By Dorlan Bales
Welcome to the first of six Bible studies that explore the subject of discipleship, including being gathered by Christ and sent forth to serve. How and why do people become followers of Jesus Christ?
There is not a simple answer to that question. For many people, two complementary influences lead to a decision to follow Jesus’ teachings and example. One is the persistent inward calling of the Living Christ deep within. The other is the New Testament writers’ witness that Jesus of Nazareth was the decisive outward revelation of God’s love.
As you read this and subsequent Bible studies in the 2014 issues of Quaker Life, you are invited to learn more about the scripture’s witness to Jesus, to discern what the Holy Spirit is teaching at this point in your spiritual journey and to reflect on how your church or meeting could be more intentional in serving those not yet part of your faith community. You may choose to focus on one section of these Bible studies at a time, explore the scripture passages included, ponder the reflection questions and discuss the insights received.
The First Followers of Jesus of Nazareth
Most of the earliest Christian disciples were materially poor women and men who responded to Jesus’ message and compassionate deeds. They received the good news about God’s kingdom of mercy and love, rejoicing as Jesus blessed them, healed the sick, fed the hungry and engaged in public debates about the intention versus the letter of the Jewish law. Though crowds of people came to hear him and to be healed of their diseases, Jesus seemed not to have had many close followers during the short time between his Spirit baptism and his crucifixion. Little wonder, as he seemed to deliberately discourage would-be disciples by pointing out the high level of commitment required.
To follow Jesus meant leaving everything else behind, living a life of unconditional allegiance to the rule of God that Jesus was announcing. Nothing else could be of more importance: not family obligations (Luke 9:59-62), not possessions (Luke 15:33), not the Jerusalem Temple (Mark 13:2), nor recognition as a religious leader (John 3:1-2). Jesus’ radical social and religious nonconformity created enormous tension between himself and society’s most religious people, who criticized his association with the outwardly “impure” and asked Jesus questions designed to trap and discredit him. Soon it became clear that the authorities would find a way to get rid of him.
Jesus told his disciples, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life (Matthew 16:24-26)?” His bold teaching inspired his disciples to seek first the kingdom of God, its righteousness, mercy, purity of heart, peace and willingness to endure rejection. As a result his followers were to become world-transforming salt, light and yeast!
Do you wonder why Jesus emphasized the difficulty of being his follower?
Why do you think Jesus died on a Roman cross despite his popularity?
Has the Living Christ ever called you to self-denial? What was the result?
Jesus Gathers and Teaches his Disciples
As a young man, Jesus sought out a prophet, John the Baptist, who was preaching repentance and baptizing people in the Jordan River to prepare the way for the long-awaited messiah. Just as Jesus came up out of the water, “the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.’” Then the Spirit immediately led Jesus into the wilderness for 40 days of fasting, where he was tempted by food, fame, and worldly power (Matthew 3:13-4:11).
Filled with the Holy Spirit, Jesus returned home to the Galilee region where he proclaimed that the kingdom of God was at hand and called on hearers to repent and believe in the good news of God (Mark 1:14-15). He cast out unclean spirits, healed the sick and spoke with authority in synagogues, where he was well received. In his home town of Nazareth, however, Jesus offended and enraged synagogue-goers who tried to throw him off a nearby cliff (Luke 4:16-30).
Soon he was on the shore of Lake Gennesaret climbing into Simon Peter’s fishing boat to teach a pressing crowd. After speaking he told a tired Simon, who had just finished washing nets after a fruitless night of fishing, to go back out on the lake and let down his nets again. The result was two boats filled to the sinking point with fish, which amazed everyone present including James and John who were Simon’s business partners. When Jesus told them that henceforth they would be catching people, they “left everything and followed him (Luke 5:1-11).”
Jesus spoke plainly to the disciples about the kingdom of God. When he addressed crowds, however, he told stories based on everyday life. Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd (Matthew 9:36).” He demonstrated the kingdom of God by healing and blessing the poor, calling unlikely people to be his disciples and fending off Pharisees who objected to the “bad” example Jesus set associating with the “wrong” people. When his disciples failed to keep the ceremonial law, Jesus defended them and even broke the Sabbath law himself (Matthew 12:1-14).
Jesus told parables about a prized pearl, about a treasure hidden in a field and people who sold everything in order to possess these treasures (Matthew 13:4-46). Never one to minimize the cost of being his disciple, Jesus reminded a scribe, an educated man of means who wanted to follow him, that he and his disciples were homeless.
Jesus also advised a would-be disciple who first wanted to bury his father to, “let the dead bury their own dead,” and go with him to proclaim the kingdom of God (Luke 9:60). Early in his ministry, Jesus’ mother and brothers came looking for him when he was teaching a crowd. Jesus told the listeners that his mother and brothers are, “whoever does the will of God (Mark 3:35).”
Jesus’ disciples showed flashes of insight during the intense internship with their unconventional master, but for the most part gospel writers painted a picture of the 12 as slow learners (Luke 9:51-56 and 24:25-27). Though Jesus seems disappointed in them sometimes, today’s readers who enter into the scripture accounts imaginatively may marvel at the original disciples’ willingness to leave everything to follow Jesus. We can also remember times when the Holy Spirit has been disappointed by our failure to follow our Guide more closely.
