by Reverend Dr. Victor Shepherd
1] "How many disciples did Jesus have?" Don't say "twelve". He had dozens more than twelve. On one occasion he sent out seventy-two. On the day of Pentecost one hundred and twenty were gathered in one place. Luke speaks of "a great crowd of disciples". Then is a disciple anyone who happens to be within earshot of Jesus and might be remotely interested in him? Not at all. For in the one verse where Luke speaks of a great crowd of disciples he also speaks of "a great multitude of people". It is plain that Luke, like every gospel-writer, draws a distinct line between the disciples (who follow Jesus) and the multitudes (who don't). Then who are disciples? Simply, disciples are those who respond to Christ's call.
We should notice that different gospel-writers use a different word for "call" inasmuch as they wish to highlight a different aspect of our Lord's call. Mark uses a Greek word which has the force of "invite"; Luke, a word which has the force of "summon". Mark tells us there is a winsomeness, a courtesy, a gentleness to an invitation; Luke tells us there is an urgency, an imperative, even an ultimatum to a summons. Put together, that call by which our Lord still calls men and women into his company is a winsome invitation which is also urgent, as well as a summons which is yet gentle. On the one hand our Lord does not coerce us into joining him; on the other hand, he does not allow us to think that joining him or not joining him is a matter of whim or taste. His invitation is a summons, and his summons an invitation. He issues his call to every human being. Everyone, without exception, needs to become a disciple, and everyone, without qualification, is welcome.
2] Then what about the twelve? The number twelve is a symbolic number everywhere in scripture. There were twelve tribes in Israel, twelve tribes in the people of God. When Jesus appoints "the twelve" as part of his own mission, he is saying that his mission gathers up and carries forward what God aimed at in establishing the twelve tribes; his mission, in fact, is God's renewal of Israel. The apostolic mission is a renewal movement within the people of God. Furthermore, just as the twelve tribes of Israel were formed, ultimately, for the sake of God's blessing the world, so the mission of Jesus Christ (symbolized by the twelve) has to do with the world's blessing.
We must be clear about something crucial today: while the twelve men symbolize Christ's mission, that mission is much wider than the twelve. Our Lord's mission includes and uses everyone who has heard his call and heeded it, everyone who has resolved to keep company with him and follow him.
3] We have used the word "disciple" several times today. What does it mean? It refers to the follower of any movement. Moses had disciples. So did the Pharisees. So did John the Baptist. All of these leaders attracted people who were serious about the teaching and outlook of the leader. The Greek word for disciple, MATHETES, simply means pupil or learner. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be his pupil or learner.
Now in learning anything there is something to be understood, something to be grasped mentally. And certainly we who are disciples of Jesus must always be learning in this sense. (Our master, after all, is a teacher who is always teaching.) Yet we must not think that discipleship is a head-trip, book-learning only, as it were. In the older testament the word "disciple" (learner) refers to the pupils in the music school of the Jerusalem temple. To be sure, all music pupils receive instruction in the theory of music; but no music pupil receives instruction in theory only. Music pupils have to sing or play; they have to make music, not merely scribble it. The music pupil has to do the very thing that embodies the instruction she has received.
To be a disciple or learner in the company of Jesus is not merely (not even chiefly) to receive religious instruction; it is to learn how to live a Christ-shaped life in the midst of a world which resists this. I am not minimizing the place of instruction. My point, however, is this: discipleship aims at equipping us to live.
There is another dimension to Christian discipleship. The distinctive mark of the disciples of Moses or the pharisees or John the Baptist was the appropriation of teaching. But the distinctive mark of Christ's disciples is their personal allegiance to Christ himself. Not only did his disciples call Jesus "rabbi, teacher"; they also called him "Lord". That is, they were utterly devoted to him himself, not merely to his teaching.
4] In order to grasp more clearly what discipleship means we should look at someone who didn't become a disciple, that affluent fellow whom we used to call "the rich young ruler". Mark speaks of him simply as "a man"; Matthew, "one". "One came up to Jesus", "A man came up to Jesus". The gospel-writers deliberately say no more than this so that every gospel-reader can identify with the fellow. The man kneels before Jesus. People did not kneel before a rabbi: that would be blasphemous. Clearly the fellow recognizes Jesus as eversomuch more than a rabbi. He says he wants to inherit eternal life; that is, he wants to share in God's own life. He tells Jesus he has kept all the commandments from his youth. Jesus doesn't suggest that he hasn't. Jesus simply says, "Sell what you own and give away the proceeds: you've got too much junk cluttering up your life. Then come and follow me." The man's face falls, for he owns much, and he walks away sad. And -- be it noted -- Jesus lets him walk away.
