From 2015 to 2018 I preached a series of messages on the Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspective. This messaged was preached in 2017. Article 17: Discipleship And The Christian Life.
In the feeding of the five thousand, the disciples tried to persuade Jesus to disperse the crowds after teaching them so that they could go and get food from the surrounding area, but Jesus challenged his disciples to feed the crowd themselves. What followed was Jesus’ teachings coming to life.
To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. “He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth.” When they hurled their insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.1 Peter 2:21-23 NIV
Discipleship and the Christian life is the 17th article in our confession of faith. The focus of this article is to explain what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, specifically, how being a disciple makes you different from non-disciples.
Mennonites have, from the beginning, taken Jesus’ example and teaching fairly literally so when Jesus said “love your enemies” he meant that we should actually love our enemies and not hurt them. Jesus had the power and the right to destroy his enemies, but instead he took an undeserved punishment and died for others. The apostle Peter reminds us that this is the example we are supposed to follow.
From the first paragraph of Article 17 of our confession: We believe that Jesus Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him. Through the gift of God’s saving grace, we are empowered to be disciples of Jesus, filled with his Spirit, following his teachings and his path through suffering to new life. As by faith we walk in Christ’s way, we are being transformed into his image. We become conformed to Christ, faithful to the will of God, and separated from the evil in the world.
An important question to answer is what does it mean to be a disciple? Not just a disciple of Jesus, but in general, what does it mean to be a disciple?
Scripture often uses the term disciple and teacher or rabbi. The picture that this might create in our minds is the modern version of students and teachers at school. Most of us have gone to school and it’s this format of classrooms, teachers and students, that we often imitate at church.
In our modern schools, students take knowledge from many teachers on multiple subjects and commit it to memory. The expectation in our schools is that when we acquire the knowledge or skills, we will be able to pass a test the proves we have acquired the knowledge or skill.
Between Jesus and his disciples the expectation was probably different than our modern idea of students and teachers in schools. The disciples weren’t expected to just take knowledge from Jesus and pass an examination, they were expected to become like Jesus and we see this in a couple of places in the Gospels. In Luke 10, when Jesus sends out the 72 disciples, he is sending them out to represent him and prepare the places for his arrival. To do this, he gives them power to do the things he has been doing. In Matthew 10, Jesus says “The student is not above the teacher, nor a servant above his master. It is enough for students to be like their teachers, and servants like their masters.”
When our confession says “We believe that Jesus Christ calls us to take up our cross and follow him.” we mean that the intent of being a disciple is to imitate Jesus in our lives, not learn scripture so we can pass a written exam.
This raises another question: Do I have to give up being a computer programmer because Jesus was likely a carpenter or construction worker before he became a full-time preacher and miracle worker? Do I have to do exactly what Jesus did? No. When Jesus called Peter he told Peter he would still be a fisher, but of people. Peter still went back to fishing later. The intent is not to be Jesus, but be like Jesus. It is similar to the words we find in creation where all humans, male and female, are made in the likeness of God. We are not God. We are not Jesus. But we are like God and we are like Jesus when we live like Jesus lives.
And so while I might not give up doing computer programming, I do give up being a computer programmer because I have become a disciple of Jesus. Being Christian changes everything and in some cases it does mean stopping your day job.
The Christian life
The people of Israel constantly struggled with idol worship. Even after being saved by the one true God from slavery and then being instructed not to make idols, the Israelites made a golden calf, and called it the god who saved them.
“Now fear the Lord and serve him with all faithfulness. Throw away the gods your ancestors worshiped beyond the Euphrates River and in Egypt, and serve the Lord. But if serving the Lord seems undesirable to you, then choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve, whether the gods your ancestors served beyond the Euphrates, or the gods of the Amorites, in whose land you are living. But as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord.”Joshua 24:14-15 NIV
The people of Israel came from a polytheistic tradition where their ancestors worshiped many gods. Abraham broke with his family’s tradition when he changed allegiance to the one God and moved away from home, probably as a way to separate his family from the temptation to return to worshiping those gods. And still, Abraham’s descendants struggled with following the one and only God. In the same way, the Christian calling is one of devotion to become part of a new family, leaving the old ways behind.
From the confession: The experience of God through the Holy Spirit, prayer, Scripture, and the church empowers us and teaches us how to follow Christ. […] Through grace, God works in us to recreate us in the image of Christ, himself the image of the invisible God. […] By the new birth, we are adopted into God’s family, becoming children of God. Our participation in Christ includes both salvation and discipleship.
One of the major themes throughout scripture is God’s family. Just like Abraham was called out from his homeland to leave his biological family and polytheistic faith, we are called to leave our biological family allegiances and make a permanent allegiance to God’s family. Becoming a Christian doesn’t mean you abandon your biological family, but your allegiance is to Christ above all else.
In what ways do we fit in, like everything else, and in what ways do we stick out?
So do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.Matthew 6:31-33 NIV
Some of Jesus’ teachings, like this scripture, contrasted what living should look like as a part of God’s Kingdom compared to the rest of the world. Our confession continues this idea by taking Jesus’ teachings and explaining a few of the ways that it creates a different attitude towards life, just like “worry” is an attitude of this world and seeking God’s Kingdom is what Christians do instead.
From our confession: Conformity to Christ necessarily implies nonconformity to the world. True faith in Christ means willingness to do the will of God, rather than willful pursuit of individual happiness. True faith means seeking first the reign of God in simplicity, rather than pursuing materialism. […] True faith means giving first loyalty to God’s kingdom, rather than to any nation-state or ethnic group that claims our allegiance. […] Our faithfulness to Christ is lived out in the loving life and witness of the church community, which is to be a separated people, holy to God.
