The new cynics

This is a post that I originally wrote in March 2010, but that I have revised and re-posted as part of the Rally to Restore Unity hosted by Rachel Held Evans.

The new cynics: From critical thinking to positive action

All I ask of you, especially young people…is one thing. Please don’t be cynical. I hate cynicism – it’s my least favorite quality and it doesn’t lead anywhere. Nobody in life gets exactly what they thought they were going to get. But if you work really hard and you’re kind, amazing things will happen. I’m telling you, amazing things will happen.
– Conan O’Brien

As I look back upon my 20s (now five months 8 years into my 30s), I would have to say that those ten years were defined, in part, by the practice of critical thinking. Whereas my teens years were all about going with the flow in so many ways, my four years at a Christian university (followed by six years of marriage, more school, moving / travelling around & becoming a Dad) introduced me to different ways of thinking and looking at the world. Nothing was taken at face value any longer; everything began to be questioned and looked at from different angles.

In many ways, I believe that this was a good skill to develop. It allowed us (for I believe that I speak on behalf of many of my peers) to begin to truly wrap our minds around what it means to be a decent person, to consider the reality of grave injustices many face on a daily basis, and to uncover fresh ways of helping make an increasingly messy world a better place.

In short, a new hope that things do not have to be the way that they are is springing up and taking over because of a refusal to merely go with the flow.

While this has been happening, however, something less grand has been bubbling beneath the surface and has, at times, become the more dominant sentiment.

cyn·i·cism An attitude of scornful or jaded negativity, especially a general distrust of the integrity or professed motives of others.

What I have found in my own experience is that the more I have engaged in the process of critical thinking, the more I have come to expect and accept the negative. What I mean by that is that it has become so easy to sit back and criticize that which I deem to be not up to whatever standard I have created for the world around me.

Critical thinking has, at times, morphed into critical living, whereby something is always wrong with anything and everything that does not jive with my new way of thinking, and this has come to affect my attitudes and actions.

For example, I have experienced a very long period of time wherein I could not sit through a church service without coming out with a list of several negative points. Rather than coming to the house of God to worship and join together in community with fellow believers, I would sit there and stew over this theological point or how the worship was being led etc. I couldn’t even step foot inside a Christian bookstore because I simply could not stomach some of the titles being sold as, well … ‘Christian.’ (Yes, I too have been guilty of judging books before having actually read them.)

And I don’t think I am alone. Look around, and you can see this propensity to point out the negative just about anywhere these days, particularly in the world of my generation of ‘Christians.’ And while it is good to question, I am coming to realize that I have been missing out on a lot lately. My first inclination has become to pick at things, and as a result, I have, in many ways, been guilty of throwing the baby out with the bath water.

I do believe that followers of Jesus are called to think differently about the world, to speak out against injustice and to be a Church that lives according to his Way. I believe that this involves thinking critically and calling into question traditional modes of … well, just about everything.

However, I also believe that we do a disservice to that mandate by focusing too much on that which is wrong with the world, often mainly among ourselves and with a view to demonstrating to others that we are the ones that really and truly ‘get it.’

I believe that followers of Jesus should be quicker to point out that which is good in the world, to seek out and illuminate the subtle glimpses of the kingdom that rise up among us, and to be united in our pursuit to show the world that this different Way is a movement defined more by positive action than negative banter.

Which brings me to Conan the prophet. Cynicism – constantly focusing on the negative – has gotten me nowhere, and will do the same for all of us. In truth, I have missed out on a lot because of my propensity to point out the negative. My desire is to be kinder, more loving, and quicker to embrace that which is good around me. While I do think it’s important to think critically and not take things at face value, I also believe that the challenge of embracing and creating a better world is far more rewarding than constantly pointing out the negative and picking at each other.

Be kind. Work hard. Seek, embrace and create some good in this messed up world. Maybe, just maybe, we can all (mercifully) come to see that we don’t have all the answers, that our way is not always best, and, in so doing, open ourselves up to be blown away by goodness at work within us, among and all around us.

The Importance of Community

Here it is – the final chapter of my Aberdeen dissertation. Thanks to anyone who’s read any part of it.

4.3 Discipleship in community

To answer the call to discipleship is to place oneself within the great tradition of the calling forth of alternative communities that are to embody the Way of Jesus and his kingdom come in the midst of day-to-day life.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer – using the phrase ‘new humanity’ in lieu of discipleship language – places a communal imperative on the process of following Jesus with this statement: “No one can become a new human being except by being within the church, that is, through the body of Christ. Whoever seeks to become a new human being individually cannot succeed. To become a new human being means to come into the church, to become a member of Christ’s body.”1 For Bonhoeffer, those called out by Jesus – the Word of God in bodily form – can “no longer remain hidden; they [are to be] the light which has to shine, the city on a hill which is bound to be seen.”2 Camp puts it this way: “We are called to be a people walking in faithful discipleship to the way of Christ, and thereby to be the salt and light the rebellious world so desperately needs.”3 In order for that light to shine most effectively, individual beams of light must become concentrated collectives intent on embodying the teachings and example of Jesus within the context of day-to-day life.

