In chapter one of this work, it was argued that ‘Christian’ and ‘disciple’ are no longer necessarily synonymous terms; in fact, the earliest followers of Jesus were known simply as ‘the Way’, a symbolic designation that drastically reframes popular notions of what it means to be a Christian in the 21st century.
Modern Christianity has often been defined by what one believes, with a view to going to heaven after death. At the same time, the story of God’s partnership with humanity has often been placed on the shelf; subsequently, Christianity has often found itself closely aligned with the dominant social, political and cultural powers of the day as opposed to offering an alternative way of living. While chapters two and three have sought to briefly outline the nature of the biblical story of discipleship, the task at hand is to articulate the present implications of discipleship with a view to answering the question of what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century.
Building on what has previously been asserted on the topic, the following marks of discipleship will be upheld as essential in relation to the situation in today’s context: one must make a break from the old and to take a first step of obedience towards the new; adopt a posture of readiness for action through Christian practices; and to become a part of an alternative community drawn together to demonstrate to the world that a different way of living has been made possible in accordance with ‘the Way’ of Jesus.
4.1 Simple obedience: Taking a first step
From Abraham to the first disciples to would-be followers of Jesus today, one essential characteristic of discipleship is a willingness to move beyond belief in Jesus to what Karl Barth refers to “a definite first step.”1 It is an active step of faith and obedience that, for Barth, “is distinguished from every other step that one may take by the fact that in relation to the whole of one’s previous life and thinking and judgment it involves an about-turn and therefore a complete break and new beginning.”2 It is, therefore, a complete reorientation of life, a turn from the old to something new along the same lines as the discussion on repentance in the previous chapter. It is a daily decision to actively respond to the call of Jesus; “it always involves the decision of a new day; the seizing of a new opportunity that was not present yesterday but is now given in and with the call of Jesus.”3 This means to move beyond an expression of belief in Jesus and the promise of eternal life – a potentially paralyzing comfort that can lead one to fall into the trap of ‘cheap grace’ – and onto the path of following Jesus in active obedience.
In Discipleship, Bonhoeffer is quite clear about the necessity of this first step. For him, “the step is required; otherwise, Jesus’ call dissipates into nothing. Any intended discipleship without this step to which Jesus calls becomes deceptive enthusiast’s illusion.”4 Bonhoeffer’s argument is that, in modern times, would-be disciples of Jesus have come to believe that they need explanations and formulas, a priori knowledge of what it means to follow Jesus and the outcomes thereof before getting down to the business of true, active discipleship. In other words, “reason is impelled to reject the abruptness of the response. It seeks something to mediate it; it seeks an explanation.”5 The inherent problem for modern people is that the call to follow Jesus is indeed open ended and ambiguous; “Going after him is something without specific content. It is truly not a program for one’s life which would be sensible to implement.”6 As opposed to offering set rules and principles in regards to the nature of discipleship, “God intends for people to interpret it and decide about it freely.”7 As a result, a hermeneutical trap has ensnared humanity to the point where “people are torn away from the clear commandment and from simple childlike obedience by ethical doubt, by asserting that the commandment still needs interpretation and explanation.”8 Bonhoeffer, however, presents the view that it is only through obedience that discipleship becomes real; it is the physical act of taking that first step along the way of following Jesus that is the precursor to a life of discipleship. The disciple must, at some point, “stop discussing and start obeying”.9 He or she must make a decision to declare the following: “I must act and obey; I must be a neighbour to the other person.”10
This is to return to the story in Genesis 3 wherein humanity was tempted to doubt the Word that God had spoken, and in so doing retreat from its role as God’s partners in bringing about his loving purposes for the world. Would-be disciples of Jesus are hampered by the nagging question that has been present since it was introduced by the serpent in the Garden of Eden, “Did God say?” (Genesis 3:1, New Revised Standard Version). In order to begin down the way of discipleship, however, one must hear, trust in and respond to the Word that God has spoken and continues to speak, and be engaged in the divine-human conversation that has been taking place since the creation of humanity. Discipleship is to become familiar with the story of the Word become flesh, the Word spoken through and embodied in the teachings of and example of Jesus. And it is to turn away from all competing stories today and actively respond to the continual call of the risen Jesus as expressed through the presence of the Holy Spirit among us.