The message is this: when we follow Jesus, we will distinguish ourselves. In the past, most Christians understood the idea of being separated as not associating with anyone else except those in the church, but that would go contrary to the example that Jesus set. Jesus spent time with people that no one else would: outsiders, outcasts and untouchables. And when Jesus spent time with these outcasts, it wasn’t just Jesus, but Jesus and his disciples, whether they liked the idea or not.
What does it mean to live in the world and not conform to it? Is it OK, for example, for a Christian to go to a bar? Do you think that Jesus would go to a place like a bar? Maybe, he did go to a tax collectors house for a party. Most people get hung up on the part about going to the bar, but the more important question is this: If you went to a bar, how would you distinguish yourself as a disciple of Jesus?
All areas of life
When I played basketball in high school or pick up basketball in the years that followed, I would often forget what it meant to be a disciple of Jesus while I played. It’s easy to forget who we are following and that’s when we end up on the wrong path.
“Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.”Matthew 7:13-14 NIV
If being a Christian is easy, then you are likely doing it wrong. Jesus warns his disciples more than once that following him is difficult. This is something that our confession highlights at the end of article 17.
From our confession: In all areas of life, we are called to be Jesus’ disciples. Jesus is our example, especially in his suffering for the right without retaliation, in his love for enemies, and in his forgiveness of those who persecuted him. Yet, as we follow Jesus, we look not only to the cross, but through the cross, to the joy of the resurrection. […]
I would guess that almost all of us do not live as disciples in all parts of our lives. There is often a few places where we forget to follow Jesus. Gossip, or talking ill of someone when they are not there, is a common pitfall, that Christians often justify, but there are plenty of other places where we choose to forget who we’re following.
When it comes to areas of your life where you don’t follow Jesus, you have 2 options as a disciple: (1) Pretend you don’t have a problem and justify your behavior or (2) Confess to God that you need help and allow the power the Holy Spirit to transform you yet again.
There are two paths, the wide easy way that is a dead end and the narrow hard to find path that leads to life. It is not enough to allow only part of your life to be transformed by Christ, it must all be transformed. When grocery shopping, when getting treated rudely, when talking politics, when watching TV, when browsing the Internet, when going out to eat, in all the mundane parts of life as well as on Sunday morning, we must distinguish ourselves as disciples of Jesus.
A discipling church
Where does most of the discipling happen? Is it on Sunday mornings, during our preaching time and during Sunday School? No. Most of our discipling has happened in our homes and within our family structures.
Before I became a Christian, I grew up watching my parents. At some level, they knew they were modeling Christianity to me, but did they realize that what they showed me meant more to me than Sunday school classes? Maybe those of us that are parents realize this already. Maybe not. Discipling within the church is very limited and most often unintentional, that is, we don’t do it in a formal way like Jesus did. Jesus had disciples that spent a significant portion of their time with him to see how he lived out his teachings.
Paul grew up understanding what a rabbi was and what a disciple was. A group of disciples would spend a significant amount of time with their teacher to learn how to be like the teacher, not just in one subject, but in living life. When Paul began his mission to the Gentiles, there were places, like Corinth, where the people didn’t have this Rabbi-disciple understanding so Paul had to use a new way of explaining the idea of discipleship. In the NIV Bible translation, they use the word guardian, but it is effectively a tutor or teacher for a particular subject or subjects. What was a common practice in Roman families was to have a child tutored or trained by one or more teachers or guardians in multiple subjects, kind of like how we send children to school, except that I think that the teachers came to the house. The idea is that the children would be trained in a generic fashion until they got older, at which point, the father would take the child, who now understood the basics in many subjects, and he would teach them the family business and how to apply all the teachings to life and work. The father would train the child to be like him, to continue the business after him.
Paul warns the Corinthians not to rely just on teaching because they need to model their life after a parent so that they can apply the teachings to living life:
I am writing this not to shame you but to warn you as my dear children. Even if you had ten thousand guardians in Christ [or teachers in Christ], you do not have many fathers, for in Christ Jesus I became your father through the gospel. Therefore I urge you to imitate me. For this reason I have sent to you Timothy, my son whom I love, who is faithful in the Lord. He will remind you of my way of life in Christ Jesus, which agrees with what I teach everywhere in every church.1st Corinthians 4:14-17 NIV
Paul is a disciple of Jesus who was discipled by the apostles. Timothy has been discipled by Paul and in turn, Timothy will continue the work of discipling the Corinthians, to be with them so that they can see what it means to be Christian. To apply the teachings to life.
What does it mean to be a discipling congregation? When we teach children in Sunday School about Jesus, we are telling them that the Bible is just another school subject, like math or history, to be learned in a class room at school and to memorize the teachings. That being Christian means to go to a church building on Sunday mornings. We might tell them how to apply Jesus’ teachings to life outside the church, but it’s not the same as showing them by letting them see how you do it in your own life.
Discipleship is so much more than teaching, it is seeing teaching in action. Some of Jesus’ most memorable moments came at unexpected and sometimes mundane times. Like when Jesus was hungry, tired and thirsty after a long journey and he sat down by a well to rest while his disciples went off to get food. It’s then that Jesus asked a Samaritan woman for water and this mundane moment became transformation for an entire village. Or when the disciples were arguing, while walking down the road, about which of them was the greatest and Jesus taught them that a true leader was a servant to everyone and he showed them by washing their feet.
In what ways do we at church do discipleship intentionally or formally? Do we have teachers showing students what it means to live as a Christian in our lives outside the church building?
In what ways do we disciple by accident, or unintentionally. Where do we demonstrate what it means to be a Christian without having people understanding that they are a student and there is a teacher?
Just like the Corinthian church, we have to be careful to distinguish what is teaching and what is discipleship. To truly teach our children what it means to imitate Jesus, we must imitate Jesus in a way they can see what it means to live in the world, but not conformed to the world.