What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? During my years in ministry, I went to quite a few seminars on discipleship and heard a lot of wisdom from some great teachers. I certainly learned a great deal from what they shared; but to be honest, I found that the most important lessons on discipleship came through the relationships I formed with the people I met along the way. The other day I was thinking back to a weekend seminar on discipleship I attended when I was a young youth minister in a new marriage with a new son. I hope sharing a few stories from that time will help to show what discipleship is all about.
Being a disciple is a radical calling. Knowing Jesus Christ turns our whole way of looking at life completely upside down. We cannot give ourselves to Jesus without being caught up in the kind of radical living to which He calls us. During one session at the seminar, we looked at the Sermon on the Mount from Matthew’s Gospel. The speaker talked about how the poor, the sorrowful, the meek and even the persecuted are blessed – made joyous in their new condition as creatures of Christ. At my little table there were all sorts of great ministry people, coming with an assortment of sorrows, personal struggles and ministry concerns – even a few of the persecuted – but all with the radical poverty of spirit that a Christian enjoys in Jesus. Just being around them was a blessed experience for me – truly salt and light for my weary soul.
During my time away from home, I spent a lot of time in fasting and prayer – some of it not by choice either! For the first two days of my trip, I caught a nasty little bug that wiped me out. On my first call home to the wife I found out that my young son was upset because the Pastor had told him he was “taking Daddy away.” He didn’t quite understand that daddy would return and so he had been a little anxious and in need of reassurance. That was not what I needed to hear. The antacids were running out, the guilt and homesick feelings were setting in, and I found myself wanting to curl up in bed rather than share my faith with my small group. Though I was unable to eat anything, spiritual food soon came through a woman speaker who spoon fed our gathering tales of family and faith. Her sweet tales about her own children and her struggles to be a mother to them helped to ease some of the stress I was feeling about my own call to be a spouse and a parent. After a few helpings of her message I found myself able to bear my fast and make it through that first night.
At dinner the second night, I found myself sitting next to a man with a speck of unapproachability in his eye. He was a little hard to take; speaking about a stripped-down form of faith that he had come to embrace. Needless to say, it made for some strange dinner conversation. Thank God I noticed the plank of pride and self-pity hanging from my own eye before I became blind to the pain that spoke through his awkward tones. I admit I worried a little if I were wasting my time talking with him. After all, I had come here to learn about discipleship, not to listen to someone’s personal misunderstandings about what I believed. Oh God forgive my arrogance, but I did actually think like that until the Spirit prompted me to listen more deeply to the pain the man was sharing. As I did, I found myself examining my own personal views and the barriers I had put up. I saw how my own arrogance had almost taken away the opportunity to demonstrate what being a disciple is all about. And so I listened and shared and prayed with this man; and though I don’t know if I had any lasting impact on him, I came out of that encounter with a better understanding of the call to radical love from the God of compassion who had loved me when I was unlovable. As I held that man and the rest of my small group before the Lord in prayer that evening, I could sense God’s presence calling me to let go the fear and pride that was keeping me from moving in new directions for His kingdom. It helped me to release all the worries about the tomorrows He already had in hand.
Through the rest of the time I spent there, I thought a lot about how there is so much about Jesus’ ministry that we today accept without question. Spending so much time in the Word at this gathering helped remind me that when Jesus first spoke and acted, his words and deeds weren’t so appealing to those who met him. A man who forgave sins, ate with sinners, and touched bloody lepers must have been a shocking development to those around Him! Here was a man who cast the half-bred Samaritans as the heroes in his most influential teachings, a prophet who told the people to love their most hated enemies the Romans! That evening, I reflected on how Jesus was like Jeremiah – a man who felt the fire of the Spirit compelling him to confront spiritual blindness. The burden for His people crushed him and nailed him to the cross! This was the radical shepherd who saw His people as harassed and helpless, led astray by Satan and sinful man. As those at the gathering shared our own understanding of the Lord’s ministry and how He reached into our broken lives, it helped me to see that, without Christ, we would be untouchable, reprehensible worldly outcasts, inbred with Satan and contaminated by sin. In many ways, we had forgotten just what that really meant. In Christ, we were radically saved, yet we had to admit that we were not always so radical in our desire to reach out with the same kind of love that had been shown to us. It had me checking the foundation of my ministry. I could see how important it was to replace the sinking sand of my own misguided impressions about Christ with a rock of solid and sobering faith in a radical Messiah.
