I confess that I have been quite vociferous in my disdain for the government’s persistent use of lockdown as a way of dealing with covid. In my opinion, the ‘collateral damage’ will be significantly greater than anything arising from the virus. I also have serious concerns about the restrictions on worship that we have endured this past year, as well as restrictions on civil liberties in general.
In stating these concerns, I have been accused of various things: recklessness, paranoia, and lack of compassion. But strangely enough the one that has irritated me the most is the charge that I am stuck in the past, unable to realise the enormous opportunities brought about by this crisis. Indeed, someone made a comment to me other day that my desire to regather Millmead in our new sanctuary might yet prove my Achilles heel, simply because the gathering of large congregations in one place is now regarded by cutting edge missiologists as something of an old wineskin.
The first thing and the last thing that Jesus said to Peter was the same—“Follow me!” The first occasion was when Peter and his brother were casting a net into the Galilean Lake. Jesus passed by and called out, “Follow me, and I will teach you to fish for men” (Mk. 1: 16-18). Peter quickly responded and became a follower of Jesus.
Throughout the preaching tours of Jesus in Palestine, Peter continued to follow. In the fishing villages, on the mountains, in the desert, by the lake—he followed and he listened. Many months later, on the night that Jesus was betrayed, Peter even declared that he would follow Jesus to prison and to death (Lk. 22:33), though as Luke makes clear, due to his fear Peter only followed at a distance (Lk. 22:54). On that same night, he eventually denied that he even knew Jesus (Lk. 22:55-62).
After Jesus had risen from the dead, he left Peter with the same command as at the beginning, “Follow me!” Peter had questioned the Lord about the future of another of the disciples, but Jesus simply said to him, “What is that to you? You must follow me!” (Jn. 21:19-22).
Finally, in later life, Peter wrote to a group of churches with this admonition: “To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example that you should follow in his steps” (1 Pe. 2:21).
So, then, what does it mean to follow Jesus? Obviously, it cannot mean for us exactly the same thing that it meant to the rural people of Galilee who had Jesus physically in their midst. The call to follow Jesus must mean more than travelling around the countryside while listening to Jesus preach, for as Peter wrote to the churches in Asia Minor, Christ left us an example that we should follow in his steps, and it is apparent that he was talking about a way of life rather than a geographical route.
And so we begin with the word “disciple”. The followers of Jesus were called his disciples, and the term refers to someone who is a learner or a student. One who follows Jesus is always learning more about him, learning not only in the sense of intellectual awareness, but even more importantly, in the sense of learning to live according to the pattern which Jesus taught. This is why John wrote, “Whoever claims to live in Him must walk as Jesus walked” (1 Jn. 2:6).
In the gospels, Jesus made the call to discipleship central in his teachings. He knew that at the very core of human nature was selfishness, pride, and the desire for power. So, he taught that to follow him, one must say “no” to him or herself (Lk. 9:23-24). Those who wished to follow Jesus but still retain other loyalties could not do so (Lk. 9:57-62). In fact, even family loyalties must be sacrificed, if necessary, in order to follow Jesus (Lk. 14:25-27). The cost of discipleship is the willingness to give up everything for Jesus (Lk. 14:28-33). It is the acceptance of Jesus’ radical claims about himself, and the submission of our lives to him as the Lord of life.
The call to follow Jesus is an intense daily challenge. This is why Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, he must … take up his cross daily and follow me” (Lk. 9:23). This brings ethics to bear: In every circumstance in life, to follow Jesus means that you ask yourself, “What would Jesus do?” When making decisions, when confronting clients, when socializing with friends, when addressing those in need—all these circumstances are to be controlled by the answer to the question, “What would Jesus do?” Sometimes, perhaps often, the answer will be acutely uncomfortable, because it will deeply conflict with our own wishes.
