As I was thinking and praying about this particular theme, it really struck me that in the context of discipleship there are often pairs of words that very much go together; words like “calling and following” “commissioning and sending”, and “failure and grace” – which will all feature in this series.
My hope and heartfelt prayer is that this series would stir us all up and encourage us to live more intentionally as Disciples of Christ, and give us a passion to deepen our relationship with God and along the way have some of those lightbulb moments when perhaps we may have some revelation about discipleship that we hadn’t had before.
And so our series begins today as we look at calling and following.
I wanted to begin by asking you to spend a couple of minutes thinking about what your response to the following question might be “What does being a disciple mean to you?”. You may even wish to jot your responses down on a piece of paper.
Key words that are often associated with discipleship include learning, following, emulating and obedience. Jesus didn’t simply call his disciples and then say “ok, now you have responded, on your way…get on with it.” Instead once they had responded to his call, Jesus commissioned or equipped and then sent them. Next week’s service will take a look at the nature of commissioning, and being sent.
It is interesting how the Evangelists give a realistic portrayal of good and bad traits in the disciples; Mark in particular tends to cover the many failures of the disciples, and we will be looking at that in more detail when we think about failure and grace in this series. All however also show how Jesus:
- Taught them (Mark 4:10–12),
- Corrected them (Matthew 16:5–12),
- Admonished them (Matthew 17:19–20),
- Supported them (Luke 22:31–34),
- Comforted them (John 20:19–22) and
- Restored them (John 21:15–19).
In turn the disciples could become examples of what Jesus desires to do for the church (Matthew 28:19–20). In becoming disciples ourselves, if our expectation is that we will enter in to that relationship with Christ and remain unchanged, then we are deluding ourselves.
When we are shaped and moulded by God it is because ALL of us are works in progress…none of us are the finished article. The paradox is, as we draw closer to a holy and awesome God and we begin to capture a vision of his holiness, we recognise our own poverty of spirit…and the enormity of his grace and love. I hope people can see that I am grace touched. I hope people might see how Christ has made a difference in my life despite me; but I hope even more that he would continue to make an even bigger difference in my life as I seek to follow him.
The difference in how we respond
If I asked you the question “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?” I would certainly hope that the response would be a unified “Yes”. And if I then asked the question “Do you follow Christ”, then again I would certainly hope that the response would be another unified “Yes”.
The thing is, our belief in Christ – our view of Christ – has a profound impact on the way that we follow him. There are some people who merely think that Jesus was a prophet, a wise and gifted person. That paints a very different picture to believing that Jesus was fully God and fully man. Depending on whether we believe the former or the latter, the way we live our faith and our very world view will be changed.
There were those who followed Jesus because they were called, and they subsequently responded and believed. But there were also those who followed Jesus because of sensationalism – the crowds. He called both the crowd and his disciples, and said to them, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.”
The crowd in the main may have followed in the absence of belief. There were many who followed Jesus and yet not all believed and some even fell away because the price – the sacrifice they had to make – the cost of discipleship – was too great.
It is also possible to someone to believe and choose not to follow. Even Satan believes in Christ. Yet Satan does not follow Christ. Whereas the disciples followed as well as believed and the faith and belief they had in Christ, which took time to develop in each and every one of them resulted in the growth of Christianity as we know.
During Jesus’ earthly ministry his disciples were called to “follow” Jesus, and in responding they demonstrated a conscious and intentional allegiance to his person. Now, Jewish disciples would typically follow their master around, often literally imitating or emulating him. But there were some striking differences about Jesus and his disciples:
- Jewish disciples would choose and approach the rabbi they wanted to follow and be disciples of, and if and only if the rabbi agreed could they become his disciple. In contrast, Jesus chose his disciples. He called them and invited them to respond. He does that with us too…we are all called, we are all invited to respond. And so rather than the disciple taking the initiative in choosing the master, as was characteristic among the Jews, Jesus emerges as the central figure who dominates the scene and calls his own disciples by means of his call. It isn’t likely that Jesus had had previous personal encounters with those he called to be his disciples…nor had opportunities to befriend them makes the significance of his call stand out even more along with the disciples response.