Our time together concluded with a special sharing and then our worship, ending of course, around the Communion table. Before we began, we were asked to recite a binding prayer, an old pledge of faith that had been handed down from years past. Though the words had been written many years ago, it was indeed quite radical to be reciting a covenant that asked God to give us poverty or riches, troubles or blessings. But I bowed my head with the rest of my brothers and sisters and trembled at the thought that speaking these words was a very serious matter indeed! Here I was, a man who had given his life to ministry, afraid to tell my Lord and Savior that whatever He wanted was good enough for me. But I did, knowing that I would be held to that pledge and knowing I would struggle in keeping it. It was a powerful lesson, as powerful as the testimonies of faith that many shared before we all shared in the Bread of Life. It was a sobering joy I never forget. We prayed for so many needs that day, and I know we didn’t even scratch the surface of what was in our hearts – but there we were, giving it all up to our heavenly Father and thanking Him in advance for the work He would do in us and through us in the days to come. It was great joy, yes, but profound and challenging for a group of people who held so many future disciples in our hands.
The truth of the matter, however, is that those people aren’t really in our hands; and that, ultimately, is at the heart of what we learned that weekend. Discipleship is about proclaiming the inside-out, counter-cultural message of a powerful and tender Savior to a people so broken and so precious to Him. In Jesus, the One who gave Himself up in radical submission for our sins, we receive the call to radical ministry to the lost in His name. It is living in the blessed assurance that all things are working themselves out in a mysterious and wonderful way. As members of His Body, disciples speak a kingdom language and display the signs of those who have been captured by an open, unpredictable, unfathomable, and radical love.
After I returned home from the training, I met with the youth group at our church. Through our discussions, I began to recognize bits of radical faith coming from the young people. I heard them talk about how they wanted to be more focused on being equipped to reach out to their lost friends, more nurturing to those who were already a part of the group, and more open and loving toward visitors who would come to youth group. In short, they wanted to be more radical in how they expressed the relationship they shared with their heavenly Father. It made me rejoice because I saw that Jesus was now showing these young people what discipleship was all about. And even though they knew the costs of discipleship, many were now ready to do what it would take to experience the joy that could be found in following Jesus to the fullest. It opened up so many possibilities in our minds and hearts and gave me the hope that only a radical disciple can have!
I will conclude by sharing the most radical thing I did following that seminar. The following Monday, when all I wanted was to get back to work so that I could begin to implement all the great ideas I had, I decided to put my ministry and my concerns for the youth aside and spend some radical time with my son. We went for a hike at a local park and talked about all the things that matter to a little boy, and then had ice cream – all without a thought about how I would be accomplishing all the things God would do with the ministry! And you know what? God, in His radical nature brought me peace and allowed me to let it go! And when I do go back to my ministry, that peace was still there. It was costly, yes, but only to my pride and fear. But those were costs I was more than willing to pay!
All of us are called to be followers of Jesus, people who don’t hesitate before answering the call to carry out the radical call to spread the Gospel. Since that three-day seminar, many things in my life and my ministry have changed – radically changed! The directions I though I would go and the things I thought I would accomplish have turned out very different than what I expected. But I have learned that this is the very nature of discipleship. You never know where it will take you, but you go there anyway, trusting the Lord to get you there and looking for the joy and the peace of surrendering to His will – no matter what – with the hope that one day we will see that the whole thing was worth the cost!