To a wealthy young man who claimed to have kept the ten commandments from his youth, Jesus said, “Go, sell everything you own and give it away. Then come and follow me” (Mk. 10:21). Sadly, the young man turned away. His love of wealth prevented him from following Jesus. The refusal to follow Jesus can be for many reasons. For the crowds in Galilee, it was the scandal of Jesus’ claims about himself (Jn. 6:53-66). For the Jewish leaders, it was a deep loyalty to their traditional religion (Jn. 9:13, 16, 24-29). For Judas, it was disillusionment (Mt. 26:14-16, 20-25). For yet others, it was a field or a purchase or a marriage (Lk. 14:16-24).
When Jesus calls us to follow him, he always seems to ask us to give up that thing which is most likely to draw us away from him. As someone once said, “The things that I do not understand about the sayings of Jesus are not what disturb me. What disturb me are the things that I understand all too well!”
“The things that I do not understand about the sayings of Jesus are not what disturb me. What disturb me are the things that I understand all too well!”
One might well ask with Peter, “Lord, we have left everything to follow you! What then will there be for us?” (Mt. 19:27). But Jesus replied, “No one who has left home or wife or brothers or parents or children for the sake of the kingdom of God will fail to receive many times as much in this age, and in the age to come, eternal life” (Lk. 18:29-30).
Something should also be said about the importance of knowing the stories of Jesus.
The accounts of the teachings and actions of Jesus were the primary preaching material for the earliest Christians. While they did not have the advantage of a printed Bible, as we do today, the public reading of the gospels and the retelling of the stories of Jesus were eagerly received. Today, Christians can become familiar with the life of Jesus both by hearing and by reading, and it cannot be over-emphasised that they must learn more about Jesus. To claim to follow Jesus without any familiarity concerning his life and words is to lapse into an ambivalent subjectivism.
It would be impossible here to enumerate all of the teachings of Jesus. Nevertheless, the essence of the life to which Jesus called us can be sketched in. Jesus himself said that upon two commandments hung the entire law and prophets of the Old Testament: to love God with all one’s heart, soul, strength and mind—and to love one’s neighbour as oneself (Lk. 10:25-27). Who is one’s neighbour? It is anyone with a need (Lk. 10:29-37). Jesus was concerned about things such as forgiving people of their offenses (Mt. 6:14-15; 18:21-35) and loving those who did not love in return (Mt. 5:43-48). The sum of the life of Jesus has been aptly encapsulated by one person who said that Jesus simply “found wounds and healed them.” He was the “man for others.” He called his followers to servanthood (Jn. 13:1-17), not to power (Mt. 20:20-28). One of his final sayings on the cross was a prayer for the forgiveness of his executioners, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Lk. 23:34); and not merely his immediate executioners, but humanity as executioners.
The 1899 classic ‘Were You There When They Crucified My Lord” made famous by many, including Johnny Cash, implies, rightly, a whole human race experience, if only we will see that. This is similarly captured in the film, ‘The Passion of the Christ’ by Mel Gibson, who filmed the nails being hammered into the hands/wrists of Jesus by his own hand! So, “Father forgive them, they do not know what they are doing” is not only an immediate prayer of Jesus, but a cosmic expression of soteriological plenum. It is worth remembering that Jesus only says what the Father tells him to say; and by sheer Trinitarian logic, the Father answers the prayers of Jesus. Thus, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” is the prayer of the Human Christ that finds its fulfilment in the Cosmic Christ: How can it be anything else? “Behold, I am making all things new!” I’m pretty sure I know what “all” means.
Jesus simply “found wounds and healed them.”
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The call to discipleship is a gracious call, but it is also a costly call. As Bonhoeffer said, “It is costly because it costs a [person] his life, and it is grace because it gives a [person] the only true life.”
So to you and me, just as to Peter and Andrew and James and John; and Tony and Bill and Sue and Margaret and Ann and John and Steve and Judith and Bonnie and Andrew and Abigail and Tania and Roger and Richard and Laura and Michael and Julie, Jesus says, “Follow me! Follow me and I will make you…”
He will (re)make you!
