Here continues chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship
3.2 The call of Jesus: Discipleship as a turn towards something new
The initial call to follow Jesus as described in the New Testament appears to have two levels to it: a general call to repentance and a more specific and personal call to action.
On the first level, as described in the gospel of Mark, Jesus began his ministry by making a general declaration to all those that would follow him: “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe the good news” (Mark 1:15, New Revised Standard Version). According to Dunn, the call to repentance as expressed by Jesus “would have initially been heard as a reiteration of the call of the prophets to turn back to God, that is, by implication, from a life in breach of God’s commandments, from a social irresponsibility which should have been unacceptable in the people of Yahweh.”1 Jesus invoked the Greek verb metanoeo (to repent) as a call to conversion to all; it is a call “to radically alter the manner and direction of their whole life, in its basic motivations, attitudes and objectives, for a society to radically reform its communal goals and values.”2 Dunn emphasizes this point by arguing that “the best translation for the word used by Jesus would actually be ‘convert’, understood in its literal sense, ‘turn around’ and head in quite a new direction.”3 Repentance, then, is not to be seen as “wallowing penance, but as a prerequisite for following in discipleship in the present and into God’s future.”4
This is a challenge to common understandings of repentance today that might revolve around the idea of confession with a view to receiving forgiveness of sins and the promise of eternal life. Rather, it is a call to determined positive action, taking tangible steps to align one’s life with the Way of Jesus. For Peterson, the imperative call to repentance “requires a decision to leave one way of life and set out on another. It commands a change of mind or heart that results in a change of direction.”5 To that point, Camp argues that repentance must lead to change; “without change, without deep thoroughgoing change, one could not enter and participate in the kingdom.”6 Over and against the aforementioned common perception of repentance, it would appear as though Jesus was calling people to literally change the course and shape of their present daily lives with a view to impacting the world around them in positive and meaningful ways. Repentance is not solely about personal confession and transformation, but also involves a level of social responsibility in accordance to the arrival of the kingdom of God on earth wherein the command to love the neighbor is central.
Furthermore, the call to repentance is qualified by the call ‘to believe’, whereby Jesus was calling all those that would follow him not to a new set of rules and principles to adhere to, nor to some sort of life-saving equation of repentance and belief equals eternal life in heaven, but to reshape their lives according to his message of good news. He was calling them to adopt a new “attitude, an orientation of life, a worldview or mind-set rooted in their innermost being … a fundamental conviction that motivated and gave character to the whole range of daily living and relationships.”7 To believe, therefore, “requires a personal, trusting, relational involvement in this comprehensive reordering of reality.”8 Within the context of powerful and oppressive political and religious systems that sought to set themselves as the highest authorities and to absorb all people under their rule according to their way, Jesus introduced an alternative story with his proclamation of ‘good news’ for all. Camp brilliantly qualifies the nature of that good news with the following statement:
The good news is not first and foremost a message that gives hope for the afterlife; the good news is not first and foremost a message that one may have inner peace and tranquility; the good news is not first and foremost that one may experience an ‘authentic’ life; the good news is, first and foremost, a proclamation that the long anticipated rule and reign of God has now come in the midst of human history. The good news proclaims that we may participate in God’s new creation if we will repent and accept the new reality.9
Jesus was calling all those that wished to follow him to a life of transforming faith, a complete reorientation of how they were to go about their daily lives. The beginning point of discipleship, therefore, involves repentance, a turning away from the old and believing that through Christ, a different way of living had been made possible. Repentance must be understood not as a temporary and situational confession of sin, but rather a transformative, life-altering turn towards and commitment to the person of Jesus Christ and his message of good news.