For years preachers have used this story to make hearers feel guilty. ("Have you given away all that you own?") Or else preachers have used this story to relieve hearers. ("The fellow didn't walk away from Jesus because he was rich; rather, because his possessions possessed him.") Both approaches miss the point. The point isn't where the line is drawn concerning wealth on one side of which I can be a Christian and on the other side of which I can't. The point isn't whether I can be a Christian with one car, two cars, or three cars. (While we are discussing this text we might as well admit that Jesus owned a cloak so fine that soldiers thought it worth gambling for. Clearly Jesus had never given it away.) The point is much more elemental: is the man willing to join himself to Jesus and become a follower? The man says he has kept the commandments. Jesus insists that following him is the meaning of keeping the commandments. If the fellow isn't willing to become a disciple now, a follower of our Lord, then his commandment-keeping has nothing to do with eternal life; nothing at all. The man thinks he has obeyed God in scrupulously keeping the commandments. Jesus tells him that commandment-keeping is only the outer form of obeying God, the shell, as it were. The inner heart of it all, that which genuinely shares in the life of God himself, is joining oneself -- right now -- to the one before whom the fellow has knelt. The man walks away from Jesus holding on to his possessions. The point of the story isn't that the man's possessions have "hooked" him; the point is that he does not believe Jesus when Jesus says, "Get rid of the junk that is cluttering your life, follow me, AND YOU WILL HAVE TREASURE IN HEAVEN." The man does not believe that following Jesus is rich; so rich, in fact, that alongside these riches his bank account looks like scrip from a game of Monopoly. You see, a major consequence of becoming a disciple is this: in the presence of Jesus Christ SECONDARY MATTERS ARE RECOGNIZED AS SECONDARY. To be a disciple is to be so "taken" with Jesus that everything else pales. To be a disciple is to find Jesus so winsome as to love him, and so compelling as to obey him. Years after the gospel encounter we are probing now St.Paul wrote the congregation in Philippi and spoke of "the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord". It is precisely the surpassing worth of knowing Chris that enables the apostle to relativize everything else. Whether fame or anonymity; whether affluence or material leanness -- what does it matter alongside the surpassing worth of knowing Jesus? Disciples are those whose hearts melt when they see and hear the master; they know they shall have treasure in heaven; they follow; and they are admitted most intimately to God's own life here and now.
5] What happens when men and women, of any era, become disciples? Most tellingly, our Lord renders us kingdom-oriented people; as we gradually become kingdom-oriented, we lose whatever ideological baggage we have brought with us. Let us be sure of one thing: our Lord is going to change us; he is going to make us different people. He is Lord. He has authority to create and to destroy; to mould and to fashion; he will certainly exercise his authority here with you and me. Jesus calls Simon. "Simon", he says, "I have a better name for you: Peter, `Rocky'" He calls two brothers, James and John. "Boanerges", he names them, "Sons of thunder". Where there is thunder there is also lightning. "In the kingdom-work I have for you", our Lord continues, "I expect you brothers to electrify others; I expect you to be seen and heard unmistakably." For the Hebrew mind a change of name always means a change of nature. To be sure, it would be a long time before Peter became rock-like. It may have been longer still before the two brothers flashed and rumbled in service of the kingdom. The point is, Jesus is sovereign. He calls us as we are but never allows us to remain this. He renders us kingdom-oriented and useful for kingdom-work.
As he does this he relieves us of the ideological baggage we have brought with us. Within the smaller group of the twelve we find Simon the zealot and Matthew the tax-collector. Zealots and tax-collectors were at opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. The zealots hated Rome and sought to rid Palestine of Roman occupation through terrorism and sabotage and cold-blooded throat-cutting. Tax-collectors, on the other hand, made a personal fortune through cozying up to Rome and collaborating with Rome. They were self-serving, opportunistic traitors. Jesus calls into his company both traitor and terrorist, both the arch-friend of Rome and the arch-foe of Rome. He is going to have them live together. He will also move both of them beyond their ideology. The kingdom of God is neither bloodcurdling terrorism nor opportunistic treachery. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of God. It is neither laissez-faire capitalism nor socialism. The kingdom of God is the kingdom of God.
Jesus continues to call. People continue to respond. As we do we bring our idiosyncratic ideologies with us. This person wants the church of Jesus Christ to be a setting for group therapy. That person wants it to be the bastion of law and order in the streets. Someone else wants it to be a voice for pacifism. Unquestionably Jesus calls all such people (that is, calls all of us) into his company. As we keep company with him, however, he moves us all beyond our hobby horses; he equips us to discern his kingdom and exalt it.
Several years ago a bestseller appeared in the USA, The Man in the Grey Flannel Suit. It was supposed to be a book about Jesus. It portrayed him as a successful businessman whose kingdom-pronouncements were actually sure-fire business techniques. Books appear now depicting Jesus as a Latin American revolutionary, or as a proponent of existential philosophy, or as the guru of mood-altering psychology. He is none of these. We are to become none of these. As disciples we are to be rendered kingdom-oriented and made kingdom-useful.
Our Lord does this to you and me; that is, he relieves us of our ideological baggage by directing us again and again to the written gospels. As we become steeped in the written gospels he steps forth to meet us, and steps forth startlingly different from the hobby horses that we project onto him. As he does this, he renames us, remakes us (however long it takes), and renders us children of the day, as St.Paul says, children of the light.
6] What are disciples to do? All disciples are to do three things: we are to announce that the kingdom of God has come; we are to cast out demons; and we are to heal the sick.