To be a disciple, therefore, is to become an active participant in “the way, the body of Christ, people of God, and a plethora of images that denote the social reality of being Christian and what it means to be a distinctive people formed by the narrative of God.”4 For Hauerwas, to be able to take the first steps of obedience and to embody a way of living that runs counter to the dominant powers of the day “requires nothing less than an alternative story and society in which the self can find a home.”5 The community of disciples is to be a group of people through whom “the stories of Israel and Jesus are told, enacted and heard”; through this ongoing process of hearing, telling and enacting, “the narrative of God is lived in a way that makes the kingdom visible.”6

For followers of Jesus, Hauerwas argues, “there is literally nothing more important we can do.”7 The entire concept of discipleship, then, “exists only by God’s calling of people”, and furthermore, “it is only through such a people that the world can know that our God is one who wills nothing else than our good.”8 In short, the world as it is meant to be is only truly known “through the practices and habits of a community constituted by a truthful story.”9 This is the role of disciples in the present world – to constitute a widespread community that embodies the teachings, example and practices of Jesus wherever they are, and in so doing, demonstrates to the world that a different way of living is possible according to the biblical story of discipleship.

Communities of disciples are to engage in the theological and embodied process of recovering a different way of seeing and living in the world that God has created. As Luke Timothy Johnson puts it:

Theology’s recovery of a scriptural imagination must come from a relationship with Scripture that is mediated … by a faith community whose practices are ordered to the transformation of humans according to the world imagined by Scripture – a world, faith asserts, which expresses the mind of God.10

Communities of disciples are to examine the biblical story of discipleship as one that imagines a different way of living in the world, “and by imagining it, reveals it, and by revealing it, enables it to be brought into being within this physical space humans share with each other.”11

It is here that discipleship becomes distinct from the current popular notions of modern Christianity. The church, as a community of disciples, is to take seriously “the double movement of withdrawal from culture [and] increasingly see itself as a community which knows that its Lord is different from the lord of culture, its loyalties and values very different from the dominant consciousness of our culture.”12 Moreover, the church is to “live the life referred to in John’s description of Jesus’ followers as in the world, but ‘not of the world,’ grounded not in the world but in God.”13

Ultimately, the task of communities of disciples is “not to make the gospel credible to the world, but to make the world credible to the gospel.”14 In other words, discipleship involves becoming a part of a community that shows to the world that, through Christ, a different way of living has been made possible, one that requires active obedience fueled by the adoption of personally and socially transformative practices and habits.

Disciples, therefore, are to constitute a widespread community that take up physical space but without a necessarily fixed address; this community is to have a “very real impact on the life of the world” in that it “gains space for Christ.”15 As Brueggemann qualifies it, “the call to community is not to join an institution or to sign a pledge card; it is rather to sign on for a different narrative account of reality, one that is in profound contrast to the dominant account of reality into which we are all summarily inducted.”16

To be this kind of community means, “embodying God’s intentions for the world as revealed in Christ”; it is to embody a “new social order, the new-world-on-the-way.”17 This is ultimately accomplished by “having the patience amid the injustice and violence in the world to care for the widow, the poor and the orphan.”18 In this way, Willard asserts, “God’s promise to Abraham – that in him and in his seed all peoples of the earth would be blessed – is carried forward to its realization.”19 N.T. Wright, while reflecting on the Gospel of Mark, articulates the implications of what it means for the church as a community of disciples to gain space for Christ and his kingdom in the world today: it is “to abandon its imperialistic dreams on the one hand, and its passive non-involvement on the other, and to become for the world what Jesus was for the world. This is what discipleship, following Jesus, really means.”20

4.4 Concluding Remarks

If practical theology is a process of critical and theological reflection that is undertaken ‘for the sake of developing practices that faithfully reflect the actions and character of the triune God, as God has revealed God’s self in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus,’ then surely a recovery of the true nature of discipleship must be seen as an essential element of that process.

Disciples of Jesus, therefore, are to demonstrate to the world that to believe in Jesus is to understand that his message of good news is rooted within the present realities of life, and that to follow him requires a visible shift away from the dominant social, and cultural and political powers and into the world as imagined and revealed in Scripture and shaped by the teachings, example and practices of Jesus.

From this basis, those who respond to the call to discipleship by turning from the old to the new and taking tangible steps of obedience according to ‘the Way’ of Jesus, and who form communities whose practices and habits bear witness to the reality that, through Christ, a different way of living has been made possible, will be better equipped to ensure and enable faithful participation in God’s redemptive practices in and for the world

1 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 219.

2 Ibid., 226.

3 Lee C. Camp, Mere Discipleship: Radical Christianity in a Rebellious World (Grand Rapids: Brazos Press, 2008), 108.

4 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 372.

5 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Christian Life,” in The Hauerwas Reader, ed. John Berkman and Michael Cartwright (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2001), 372.

6 Ibid., 372.

7 Ibid., 374.

8 Ibid., 373.

9 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Church and the Mentally Handicapped: A Continuing Challenge to the Imagination,” in Critical Reflections on Stanley Hauerwas’ Theology of Disability: Disabling Society, Enabling Theology, ed. John Swinton (Binghamton: Haworth Pastoral Press, 2004) 56.

10 Luke Timothy Johnson, “Imagining the World Scripture Imagines,” in Modern Theology 14, no. 2 (April, 1998), 171.

11 Ibid., 172.

12 Marcus J. Borg, Jesus: A New Vision. Spirit, Culture and the Life of Discipleship (San Francisco, CA: Harper & Row, 1987), 195.

13 Ibid., 195.

14 Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 24.

15 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 236.

16 Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship,” 95.

