Fruitful Discipleship

Reading: Galatians 5.16-26
There are some situations in life where it is possible to learn in advance of the experience and practice most of what is required of us. There are other situations where no amount of reading and preparation has been of much help - life catches us completely by surprise!

When preparing young couples for marriage, I endeavour to do all that I can, yet cannot help wondering - does this couple really understand what marriage and raising a family is going to mean for them? In too many cases today, couples have the idea that living together will be good preparation - at least they won't have to make sexual adjustments! But the statistics contradict this popular belief - in fact, sexual experience prior to the commitment of marriage has separated sex from commitment and contributes to marriage breakdown.

And who was really ready for that first child? What an all-transforming experience it was! And to watch that life grow and develop to maturity! And there's no "trial run"! How we can wish for a chance to have a re-run - to do some things over again, but differently! But life moves on! And the second child has a different temperament from the first, and we have to cope again with all that first-time uniqueness!

That is not to say that preparation has been unimportant! It has blended with the experience and practice of parenthood to make us more mature and more ready to face the totally unknown!

Called to Follow

For the four fisherman, down by Lake Galilee, we may well ask the question, Did they really understand what they were letting themselves in for when they left their nets to follow Jesus?

They had been doing what they knew best - catching fish. There hadn't been an apprenticeship in our modern sense. James and John had simply gone out with their father Zebedee and learnt the art of handling the boat, fishing, mending nets… from him. Whether Peter and Andrew had likewise come into a family fishing business, we don't know. There's no reference anywhere to their father - so perhaps he had died by this time.

And now this teacher Jesus walks along the shore and says to them, "Come, follow me and I will make you fishers of men" (Mt.4.19).

While this was all new to them, the call to follow a teacher (or Rabbi) and to become his disciple was not a foreign one at all.

In later Judaism, it was considered important to teach the Law systematically. Rabbis gathered a number of pupils around them. The master taught. The pupils listened and put their questions. The focus was very much on the teaching, rather than on the personality of the master. The aim was an exact interpretation of Scripture.

But the additional words in the call of Jesus suggest something different - "I will make you fishers of men!" Already the aim of discipleship was more than to learn wisdom - whatever "fishers of men" was meant to imply!

So they followed Jesus. Over a three-and-a-half year period they spent time with him. They heard his teaching, watched his powerful acts of compassionate love, observed his personality and his relationship with the Father. He certainly wasn't a traditional Rabbi. He taught with an immediate authority that others didn't share. His love reached out to all sorts of people - even to prostitutes, tax collectors and lepers! He reached out with forgiveness and with healing power.

But it was leading to a cross! In Mark 8.34 we hear him saying to the crowd and to his disciples, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

Sometimes we talk about the Christian life as "following Jesus." I wonder what we mean! Perhaps we are thinking of the traditional Rabbi-pupil relationship - we are learners in the school of Jesus. Yet even for those first disciples it was far from that!

In the light of who Jesus is…

But now Jesus has died and been raised to life again. Now that initial call to be "fishers of men" is being reaffirmed as a call to "go and make disciples of all nations."

In the light of that death and resurrection, their understanding of Jesus has now been transformed. Perhaps when Peter had made his great affirmation, "You are the Christ, the Son of the living God" (Mt. 16.16), their feeling was in part that here was the ultimate Rabbi. Certainly, they had no grasp that death would cut right across their teacher-pupil relationship (vv. 21-23) and they still thought of their privileged places within the Kingdom of God (18.1-5).

But all that had now to change. In the light of the resurrection, the identity of Jesus is absolutely clear. He is, as Thomas put it, "My Lord and my God!" Paul writes that Jesus "was declared with power to be the Son of God by his resurrection from the dead" (Rom. 1.4). He deserves our total allegiance!

Understanding that Jesus is the eternal Son of God who entered our human history and who has been exalted to the right-hand side of the throne of God radically changes how we look at Christian discipleship! We aren't just learners in his school. We need to learn to worship and obey him. It isn't just his teaching that is important, but his personality.

In the light of why he came…

Jesus came to reveal God, to redeem sinners and to bring in the Rule of God. This has a strong bearing on how we to understand Christian discipleship.

Central to the purpose of the Christian life is that we come to know God. At some time early in our lives, most of us learned John 3.16, "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life". That's a key verse and it was important to learn it, but what's eternal life? Listen to what Jesus himself says about it in John 17.2-3 - "For you granted [the Son] authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him. Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent."

Christian discipleship isn't just knowing a series of facts about God - including this new fact that Jesus is the unique Son of God. Rather, it involves us in a personal and direct relationship with God.

But there's a problem! Who of us here can know God? Who of us here is good enough, worthy enough to know God? Perhaps you think - well, our minister should be good enough to know God! We pay him so that he can read the Bible, pray and do all that sort of stuff, and then tell us all the things he finds our about God! Sorry! Your minister is also a sinner! No amount of reading and praying can bridge the gap between any sinner and a holy and righteous God!

The key is the redemptive work of Jesus Christ! We know that he died because of the envy, jealousy, pride, anger, selfishness and ambition of the people of his time - especially of their religious leaders! He died because of human sin! But in the light of his resurrection, they were learning that he died for human sin. In his suffering and death he was bearing the penalty that was due to us for our sinful rebellion! This puts a new meaning on his words from the cross, "Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing" (Lk. 23.34). And his cry, "It is finished!" (Jn.19.30), becomes a cry of triumph, not of defeat.

The words of commission, as recorded in Luke 24.47, make it clear that "repentance and forgiveness of sins will be preached in [Jesus'] name to all nations…" If we are to be disciples, to follow Jesus, we must repent of our sins and receive the forgiveness of sins that he died to make possible. It is the "foot-washing" bit - "Unless I wash you, you have no part with me" (Jn 13.8), as Jesus said to Simon Peter. Peter didn't understand it then, but this whole task of going and making disciples would involve the acceptance of what Jesus came to do for us.

So Christian discipleship involves us in a personal and direct relationship with God through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.

But it also means living under the Rule of God, being part of the Kingdom of God, living with vigour and enthusiasm the life that God always meant us to live in this world.

The background to John 3.16 is a conversation Jesus had with Nicodemus, a sincere and devout Jewish leader. In response to Nicodemus' indirect beginning, Jesus made the direct statement - "I tell you the truth, no one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again" (v. 3). And the purpose of the redeeming, forgiving and renewing work of God in Jesus Christ is to bring us into the Kingdom of God. That's why we have been forgiven. That's why the ministry of the Holy Spirit is so important in bringing that redeeming work to completion within us.

Listen to the words of Paul, "the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…" (Gal. 5.22-23). That's what human life was always meant to be. That's what your life was always meant to be. And the mission of those first disciples of Jesus couldn't begin until the release of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost.

Christian discipleship, then, involves us in a personal and direct relationship with God through the redeeming work of Jesus Christ and in the life of his Kingdom in the world through the enabling power of his Spirit.

Come, then! Jesus still calls us!

© Peter J. Blackburn, Home Hill and Ayr Uniting Churches, 27 June 2004
Except where otherwise noted, Scripture quotations are from the New International Version, © International Bible Society, 1984.

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