To say that we are to announce the kingdom is to say we are to announce that the sovereign rule of God is effectual in Jesus Christ. And because the sovereign rule of God is effectual in Jesus Christ, death has been defeated. Death is not the last word. Deadliness, however evident in our midst, is not the final truth and reality of our lives.
Sickness is a manifestation of death; sickness is death-on-the-way. Yet Jesus Christ has overcome death. Therefore we are to heal the sick as a sign of Christ's effectual sovereignty over humankind.
Evil is the power of death running wild. Evil is the power of death chaotically disrupting and disfiguring everything that God has pronounced good. Therefore we are to cast out the demons (that is, resist evil) as a sign of Christ's effectual sovereignty over the creation.
To say that all disciples are to announce the kingdom is not to say that all disciples are to become preachers, any more than the mandate to heal means we should all become physicians. Most disciples will announce the kingdom not by preaching but simply by embodying the truth and reality of the kingdom of God. Most disciples will heal not by performing surgery or prescribing medicine but by being beacons of hope and help in the midst of the life's wounds and haemorrhages. Most disciples will cast out demons not by performing charismatic exorcisms but by identifying evil and resisting it as it confronts them. We shall do all of this just because we live in the company of him who is resurrection and life. He commissions us to live and speak and act in such a way as to exalt his life, point to his victory, and deny the illegitimate encroachments of that deadliness which has already been defeated and will one day be dispelled. All disciples are ordained to this ministry, without exception.
At the same time, as individual disciples we may be commissioned to individual tasks. The word "disciple" is rarely found in the singular in the NT. When it is found in the singular, however, it identifies one particular person and usually identifies one particular task for that person. John is one such disciple. He is spoken of in the singular, and his particular task is to take Mary, mother of our Lord, into his home following the death of her son. Mary was by this time a widow; her eldest son was soon to be dead; her three other sons were nowhere to be seen; she was homeless and penniless. Jesus appoints John to take her into his home for as long as she lives -- a specific task for this one disciple.
So it is with you and me. As disciples we are all ordained to that ministry which is common to all disciples. As individuals we may be commissioned to a task uniquely. Then we must ever be alert to this; alert to discern it, and enthusiastic in doing it.
This is what disciples are to do.
7] Lastly, what can disciples expect? "Blessed are you when men slander you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account" -- so says Jesus. Disciples can expect to be slandered and hounded. "If anyone wants to be my follower, let her deny herself, and let her shoulder her own cross" -- so says Jesus. Disciples can expect cross-bearing, and cross-bearing means torment. "A servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me, they will certainly persecute you" -- so says Jesus. "You will be delivered up to councils, flogged in synagogues, dragged before governors and kings for my sake" -- so says Jesus. Disciples can expect victimization at the hands of church-authorities and civil authorities alike.
What can disciples expect? Wrong question. What are disciples guaranteed? We are guaranteed all of the above: slander, persecution, cross-bearing, ecclesiastical abuse and political victimization. Then why bother becoming a disciple?
Why bother? In the written gospels bystanders (that is, those who haven't made up their minds about becoming disciples) notice that the disciples of Jesus appear to have a rollicking good time. They party a great deal. They laugh. They don't have a face as long as a horse's. Other religious devotees fast, and end up with a face like a prune. The disciples of Jesus celebrate. Bystanders are startled, and ask Jesus why his followers are far happier than one should expect them to be. Jesus replies, "Can the wedding guests fast while the bridegroom is with them?"
In ancient Palestine a rabbi's biblical instruction was deemed so important that nothing could interrupt it -- nothing, that is, except a wedding celebration. A wedding celebration was regarded so important that a rabbi would interrupt his exposition of the sacred text so that he and his students could join in the festivities.
"Life in my company", says Jesus, "is rich, satisfying and exhilarating -- like the deepest marriage you can imagine. If the rabbi's students are allowed to party when the wedding-procession moves through town, then surely my disciples can do as much in my company. For the joy my disciples find in me outweighs the difficulty they have on account of me. They know that life with me is worth it; always!" So says Jesus.
Recall the parable of the pearl: a man comes upon a pearl so beautiful that he sells everything he owns to buy it and still feels it has cost him nothing.
Recall the woman who spent a year's wages on a bottle of perfume and then poured it over our Lord's feet. She gave up all she had -- and felt she had given up nothing.
Recall Jean Vanier visiting hospital patients in a Cleveland slum. He came upon a poor black woman, sick unto death, who had been vomiting all day. Vanier was so taken aback at her poverty and her sickness and her thoroughgoing misery that he didn't know what comfort to offer. He simply placed his hand on her head and said, "Jesus." "I been walking with him forty years", she croaked.
What, then, can disciples expect? We can expect the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord, in light of which everything else in life is relativized. We can also expect the world's hostility. Ultimately, however, we shall know a satisfaction in him that is but dimly mirrored in the satisfaction that the best-matched couple find in each other. "I been walking with him forty years."
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Sermons, Bible Commentaries and Bible Analyses for the 2nd Sunday after Denaha (Baptism of our Lord)
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