“Being Disciples” – 2007 Conference, Elaine Storkey

The story of Jesus calling his disciples is one that used to be communicated to every child in our country. There was something so poignant, immediate, attractive about this charismatic figure appearing to random working men in the middle of earthy, everyday tasks and saying 'follow me.'

There is something unforgettable about a bunch of fishermen who are feeling frustrated with no catch, being told how to do their job in a way that goes counter to normal experience - and then finding the catch exceeds all expectations. There is something so odd about a man from customs and excise, getting on with the routine job of sorting out duties, being told 'follow me'.

We're taken into the narrative by the very names of those first disciples: Andrew, Peter, James, John, Philip and Bartholomew, Matthew and Thomas, James and Thaddeus, Simon the Zealot, Judas Iscariot. For they are all real people in real history, picked out and called away by someone they didn't know, in some cases hadn't met, who had no claim on them, who gave them no plan, and offered no contract.

If this weren't a call from Jesus the story would be deeply disturbing: Pied Piper like: where the hearers are mesmerised, the echo sounding deep inside them, unidentifiable, highly risky which could lead anywhere. But this is a call from Jesus and the most extraordinary thing is that they do follow. They leave the life they know and walk away from the familiar, skilled-based livelihood they have made their own. They exchange the experiences and normality which up to this point have characterised their very identity, for who-knows-what? They become followers, disciples.

Discipleship is back in vogue today, probably as much as it has been for the last 30 years. And our contemporary version of it is gaining enormous popularity. I'm told that the number of applicants to be considered for a place on The Apprentice breaks all records. People are queuing up to be disciples of Alan Sugar, to leave their jobs and location and follow him. Yet in his case, it would be a little na�ve to ask why. Everyone knows why. There are megabucks involved. Modern discipleship offers a massive boost to income levels, professional standing and future prospects. The publicity, contacts, advertising, PR will guarantee any disciple the life of Riley. It won't do Sugar any harm either, as he adds television stardom, and massive free publicity to his own business empire.

Yet the sharp ones among us will have noticed a few ways in which the discipleship so sought after in our own culture is somewhat different from that which Jesus offered. First, it's rather less demanding. Modern disciples are told, 'You'll need to give something up - family life perhaps or your time but you'll get to make a pile and keep it.' Jesus says to a would-be disciple. 'Go, sell all you have and give it to the poor and then follow me.'

Then today's version is more relaxed. Modern disciples are told 'There's always a get-out clause. You can go back whenever you want.' Jesus tells his disciples, 'No-one who puts his hand to the plough and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God.'

Contemporary discipleship is also rather more promising. Sugar says Follow me and in this world you'll be a millionaire. Jesus says 'Follow me and in this world you will have tribulation.'

Then, it's pleasantly predictable. Today's gurus say, 'The life is cool, the beds are soft and we can guarantee you a place in the sun.' Jesus says, 'Foxes have holes and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.' Christ's call to his disciples is nothing like anything which our contemporary culture prizes or wants to have. Jesus makes enormous demands and offers financial insecurity. His disciples become vulnerable, de-skilled, itinerant, routine-less, asked to submit their own wills and to be utterly dependent for the rest of lives on the One who has called them.

And the outcome? No pot of gold, national acclaim, hall-marked personal number plates, cash for honours. Just the humble joy of servanthood, with the attractive possibility of martyrdom thrown in.

Seen in contemporary context, it's not much of an offer, you might say. And yet these ordinary regular working men took it and followed him, the first of millions upon millions of disciples yet to come.

The student apprentice

What was discipleship for those called by Jesus? What was a disciple? It was indeed an apprentice, someone who sat under training from the Master. A disciple was also a student, someone who would be taught, educated, shown how to think. In the Jewish tradition, disciples were learners. They were also unashamed groupies; they hung around with the wise, not assuming to be their equals, but glad for any crumbs of wisdom that fell from their tables.

And so disciples would listen with great attention as the rabbis spoke to each other, argued the toss about the interpretation of the ancient writings, shared the narratives, expounded Torah. Disciples were those who were being schooled. And there was so much to learn. So many times in the Gospels we are told that Jesus taught his disciples.