17 Ibid., 115.

18 Stanley Hauerwas, “The Servant Community,” 375.

19 Willard, The Great Omission, xiii.

20 N.T. Wright, Following Jesus: Biblical Reflections on Discipleship (London: SPCK, 1994), 40.

3 versions of the same story (w/ sountrack from David Bazan)

From Matthew

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about [d]: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.

But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, [e] because he will save his people from their sins.”

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us“).

When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.

After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

” ‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
who will shepherd my people Israel.’”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and make a careful search for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

From Luke

In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.

From John

In the beginning the Word already existed.  The Word was with God,  and the Word was God.

He existed in the beginning with God.

God created everything through him, and nothing was created except through him.

The Word gave life to everything that was created, and his life brought light to everyone.

The light shines in the darkness,  and the darkness can never extinguish it.

God sent a man, John the Baptist, to tell about the light so that everyone might believe because of his testimony. John himself was not the light; he was simply a witness to tell about the light.

The one who is the true light, who gives light to everyone, was coming into the world.

He came into the very world he created, but the world didn’t recognize him.

He came to his own people, and even they rejected him.

But to all who believed him and accepted him, he gave the right to become children of God.

They are reborn—not with a physical birth resulting from human passion or plan, but a birth that comes from God.

So the Word became human and made his home among us. He was full of unfailing love and faithfulness. And we have seen his glory, the glory of the Father’s one and only Son.

Merry Christmas from the McLaren family!

Breaking the status quo takes practice

Read first – Simple obedience: Taking a first step

4.2 The role of spiritual practices in discipleship

While it has been argued that to be a disciple of Jesus is to follow his teachings and example, one must be careful not to focus exclusively on that which pertains to the Jesus’ ethics and in so doing ignore the fundamental role of spiritual habits and practices throughout his life and ministry.

As Dallas Willard notes, “if we take note of and follow Jesus in what he did when he was not ministering or teaching, we will find ourselves led and enabled to behave as he did when he was ‘on the spot’”.[1] If one is to take seriously the example of Jesus, one cannot neglect the fact that Jesus was regularly engaged in such spiritual practices as prayer, fasting, silence and solitude, practices which led into transformative, missional encounters with those in need.

In order to remain in a posture of readiness from which the disciple can hear and respond to the call to follow Jesus, it is important to adopt these – and other – practices and habits which have been developed over time by those who have sought to reorient their lives according to the Way of Jesus. For, as Brueggemann asserts, “discipleship fundamentally entails a set of disciplines, habits and practices that are undertaken as regular, concrete, daily practices.”[2]

These practices have been defined as “things Christian people do together over time to address fundamental human needs in response to and in light of God’s active presence for the life of the world,” and can include such things as “honoring the body, hospitality, household economics, saying yes and saying no, keeping Sabbath, discernment, testimony, shaping communities, forgiveness, healing, dying well, and singing our lives to God.”[3] These – and other – practices are to be “constituent elements in a way of life that becomes incarnate when human beings live in the light of and in response to God’s gift of life abundant.”[4] They are rooted “in a world created and sustained by a just and merciful God, who is now in the midst of reconciling this world through Christ. (They) address needs that are basic to human existence as such, and they do so in ways that reflect God’s purposes for humankind.”[5] Finally, when disciples engage in such practices, they “are taking part in God’s work of creation and new creation and thereby growing into a deeper knowledge of God and of creation.”[6] These practices are therefore fundamental aspects of discipleship in that they reorient one’s day-to-day life so that they become more in tune with the divine-human conversation and God’s intended purposes for that which he has created. Through these practices, disciples reverberate the redemptive and loving work of God and offer to the world a clearer picture of the rhythm and beauty that is the Way of Jesus.

The challenge for the disciple is that these practices are, in Brueggemann’s words, “not very exciting or immediately productive”; but, “like the acquiring of any new competence, [these practices] require such regimen, not unlike the learning of a new language by practicing the paradigm of verbs, not unlike the learning of piano by practicing the scales … not unlike every intentional habit that makes new dimensions of life possible.”[7] As John Swinton helpfully articulates, “by constantly employing them in our day-to-day experiences, by picking ourselves up when we fail to achieve them, and by persevering when they appear pointless, practices become habits.”[8]

As a result, these practices begin to define “the natural way that a person will respond to a particular situations”; therefore, “when engaged in regularly, Christian practices cease to become things that we simply do; instead, they become vitals aspects of who we are.”[9]  Whereas Jesus’ spiritual practices, teachings and mission flowed out who he was and is as both truly human and truly divine, followers of Jesus, through the process of engaging in these practices, can “increasingly become on the inside exactly what we are on the outside, where actions and moods and attitudes visibly play over our body, alive in its social context.”[10] In short, these practices, over time, “make following the master-teacher possible and sustainable.”[11]

Discipleship, therefore, “entails a) a resolve to follow a leader who himself has costly habits, b) in order to engage in disciplines that disentangle us from ways in which we are schooled and narcotized into new habits that break old vicious cycles among us, drawing us into intimacy with this calling God.”[12]

In order to follow Jesus, one cannot continue living in accordance with the status quo; tangible steps of obedience that move the disciple out of old and into new ways of living must be taken, and these steps are shaped by fundamental practices that develop within us a posture of readiness from which the call to follow Jesus can be answered in meaningful ways.

It is important, however, to frame the importance of spiritual practices and habits as not solely individual endeavors for the sake of personal transformation, and in so doing reinforce the mistake of individualizing one’s belief in Jesus and the salvific ‘benefits’ thereof. This is not to suggest that one’s salvation is tied into their ability to successfully engage in Christian practices.

