In this, the third of a series of essays celebrating Servants Year of Discipleship, Kristin Jack ponders exactly what we, and what Scripture means by this term…
Most Christian literature on the subject describes discipleship as including such things as “learning Bible truth, applying that truth to everyday life, becoming like Christ, sharing Christianity with others, serving the church, and fulfilling the goals God has personally set for each person” (The NIV Student Bible Dictionary), all of which is true.
But as part of my search for a deeper understanding of our discipleship I have found myself increasingly drawn to Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, from Matthew’s Gospel, chapters 5-7. In these incredible words of Jesus, acclaimed as containing the most radical and revolutionary ethics ever uttered by any one, any time, any where, we have the core essence of Christian discipleship – both the goals and the process for getting there.
The very words Matthew uses to begin this passage sets the stage for the revelation to follow. “He went up on a mountainside”, a spatial figure used in Scripture to symbolize drawing close to God; followed by “and He sat down to teach them” – the posture a Rabbi would adopt when he was about to impart something of the utmost importance to his followers .
The literal translation then goes on to say “and then He opened his mouth”, a Greek phrase indicating an immanent utterance of supreme gravity, courage and transparency (Barclay, p.8-9, 1963). In fact, New Testament scholar William Barclay sums up the Greek constructions used in Matthew 5:1-2 as indicating that Jesus was about to deliver the core or summary of his whole message to his disciples; that he was about to deliver the ‘essence of the essence’ (ibid, p. 10).
Theologians and ethicists Stassen and Gushee, in their wonderful book ‘Kingdom Ethics’, present evidence from church history that correlates with this claim. Research on early Church documents shows that for the first (approx.) 300 years the Sermon on the Mount was the single most quoted piece of Scripture evoked for teaching, discipline or doctrine. The Church fathers regarded it as the essence of the essence, and as the key to Christian discipleship. It was only after the ‘conversion’ of Emperor Constantine and the co-opting of Christianity by the State that the Sermon began to lose it central place in the church’s teaching. It was simply too threatening for the powers-that-were, and so it was sidelined and spiritualised away.
Take some time to read slowly and meditatively over Matthew chapters 5 to 7, and the even more radical and concrete Lukian version in chapters 6, verse 12 to 49. Here, truly, are contained all the essential elements of discipleship: humility, sacrifice, gentleness, hunger for justice, thirst for righteousness, mercy and compassion, peace-making and non-violence, courage, good works, obedience to the law (scriptures), self control, reconciliation, sexual purity, relational fidelity, truth and honesty, love in action (even for enemies), integrity v’s hypocrisy, prayer, fasting, materialism, fear v’s faith, worry v’s trust, judgementalism v’s grace, spiritual sustainability – and that’s just a cursory summary! It takes a life time to unpack the challenges crammed into these 3 short chapters. And it definitely takes a life of experimentation and trial and error to try and live them out. But that of course is one of the great principles behind Christian discipleship…the standard is incredibly high, requiring total reliance on the Holy Spirit for us to get anywhere near it…and then having to rely on the forgiveness and grace of God each time we fail, as indeed we so often will. Ah, but it is in the trying that the glory of God is found, in doing what some have called our ‘experimenting with the Lordship of Christ’.
As I have been studying the Gospels these past few months, something else has caught my attention. We see that all those who were following Jesus in an active, day by day path of obedience, who were hearing his teachings and seriously seeking to apply them, were known as ‘disciples’ (or apprentice-learners). But from this larger group, Jesus chose 12, who he gave a further designation, that of ‘apostle’ (Matthew 10.1-2, Mark 3:16, Luke 6:12-16). Now, to demystify this scary word a bit, we need to remember that ‘apostle’ simply means ‘one sent on a mission’; more specifically, one sent on a mission with a message, and with the delegated authority of the sender. Or in other words, a missionary or missioner, depending on what school you’re from. Now I believe that many, perhaps most of us in Servants, are called to be apostles – apostles to the poor, the dispossessed, the outcast, the least and the last. We have a message – of liberation from oppression, sin and evil for the poor (Luke 4:18-19), and we have been given the power and authority to see that message take effect (Matthew 10.1, 28:18-20). We have been sent (whether it’s across town, or across the globe), to the poor. And the situations we find ourselves in normally require us to be innovative, pioneering or entrepreneurial in our approach to ministry among the very poor. These are all functions of being called to apostolic mission.
First and foremost, all of us are called to be disciples: that’s what it means to follow Jesus. And then we are called to be apostles too. There is a direct correlation between these two callings, for it’s only by being faithful in our discipleship with Jesus that we can come into our authority as apostles or missionaries.
Apostleship flows out of discipleship. It’s only by spending time getting to know and follow Jesus that we can call others to know and follow him. It’s only by being obedient to his teachings that we can call others to obedience. And it’s only by being filled with his love that we can love others.
[Kristin Jack is the Asia Coordinator of Servants, he lives with his wife Susan and two kids, Kaleb and Emma, in an urban poor community in Cambodia.]