November 8th, 2011

The purpose of the Christian life is to become disciples of Jesus. Now I know that words like disciple can freak people out. When we hear that word we often think about those nutty Branch Davidians or hear an evil character saying “Well done my young apprentice.” In many contexts, if someone asks you to be their disciple they’re about to fit you into a pair of black Nikes and have you down a little homemade red Kool-Aid.

A disciple is simply a student who learns from a teacher—in this case, we’re the students and Jesus is the teacher. What are we learning from him exactly? We are learning the way to live, love and serve and, the way to be in relationship with God and each other. This is the purpose of a life of faith and it’s called discipleship. Discipleship isn’t meant to be some big scary or intimidating thing—in fact, it’s meant to free us—free us from religion and for relationship.

That’s why Jesus came—not to bind us to religious systems and doctrines but to invite us into a new kind of life and relationship with God. Unfortunately, as some of you have experienced, most of our churches aren’t very good at making disciples. Instead, we’ve specialized in telling people what to believe and how to behave—to the neglect of teaching them what it means to follow Jesus and how to work alongside God to transform the world. In that sense, churches aren’t preaching anything different than West Texas parents I knew who were famous for telling their kids: “Don’t drink, smoke or chew or go with girls who do.” They’ve both made life about nothing more than the maintenance of personal morals.

No, churches are usually not good at making disciples. Churches are usually good at making church members. The first disciples of Jesus, however, would not have made very good church members. For starters, they were total heretics, at least by our definition today. None of them had ever heard the phrase the Holy Trinity, said the ‘sinner’s prayer’, responded to an altar call or asked Jesus to be their personal Lord and Savior. Why would they have? They thought Jesus was there to save them from the Romans, not from their own sins.

These disciples were no Super-Christians. Mainly because they weren’t Christians—at least not as we think of Christians today—they were Jews, and a wild mixed bag of Jews at that. Of the original 12 men chosen to follow Jesus, we know that at least four of them were just common fishermen, one was a tax collector, one was likely a rich boy with rich parents, and two were probably militant Jewish nationalists. One was even named Bartholomew. Can you imagine the poundings he must have taken as a kid on the playgrounds in Israel?

This is the crack team that God assembled to save us and teach the world a new way to live. Of course there were also women that followed Jesus and would have been listed as his disciples as well if they had lived in a different time period and culture. I like to think that those unnamed women had no small role in helping whip those men into shape. Regardless, the point remains that we shouldn’t put the disciples on some pedestal—they wouldn’t want to be there. They were ordinary men and women like you and me with families and jobs and homes who wanted something more out of life. Like us, they had character flaws, weaknesses and, even though they followed Jesus around for three years, they still constantly struggled with belief and understanding who he was.

But somehow, God took that motley crew of Jews and used them to help change the world. Something happened in those first students of Jesus as they listened to him teach, watched him interact with lepers and other outcasts, and ultimately give his life. They were transformed into faithful men and women that God was able to use in big and in small ways. They became the kind of people that Jesus trusted to carry his message on—to share the good news that God loves us and is inviting us into eternal and abundant life with him.

So it’s not surprising that the disciples have a lot to teach us about modern-day discipleship. Their lives show us that the goal of a life of faith is not about attending church, always believing the “right” things, or even necessarily being “good” or “nice.” No, the goal of a life of faith is to follow Jesus. That’s a big difference. The former, the one most of our churches teach today, is about being religious. The life of faith as a religious person is mostly isolated to Sunday morning. It does what religion was created to do—keep God in a box. We call that box church. And as religious people, that’s where we keep God locked up until the next time we enter the box.

Disciples, on the other hand, recognize that God doesn’t want to be kept in a box. No, disciples seek to learn from Jesus every day. I love that the vast majority of Jesus’ teachings and relationships happened outside of a religious building. I’m sure he and the 12 went to Temple once a week like all good Jews did, but we rarely hear about it. Most of the teachings that the gospel writers felt were relevant enough to include in their accounts of Jesus took place on weekdays and on beaches and in boats, in homes and around dinner tables, and during boring ol’ day-to-day moments. With Jesus, no one place or day was more sacred than any other. With Jesus, everything was sacred, because he knew that God was everywhere and in every moment.

Disciples, therefore, look to learn from the Master every day, in every place, during every moment. This is how one begins to become a disciple. It’s so obvious and yet something that hadn’t really ever clicked with me—God has something to teach me about being a husband… and what it means to be a friend and a son and eventually a parent. God wants to show me how to make the most of my time at work, use my money wisely and open my eyes to the injustice and prejudice in this world and teach me how to respond to it. In short, life becomes the classroom for the disciple.

Religion prevents this from happening because religion is good at compartmentalizing things. For example, Sunday – God’s day (or football, depending on how we feel). Monday – work day. Saturday – family day. Church – sacred place. Work – secular place. But Jesus didn’t want to enter just one part of the disciple’s lives; he wanted to be a part of it all. Religion can’t allow that, of course, because then it would lose control of God. That’s why religion specializes in ritual, rules and dogma. It helps keep the faithful “in line.” But ritual, rules and dogma don’t change lives. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never heard anyone say, “Those systems of belief really inspire me.” Let’s be honest, religion is boring. Most people are bored to tears in church. Religion doesn’t inspire…but a relationship can.

Now, I don’t want you to think I’m one of those people that only dogs on religion. One of the Jesus’ disciples would go on to write these words, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress.” If that’s your understanding of religion, then sign me up, but in general, religion has been and continues to be a stumbling block to discipleship.

So, I have an idea. What if we just cleared everything out of the way and stripped it down to its core. We took the big fancy buildings, the mandatory belief statements, the list of requirements for membership, and the self-righteous codes of morality we’ve tried to live up to and just set them aside for a moment. All we’d be left with is… Jesus. Just Jesus. Then, like the first disciples, we would have the freedom to learn from him, speak with him, listen to him, and gather with others who are trying to do the same. This, to me, is what a life of faith looks like.

You know, when the disciples first started following Jesus they only had a hint of who he was. Isn’t that incredible? They didn’t have the right beliefs or even remotely fit the mold of a typical disciple, but they still followed him. And the more time they spent with him, the stronger their faith in him became and the more their lives changed.

What does that say about you and me? Maybe it says that we’ve tried too hard to become good or religious before we felt ready enough to follow Jesus. But Jesus didn’t ask the first disciples to drop their nets and then go through a 52-week church membership class. No, he said, ‘Come, follow me.’ All that was needed was a first step of faith.

Friends, we don’t have to get our lives together first. We don’t have to agree to this list or that list of 100 Christian beliefs, be able to quote the bible from memory or even be that “nice” of a person. We simply have to become students of Jesus.

Jesus told his disciples, ‘The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.’ God needs you. There is work to be done in this world. And you and I are being called to follow in the Way of Jesus as his disciples. How will we respond?

Jay Cooper is the pastor of Jacob's Well, a United Methodist Church plant in Chandler, AZ. He blogs at Souls Gone Wild.

comments powered by Disqus