Willard qualifies it in this way: “Grace is not opposed to effort, it is opposed to earning. Earning is an attitude. Effort is an action.”[13] To engage in these practices is to put in the necessary effort to be engaged in the process “of learning from Jesus Christ how to live in the Kingdom of God now, as he himself did.”[14] A link must be made, therefore, between more reflective and personal practices and those that Brueggemann refers to as “neighbor practices”[15], ones that demonstrate the reality of God’s kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

“Engagement in alterity is accomplished through daily, concrete neighborly practices of self-giving generosity, respect and affirmation”[16]; this is what it means to live in the Kingdom in the here and now, as Jesus did. Practices such as generosity, service, compassion and forgiveness are, according to Brueggemann, “profoundly countercultural in a society that is deeply lacking in the elemental ingredients of common humanness” and “amount to a deep challenge to dominant assumptions in our culture.”[17] Therefore, “to become a disciple is not a matter of a new or changed self-understanding, but rather to become part of a different community with a different set of practices.”[18]

A follower of Jesus must be aware of the fact that discipleship involves active participation in the present realities of the world; the adoption of spiritual practices and habits must not be undertaken solely with a view to personal transformation, but rather with a keen sense of the call to embody a different way of living, within the context of community and for the sake of the other.

[1] Ibid., 30.

[2] 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), 107.

[3] Craig Dykstra and Dorothy C. Bass, “A Theological Understanding of Christian Practices,” in Practicing Theology: Beliefs and Practices in Christian Life, ed. Miroslav Volf and Dorothy C. Bass (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2002), 18, 19.

[4] Ibid., 21.

[5] Ibid., 21.

[6] Ibid., 21.

[7] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 107.

[8] John Swinton, Raging With Compassion: Pastoral Responses to the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2007), 84.

[9] Ibid., 84.

[10] Dallas Willard, The Great Omission: Reclaiming Jesus’ Essential Teachings on Discipleship (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2007), 15.

[11] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 107.

[12] Ibid., 95.

[13] Willard, The Great Omission, 61.

[14] Ibid., 61.

[15] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 108.

[16] Walter Brueggemann, “Vision For a New Church and a New Century, Part II: Holiness Becomes Generosity,” in The Word That Redescribes the World: The Bible and Discipleship, ed. Patrick D. Miller (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2006), 192.

[17] Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 108-109

[18] Stanley Hauerwas, ‘Discipleship as a Craft, Church as a Disciplined Community,” Christian Century 108, no. 27 (1991), 884.

The Way of Discipleship: Taking a First Step

the way

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.

New Testament Discipleship after the Gospels

The final section of chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship.

Catch up here:
3.1 Discipleship in the New Testament
3.2 The call of Jesus: Discipleship as a turn towards something new
3.3 The Sermon on the Mount: A different Way
3.4 Jesus as the embodiment of good news: Discipleship as mission

3.5 Discipleship after the Gospels

The biblical heart of any conversation in regards to following Jesus is naturally to be found in the Gospels. As the reader moves through the New Testament, however, the question becomes what to do with the concept of discipleship when Jesus is no longer physically present on earth.

While this leads into a discussion on the present implications of discipleship, one must be careful not to suggest that everything in the Gospels can be carried over for all early and subsequent would-be followers of Jesus; as Brueggemann suggests, “it is a huge leap from these biblical summonses to our own time, place, and circumstance.”1 This is true even as the New Testament moves from the Gospels into the post-resurrection texts.

From a literary perspective, the four gospels and the book of Acts allude to the ongoing and ever-present call of discipleship in their somewhat ambiguous endings. As Morna D. Hooker argues, the endings of each of these texts convey the message that “the story that has been told is the work of God, and its continuation depends on those to whom it is entrusted.

In their various endings, each of our writers urges us to turn the end into a beginning, and to continue writing the story for ourselves.”2 Ernest Best would argue that it is precisely through the Gospel endings that the Way of discipleship is made possible: “through his cross and resurrection, (Jesus) creates the very possibility of journey for (his disciples); the judgment which should fall on them is taken away and they are freed.”3 In that sense, discipleship can be seen as “a gift, and not simply a call.”4 It is through the cross and resurrection, therefore, that Jesus is able to continually extend the gracious call to discipleship.

Ultimately, as Best points out, the journey of discipleship is open-ended in that “the leader of the Way is alive … the cross is not the end with heaven beyond. The cross is the beginning and always on the way: but the way is at the same time the way of the risen life, of the new possibility of service, and of that here.”5 This comes back to Peterson’s emphasis on the designation of ‘the Way’ for the early followers of Jesus who, freed to embody the teachings and example of the risen and living Jesus, engaged not only in the process of recording the early steps of this movement, but also in constantly wrestling with what it meant to hear and follow the gracious call of Jesus in their particular here and now.