Yet those who followed Jesus did not learn theology in the normal sense, not even in the normal rabbinic sense. Jesus did not take them into exegetical analyses of minute details of the Law and the Prophets. In fact, unlike most of the other religious leaders, he doesn't seem to have been that excited about disputing over the law. Not that he couldn't. Anyone who has read the Gospels will note that he did it actually rather well. In fact on those occasions when he took on the teachers of the law he did it with relish and a kind of aplomb that takes us by surprise. Whether it was on Sabbath -keeping, tithing, corban, paying taxes to Caesar, ablution laws, marriage, divorce, justice, neighbour-love or the Psalms of David, he outshines and outwits the scribes and Pharisees, beating them at their own silly game.

But he doesn't play the game with his disciples. He doesn't encourage them to clever-dick their way to verbal victory, to show them how to be boss. Teaching is more important than that. The point of the Law is not that we should debate and dispute it, outdo one another with our erudition, our grasp of doctrine, our ability to argue from Scripture. It is not to nit-pick the text until the lice have given up and fled. The point of studying the Word of God is so we can put it into practice, and thereby glorify God in our lives and in our culture. In teaching his disciples, Jesus was not, therefore, like other rabbis of his day, and many teachers of our own. He was not training heresy spotters, grand inquisitors, judges of others. He was inviting people into the humility of sitting under truth, growing in knowledge, acquiring wisdom.

Jesus the Teacher - parables

And how he did it should stop us in our tracks to think about the way we teach. For when he was not debating with the religious professionals, Jesus taught with simplicity and penetration. He taught through the narrative, through parable, through everyday life that in its scope was so embracing and inclusive. The stories he told were stories that people would recognize: the farmers who sowed the seed, the traveller who had to negotiate the dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho, the son who squandered his inheritance. And long before we became worried about gender inclusion, Jesus was already using illustrations from women's lives to make deep points about our relationship with God. He taught of sweeping rooms, baking bread, being mothers, looking for lost coins.

Beyond the debates with the Scribes and Pharisees, then, Jesus had two levels of teaching - one for the crowds who heard his words and were left to puzzle through the implications for their own lives and calling. The other was for his chosen disciples: those who knew they were called and had already responded. And to them he explained more, he opened up the meanings and took them further.

He taught also by commentary: encouraging his disciples to observation: he observed the widow's mite, concluding 'this poor widow has put into the coffers more than the rich. For they gave of their abundance, but she out of her poverty gave all that she had.' It was an affirmation of a faithful woman's generosity and trust in God. It was also an object lesson for discipleship: it requires everything; it involves the emptying of one's poverty into the riches of God. And just as he was careful to include women, and to teach his disciples the respect they might not otherwise have had, children also were not excluded from his embrace.

When his disciples wanted to know how they would detect greatness, and how they could assess who was great in the kingdom of God (a not unusual question for Hebrew learners. It's around today in theological colleges and churches - who do we trust, who do we learn from? Who are the sound people? Who are the important ones worth our time?) Jesus's answer was a dethronement of all pretensions of importance. 'Calling to himself a child he put him in the midst of them and said, 'Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child, that person is the greatest in the kingdom of God.' (Matthew 18:1-4)

Sayings, warnings and woes

Parables, explanations, commentary, examples were all built into Jesus's pedagogy for discipleship. And so were his 'sayings': teachings which followed the Jewish wisdom tradition- drawing upon the Law and Prophets - but giving the biblical injuctions new life as the full demands of God are spelled out. His sayings teach about sexual faithfulness 'You have heard it said "You shall not commit adultery." But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.' He spells out that unfaithfulness does not begin in the body but in the will. (Matthew 5:27-28)

Or about justice: You have heard it said "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth" but I say to you "Don't resist one who is evil. If anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also, and if anyone would sue you and take your coat, let him have your cloak as well" - He suggests that they leave the perpetrator to see the extent of evil they are prepared to commit, because, who knows, their hearts are more likely to be challenged and changed than through retaliation. He teaches about the requirements of neighbour love. 'You have heard it said "You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy. But I say to you "Love your enemy"." It is only through love that real change and repentance can happen.

