This post is adapted from a chapel talk given by Columbia’s president, Bryan Born, on January 14, 2016.
Prior to watching this video, I had the mistaken idea that the church owned the concept of ‘discipleship.’ It’s funny that I would think that way but in my mind, ‘discipleship’ had a Christian trademark.
Of course it doesn’t. The world around us is constantly seeking to mold us into a certain image, and it’s doing a fantastic job of it. Coming at us from all angles – print, web, video, music, movies– our culture actually has far more resources at its disposal to ‘disciple’ us than the church could ever dream of.
Our middle-class culture wants us to pursue four things: safety and security, comfort and convenience. In his book, The Forgotten Ways (219), Alan Hirsch writes this: “There is something about middle-class culture that seems to be contrary to authentic gospel values. Much of what goes by the name “middle-class” involves a preoccupation with safety and security, developed mostly in pursuit of what seems to be best for our children. And this is understandable as long as it does not become obsessive. But when these impulses of middle-class culture fuse with consumerism, as they most often do, we can add the obsession with comfort and convenience to the list. And this is not a good mix – at least as far as the gospel and discipleship is concerned.”
So we have a problem – we are faced with competing visions for discipleship. We need to be clear: How does Jesus define a disciple?
My answer is drawn from the Gospels, but I want to acknowledge the work of Doug Berg, our Academic Dean, who wrote a short book entitled, Living Evidence. Doug highlights four key traits of a disciple, drawn directly from the words of Jesus.
The first is complete surrender. Take a minute to read Luke 14:25-33. Jesus’s message is radical and clear: “Those of you who do not give up everything you have cannot be my disciples.” That ‘everything’ includes family, possessions, even our own lives.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose opposition to the Nazi regime of Adolf Hitler during WWII cost him his life, wrote the following in The Cost of Discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” He went on to say, “only the man who is dead to his own will can follow Christ. In fact every command of Jesus is a call to die, with all our affections and lusts.” The clear distinction between two types of discipleship – the pull of consumerism versus Jesus’ call to self-sacrifice – is stark.
The second trait of a disciple is in John 8:31-32: “To the Jews who had believed him, Jesus said, ‘If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. 32 Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Disciples are people who hold to the teaching of Jesus, people who believe and then do what he says.
In a well-known passage in Matthew, Jesus calls the weary and burdened to take on his yoke and learn from him. To be yoked is to be linked together. The reason why obedience to Christ so often feels so difficult is that we try to do it alone when he calls us to do life together with him.
We’re called to keep learning from Jesus. To hold to Jesus’ teaching means we welcome it, we are at home with it, we live with it so continuously that his teaching becomes part of our lives, and changes us.
Trait # 3: Jesus’ disciples put love into action.
Jesus said these simple words in John 8:34: “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”
It sounds simple, but we all know how challenging it can be. In Doug Berg’s book, he lists five significant ways we can demonstrate love for one another.
- Accept one another.
- Respect one another.
- Ask for forgiveness, forgive those who wrong you and receive forgiveness.
- Build one another up with words of encouragement or a smile.
- Sacrifice for one another.
Trait #4: Jesus’ disciples produce fruit.
In John 15, Jesus compares himself to a vine: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing… This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”
The kind of fruit Jesus desires is a life which demonstrates who God is and draws people to the Father. It refers to values, behavior and words that bring glory to the Father. The more Jesus uses our lives to encourage others to come to God and follow Him, the more fruit is produced. For our lives to produce the kind of fruit Jesus intends, we need to invest in the lives of people around us.
One of the most faithful disciples I know is Katie. Not long ago, she was a student at Columbia. Unfortunately, over the past five years she has been battling a debilitating illness – Lyme’s Disease. She lives in constant pain, and yet when you visit with her, it seems that you are in the presence of holiness – God’s presence seems to hover around her.
What I have witnessed in her life is an incredible awareness of God, a deep tenderness and compassion for people, and a passionate zeal to share the love of Jesus. Having surrendered herself to God, it seems she is free to embrace and know God and God’s children in ways far beyond my own understanding.
This past Christmas, she wrote me a letter. One of my favorite paragraphs in her letter reads as follows: “It is interesting that we teach children who are completely dependent on us to become adults who are to be independent, and take care of themselves so that they can be effective in the world. But in God’s Kingdom, He teaches us adults to become children who are completely dependent on Him so that He can be effective through us in the world.”
Put it all together, this is how a follower of Jesus looks: completely surrendered, holding to Jesus’ teaching, loving each person, and producing fruit.
Safety, security, comfort, convenience – they don’t have a prominent place in this picture. If we choose to be disciples of Jesus, we may well be giving up these things entirely.
So why follow Jesus?
Don’t just ask yourself: What does it cost to be a disciple? Ask yourself: What does it cost not to be a disciple?
Don’t forget the promise – those who lose their lives for Jesus’ sake will also save their lives. Doug Berg suggests that our lives are saved from selfishness, pride, artificiality and sinfulness. We discover the joy of living for something, for Someone so much bigger than ourselves.
I have found the Apostle Peter’s words in John 6 resonate deeply with me. When Peter, along with the rest of the disciples, was asked if he intended to desert Jesus, he replied, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and to know that you are the holy One of God” (Jn. 6:68-69).
Life – true life – is only found in Jesus, the sinless Creator, Sustainer, Redeemer and Reconciler.
I choose Jesus.