Outside of the Gospels, aforementioned terms used to delineate the concept of discipleship are, in Longenecker’s words, “conspicuously absent”.6 The terms ‘disciples’ and ‘follower’ are replaced by functional substitutes that further highlight a sense of discipleship as the putting into practice of that which had been seen and heard, and that which was now being revealed by Christ through the Spirit. As Longenecker points out, the other New Testament authors offer “statements regarding the nature of Christian existence” and “exhortations urging that the truths of these statements be put into practice.”7 He points out that, often in Paul’s letter, and also in the letters of John, the nature of discipleship is given shape through the use of the term peripatein, which means ‘to walk about’ or ‘to conduct one’s life’; this is tied into the call “for believers to be ‘imitators’ (mimetes, or with the verb mimeomai) and/or to reflect in their lives an example or pattern (typos, hypotyposis).”8 To invoke the language of imitation is to reframe discipleship in terms of active response, one that takes seriously the call to turn from the old to the new and be shaped by the teachings and example of Jesus.

In Philippians, for example, Paul outlines a pattern of discipleship that “is less a matter of belief than of practice, less a matter of orthodoxy than of orthopraxis, less a matter of what one thinks that how one lives.”9 For Paul, therefore, imitation is not to enact a verbatim reproduction of Jesus’ words and actions, but rather to reorient one’s attitudes and actions according to the pattern of living that was introduced by him.

Another way that Paul picks up the nature of discipleship is through his use of holiness language, specifically in 1 Thessalonians. In this text, it is argued that Paul sets out a pattern for following Jesus wherein “the distinguishing sign or boundary marker of authentic Christian existence, what separated believers in Christ from those of the world, is holiness.”10 Much like the call made to Israel at Sinai, and reminiscent of the teachings of Jesus through the Sermon on the Mount, Paul argues, “Holiness was the defining characteristic and desired purpose for Israel, God’s covenant people. It was the attribute by which the people of God were to be distinguished from all other nations.”11 And as a newly formed people of God living in the post-resurrection era, “that they were to observe the boundaries of holiness that the new covenant marked out for them … and the key to living such lives of holiness is the present and ongoing presence of God’s spirit.”12 Paul, therefore, rightly emphasizes that to follow Jesus means to be in tune with the Holy Spirit; to be a disciple is to uphold the reality that Jesus is alive and continues to speak to his people through his Spirit. Paul reminds the reader that the Way of Jesus is the way of the Spirit, and vice versa.

The reality of this is evidenced back in the Gospels, at the point of Jesus’ baptism. Mark 1:10 tells us that the Spirit descended upon Jesus when he was baptized, and this account is given very early in Mark’s Gospel because, according to Hurtado, “baptism is where the life of discipleship begins.”13 In the chapter on baptism in Discipleship, Bonhoeffer argues the following: “what the Synoptics describe as hearing and following the call to discipleship, Paul expresses with the concept of baptism.”14 Those who are baptized “now belong to Jesus Christ. Having been rescued from the rule of this world, they now have become Christ’s own. Baptism thus implies a break … the old has passed away, and the new has come.”15 Therefore, baptism inducts one into a different way of living in the world, according to the teachings and example of Jesus. Camp outlines the implications of this in the following statement:

At the heart of baptism lies an astonishing claim, an astonishing reality: all the division, all the social groupings, all the forms of identity, that serve to categorize, divide, estrange, and alienate one from the other – those are broken down. There is, for those who have been clothed with Christ in baptism, a new identity, an identity that transcends race, economic class, ethnic grouping and citizenship.16

To be baptized is to make visible the decision to throw away the old and embrace something new; it is to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit who enables the disciple to travel down the Way of following Jesus, the Way of the risen life. It is to boldly declare that a different way of living has been made possible in accordance with the teachings and example of Jesus.

The twenty-seven New Testament texts, while having been written by several authors on different occasions and for different reasons, clearly articulate that in order to travel down the Way of Jesus, one cannot continue to live in accordance with the status quo; he calls all those that wish to follow him to repent and believe his message of good news, to embrace his teachings, and to participate in his mission of good news to the poor and marginalized.

These texts, however, are simply a record of the beginnings of the new way of living that has been made possible by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, a new way that is rooted in the present realities of the world and seeks to embody the teachings and example of Jesus in meaningful ways. The unremitting task, therefore, is to articulate what it means to follow Jesus in the 21st century.

1 Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship,” 95.

2 Morna D. Hooker, Endings: Invitations to Discipleship (Peabody: Hendrickson Publishers, 2003), 83.

3 Ernest Best, Following Jesus: Discipleship in the Gospel of Mark (Sheffield: JSOT Press, 1981), 246.

4 John B. Webster, “The Imitation of Christ,” Tyndale Bulletin 37 (1986), 100.

5 Ernest Best, Disciples and Discipleship (T. &. T Clark Ltd: Edinburgh, 1986), 15.

6 Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 5.

7 Ibid., 5

8 Ibid., 5.

9 Gerald F. Hawthorne, “The Imitation of Christ: Discipleship in Philippians” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 166.

10 Jeffrey A.D. Weima, “How You Must Walk to Please God: Holiness and Discipleship in 1 Thessalonians,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 99.

11 Ibid., 101.

12 Ibid., 112.

13 Hurtado, “Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark – and Beyond,” 26.

14 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 207.

15 Ibid., 207.

16 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 152.

Discipleship As A Relentless Love Of Neighbour

Here continues chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship

3.1 Discipleship in the New Testament
3.2 The call of Jesus: Discipleship as a turn towards something new
3.3 The Sermon on the Mount: A different Way

3.4 Jesus as the embodiment of good news: Discipleship as mission

The focal point of discovering what it means to follow after Jesus is found in his mission. Upon discovering that the beginning point of discipleship is a call to repent and believe, and then examining the essence of Jesus’ teaching, one can begin to examine the Gospel descriptions of Jesus’ earthly ministry in order to uncover what it means to be a disciple in practice.