As St Ambrose said, “Truly a mighty remedy, that not only removed the scar of an old wound, but even cut the root and source of passion. O Faith, richer than all treasure-houses; O excellent remedy, healing our wounds and sins!”
A friend of mine describes the Christian life using a military metaphor that is both helpful and enlightening….I know – what a bargain!
Being a Christian is about learning the basics: Prayer; reading (i.e. exegeting and interpreting) scripture; Christ-likeness; learning the Fruits of the Spirit; living the sermon on the Mount; renewal of the mind; developing spiritual habits formed in the furnace of Trinitarian relationship, etc. These basics are like the “basic drill” an army unit performs to stay sharp. In other words, the existential reality for the army is the drill performed in peace-time: Marching; cleaning; inspection; fitness; and so on and so forth (one doesn’t want to push a military metaphor too far – there’s enough of that going on already)!
But the basics serve the special missions: Either planned or spontaneous mission/evangelism; specific seasons of ministry; short or long-term mission; local or national or international. In short, an Olympic athlete’s gold medal was forged on the running tracks of Trinidad; the swimming pools of Portugal and the cycling arenas of Argentina – the actual final in which it was won is almost a moot point! The basic drill serves the special mission.
The Christian life is not easy. It takes determined, hard graft, long-term view of life. Many people fall under the spell of easy-living, and for some unearthly reason, when some people become Christians, they expect their life to be one of ease, one sweet breeze. Where oh where did they get that from? What dark corner of the heart hides such a banal and idle sentiments?
But this is not so.
Not so, say the Scriptures, not so says Jesus, not so says Paul, not so says the witness of the New Testament. Hebrews is a book of amazing theology, great exhortation, but also some sober warnings. The very first warning says, “We must pay more careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away” (Hebrews 2:1).
In other words, if we do not “pay attention”, we will drift away…..away from God, away from Christ and all His salvation splendour. Not drifting away requires a determined, hard-graft, long-term view of life. The Christian life is much more about growing potatoes rather than eating chips; it is much more about feasting like kings rather than snacking like peasants or starving like fools
Once again, Don Carson nails it…..
“People do not drift toward Holiness.
Apart from grace-driven effort, people do not gravitate toward godliness, prayer, obedience to Scripture, faith, and delight in the Lord.
We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance;
we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom;
we drift toward superstition and call it faith.
We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation;
we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism;
we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.”
One of the things that the Reformers wrestled back from the Catholic Church was how to do church! From complexity to simplicity, from pomposity to humility, from monotone to multi-coloured, from virtual blindness and deafness to 3D vision with surround sound. The Sacraments took centre stage in the raging debates of the 16th century from Martin Luther onwards! While the Reformation rightly challenged, and in a sense judged, the imagination-free zone of the entrenched Catholic cultures of Europe, the Bible was reigniting a God-imaged imagination that had, by-and-large been lost to the masses, kept and guarded (and forgotten) by pope and priest. Continue reading “Communion & Discipleship”→
“When Jesus described [what it means to follow him], often his invitation to it sounded more like a warning than a sales pitch. He spoke of ‘counting the cost’ of selling all and ‘taking up the cross’ to follow him” says Dr Paul Brand.
Wes Brown’s song “Fisher of Men” captures this and more quite exquisitely, highlighting all the tensions within the Christian life, the joys and sorrows, the drama and truth, the blessings and sufferings. The song is one of my favourites and will be played at my funeral (whenever that is)! Below are the words: Enjoy!
Fisher of Men
It’s running, and walking, and fighting, and turning the other cheek;
It’s giving, receiving, it’s hoping, being bold and being meek;
It’s laying down your nets, it’s laying down your life, to take up the cross, and follow the fisher of men.
What does it mean to be born-again? What does it mean to be grafted in to the Body of Christ?
To be conformed into the image of the One, who lay down His life, so that you and I might live.