The implications of this become evident as Jesus begins to call specific people to be his disciples. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus calls specific people to specific actions; in Matthew 4, for example, he said to Simon and Andrew, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people” (Matthew 4:19). For Barth, Andrew and Simon are examples of those “who are called by Jesus and follow him in the sense that they accompany him wholeheartedly and constantly, sharing his life and destiny at the expense of all other engagements and commitments, attaching themselves to him, placing themselves in his service, and thus showing that they are qualified to be his disciples.”10
Here we begin to see some of the deeper and more personal peculiarities involved in answering the call to follow Jesus, in which a certain measure of self-denial is involved whereby one must begin to call into question all previously held loyalties. While it is to be noted that these first disciples are described as having instantly dropped their nets in response to the call of Jesus, it must not be understated to what extent they sacrificed their old way of life to begin afresh. This giving up of the old way of life is described by Dietrich Bonhoeffer as an act wherein “the disciple is thrown out of relative security of life into complete insecurity; out of the foreseeable and calculable realm into the completely unforeseeable, coincidental realm; out of the realm of limited possibilities and into the realm of unlimited possibilities.”11 Self-denial, for Bonhoeffer, means this: “knowing only Christ, no longer knowing oneself. It means no longer seeing oneself, only him who is going ahead, no longer seeing the way which is too difficult for us. Self-denial means only: he is going ahead; hold fast to him.”12 The call to discipleship, then, “is the call that summons us away from our attachments to this world. It is the death of the old self in the encounter with Jesus Christ.”13
Much like God’s call to Abraham, which separated him from all that he had previously known, discipleship in the New Testament is a call that “separates the followers from their previous existence. A call to discipleship thus immediately creates a new situation.”14 And throughout the gospel of Matthew, the reader begins to uncover more of what this new situation will involve: “disciples have to be prepared to expect hardship (8:20), to leave house and family (10:37; 19:27-30) and to deny themselves, take up their cross, and even lose their lives for Christ’s sake (10:38-39; 16:24-26).”15 As Willard characterizes it, “family and occupations were deserted for long periods to go with Jesus as he walked from place to place announcing, showing and explaining the here and now governance or action of God.”16 Certainly there were those – like the rich young man in Matthew 19 – who considered the cost of following Jesus to be too great. Jesus called this man to follow him by reframing the traditional commandments within the context of tangible, life-giving action through the selling of his possessions and passing the profits on to the poor. But, “when the young man heard this word, he went away grieving, for he had many possessions” (Matthew 19:22). Upon hearing the word of Jesus spoken clearly and directly to him, he found himself unable to make that necessary break with the old, believing that that the cost of becoming Jesus’ disciples was too great.
However, one must be careful not to assume that specific commands that Jesus made to individuals in the Gospels are to be read as universal in relation to all that may wish to follow him; what is central is the question of whether or not one will trust in “the Word of Jesus Christ, believing it to be a stronger foundation than all the securities of the world.”17 While the call to discipleship involves sacrifice, and the giving up of the old for the new may not always be an easy proposition, the good news of Jesus’ call is that to deny one’s self and follow him is to begin down a road that can literally change the world. Brueggemann explains it well when he says that would-be disciples are called to follow a God “who disrupts the lives of settled people, who gives them a vocation that marks life by inconvenience and risk.”18
At the same time, “the ground of the call is the good news of the gospel that God has a powerful intentionality for the world, which, when enacted, will make a decisive difference for good in the world.”19 And, as Jesus calls out his disciples, “the simple, uninfected imperative is ‘follow me,’ an imperative that sets folk on a new path of obedience, trailing along the path that Jesus himself walked in obedience.”20 To answer the specific call to follow Jesus is to hear the Word of God spoken afresh through him and to reorient one’s life according to the reality of the kingdom of God now present in the world; to do so is to and embody transformative good news for the world, as expressed in the teachings and example of Jesus himself.
1 James D.G. Dunn, Christianity in the Making, vol. I: Jesus Remembered (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 2003), 499.
2 Ibid., 500.
3 Dunn, Jesus’ Call to Discipleship, 20.
4 Richard A. Burridge, Imitating Jesus: An Inclusive Approach to New Testament Ethics (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 47.
5 Eugene Peterson, The Jesus Way: A Conversation in Following Jesus (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 2009), 22.
6 Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2003), 79.
7 Dunn, Jesus’ Call To Discipleship, 29-30.
8 Peterson, The Jesus Way, 22.
9 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 73.
10 Barth, The Call to Discipleship, 5
11 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. IV. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 58.
12 Ibid., 86.
13 Ibid., 87.
14 Ibid., 61-62.
15 Terrence L. Donaldson, “Guiding Readers – Making Disciples: Discipleship in Matthew’s Narrative Strategy,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 44.
16 Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007), 6.
18 Walter Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship: The God Who Calls, The God Who Sends,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 93.
19 Ibid, 122.
20 Ibid, 123