Mark begins his gospel with the following introduction: “The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). Larry Hurtado asserts that this introduction by Mark infers that “Jesus’ ministry is the ‘beginning’ of the message and the mission to which all future disciples are summoned – the source, ground, first cause or foundation from which the mission and preaching of the Christian church proceeds and by which all its activities are to be measured.”1

Discipleship, therefore, is to learn from the example of Jesus and participate in the ongoing story of the kingdom that he himself inaugurated in his earthly ministry; his ministry was but a beginning point, a glimpse into the transformative power of the kingdom of God now present in the world and to be embodied by all those that wish to follow him.

The fundamental nature of being a disciple as described in the New Testament, therefore, “was to take part in Jesus’ mission.”2 In doing so, Jesus’ disciples become “the middle link in a chain of tree parts: Father/Son – disciples – world.”3 Through Jesus, “God has drawn near to usher in a new reality that is to be enacted and effected by human missioners who act boldly on the basis of the proclamation that they themselves accept as true and as the basis for an alternative life in the world.”4 That alternative life is a return to the way that things are meant to be in God’s good creation; for the disciple, it involves being called out of commonly accepted modes of living according to the dominant social, cultural and political powers of the day and to participate in the redemptive work of God in the midst of the daily realities of life. The essence of that redemptive work lies in proclaiming and enacting good news for the poor and marginalized, the breaking down of common social boundaries and, finally, the great commandment to love the neighbour.

It is clear that Jesus’ understanding of his vocation and mission involved delivering good news to the poor and marginalized. Evidence for this can be found in Luke 4:17-21, where Jesus reads aloud the words of the prophet Isaiah declaring the good news that was to be brought forth through him, and in Matthew 11:5, when Jesus tells John’s disciples to relay a message back to John in regards to all that was happening, actions which included the delivery of this kind of good news. Frank Thielman contends that “just as Jesus comes to fulfill Isaiah 61:1-2a by bringing good news to the poor, freedom to the captives recovery of sight to the blind and liberty to the oppressed, so his disciples must follow this example and accept the physically and economically vulnerable.”5 The brand of good news that Jesus was proclaiming involved action, and discipleship, therefore, entails the meeting of needs.

In fact, as Camp argues, “the path of discipleship calls us to a life of consistently practicing a giving and sharing that seeks to meet, however we can, the needs of the weak and impoverished, ever remembering that in serving the poor we are serving Christ.”6 Practical examples of this are seen throughout the books of Acts, specifically in 2:45 where we read of early followers of Jesus selling their possessions in order to meet the needs of the poor. If discipleship involves participating in the ongoing mission of Jesus, then to be a disciple of Jesus means to meet the needs of the poor and marginalized.

A second aspect of Jesus’ mission was to include and embrace those who were seen as being outside of the bounds of God’s promises to his faithful people, the ‘sinner’ and the Gentile, for example. Jesus “came to call precisely those whom the most religious of his fellow Jews rejected as having put themselves outside the scope of God’s covenant provision.”7 Luke 5:29 provides an example of Jesus eating with sinners and tax collectors, and examples of this table-fellowship can also be seen in Matthew 11:19 and Mark 2:16. There are also three parables in Luke’s gospel which demonstrate Jesus’ desire in terms of the attitude of his disciples towards sinners, those on the ‘outside’ – they are to “extend acceptance to sinners just as Jesus accepted tax collectors and sinners.”8

Jesus’ disciples must, like Jesus himself, embrace all people; his disciples “should extend salvation to the poor, the sinner and the ethnically other.”9 And “as the followers of Jesus imitate the inclusive work of their Lord, God will use them to accomplish his purposes of bringing salvation to the disenfranchised.”10 This is not a salvation that looks only to heaven, but rather is rooted in the present realities of life wherein all must know that they are welcome in God’s kingdom.

Perhaps the greatest example Jesus gives in relation to this embrace is in the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), wherein he essentially redefines and reframes any popular notions of neighbourliness – all are to be shown mercy, all are to be shown the embodied love of Christ, regardless of their social, political, religious or economic background. This parable demonstrates the reality that disciples of Jesus are not to be absorbed by these external factors, but are called to break them down so that all may know that they are welcome in God’s kingdom. This sense of inclusion flows out of the core distinguishing mark of discipleship: the love of one’s neighbour.

I. Howard Marshall asserts the following point: “the clearest common motif in many of the (New Testament) sources, especially in Jesus, Paul and John, is undoubtedly the love command. Its centrality in the behavior of disciples is obvious in all three cases.”11 The command to love one’s neighbour is repeated in all three synoptic gospels (Matthew 22:39; Mark 12:31; Luke 10:27); John emphasizes the importance of love within the community of disciples (John 13:34-35); and Paul picks up on the centrality of love in Romans 12.12

What makes the love command so crucial is that it is not merely some sort of detached doctrine to be adhered to internally, nor is it to be reserved for God alone, but rather it forms a mode of living that must be embodied in order to show the world what God is like and what he cares about. In the words of Craig Koester, “Jesus was sent to communicate God’s love to a world alienated from its Creator, and the Gospel(s) assume that discipleship means continuing to engage the world in this way.”13

Furthermore, “the command to love one another means that Christians bring to the world not only a doctrine about love but an alternative society, a counterculture in which the message of Jesus takes lived form. The love that is shared within in it is a form of witness to those outside it, so that the world may know that the love of God is real (John 17:23).”14

The command to love, therefore, encapsulates the essential elements of discipleship – being called out of the old to the new in order to engage in the present realities of the world according to the teachings and example of Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are to be defined by their capacity to love the other, and it is this relentless love of the other that sets the kingdom of God apart from any other way the world can know.

