Words of Faith: Discipleship
14 Now after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, 15 and saying, “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.” 16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him. -Mark 1:14-20
Lest there be any confusion about what we have gotten ourselves into here, the gospel is fully transparent: aligning oneself with Jesus comes with risks, but it’s worth it. John the Baptist was arrested and that’s the backdrop of Jesus gathering his first followers, his first disciples. John the Baptist was arrested after his part in preparing the way for Jesus and baptizing him. Right there in chapter one of the gospel of Mark, it’s clear, the powers that be are actively opposed to the power of Jesus and will do their best to put an end to his movement. John the Baptist was arrested and that’s the preface to our discussion on the term discipleship today in our Words of Faith series.
I draw attention to this because I want for us to remember that discipleship is not simply a personal, religious practice, discipleship has real world consequences, at times danger and threat, but it is through our discipleship that God is active in the world, healing, loving, bringing hope, creativity, and beloved community into being. To follow Jesus may mean that at times Christian discipleship puts one out of favor with the larger culture and that culture may try to minimize your voice, to cancel your testimony. Discipleship may mean that the values of a disciple are actively opposed political or military power. Discipleship may affect relationships. As the world changes around us, what remains stable is the gospel of Jesus Christ; unchanged is the mandate to love, the call to service of the most vulnerable, and the means of grace. Discipleship can both upend our lives, and also ground our lives in an upended world; it comes with consequences.
So, what exactly is discipleship? The word discipleship does not actually appear in the Bible, but the word disciple appears almost 270 times. A disciple literally means a student. Jesus was called, rabbi, which means teacher and the disciples are Jesus’ students. When we talk about disciples in Christianity, we are talking of those who have dedicated themselves to the lifelong study of the teacher, Jesus. Those who consider themselves called to follow Jesus Christ today are also disciples. You, if you follow Jesus, are his disciple.
Simon, Andrew, James, and John, were in the middle of a normal day, doing their regular work as fishermen when Jesus came to them and said, “follow me.” They literally dropped everything and devoted themselves to him. They became his disciples before he ever taught them a single thing about Scripture, before they ever heard him preach, or saw him bring healing to a broken body, hope to a hurting heart; they became his students before they knew him to be the Son of God. Such was the power of Jesus’ call. It took no apologetics, no reasoned argument as to why he was worth following, it took no explaining, no convincing, it was purely an act of God that upon hearing Jesus’ call, these men and then women became disciples of Jesus Christ and gave their lives to him.
It’s like that today. Faith is what enables us to be disciples. Few of us were talked into following Jesus. We heard his call, whether that was as a child growing up in church, or as an adult, or after some time away. God is the one who activates our hearts and minds to have faith in this man, Jesus, that he is also our God. It is faith, which is a gift from God and not our own doing, that is the heart of discipleship. To be a disciple is to have had no choice in the matter. But discipleship is how we live into that call from Jesus.
Discipleship is the state of being a disciple. The suffix, -ship, at the end of disciple gives it the meaning of the quality of being a disciple. One can be a disciple but one could be growing or not growing in discipleship. I know how to write with a pen. I am a writer. But my penmanship, the quality of my handwriting, is terrible. A person can be a disciple of Jesus, consider themselves a student of Christ, a Christian, but their discipleship can be underdeveloped. There are no perfect disciples, but we are all capable as growing in our discipleship.
The first disciples of Jesus are a great example of this. Jesus called twelve core disciples. They weren’t great at it to begin with. They rarely understood what he was talking about, it took some time for them to grow as healers, they didn’t know how to pray, and it wasn’t until after he was dead and buried and risen from the grave that they finally understood who he was and what mission they had been following him on. But we do see some of them growing along their journey with Jesus. We also see them struggling and having setbacks in their discipleship. Peter grew as a disciple, and he was the first to profess faith that Jesus was the anointed savior, the messiah. But then Peter didn’t trust Jesus enough to walk on water, and did not trust him enough to not try and stop him from fulfilling his mission all the way to the cross. Judas was a disciple who fell all the way off the path; his greed and frustration overpowered his discipleship.
