#009: Discipleship is a Journey to a Better World
The Second Sunday after Pentecost, or the First Sunday after Trinity (Proper 7)
Readings: Zech 12:8-10, 13:1; Ps 63; Gal 3:23-29; Luke 9:18-24
This was a familiar scene between Jesus and his disciples.
After feeding the five thousand (Luke 9:10-17), Jesus is now praying in private with his disciples and he asks them, “Who do the crowds say I am?” His disciples have a list of answers: “John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still, others that one of the prophets of long ago has risen.”
Jesus asks them again, “But who do you say I am?” To which Peter replies, “The Christ of God” (the NIV says “God’s Messiah”)—a very correct answer from Peter. Jesus then warns them not to tell anyone.
Discipleship as Apprenticeship
A disciple or mathétés (μαθητής) is constantly with someone who has a practical set of views (or skills) intending to learn from them. Discipleship is an apprenticeship.
A wise or skilled person will have a group of people sitting at his feet with the view of learning the craft from him/her. Through observation, listening, and inquiry, the apprentices acquire the necessary skills and knowledge. The same is with discipleship.
But discipleship is not academic, where knowledge acquisition is tested by having the learner write a 3,000-word research essay complete with well-formatted endnotes. Our education today is so cerebral, it focuses so much on head knowledge, but not how that knowledge shapes the way we feel and act. People who can cram information without necessarily applying it are the stars of 21st Century ‘learning’.
Discipleship is not like that. It is a slow process of listening, observing, thinking, imitating, consulting, failing, and trying again. The goal of discipleship is not straight A’s, no, it is a journey.
The most critical question to the disciples’ apprenticeship was, “Who do you say I am?” This question although subjective is an important one. Let us say you desire an apprenticeship with a literary genius like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. You must know who Ms. Chimamanda is and what makes her the kind of person you want to learn from. You should know that she has written books such as Purple Hibiscus, Half the Yellow Sun, Americanah, We should all be Feminists, Dear Ijeawele, and Notes on Grief among others. You should also know that she has been a recipient of the MacArthur Genius Grant and the Pen Pinter Prize. In other words, your desire to apprentice with Ms. Chimamanda should spring from your self-knowledge of her reputation and work.
And so with Jesus. The question, “Who do you say I am?” seeks to establish him in our hearts and minds as someone worth following. But Jesus is not like Ms. Chimamanda. He is greatly misunderstood, and it seems to make sense that he would be the one self-identifying himself before his disciples.
He says, “The Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.” This list, it has to be said, does not sound like a Messiah who would conquer the Romans.
At the centre of Jesus’s self-identity are suffering, rejection, dying—rather getting murdered—, and resurrecting. The old hymn says “Alas! and did my Saviour bleed / and did my Sovereign die!”
Now let me ask you a question. “Considering the self-identity of Jesus, the Messiah, what would you as his apprentice be learning from him?” What do you think?
I want to introduce another concept vital to discipleship: Pilgrimage.
This is from Eugene Peterson’s A Long Obedience in the Same Direction. He says that disciples are people who spend their lives going someplace—to God. The disciples are not only apprenticing at the feet of Jesus, but they are also on a journey. They are pilgrims.
This narrative is part of the beginning of Jesus’s journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. While his disciples will learn so much from him, they will also go with him wherever he goes. His suffering, rejection, death, and resurrection do not happen anywhere, there is a specific place for them: Jerusalem. So, he must go, and them likewise, as pilgrims.
In vs 23-24, he says “If anyone wants to become my follower, he must deny himself, take up his cross daily, and follow me. For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life because of me will save it.” Now, there is one obvious thing here: the crux of discipleship is following Jesus. Then, there is something else. Where does this road lead?
If a follower must carry their cross (a sign of death) every day, and follow Jesus, what he is saying is that the pilgrimage of his disciples leads them into his passion. To follow Jesus is to go with him into his agony, shame, fear, pain, bleeding, and death. This is in line with last week’s sermon on participating in the life of God.
A Better Way to Think and Talk about Salvation
Another important thing to point out is how we think or talk about the mystery of salvation in the economy of the Christian gospel. We normally think of salvation as something which takes away some undesirable condition or thing in our lives. If it's pain, we think of salvation as the healing of that pain. If it's shame, the taking away of that shame. In short, salvation has been preached and taught as being saved from some undesirable condition. But listen to the scriptures.
From verse 24 above, it is evident that salvation is not about being saved from the cross (death), rather it is about being saved in the cross. You are not saved from losing your life, rather you are saved in losing it. John 14:5-6 says, “Thomas said, “Lord, we don’t know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus replied, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”
Here is what I want you to see in the verses above: First, I have already pointed out that pilgrimage involves going with Jesus where he goes. Second, Jesus is the way to the place he is leading his disciples. Third, he is the very thing he is leading his disciples to: life.
Let me explain.
The difference between an unsaved life, and a saved life is Jesus. Those who desire salvation go through him. But we already know that he accomplishes our salvation in suffering, rejection, bleeding, dying, and resurrecting. Therefore, our salvation in him cannot come apart from how he accomplishes it. We are saved in him who is “The Son of Man [who] must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, chief priests, and experts in the law, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.”
God’s Final Word and World
All this is a little bit scary but not God’s last word. I hope you noticed that the last word is the resurrection. You see, Jesus says in John 16:33 that this world has so much tribulation on offer, but he has overcome this world. Death and suffering cannot have the final word in God’s Kingdom.
All this is not to say that our pain and suffering earn us trophies which we can cash in at the Jesus booth for a key that opens the pearly gates of heaven. That would be salvation by works. Christian salvation is by grace through faith (see Eph 2:4-9).
In our epistle reading (Gal 3:23-29), Paul writes about the benefits of Christ’s death and resurrection for his followers. “For all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (v 27). Why? Because we are now sons and daughters of God by faith (see v 26). We are one in him.
Remember when I said that the goal of discipleship is not straight A’s but it’s a journey? That journey leads disciples on Jesus who is the straight and narrow path to a destination that is our God’s residence in the New Jerusalem. John while exiled on the Island of Patmos gets a vision of this place. It’s a picture so incomprehensible that even our imagination is too small to capture it. He says,
And I saw the holy city—the new Jerusalem—descending out of heaven from God, made ready like a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying: “Look! The residence of God is among human beings. He will live among them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death will not exist anymore—or mourning, or crying, or pain, for the former things have ceased to exist.” (Rev 21:2-4, emphasis added)
Imagine a pilgrimage leading to a land where our eyes will have no tears to shed, death will be a foregone conclusion, and you and I will never see a tear borne out of mourning, pain, and suffering. That is the residence of God, and discipleship prepares us for that land.
Would I be wrong if I said that the best is yet to come?
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit,