The Basics: Finding a 21st Century Faith-Discipleship

This morning we continue our series on The Basics: 21st Century Faith. Last week we talked about theology and how we might come to the idea of good theology or better put, healthy theology. We talked about how “theology is our effort to reflect upon God’s gracious action in our lives.”[1] We talked about how theology requires work. It doesn’t just happen. We must read, listen, seek, and then do it all over again. And finally, we talked about how all good theology is born of love. Our theology should express the Spirit of God as given to us by Jesus who tells us to love God and love neighbor as ourselves.

I have said before, I enjoy hiking. I love being in the woods, enjoying the sounds and sights of creation. I love the peace and solitude—when I can find the right trail for it. And I like taking my time. I try to notice as much of the animal and plant life as possible. I try take in the sunlight shafting through the trees, creating pools of light in the cool shade. The truth is, I don’t so much hike as stroll. I’m rarely in a hurry to get from A to B in the woods or anywhere for that matter. When I was younger, I was a bit more intent and intense but with age I have found the simple joy of simply enjoying my time in the woods. If it takes an hour or two or four, it doesn’t matter to me anymore. I just want to enjoy being in the woods. 

Not everyone is like this. I have known other hikers who are, incredibly enough, slower than I am. They stop to smell every rose not just one or two. I have known hikers who try to set speed records, leaving a trail of dust in their wake. And of course, a range of people in between. But hiking something like the Appalachian Trail is a different matter. There are specific things to carry and specific things not to carry. There are distances that need to be covered. When we hiked part of the Appalachian Trail years ago with some friends, we had check points to reach each day, distances that needed to be covered to reach the trailhead and meet our ride. It was a different experience than just taking a walk in the woods. At times, I could stroll. At other times, it was a semi-regimented march. 

Not all hikes are created equally.

In our passage today, Jesus had been inside the home of a Pharisee eating (11:37) and had come out to find a “crowd gathered by the thousands” (12:1). Or perhaps there is some time between the events, it’s a bit hard to determine sequential time in the gospels. Nonetheless, Jesus begins by addressing the disciples present. The conversation is one that has overtones of things to come. Jesus encourages them not to be afraid to confess or declare the truth of who Jesus is and what he taught (12:4-12). He tells several parables about having the right frame of mind about where true value lies (12:13-21), readiness (12:35-40), and faithfulness to the end (12:41-48).  And then we come to the end of chapter twelve where it seems like Jesus gets mad or at least intense.

Jesus switches gears from parables to what may be hyperbole or mysterious or perhaps irritated. He begins to talk about bringing fire to the earth and a baptism that is incredibly stressful (maybe the cause for his intensity). He makes a statement about bringing division instead of peace and elaborates by talking about a household where the family within is fighting with each other. He goes on an talks about how the crowd can look at the skies and predict the weather but they don’t have eyes to see the events of the current time and their place in history. To say the least, there is a cryptic air to his words. 

Like many of Jesus’ challenging teachings, the end of chapter twelve opens doors to all manner of interpretation. There is disagreement among teachers and theologians on what is meant by division or dissention. Some believe it is hyperbole meant to express the differences between believers and unbelievers. Others think it references the differences between Jesus’ disciples and the world. Others say it’s a reference to all-out war in the end times.  There is disagreement on whom Jesus is talking about. Some say it is a message about disciples within the same family. Some say it is the disciples at large. Some say it is about true family units. Jesus’ comments about a fiery baptism could be a precursor to Pentecost, a comment on martyrdom, or a conversation looking back the destruction of the temple, an event less than twenty years removed from the writing of Luke’s gospel.

I think Jesus’ words are a challenge for the disciple. I think in the moment of this scripture Jesus is pictured as frustrated with the disciples’ lack of vision and understanding. I think Jesus, under the stress of his calling, is letting off some steam and being hyperbolically blunt about the lengths to which disciples are going to have to go to be disciples. I think it is a reality check. A way of saying even the closest people to you may turn on you, become disconnected from you, reject you if you follow me as disciples. I believe he is saying true discipleship is both hard and divisive. It may leave you at odds with your family, your community, even your church. 

Eugene Peterson writes, “Too often we think of religion as a far-off, mysteriously run bureaucracy to which we apply for assistance when we feel the need. We go to a local branch office and direct the clerk (sometimes called a pastor) to fill out our order for God. Then we go home and wait for God to be delivered to us according to the specifications that we have set down. But that is not the way it works. And if we thought about it for two consecutive minutes, we would not want it to work that way.”[2] For many, I think this is the limits of their discipleship. They are11:00 am Christians. They are potluck Christians. They are pew potatoes. They put in their requests for assistance during the morning prayers, throw up a prayer before meals, and call it discipleship. But is that really discipleship? What did Jesus say to his followers?

“Come, follow me.”

This is a commandment, an imperative. Every call Jesus issued was to follow. The disciples left their comfort, their families, and traveled with an itinerant Jewish teacher and prophet. They slept where he slept. They ate what he ate (or sometimes not). They learned to do what he did and teach what he taught and when Jesus was gone, they continued as teachers for the next generation of disciples. They did not sit and soak, they walked and talked and taught and carried on creating the movement we now call Christianity. 

Following requires movement. You cannot follow Jesus from your pew. Jesus has moved on. The Spirit of God nourishes us and guides and teaches us in here during our weekly gathering but not only here. That should also be happening at home, and at small group study gatherings. That should be happening in your daily devotions, which should be increasingly challenging your faith rather than just pacifying you where you are. Not only that, but the work Jesus taught was the work of caring for the hopeless, helpless, hurting, and unheard. It was caring for the marginalized and standing up for those who could not stand up or speak up for themselves. It was bringing a form of salvation that was more than the fire insurance policy we cheapen the word with today. It was helping broken people move toward wholeness in this life. It was the Community of God in the here and now as well as the then and there. 

In the words of my friend Walt Jourdan, “Get on out from up from way from here.” The real work, the calling of discipleship is out those doors. Answer as you will.

[1] United Methodist Church. The Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 2016. The United Methodist Publishing House. Kindle Edition.

[2] Eugene H. Peterson, A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society. InterVarsity Press. Downers Grove, Il. © 2000. p. 62