1 Larry W. Hurtado, “Following Jesus in the Gospel of Mark – and Beyond,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 27.

2 Dunn, Christianity in the Making, 558.

3 Frank Thielman, Theology of the New Testament: A Canonical and Synthetic Approach (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2005), 209.

4 Brueggemann, “Evangelism and Discipleship”, 99.

5 Thielman, Theology of the New Testament, 136.

6 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 200.

7 Dunn, Jesus’ Call To Discipleship, 71.

8 Thielman Theology of the New Testament, 137.

9 Ibid., 138.

10 Ibid., 138.

11 I. Howard Marshall, New Testament Theology: Many Witnesses, One Gospel (Downer’s Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 2004), 724.

12 Ibid., 724

13 Craig Koester, The Word of Life: A Theology of John’s Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2008), 188

14 Ibid.,195.

The Sermon on the Mount: A different Way

Here continues chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship

3.1: Discipleship in the New Testament
3.2 The call of Jesus: Discipleship as a turn towards something new

3.3 The Sermon on the Mount: A different Way

The Gospel writers present Jesus as one who taught in a number of ways – through stories, by how he lived, and through a series of extended discourses. A central discourse is found in Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount. Here, Jesus gathers a crowd and offers a fresh word to them. It is a scene that is all too reminiscent of Exodus 19-20, words spoken by God to Israel concerning how they were to live in the world; the Sermon on the Mount, therefore, is not to be seen as a new teaching, but rather “as the recovery of what has been God’s will all along.”1 And that will was to call out a people through whom the world would know what God is like.

Jesus’ teaching in this discourse was based on “the proclamation of the inbreaking kingdom of God, which brought an end to other kingdoms.”2 As Jesus brings forth these words, the following becomes clear:

The kingdom of God belongs to those … who are poor in spirit, who are deeply aware of their own inadequacies, failings and rebellion; the kingdom belongs to those who are merciful in response to injustice; the kingdom belongs to those who love even enemies. The way of the kingdom of God stands in stark contrast to the way of the kingdoms of this world.3

Central to this intended contrast is the word of Jesus concerning the disciples as “the salt of the earth”, “the light to the world,” and “a city on a hill” (Matthew 5: 13-14). On one hand, these three metaphors were used to suggest that disciples of Jesus are “to be focused not only on heaven, but are reminded of their mission on earth.”4 At the same time, Jesus’ disciples were to be “a community living a righteous life of such visibility that others will be led to give glory to God;” they were “make visible the reality of God’s reign in the midst of the old order.”5 Therefore, the Sermon on the Mount emphasizes the reality that discipleship does indeed involve a turn from the old to a new way, and involvement within the present realities of the world.

One might read this section of Matthew and raise the question of whether or not these teachings of Jesus were meant to be applied within the scope of daily life. For Hauerwas and Willimon, to focus on this question is to miss the point altogether; rather, we are to ask, along the lines of what Keck has suggested, “what if all this is not new and more stringent rules for us to observe but rather a picture of the way God is?”6 The teachings of Jesus simply cannot be separated from who he was and is as God’s Son and the perfect embodiment of God’s kingdom come. For Jesus to speak and act in the way that he did was simply an expression of his identity as both human and divine; there was literally no other option. Therefore, “the basis for the ethics of the Sermon on the Mount is not what works but rather the way God is.”7

As Burridge argues, “Jesus’ ethical teaching is not a separate and discrete set of moral maxims, but part of his proclamation of the kingdom of God as God’s reign and sovereignty are recognized in the here and now.”8 Jesus’ words from the Mount, therefore, must be understood as part of “his whole preaching about the kingdom of God, to which a response is sought to his call to wholehearted discipleship in a life lived in community with others who also respond.”9 While, as Bonhoeffer rightly suggests, “there are countless possibilities of understanding and interpreting the Sermon on the Mount”, the reality is that “Jesus knows only one possibility: simply go and obey. Do not interpret or apply, but do it and obey. This is the only way that Jesus’ word is really heard.”10 In order to resist this hermeneutical trap and in so doing distance ourselves from these words spoken by Jesus, we are unmistakably called to follow the example that he left.

1 Leander E. Keck, “Ethics in the Gospel According to Matthew,” Iliff Review 41 (1984), 51.

2 Stanley Hauerwas & William H. Willimon, Resident Aliens: Life in the Christian Colony (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 1989), 87.

3 Camp, Mere Discipleship, 55.

4 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 111.

5 Donaldson, “Guiding Readers – Making Disciples: Discipleship in Matthew’s Narrative Strategy,” 45, 48.

6 Hauerwas & Willimon, Resident Aliens, 85.

7 Ibid., 85.

8 Burridge, Imitating Jesus, 61.

9 Ibid., 76.

10 Bonhoeffer, Discipleship, 181.

A Turn Towards Something New

Here continues chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship

3.1: Discipleship in the New Testament

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.

17Ibid., 77.

