. If you are in at all, you are in for the march, the long haul. You cannot, like the crowds tried to, come for the parts you want, the level meadows and refreshing brooks and mountaintops with easy slopes, and resume 'normal life' the rest of the time. The Christian life is no highlight reel. And there is plenty of risk involved. Jesus wants you to think very clearly about that before you start, and not to lose sight of it once you're underway. “Count the cost” (Luke 14:28), for “the whole world lies in the power of the Evil One” (1 John 5:19).

Second, there's the weather – literally, the condition of heaven – which, Sun Tzu says, “signifies night and day, cold and heat, times and seasons” (1.6). And this isn't a rosy picture either. Paul told us, “Look carefully, then, how you walk, not as unwise but as wise, making the best use of the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). The days are evil. These can be dark times. He elsewhere refers to our era as “the present evil age,” from the power of which God sent his Son to deliver us (Galatians 1:4). We live between the First Coming and the Second Coming of Christ, and these are “the times and the seasons” (1 Thessalonians 5:1). Within them, some seasons are brighter, and some are dimmer and grimmer. Some seasons are cold, and other seasons are hot. Sometimes things are still, and sometimes there are storms. Some of us here have been through especially stormy, frigid, dark seasons of life over the past year or two – seasons that make you question the cost. As you contemplate being Jesus' disciple, you have to grapple with the challenges posed by these times and seasons. Because these seasons may cost you a great deal, and you have to decide whether it's worth it to answer his call if he calls you into the storm, into the fire, into the hot desert or the freezing wasteland, in the dead of night or the blinding noonday. Jesus does not want us to be ill-prepared to face these kinds of conditions; he tells us to think about the cost beforehand.

From all that, the cost is readily apparent. And to hear just those factors, it seems like only an idiot would enlist for this. But you haven't yet heard the rest. The third factor Sun Tzu mentions is the leadership, the qualities of the top-ranking commander of the forces, whether he has virtues like wisdom, trustworthiness, benevolence, courage, and more (1.8). And the top-ranking commander for disciples is none other than Jesus Christ. Is he courageous? Above all others: he marched to certain death for us, to suffer the due penalty for our sin. Is he benevolent? He is kinder to us than we could ever grasp, because he loves us unyieldingly. Is he trustworthy? All his words are “trustworthy and true” (Revelation 21:5; 22:6), and in him we place our total faith and trust. Is he wise? To those who hear the call, Jesus Christ is revealed as “the power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Corinthians 1:24), who “became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30). You could not ask for a better leader than Jesus.

The fourth factor we hear about from Sun Tzu is the way, the 'moral law,' the Tao, the underlying principle that brings the people into alignment with their ruler (1.5). In the American armed forces, maybe you'd say that patriotism fills that role. What's the saying – that our soldiers don't fight because they hate what's in front of them but because they love what's behind them? And that principle, that cause, unites the soldiers – and ideally the citizenry – with their leadership. But what unites disciples with their leader is something far more potent than patriotism. What unites disciples with Jesus is the Holy Spirit, who produces love and all his other fruit (Galatians 5:22-23); and this Holy-Spirit-generated love “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14). You could not ask for a stronger principle of victorious harmony than the Holy Spirit.

And then Sun Tzu bids us to consider one more factor: method and discipline (1.9). And on the one hand, that means the chain of command, whether the officers are capably directing the soldiers in accordance with the king's strategy, and are able to bring in sufficient supplies so that the soldiers are sustained throughout their campaign. In terms of the art of discipleship, it's a question of whether church leaders, the 'officers' among the disciples, are actively directing the church members in keeping with Jesus' strategy and are feeding the people with Word and Sacrament. A few Sundays ago, we commemorated the Reformation, and the Reformers agreed that this feeding with Word and Sacrament, this active direction, was the mark of a congregation truly belonging to Christ's church. Am I directing you in line with the King's overall strategy and mission? Are you being fed with Word and Sacrament here? These are the questions you should be asking if you want to be Jesus' disciple here.

But when Sun Tzu talks about method and discipline, he means more than just the chain of command. He also means the unity of the army – he insists that it's unity, not size, that yields strength (3.14c) – and also whether the troops conduct themselves in a regulated manner (1.9). And so it is with discipleship. First of all, it requires us to maintain unity – to move as a unit – and that can't happen if we visit and drop out according to our own individual tastes. Those of you who served in the American armed forces will remember how important it was to be present at roll call and to keep your post. Why would it be different in Christ's army? And yet we seem to think lightly of being absent without leave, and there may well be names on our roster who will yet receive a dishonorable discharge from Heaven's Commander-in-Chief. If you aren't willing to accept the responsibility of showing up and manifesting unity, Jesus warns, you can't be his disciple.

But there's more to it than that. Troops have to conduct themselves in a regulated manner. So do disciples. We live under discipline, and that's a challenge for us. Jesus tells us that his discipline may separate us from our families and even from our own lives (Luke 14:26). He tells us that his discipline may require us to renounce and give up everything we own (Luke 14:33). He tells us that his discipline may lead us on a march of shame that could get us killed (Luke 14:27). He outlined the content of his discipline in his Sermon on the Mount, and elsewhere in his teachings. To be Christ's disciple means to obey Christ's discipline. Soldiers are not free to pick and choose. In a well-functioning military, soldiers maintain the rigors of their discipline, the rhythms of the soldier life, which holds them accountable and forges them into what none of them could individually be on their own. And so it is with disciples. Jesus has laid out for us, through his own words and through the inspired teaching of his prophets and apostles, and through sensible and Spirit-prompted application throughout thousands of years of church history, a wiser and more powerful discipline than any other. It is demanding, and yet his yoke is easy and his burden is light (Matthew 11:30). You could not ask for better; but we have to live it.

There's plenty that goes into The Art of Discipleship. And we could go on, because Sun Tzu has other lessons to teach us, other lessons we can apply. “A victorious army first wins and then seeks battle; a defeated army first battles and then seeks victory” (4.15). “Do not swallow bait left by the enemy” (7.25). “If you know the enemy and know yourself, your victory will not stand in doubt; if you know Heaven and you know Earth, you may make your victory complete” (10.31). Another time, perhaps. Jesus tells us to count the cost, to deliberate on whether we can achieve the goal that discipleship aims for. The terrain is rough, and the weather is often bad; but we have the best leader, Jesus Christ, and the greatest principle, love in the Holy Spirit – and their victory is assured, in spite of any terrain and any weather. If we hold to our discipline and “endure to the end” (Matthew 10:22; 24:13), then the cost will be well worth it. But you have to think that through and make a commitment, a choice. But as you do, know this: “Everyone who has been born of God overcomes the world. And this is the victory that has overcome the world: our faith” (1 John 5:4-5). Persevere in your faith and your discipline, with thanks to God. Glory to the Father and the Son and the Spirit, one God, now and forever and unto ages of ages. Amen.

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