Discipleship (1)

 

What were the apostles sent out on mission to do? What did Jesus want them to achieve? What did he hope would result from their efforts?

 

There are a variety of possibilities. It may be that Jesus simply sent them out to see what would happen. Or he may have envisaged their venture as a training expedition, an opportunity to practise living by faith: the main beneficiaries would be the apostles themselves, any good they did would be a bonus. Then again, it is possible that he sent them to specific villages, to stay with people he knew and to minister to particular groups of people with a certain end in mind. We do not know.

 

We do not know, and actually, it does not matter, because, as we have seen, their business was the process of mission, rather than the end results. He wanted them to pay attention to how they acted, rather than to what they achieved. He did not want them to focus on the quantity or quality of the resources available, but rather on what they were to do with them. The faith they preached was to be the faith they practised and the faith that was generated in others. Faith was the message, the means and the outcome.

 

But was faith to be the only “product” of their mission? Were other outcomes irrelevant? Or was the purpose of their mission to generate an increase of faith so that then other outcomes might become possible? And if so, what other outcomes might Jesus have had in mind? How might he have imagined them? What was his “vision” for those he met, those he worked with, those he encountered along the way?

 

Nazareth had taught him the scale of the need, the depth of fear and the many ways in which it fed resistance to the idea that God loved people and longed for them to live life to the full. It was one thing to encounter vociferous opposition from those with a vested interest in the religious and political status quo. It was something else entirely to discover such a profound lack of faith amongst his family, friends and neighbours. This was a society in which a person’s primary support network was their kinship group. As the saying goes: With my brother against my cousin; with my cousin against the world. The bonds of loyalty, hospitality, honour and trust within a family were highly valued, generally respected, even sacred. For Jesus, the fact that his own family did not accept the gospel, or could not accept him as the bearer of it, was deeply and personally painful. But he converted his pain into positive action by developing and expanding his mission. He despatched the Twelve in pairs to teach and to demonstrate just how much God can do for those who have so little.

 

Jesus challenges his disciples’ assumptions about what mission is and how they prepare themselves to “venture out”. Mark has recorded Jesus’ surprising instructions because they challenged the Christians for whom he was writing. It is therefore worth asking whether this is an approach we should be applying more generally to his gospel.

 

What did Jesus want the apostles to achieve? He wanted them to

practise seeing potential in the people and situations they encountered

help others elaborate their personal and corporate visions of abundant life

practise the strategy he had given them for turning those visions into reality

teach others, by their words and example, this same strategy

by these means, establish and encourage a creative, life-giving, self-replicating dynamic of positive change, aimed at generating abundance for all

In all likelihood, he hoped that wherever the apostles went, and whoever they met, and wherever they stayed, they would help people change the way they saw the world and themselves in it. And that, by means of this change of perception, a ripple of creative change would spread through the villages and towns of Galilee, transforming an experience of famine into God’s intended feast.07:29

link to call narrative, ability to see & hear, willingness & ability to see signs)

What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus? Mark gives us several clues as he describes Jesus calling and relating to his disciples, particularly the apostles, the Twelve[1], but in general it is a form of “on the job” training. As disciples, we follow the master, sharing in his life until we are utterly identified with him; absorbing his teaching until it expresses who we are; and practising his “way” of dealing with events and people until we embody his “spirit”, his way of being in the world.  

 

Mark describes Jesus calling his first disciples at the very beginning of his preaching tour of Galilee. But the call is more than an invitation. He also tells them how he intends to work with them and what he intends to teach them. They are fishermen: they know how fish behave and can therefore anticipate where they may be found. Jesus respects their experience, wisdom and skill in this regard and offers to add to it a similar understanding of people. He will train them to see what people search for, what they feed on, what they need and what gives them life.

However, the disciple does not “catch” people in the way that the fisherman catches fish. The disciple is not called to manipulate or coerce people into a trap which then robs them of air, freedom and life itself. On the contrary, the disciple is called, not just to proclaim the good news, but to be good news for others, by showing them that God is near and that God is love. As bearers of hope, disciples can help people to have faith and persevere in the “Way” until their first small changes in their manner of living become a major transformation which reveals the height and depth and breadth of God’s power.

 

As disciples we are called, then, to extend and deepen our understanding of creative process, the way in which people develop confidence in themselves, in other people, in life itself and in God.   Faith in Jesus is part of this larger mix and inseparable from it for faith is indivisible. If I do not have faith in myself, it is unlikely that I will have much faith in other people and I will probably struggle to believe – to really believe in the depths of myself – that God loves me and that I can trust God with all that is important to me. Or I might profess such a faith in God, and/or claim Jesus as my Lord and Saviour, but not act as if it is true. Or I may only have any assurance when I am surrounded by other people who claim to be sure, or when I feel extreme sensations, or when I belong to a group that worships in a particular style, talks a particular kind of religious language, achieves great things or takes large leaps in terms of service, campaigning, giving or evangelism.

 

We are inclined to measure successful discipleship in terms of the number of “fish caught”: the number of people who come through the door on a Sunday or on other days of the week; or in other statistics such as amounts donated, conversions attested, members admitted, disciples formed. However, these are only crude markers as to the overall health of group: it is true that they may indicate a growing sense of confidence, conviction and momentum in a congregation or movement, but they do not necessarily prove that the group is thriving – gaining in life and in its ability to be life-giving to others. They may even indicate the opposite: that the group is a parasitic growth, attracting inquirers by apparent success, grandiose claims and large promises; drawing people further in by playing on their vulnerabilities; then manipulating their fears to ensure that they do not question the demands made by those in authority.