It’s living, and dying, and rising, reward and sacrifice;
It’s sharing, the blessings, the righteousness of Christ;
It’s laying down your nets, it’s laying down your life, to take up the cross – pick up your cross – and follow the fisher of men.
In his brilliant book The Way of the Heart, Henri Nouwen outlines the difficulty many churches face in the genuine need to disciple followers of Jesus. He writes,
“We simply go along with the many ‘musts’ and ‘oughts’ that have been handed on to us, and we live with them as if they were authentic translations of the Gospel of our Lord. People must be motivated to come to church, youth must be entertained, money must be raised, and above all everyone must be happy. Moreover, we ought to be on good terms with the church and civil authorities; we ought to be liked or at least respected by a fair majority of our parishioners; we ought to move up in the ranks according to schedule; and we ought to have enough vacation and salary to live a comfortable life.” p.10
Now, discipleship in church is one of my biggest bug-bears because I find it is nigh on impossible to actually do. What I mean is that I feel it is [almost] impossible to do intentionally and [actually] impossible to do accidentally (unless you are in the wonderful position of having a handful of Christians in your church who really do want to grow in their faith, and boy, do they let you know they want to! The simple fact is, too many other ‘things’ crowd in. Yes, I know you could say I’ve got to prioritize, but I assure you, I already have. The church itself seems to mitigate against her core purpose!
If the church spent the time she has devoted to the homosexuality issue or the gender issue onto the discipleship ‘issue’, I wonder how the church would look? That’s not to say those issue’s aren’t important, they are and we need to think about them very carefully, but the church is losing out, losing ground, losing time and losing people because we’re not doing too well the very thing we have been called to do.
All of this comes out of my own observations and frustrations. I’m not throwing stones in glass houses, nor pointing a boney Pharisaical finger at my brothers and sisters, demanding that they “disciple people better!” No! What I am saying comes from my own hearts desire to be first and foremost a disciple of Jesus Christ. To allow others to disciple me, to have others allow me to disciple them.
The problem is, as already stated, the church, in general, doesn’t do this too well. That’s partly tied to the problem of institution outlined in a previous post, but it’s also a general unwillingness among the populace of our Sunday gatherings to not allow others to speak gospel-truth into each others lives – this is one reason why that group always gathers for coffee over there and never speaks to anyone, and why this bunch here shoot off straight after the service without even a toodle-pip! And have you ever wondered why the same people always do the washing up? So they don’t have to talk to anybody but their rota buddies!
Discipleship must surely be a conscious objective, or as per the current theological buzz-word “intentional”. Too much time is spent in our lives together smoothing over hurts and wounds; with multiple attempts to prevent people being angry, unforgiving or whatever. We all kind of smile knowingly when we say ministry is a tough place to be, being hurt by the church n’all, but actually, that’s quite sick!
Why? Because Jesus said we are to turn the other cheek and go the extra mile – and that’s regarding our enemies! How can ministry be so tough and painful? Surely it’s because our brothers and sisters are not discipled in the ways of Jesus to know that if we turn our cheeks for our enemies, what does it mean to a brother or sister?
I think intentional discipleship has the power to close the door to petty, ill-disciplined and loveless lives, into a way of life that is real, true and dynamically loving, not institutionally static. [NB. please note, I am not anti-institutional, I’m in one and I love it, but so was Martin Luther and look what happened to him].
I don’t want to leave the discipleship of myself or God’s people, especially those in my care, to para-church organisations, which is the prevailing default position. I love para-church organisations, but I do believe, if the church was doing it’s job, fulfilling it’s calling, would there really be a need for them? I don’t think so!
I want to disciple people, that’s what God has called me, us, to do! I don’t want second-class citizens in our churches. I don’t want arguments about pedantic secondary issues (yes, I know they’re important), but I want to journey with people in their faith and for them to go on to disciple others. Henri Nouwen is surely right, but I so want him to be wrong!
PS I would love to hear from you if you are getting this right, doing well or whatever.