Although discipleship was a voluntary matter and choice for typical Jewish disciples seeking to follow a Rabbi, with Jesus the initiative lay with his call (Mark 1:17; 2:14; Matthew 4:19; 9:9; cf. Luke 5:10–11, 27–28) and his choice (John 15:16) of those who would be his disciples. The response to the call involves:
- Recognition and belief in Jesus’ identity (John 2:11; 6:68–69),
- Obedience to his summons (Mark 1:18, 20) and
- Counting the cost of full allegiance to him (Luke 14:25–28; Matthew 19:23–30).
Jesus’ calling is the beginning of something new. It means losing one’s old life (Mark 8:34–37; Lk 9:23–25) and finding new life in the family of God through obeying the will of the Father (Matthew 12:46–50).
- Jewish disciples were typically the most educated – the best of the best of the best – who had demonstrated their aptitude and grasp of Torah and the Talmud. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples hadn’t necessarily reached those lofty heights of educational attainment in Jewish society and culture. Jesus’ disciples left their occupations, and James and John also left their father (1:18, 20). Discipleship meant leaving behind their way of life and former ties. The motif of the cost of discipleship intensifies throughout the Gospel. The disciples join themselves to Jesus, to accompany him and to participate in his life (see 3:14) In responding to Jesus call, the disciples began a journey deeper in to faith and a relationship with God that continued for the rest of their life. And they had to learn some hard lessons along the way.
- The goal of these Jewish disciples was someday to become masters, or rabbis, themselves and to have their own disciples who would follow them. In contrast, Jesus’ disciples were to remain disciples of their Master and teacher and to follow him only (cf. Matthew 23:1–12). As they grew as disciples, their life and faith pointed to Jesus and not to themselves. It was a case of “it’s all about HIM, and not it’s all about me.” The disciples of Jesus were to engage in a new vocation—to become “fishers of men” rather than students of the Law. The disciples not only accompanied Jesus but also were enabled by him them to share His ministry and eventually continue it. And so the calling of the disciples was not simply that they would learn and transmit his teaching of the law, as might followers of Rabbis – but that they might become “fishers of men”. It is astonishing that the first disciples were prepared to give up everything to follow Jesus. “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” Both being a disciple as well as making disciples is an integral part of what it means to be a Christian. In other words, for us to fully fulfil what it is to be a disciple we must seek not only to deepen our learning and relationship with God through prayer and Bible study, but also to engage in the making of other disciples. We are called with a purpose.
Response and application
Whenever we think about discipleship we can be encouraged, as well as challenged. We can’t avoid the challenges forever…
In what ways do we recognise our continuing growth as disciples? Do we ever do a spiritual “health check” – perhaps prayerfully reflecting on where we have been and where we are now? Do we follow Christ AND believe? Have we responded fully to his call or have we become complacent in our faith? Are we prepared to take up our cross? We are all called, and we all have a choice about responding – not at all, half-heartedly or whole heartedly – with body, soul, mind and strength.
In what ways in the worshipping life and ministry of this church do we make disciples? Making disciples isn’t just about people coming to faith in Christ, even if it begins with that. It is about that journey into a deeper relationship with Christ and inviting him to be Lord of our life. Discipleship fundamentally involves all of one’s being, not just the mind or intellect.
It isn’t about us taking God to people…it is about us having encounters with people and seeking to see how God is already at work and inviting them to recognise that too.
Jesus always finds people where they are, speaks in a language and context with which they were wholly familiar, but gives it an entirely different significance for them as they ultimately become apostles. Today, we all too often expect unbelievers to make all kinds of adjustments—in dress, initiation into our ways of worship, language and thought —before a proper conversation can begin. Familiarity sometimes causes us to lose sight of how visitors might perceive the encounter they have with us at church. When visitors come, unless they are received with sensitivity and wisdom with a generous spirit of welcome when they are at their weakest and least comfortable, and most disorientated, we will fail to connect with them. In so doing we put so many obstacles between them and the simplicity of the gospel itself. We have much to learn about starting where people are. It has been good for us as a church to think about this on the “Everybody Welcome” course.
Over the course of the next few weeks, I invite you to engage in a spiritual health check and think about where you are in the journey as a disciple. May you recognise the many ways in which Jesus is calling you and may you have the wisdom and the courage to follow. Amen