As well as the saying there were the warnings: 'Be on your guard- beware the leaven of the Pharisees' (Matthew); or , 'no one can serve two masters; you cannot God and mammon' (Matthew 6:24) or 'Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction' (Matthew 7:13) every tree that doesn't bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire (Matthew 7:19); 'it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.' (Matthew 19:23)

And there were the woes (Matthew 23): delivered in the presence of his disciples but directed to those whose obsession with the Law was at the expense of love and righteousness: 'woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs which outwardly appear beautiful but with are full of the bones of the dead and all uncleanness.' 'Woe to you, Scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites for you tithe mint and dill and cummin and have neglected the weightier matters of the law, justice and mercy and faith.' Jesus has little time for the instructions of those who see themselves as close to God, but predominantly in an advisory capacity.

An Apostolic inheritance

In shaping and framing the meaning of discipleship, then Jesus shows us that it is about learning. And the Gospels are loaded with the accounts of Jesus teaching about the Kingdom and about what God asks of his human creatures so that we might serve him and live aright. But this was not just for the few that Jesus asked to follow him. It was for the many through them. It was so that in turn, the disciples who became Apostles could pass the truth on to others, and the Apostolic teaching would soak through history as the bedrock on which our understanding of the faith could rest.

But the teaching never began with the Apostles. Before they were Apostles they were disciples, students, learners. And their teacher was Christ. And it is Christ's teaching that has captured and enthralled centuries of disciples; Christ's teaching as shared by Peter and Paul and Luke and James and John and the wonderful learner who wrote the letter to the Hebrews. It's Christ's teaching passed down through the Apostles which must remain as the very blood stream of the church today.


But discipleship involves more than studentship. Christ did not only teach. He mentored. He commented upon their lives. He rebuked. He challenged their responses. When they were arguing about status and which of them would get to sit on his right and left in the kingdom, he did not hesitate to remind them that this was not what it was about. This was the way of the world, but what his discipleship was about was servanthood. It was about kneeling in the dirt and washing the calloused, infected and germ-ridden feet of others.

Truth and Love embodied

That's why disciples were not only to follow what the Master said, but to do what the Master did. For discipleship is not only about hearing but also about doing, as the brother of Jesus makes clear in his writings to the early church. Jesus embodied in his very person the shape that Christian discipleship must take: the willingness to go the extra mile, the compassion for others who are needy or in pain, the gentleness with which those caught up in brokenness and sin should be treated, the forgiveness for those who repent. It is not to insist on the best for oneself, but to look after the needs of others. It is not to return evil for evil, but to be the place where the chain is broken. It is not to turn a blind eye to injustice and dishonesty amongst leaders, even when those leaders have the power of life and death, but to speak out prophetically with truth and wisdom, prepared to pay what it costs. The way of discipleship is the way of sacrifice, the way of the Cross, and Jesus's invitation is that we also should take up our cross daily and follow him.

The way of discipleship is therefore the way of love. For Christ did not sacrifice for the sake of sacrifice, but for the sake of those he loved. For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. For us he was made man. For us he suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified and was buried. And for us too on the third day he rose again, in accordance with the Scriptures and is now at the right hand of the Father. At the heart of the call to discipleship is a call to love. It was a call that Jesus issued along with the call 'Follow me.' To love our enemies, to do good to those who hate us. To love one another. By this, Jesus assures us, everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you show love to one another.

So Christian discipleship was thus forged by Christ two thousand years ago. It was forged with twelve people who became a great multitude that no-one can number. It was forged not in abstraction but in time and history, and in a culture. And this is also important for all of life is enculturated. What Jesus was shaping then was a way of following him which was going to lead his own disciples in that day and age into hardship, struggle, fear, bewilderment and oppression. It would also lead them into new life, joy, blessing, amazement, victory, truth and power through the Holy Spirit.

And today?

Yet the way they expressed their discipleship is inevitably a way which we do not experience in the United Kingdom in the year 2007. It would not be relevant or even meaningful for us to try to emulate the cultural aspects of the disciples' lives. We would not look around for a boy with two small loaves and five fish if we were teaching at Keswick or Spring Harvest or New Wine and the crowds were hungry. We would tell them to get their act together and go and find some lunch.

We would not make a hole in someone's roof so we could lower a sick man into a house group meeting so that he might be healed. We would go along to the hospital and pray at his bedside. We wouldn't expect our discipleship to mean we travel without shoes or money and be in economic dependence on others, for then who would be the providers?

