Today's post is by Rev. Dr. Jerome Sahabandhu, Mission Theologian in Residence at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Rev. Dr. Sahabandhu's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
We are living in challenging times: we face the pros and cons of technological and scientific advancements, competing religious and political fundamentalisms, the rapid increase of secularisation, changing scenarios of immigration, consumerist cultural trends, nuclear and other war rhetoric, extreme social and economic marginalization – all these phenomena exist and function at the same time in tension and even lead to crises. Nations, churches, communities, families and we as persons are caught and called amid this mess and chaos.
The question arises: How can we be faithful disciples of Jesus Christ in these rapidly changing times?
If the church is serious about discipleship in today’s context, then the church should renew her missional commitment to equipping and empowering disciples of Christ for costly discipleship in God’s world at all levels in the life of the church.
Jesus said: Follow Me
Let us reflect on Jesus’ call, “Follow Me,” according to the Gospel narratives.
Ο Ιησούς είπε ακολουθήστε με – Jesus said, “come and follow me”.
Matthew 8:22 – But Jesus said, “Follow me, and let the dead bury their own dead.”
Mark 10:21 – Jesus said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”
John 1:43 – Jesus found Philip and said to him, “Follow me.”
Luke 5:27 – After this he went out and saw a tax-collector named Levi and he said to him, “Follow me.”
To understand the concept of discipleship we must comprehend two Greek words used in the Gospel narratives:
1.ἀκολουθέω (akolouthéō) This has several meanings: to follow one who precedes, join him as his attendant, accompany him, to join one as a disciple, become or be his disciple, join with his movement. Here the emphasis is on being a companion of Christ.
2.μαθητής (mathētēs) This has the meaning of pupil/learner; the Hebrew equivalent is Talmid – pupil/learner, derived from Lamad – to learn.
Master and followers as friends and mission companions:
The central point here is to answer the question of whom we are called to follow: It is Jesus the Master; learning at the foot of the Master, from the words and actions of the Master, from the whole being of the Master. Put another way, our calling is to follow the “THE WORD (Dharma) as teaching and THE WORD as person (the living Word). This we called as the Gurukul model in south Asian settings (Guru, the teacher as role model for the disciples). Jesus is the Guru.
In my own Sinhalese language, the word Shrawaka is used for the concept of disciple. It means the one who is called to hear the WORD and obey the WORD; hearing and obeying go together.
Dabar/Logos – the WORD in the scripture means “Burden of the heart of God.” So, we are called to discern and exposit the burdens of the heart of God to the people of God in our ministry. Thus we – the disciples of Jesus – must constantly listen to what Christ says and put that into action.
To sojourn with the Master is yet another dimension of our call, and this means becoming involved in the pains and agonies, joys and hopes of the community. It is a call to live in Christ with people. It is not an easy way and if we want to walk on the water, we must get out of our boats and comfort zones; it is a call to partake in real LIFE and its struggles.
Service of Christ is diakonic in nature and a call to serve one another. It requires an extraordinary humility, like that of our master-friend Jesus, who by washing the feet of his disciples transformed a Greco-Roman model of Master-Slave relationship into a Master-Friend relationship. Instead of slaves washing the feet of the Master, now the Master washes the feet of the disciples. By the visible sign of foot-washing Jesus made us part of his body – “Unless I wash you, you have no part with me” (John 13:8). “No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father, I have made known to you” (John 15:15).
Contemporary discipleship thoughts
The martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer, during the time of authoritarianism in Germany was tested in his witness and prophetically voiced how costly discipleship was. He denounced “cheap grace” and announced the cost of discipleship for those who want to follow Christ. By doing so Bonhoeffer and his companions affirmed that Jesus, not Hitler, is the Lord.
Elisabeth Fiorenza, a renowned feminist theologian and New Testament scholar, speaks of a discipleship of equals in the context of women and men, laity and priests, and affirms that we are called to a common and corporate discipleship in the ministry of Christ.
Fr. Michael Rodrigo, OMI, a Sri Lankan priest-martyr, describes the disciple as a living sacrifice and offertory for the people who are suffering. This is the ultimate Eucharistic offertory for God. For Rodrigo this is a progressive-ongoing Passover-Easter experience: a Passover from selfishness to selflessness, from individualism to community, from ignorance to wisdom, from death to life.
John Stott, another theologian, explains non-conformity in discipleship. We are called to live, serve and witness in the world but to avoid becoming contaminated by the world.
Tests of discipleship
Discipleship is tested in when we are faced with real LIFE. Discipleship is also tested when we encounter crisis and conflict situations. Our commitment to discipleship is critically tested when justice is challenged in the social order. Another test arises when we meet the LAST, the LEAST and the LOST in our communities (John Wesley’s favourite three L’s which are based on the Gospel). Finally, it is tested when we are faced with choices between the riches of the World and the blessings of God’s Reign. All these tests bring a qualitative maturity into discipleship.
My prayer is that the Church as a global community of Christ’s disciples today will be a discerning community and a responding community for the Mission of God in the world.
We must not lose hope at any cost, but rather be watchful, exemplifying hope in the context of the hopelessness and anxiety that prevails.