While the potentially paralyzing challenge of the open-endedness of the call to discipleship remains, Barth would argue that to focus on and look for explicit commandments and directives from Jesus would be to miss the point. Rather, what is required of the disciples is a “willingness and readiness one day perhaps – when the opportunity and situation offer – to do that which is concretely commanded.”11 Implicit in the call to discipleship is that one is to be ready and willing to follow at any time and in any way. Discipleship, therefore, is not an internal affirmation of beliefs that can be held without any visible change, nor is it a never-ending process of interpretation and explanation; rather, it is to hear the Word that God has and continues to speak, and to take a tangible first step that involves the denial of self for the sake of God and the other, and the unfastening of ties with all that might inhibit one from embodying the teachings and example of Jesus.
The self-denial required to daily answer the call to follow Jesus “involves a step into the open, into the freedom of a definite decision and act in which it is with a real commitment that person takes leave of himself or herself, of the person of yesterday, of the person she or he was.”12 This denial of self involves the unfastening of ties with all that may hold one back from answering the call to love the neighbour and actively engage in the present realities of the world; it is “an inward liberation from everything in which we might otherwise put our trust; the loosening of all other ties to the point of being able to sever that at any moment.”13 What is challenging for 21st century followers of Jesus, especially in developed countries, is that “it is harder to live out an ethic of self-denial in the service of others in a society like ours that is so wholly given over to a materialistic theology and a survival-of-the-fittest mentality”; however, “that is exactly what the followers of Christ are called to do – that is, to imitate the self-effacing love of Christ, not calling attention to ourselves but to Christ.”14 To choose to live according to this self-effacing love “allows us to engage in struggle against historical forces that thwart the in-breaking reign of God”; to ‘take up the cross’, then, is “to resist systems and structures that cause or perpetuate injustice. It is to rebuild systems grounded in justice, peace, and the integrity of creation.”15 These are deliberate steps of self-denying obedience that disciples of Jesus are called to make afresh every day. In short, any explicit call of Jesus must be predicated by taking seriously the call to self-denial, so that the command to love God and neighbour can be obeyed at any given time. It is from this position that one begins to hear the Word of God spoken today, calling them to a deep and personal understanding of what it means to follow him.
The question at this point is in regards to how one is to develop a posture of readiness wherein they can respond to the call of follow Jesus in meaningful ways and from which there is “no place for any further waiting for a developing situation or a suitable moment, nor any further consideration, appraisal or selection of different possibilities, but only for instant obedience.”16 Inherent in this discussion regarding a posture of readiness and self-denial is the necessity for the disciple to adopt formative practices and habits, which enable a reorientation of life away from the story as presented by the dominant social, political and cultural powers of the day and back to the teachings and example of Jesus. To be a disciple of Jesus in the 21st century, therefore, involves a denial of that which keeps one from answering the call the follow Jesus with a view to adopting a new set of transformative practices and habits that resituate one’s life and places them in a humble posture from which to hear and respond to the call to communally engage in the ongoing mission of God’s kingdom.
1 Karl Barth, The Call to Discipleship (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 19.
2 Ibid., 19.
3 Ibid., 20.
4 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. IV. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2001), 63.
5 Ibid., 57.
6 Ibid., 58.
7 Ibid., 71.
8 Ibid., 71.
9 Ibid., 72.
10 Ibid., 76.
11 Barth, The Call to Discipleship, 29.
12 Ibid., 24.
13 Ibid., 28.
14 Linda L. Belleville, ‘“Imitate Me, Just as I Imitate Christ”: Discipleship in the Corinthian Correspondence’ in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 140.
15 Ched Myers, ‘Say to This Mountain: Mark’s Story of Discipleship, ed. Karen Lattea (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbos Books, 1996) 106.
16 Barth, The Call to Discipleship, 32.