We wouldn't throw ourselves on the ground in terror before the crowds if we had just experienced divine healing from a menstrual problem. Without the laws which proscribe physical contact during menstruation with the clothing of another, especially a man, we would feel free to broadcast our joy at the end of a debilitating condition. We don't expect to travel always in twos, because we have public transport and cars and don't need protection against wild animals or bandits or things that lurk in the dark, though actually, it's still a great principle.

So what is discipleship for us in our time and age, our culture and location? I want to conclude with a short list for your consideration.

  1. It is to be apprenticed, students and learners - not to proximate teachers, but to Jesus Christ; to learn from him, in the Gospels and through the teachings of his own Apostles. It is to learn of Christ, and through Christ to be brought close to the very heart of God for his creation and his world.

  2. It is to live in truth and faithfulness to truth, and ask God again and again to search our hearts for error and self-delusion. It is to be realistic about who we are, about the nature of our own sin. It is to know the meaning of humble access, not presuming to come before God's throne in our own righteousness but through God's manifold and great mercy. It is to know we are not worthy to pick up the crumbs under his table, and how we need to ask God not to weigh our merits but pardon our offences.

  3. It is to be servants of the Servant, not caught up with our own status and self-importance; not control-freaks, those who love and abuse power; those who want our way and make sure we get it. It is not to be those who mouth the creeds and talk about the Scriptures but whose deeper motivation is 'My will be done'. May God open the hearts of his disciples so that we do not deceive ourselves here.

  4. It is to be hearers and doers of the Word - living out lives in community which seek the needs of others, which lift up the downtrodden, bind up the brokenhearted, bring good news to the poor, put others first. It is to recognize that our community is a global community, and our responsibilities are also to those who live half a world away, whose names we will never know and whom we will never in our lives meet.

  5. It is to be witnesses to God in every area of life. Whether we serve him in the arts or in music, in health work or in development, in academia or politics, in economic life or transport we are to follow Christ. And this does not simply mean evangelism. It also means bringing our thoughts into submission to Christ, it means witnessing in our painting, understanding what Christ says about politics, contesting some of the ideologies of the academy or culture or society. There is no area of life in which we are excused by God of the need to work out our discipleship. Wherever there is a witness to Christ in the culture around us people hear his call, Follow me.

  6. It is to be prophetic witnesses to Christ. To speak, as Christ did against wrong decisions, wrong directions, carnage, warfare, the dehumanisation of our present age. It is to challenge injustice; probe spiritual wickedness in high places. It is to hold rulers to account, to review those structures in our world which ensure that some are still in slavery, that many are oppressed and abused, and speak on behalf of those who have no voices. It is to contest the unfair trading rules which keep poor countries poor whilst the affluent take their pick, against shortages which come about because of over-consumption by the rich.

    To highlight the growing number of environmental refugees - 50 million people by the year 2010, will according to the UN, be looking for somewhere else to live, because their own location can no longer sustain life. It is to challenge the complacency and indifference which has led the rich sixth of the world to pump toxic gases into the atmosphere and increase the vulnerability of God's creation and the planet which is our home. It is to signal up the horrors of war, the fact that the 20th century was the bloodiest in history and the 21st century looks set already to overtake that; to challenge the way in which we make profit from arms some of which are sold to tyrants, and used against our brothers and sister in far off places.

    It is to stand against the abuse of children, of minorities, of the vulnerable, of women, of the marginalised and unseen. It is to call for justice for those who are victimised, broken through sexual violence, brutalised through inhumanity and torture. It is to be disciples of Jesus, who understand what his warnings and woes mean for our age and our world.

  7. And finally, it is to realize that we are not disciples on our own. We live with the ever present power of the Holy Spirit who can change people's hearts and minds, structures and governments and bring freedom from bondage. We are also members of one another, part of a great company of people, which stretches through history and across the globe. We share discipleship with brothers and sister, fellow trainees, sister followers in every culture, climate and language group. And when we begin to not just know but feel what it means to belong to each other, to love one another, to share communion together, and to be there for one another, we are beginning to learn what Paul means in his metaphor of disciples. We are the body of Christ.

If this is what it means to be disciples today, are we anywhere near it?

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