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

Defining Discipleship

Here begins chapter three of my Aberdeen Master’s dissertation entitled Following Jesus in the 21st Century: A Practical Theology of Discipleship. To recap:

Chapter Three

Discipleship in the New Testament

As with many aspects of New Testament theology, it can be difficult to ascertain an overarching sense of continuity and synthesis from the different authors. In regards to the topic of discipleship, it can be argued that “each of the New Testament writer’s presents the concept of Christian discipleship in a manner related to his own ideological background and perspectives, the perceived needs and understandings of his audience, and the specific details of the situation addressed.”1 As a result, the New Testament texts may offer quite different portraits of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. One could easily look specifically at Matthew, Mark, Luke, John or Acts and enter into a prolonged discussion on the topic from the perspective of what the individual author presents as the relevant material.

Nevertheless, according to James Dunn, “it is essential to scrutinize the records of the original discipleship of Jesus, in order to gain insight into the spirit and character of that discipleship, in order to get some kind of yardstick by which to measure one’s own discipleship.”2 He further goes on to argue that the New Testament texts are essential in regards to understanding discipleship because “the events and sayings of Jesus’ ministry which called them to discipleship, which shaped the character of their discipleship, or which provided the model for their discipleship will have been among the Jesus traditions which the first disciples were most eager to preserve and pass on.”3 Therefore, while being written from a variety of different perspectives, the New Testament, as the record of the beginnings of the movement known as ‘the Way’, is inherently built upon the teaching and example of Jesus and later conversations in relation to what it meant to follow along on that ‘Way’.

While one must be careful not to assume that discipleship in the New Testament automatically translates into today’s context, it does provide the 21st century reader with a decipherable pattern of discipleship anchored in the teachings and example of Jesus Christ.

3.1 Defining Discipleship

To begin, it is important to articulate exactly what one is referring to when they invoke the terms ‘disciple’ and ‘discipleship’ in relation to the New Testament. In the gospels as well as in the book of Acts, the most common term employed is mathetes which, when translated from the original Greek, renders the meaning of disciple to be ‘follower’, ‘adherent’ or ‘student / pupil’.4 This term is a derivation of the verb manthanein, which means ‘to learn’, and is frequently used by the gospel writers to refer to those who follow Jesus – approximately 68 times in Matthew, 44 times in Mark, 34 times in Luke and 73 times in John.5

It is interesting to note, however, that the New Testament authors do not employ a term for ‘discipleship’ within the scope of their writings. Rather, “the verb ‘to follow’ (akolouthein) and the adjectival principle ‘those who follow’ (hoi akolouthountes) appear regularly in the Gospels to identify the crowds who thronged around Jesus.”6 These terms are not only used in reference to the multitudes, but are also used 14 times by the gospel writers in the sense of following Jesus specifically as his disciple, inferring that there is a more personal ingredient involved in following Jesus than to physically trail behind him. 7 To be a disciple of Jesus, therefore, requires a deep commitment; it involves more than “simply to go around with him as the crowds do. It is to follow in the way that is life, to follow his teachings and his example.”8 But, as Karl Barth notes, the use of the verb akolouthein – which he translates as ‘to go after or behind someone’ – rather than the noun akolouthesis, meaning ‘discipleship’, should inform us from the outset “that we are dealing with an event that cannot be enclosed in a general concept.”9

Discipleship in the gospels, therefore, is encapsulated in the act of following, walking with and listening to Jesus, but appears to be more open ended than the learning of and strict adherence to general rules and principles.

Discipleship in the New Testament points us back to the divine-human conversation that has been taking place since the moment of creation, as discussed in the previous chapter. On one hand, this conversation is “continued and perfected in Jesus because in him God addresses humanity in and through a human being who speaks God’s word and with God’s authority.”10 This is the basis for the call to discipleship as outlined in the New Testament; God’s authoritative word freshly spoken through Jesus. And at the same time, “Jesus is not just the one who speaks God’s word, but he is also the one who first listens to God’s address and follows it in perfect obedience.”11 As Eugene Peterson puts it in his biblical paraphrase, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood” (John 1:14a, The Message).

In doing so, Jesus demonstrates and embodies the reality that God continues to call people to live faithfully to the reality that he is Lord over all creation, and that he is deeply interested and involved in the present realities of the world. This is to be the witness of all those who wish to follow him. Based on this initial sketch, it will henceforth be argued that discipleship involves the following: to be called out of old ways of living in order to embrace something new; to hear and be shaped by the teachings of Jesus; and to be engaged in the present realities of the world in accordance with the example of Jesus and his message of good news for the poor and marginalized.

1 Richard N. Longenecker, ed., Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 4.

2 James D.G. Dunn, Jesus’ Call To Discipleship (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 3.

3 Ibid., 4.

4 Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, s.v. “Disciples.”

5 Longenecker, Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, 2.

6 Ibid., 4.

7 Ibid., 4. Longenecker cites a few key examples of the more personal usage of these terms, which can be found in Matt. 9:9; 19:21; Mark 1:17-18; Luke 5:11; John 1:43.

8 Melvyn R. Hillmer, “They Believed in Him: Discipleship in the Johannine Tradition,” in Patterns of Discipleship in the New Testament, ed. Richard N. Longenecker (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1996), 77.

9 Karl Barth, The Call to Discipleship (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2003), 6.

10 Christoph Schwobel, “God as Conversation: Reflections on a Theological Ontology of Communicative Relations,” in Theology and Conversation: Towards a Relational Theology, ed. J. Haers & P. De Mey (Leuven: University Press, 2003), 56.

11 Ibid., 56.