 

True discipleship is a creative process which develops our confidence in ourselves and our abilities as well as our willingness to place a greater trust in God. Disciples in the manner of Jesus are formed in groups, congregations and movements which are sustained by a healthy dynamic: one that increases our trust and consequently our compassion, generosity, courage, conviction and creativity. True disciples are trained to work independently as well as in teams or groups; we need to be able to stand on our own feet and trust our own judgement as well as listen to, and collaborate with, others. We are not only taught to recognise the authority of Jesus and the authority of those who have oversight in our group; we are also taught how to exercise the authority he has given us. True discipleship sets us free to be our best and truest selves, to be the best that we can be.

 

The “fish caught” attitude to thinking about mission focuses our attention on product just at the point where Jesus wants us to think about process. His “Way” sees mission - not as a task to be done nor a goal to be achieved - but rather as a way of creative thinking, an attitude of flexible, compassionate generosity towards situations and people which enables them to discover and release the life of God in each moment. Jesus proclaimed the presence of God by making it possible for the life of God to work. He thought, spoke and related to others in a manner which smoothed the road – raising the valleys and lowering the mountains, as the prophet put it – so that the obstacles which made it hard for people to believe that God loved them were removed.

 

In that sense, John the Baptist, Jesus himself, Jesus’ disciples, Mark and Mark’s readers – past and present - are each in their turn the “messenger” sent ahead of the King so that the King can become present and real and alive for people who feel his absence. The good news they bring is not the announcement that God is close to us, but the fact that they are so attractive in character and action that we want to be close to the God they serve. The messenger understands not only that believing is hard work, they also understand why it is hard work and what we need to see happen so that we decide that the graft is worthwhile. They enable us to believe by showing us One who knows our need before we ask; One who knows that my need is mine and not the same as my neighbour’s; One who gives each of us precisely what we long to receive. The task of the disciple is to prepare the way by being people through whom God’s grace can flow swiftly and smoothly to touch people at the level of their deepest wound.

 

Discipleship today. proclaim the good news by being good news. Prepare the way of the Lord by encouraging others, boosting their confidence, showing that they have faith in what they can achieve. makes a straight path for the Spirit by helping others to believe.

The disciple helps others to believe by believing in themselves, by believing in other people and yes, by believing in God. Individuals who struggle with low self-esteem, who do not trust other people and who feel that the world is against them find it easier to have faith because the disciple shows them what God’s love is like and how it might be possible for God to love them. Yes, even them.

 

The disciple shows that it is possible for a flawed and fallible human being to enjoy and share the life of God. The disciple knows that it is not what happens to us which defines us, but how we choose to respond to it. The disciple is just as easily hurt as anyone else - just as liable to be tired, mistaken, ill, depressed, misunderstood, angry, grieving, worn down - but the disciple chooses to respond to these ordinary trials of life as creatively as possible.

 

The disciple draws upon the example and teaching of Jesus to do this. Jesus’ vision of God as abundant life and love allows them to live lightly, entrusting their anxieties to God so as to sustain a compassionate engagement with the world.   Jesus’ teaching on faith as a process which creates abundance encourages them to raise their game when prolonged hardship or acute suffering afflict them.   And by applying Jesus’ strategies they can generate the resources they need to address adversity, hostility, wrongdoing, limitation, injustice, failure and death.  

 

The disciple is formed by faith, hope and love; practising until these values govern a large proportion of their thoughts, words and deeds. They doubt, but choose to have faith. They are wounded, but choose to love. They may be dying, but they choose to hope. Few of these choices are instinctive or habitual or automatic: for the most part this is learned behaviour and it is slowly, gradually, awkwardly learned. But the more the disciple practises, the more they learn and the more instinctive, habitual and automatic their creative response becomes.

 

It is this process which defines the “Way” of Jesus Christ; which makes that “Way” good news and which therefore makes the disciple of the “Way” good news, too. Like a farmer scattering seed, Jesus offers good news to all. Like the host at the feast, he feeds all who come to him. He will fill us with good things; touching and healing and blessing every aspect of ourselves; affirming the broken, branded and bleeding parts that we prefer to keep hidden. But he challenges us to give as well as receive and the closer we are drawn to him, the more persistent this call becomes. He calls us to become hope-bearers, life-bringers, freedom-singers, generators of new possibilities, people who stimulate fresh understandings, seers who have glimpsed a broader horizon and who can point others to the road heading in that direction.      

 

The good news of Jesus Christ for our age is that it is always possible to make a creative response to the problems that assail us. However great our fear, however terrible the enemy, however complete the annihilation that threatens to overwhelm us, there is always a way on, a way through, a way beyond.

Long life and happiness are not guaranteed. Specific forms of prosperity may elude us. We may fail to find what we seek in some areas of life, whether it is material wealth, a loving marriage, a quiver-full of children, academic achievement, satisfying employment, artistic fulfilment. But despite disappointment and failure, we can find a path into gratitude, contentment and personal peace: a peace within which becomes the peace we share.

This is a process, a journey, a way, Jesus’ “Way” and we travel on until – perhaps even through - the moment of death. Most importantly, this “Way” of Jesus prepares us to be at our most creative when, like him, we are faced by challenges, adversity, hardship and suffering. It enables us to remain more centred, secure, stable and mature, when all is shaking around us because we are drawing strength from within us, rather than from the opinion of others or our external circumstances.

 

We can do this because through our discipleship we have learned how to find what will feed us, sustain us and support us even in arid and difficult environments. And as we apply what we have learned, we discover the Passion promise of Jesus: life in the face of death; abundance in the wild; a feast even in the presence of our foes; grace in the wilderness.

  

[1]Mark 1.16-20, 35-39; 3.13-19, 31-35;

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