“If we would follow Jesus we must take certain definite steps. The first step, which follows the call, cuts the disciple off from his previous existence. â¦ The first step places the disciple in the situation where faith is possible. If he refuses to follow and stays behind, he does not learn how to believe.”
–Dietrich Bonhoeffer/ The Cost of Discipleship
Discipleship has been a topic that I have been wrestling with a lot. Mainly because discipleship is such a buzzword (much like community). Everyone talks about wanting discipleship in the church, in their lives, but sometimes I wonder if we really understand what it means. We have ideas, but I think that lot of our ideas about discipleship are more cultural, than they are Biblical. We tend to think of discipleship in terms of steps, which in return will produce results. Immediate results. We want it now. Instant discipleship. Eugene Peterson discusses this issue in his book A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. The title sums up the message of discipleship, which is a “long obedience in the same direction.” Interesting that Peterson uses the phrase of the German philosopherFriedrich Nietzsche from his book, Beyond Good and Evil, where he states, “The essential thing in heaven and earth is . . . that there should be a long obedience in the same direction; there thereby results . . . something which has made life worth living.” Discipleship is not something that allows for shortcuts. If shortcuts is what we want, than discipleship is not for us. It does not allow for that.
The word disciple (mathete in Greek) means someone who is a “learner…who is apprenticed to another.” In discipleship, we are learners, who learn from Jesus Christ. When we follow Him, and take up the call of discipleship, we become apprenticed to him. Like any apprenticeship, it involves close study, long hours, trials, experiments, successes and failures. It involves a close intimacy, often involving one on one learning, or small group learning. Apprenticeship is just not something that can be done in a large group. Discipleship becomes impersonal and non-intimate when it takes place in a large crowd. I would even argue that discipleship for the most part can not take place in a crowd.
You understand this in your own life. When you were in college (or those of you in it now) you may have had a large lecture hall with hundreds of students, and you were lucky if you even showed up to class. Now my students just take the notes from online, and may occassionally show up to the class. Not much apprenticeship or learning takes place in this environment. That is why when students become more serious about their major and begin to think about graduate school or a future career, they tend to want to take up a teacher assistant position, or intern in an environment where they can get hands on experience. The same is true of discipleship. We only truly learn what it means to follow Christ when we move out of the crowd and into a more intimate and relational environement where learning, and apprenticeship can truly take place. There are many reasons for this, though I will take them up in another post.
But the call of Jesus Christ upon our life is a call that moves us out of the crowd and into a relationship with Himself and others, where we live and learn together what it truly means to follow Christ. No text teaches more thoroughly on discipleship in my opinion than the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7. It begins:
Matthew 5:1-2 (NIV)
1Now when he saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, 2and he began to teach them saying:”
There is this idea where Jesus sees the crowds that are now following Him. And who can blame them. His popularity by this point has begun to grow, as he has moved from town to town healing people, casting out demons. And so the crowds follow Him. But for true discipleship to take place, I believe Jesus sees that there must be this calling out of disciples away from the crowd, away from the masses. And so the passage again says (this time in the Message):
Matthew 5:1-2 (The Message)
1When Jesus saw his ministry drawing huge crowds, he climbed a hillside. Those who were apprenticed to him, the committed, climbed with him. Arriving at a quiet place, he sat down 2and taught his climbing companions. This is what he said:”
Interesting nuances that Peterson brings out in the text. Jesus sees huge crowds following Him, and so he climbs a mountain, calling out to those who are truly committed to Him, to follow Him. This is where the crowd and disciples are separated. This is where committment and discipleship is separated from group thinking and popularity contests.
These disciples whom He has called will be His companions that He lives in close, intimate relationship with. He will be their teacher, and they will be apprenticed to Him as they learn what it means to be a disciple. I believe this is how discipleship often begins. Jesus has put a call upon your life, and He is asking you to step out of the crowd and away from the masses so that you can learn from Him. Discipleship can not be learned in the crowd, because it requires no committment…because there is no relationship in a crowd. But moving out of the crowd into a group, or into a one on one partnership, requires relationship. It requires committment.
Jesus has called you out of the crowd, up to the mountain so that He can begin a relationship with you, and teach you all that He knows. Not so that you can keep it to yourself, but rather, so you can go back down the mountain and become a teacher to those in the crowd. It is interesting that a mountain is what He climbed, and that those who wanted to learn from Him followed Him up, while the others stayed below. Climbing a mountain is hard work, so most of us don’t climb. Discipleship is hard work, so most of us don’t become a disciple.
The beautiful thing about this passage, and about discipleship is that it requires you not to live up on the mountain, only soaking in mountain top, camp experiences. Rather, it requrires of you that the true work of discipleship is in the world. So the disciples will not stay on the mountain, but will descend, and will go out into the world. Discipleship is a call upon your life that demands of you to go back out into the world, but this time as an apprentice to Jesus Christ, and not someone who is lost in the crowd. Jesus does not forget about the masses, but rather has given us some of the responsibility of being a disciple to them.
But more on this another time.
As we begin this dialogue on discipleship, there are some books I want to recommend. I have already listed above, Peterson’s book, “A Long Obedience…….” No one writes better on discipleship than Eugene Peterson. Where some pastors and theologians are content with programming and quick steps, and instant salvation, Peterson understands the long, hard, grueling work of following Christ, and of being a disciple and making disciples. That’s why I recommend and love his new book, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology. It is amazing. Like discipleship, this book is a slow, long read, that must be thought through, and read over and over again. I must also talk about Dietrich Bonhoeffer because his work, The Cost of Discipleship, is one of the seminal works in this area. It transformed my life when I was in college, and it continues to do that.
Looking forward to the conversation…..