Discipleship is not stagnant; it is something we spend our lives as Christians working at. Like a creative skill, discipleship takes practice. Discipleship shares a root with the word discipline. Simon and Andrew were fishing, not studying the Torah or lost in prayer when Jesus called them. The first disciples were not called because of their piety, they were not chosen for their wit and strength and unwavering faith. Jesus called them as he calls us all. Being called as a disciple is a gift from God and not our own doing. Discipleship, however, is a discipline. Discipleship is something we must devote ourselves to and practice in order to grown throughout our lives as disciples.
Jesus sometimes talked about his new followers as infants in the faith. He was sensitive to the fact they could stumble, or be led astray. That’s why he said, it would be better for a person to be tied to a millstone and thrown in the sea than hurt one of these little ones. He may have been talking about literal young people, but he was also talking about the risk of people with bad ideas and backwards beliefs corrupting a person with underdeveloped discipleship. Jesus warned of false prophets leading his disciples astray. In our own time, we see good people who are not rooted in the way of Jesus, can be led to follow conspiracies, place too great of hope in politicians, and participate in acts of violence and destruction. Discipleship takes practice to stay rooted in our faith in Jesus. For disciples of Jesus, there is much to learn: prayer, scripture, kindness, forgiveness, love of enemies, putting others before self, patience, and mercy. All of these take time and practice, none of them come to us in an instant and all of them are a part of discipleship.
Spiritual disciplines and devotional practices are ways we can practice our discipleship and grow as Christians. Devotion is the practice of our faith. Growing up, I remember older Christians talking about “doing their morning devotion.” They almost always meant reading the Bible,
maybe with a little booklet, like Upper Room, and saying their prayers. In college I had friends who had “quiet time” with God. It often involved daily reading of the Bible and prayers and often sitting in silence, what is called contemplation or meditation. All of these are intentional acts of devotion, they are the disciplines of disciples. But these are not the only ways to practice our faith, or to grow as disciples. For centuries most Christians could not read or did not have access of the scriptures. Reading the Bible alone, or reading spiritual books or devotionals is a relatively new devotional practice and for centuries people grew as disciples without reading.
Jesus also showed us that to grow as disciples, it’s not just reading and studying but living out active devotional practices in the world. Jesus made himself available to those in need, offering healing, teaching, inspiration, and feeding the hungry. To grow as disciples is to practice good deeds in the world: to serve others, to help those in need, to care for your loved ones, to tend to friendships, to help improve the natural world, grow plants, clean up your neighborhood, to engage in local politics, committing to your church family, participating in the life of the church, even if online; all of these, done with hearts open to God, are ways we grow as disciples.
Contemplation, sitting silently for many minutes with an open heart and quite mind, is another way we can practice lives of devotion. Jesus did this often, going off alone to a mountain or by the sea to meditate. At times he would seek out time alone to pray out loud to God. But more often, Jesus modeled communal and not individual devotion. He sought out people to walk and talk and dine with. Jesus taught his disciples that it is in community and not in isolation that we grow in discipleship. Jesus taught us that we should seek out others, even those who are vastly different than ourselves, and eat with them, talk with them, and learn from them, share the gospel with them and hear the gospel from them. This is how we grow in discipleship.
There are no perfect disciples. But disciples of Jesus are to commit ourselves to the daily practices of discipleship, with hearts that trust the grace of God covers our shortcomings, but hearts eager to grow in faith, gratitude, and love.
Discipleship is the hill we climb as people of faith. “The Hill We Climb,” also happens to be the name of the poem by 22-year-old Amanda Gorman, delivered at the inauguration of President Joe Biden Wednesday. She said of the American people, what is also true of our journey of Christian discipleship:
And yes we are far from polished. Far from pristine. But that doesn't mean we are striving to form a union that is perfect. We are striving to forge a union with purpose, to compose a country committed to all cultures, colors, characters and conditions of man.
As disciples, we are far from polished, far from pristine. But we are striving to forge a communion with God and all God has made, with purpose, to compose a world where the vast beautiful diversity of creation can celebrate and enjoy, grow and flourish.
To believe this, to work towards this, to engage in the striving, to trust in the grace of God to carry us where we will not get on our own, is discipleship. And somehow, miraculously, we do it.
“The dawn is ours before we knew it. Somehow we do it.”
And to God be the glory.
 Amanda Gorman, “The Hill We Climb,” delivered at the Inauguration of President Joe Biden, January 20, 2021. www.townandcountrymag.com/society/politics/a35279603/amanda-gorman-inauguration-poem-the-hill-we-climb-transcript/  Ibid.