After Jesus’ baptism by John, why do you think he was called into the wilderness to be tested?
Why did those present at Jesus’ debut as a teacher in his home town become filled with rage at his words?
What was it about Jesus’ words and deeds that made some people willing to abandon everything to follow him? Are there particular teachings of Jesus that have inspired you?
Was there a particular time when you responded obediently to what the Holy Spirit asked you to do? Can you remember a time of disobedience?
Jesus’ Teaching About His Death, Resurrection and the Holy Spirit
Jesus told his disciples on several occasions that he would suffer, be killed and be raised again (Matthew 16:21), but they didn’t accept his words. As Jesus and his disciples healed and taught, his public support grew. The authorities began to worry that he might lead an uprising against the Roman occupation. There was some basis for those fears, since Jesus’ large following wanted to make him their earthly king.
His refusal to claim political power was dramatized by riding “in triumph” into Jerusalem on a donkey to the joyful praise of his followers. He then proceeded to drive the ceremonial animals and the merchants out of the temple courtyard. Both the adulation he received and his clearing of the temple marketplace angered the chief priests, the scribes and Pharisees. They started to look for a way to kill him, but were thwarted for a time by Jesus’ popularity.
The conflict between Jesus and the authorities became intense at the time of the Passover Festival. One of his inner circle, Judas, agreed to let the authorities know where to find Jesus at a time when there would be no adoring crowd to protect him. Jesus arranged with his disciples a Passover meal where he once again spoke of his betrayal, suffering and death.
Jesus also spoke good news and comfort to his disciples during the Passover celebration saying, “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not let them be afraid (John 13:25-27).” Jesus as outward teacher would be taken from them that night.
Like John, the writer of Luke/Acts also emphasizes the work of the Holy Spirit. For Luke, the Holy Spirit was not only present when John the Baptist and Jesus were conceived, but also during Jesus’ baptism, within the testing in the wilderness and in final words to his disciples just before his ascension: “I am sending upon you what my Father promised; so stay here in the city until you have been clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49).” The Acts of the Apostles opens with a review of the risen Christ’s final instructions to his disciples just before he was taken out of their sight, adding these words: “You will be baptized by the Holy Spirit not many days from now.”
What do you find remarkable about Jesus’ disciples? Are there ways in which you identify with their feelings of joy and their times of perplexity?
What do you think were the reasons for Jesus’ conflict with the Jewish and Roman rulers?
Do you think it was difficult for the disciples to comprehend Jesus’ teaching about God’s gift of the Holy Spirit before Jesus was no longer present bodily and they were filled with spiritual power a few weeks later?
Quaker Discipleship and the Living Christ
In 17th century England, a radical group of common people appeared during an upheaval that shook the social and spiritual order. These unconventional Christians knew the scriptures and experienced the immediate presence of the Holy Spirit so powerfully that their hearts and bodies trembled. Understanding their experience as similar to that known by Jesus’ disciples, they declared that the Holy Spirit within men and women, whether they are professional or laboring people, is the Initiator and continuing Guide of the human quest for God.
As these people called Quakers saw it, they had been gifted with a rediscovered New Testament Good News and with the same Spirit that had been poured out on Jesus’ disciples (see Acts 2). They thought that a right understanding of Jesus’ message had been all but lost after Constantine saw in Christianity a religion that could help unite his far-flung Roman Empire. With church and state linked so closely, it became difficult for many to make a distinction between God’s will and what emperors required.
Spiritual movements begin with a fiery desire to be true to the will of God, but cool to a more sustainable temperature after a few generations. It appears that 18th century Quakers created communities and practices suitable for the long haul. But Quakers, like all faith communities, need ongoing spiritual renewal if we are to be to be gathered in Christ and love our neighbors as Jesus taught us to do.
The challenges created today by Quakers’ changing circumstances and the ever-present temptations to serve other gods’ call for a greater measure of the discipleship practiced by the early church and our Quaker forebears. Do we as a Society of Friends have faith that God is still able to pour out the Holy Spirit on disciples who listen and worship that we may be “clothed with power from on high?”
Why did early Friends emphasize the Holy Spirit so much?
What does it mean today in the Americas, in Africa and in other parts of the world, to “leave our nets” and “take up our crosses” to follow Jesus?
How do you open your heart to be empowered and led by Jesus?
Pledging Allegiance to Jesus
What motivates someone to become Jesus’ disciple, to fall in love with Christ as inward, primary guide for the first time or renew a decision to follow in spite of past failures and the shortcomings of other Christians? There are many ways in which people are drawn to the Living Christ.
For some, there is a decisive inward encounter with Christ, like Peter’s lakeside call, when the Holy Spirit is experienced powerfully as a direct challenge to the life they have known. Others, like Martha’s sister Mary (Luke 10:38-41), are drawn to Jesus in a less dramatic but no less powerful way. The call can come by way of scripture and other writings, through the faithful ministry of others or apparently unrelated to particular writings or people as the Holy Spirit works inwardly to create the desire to follow Jesus.
Sometimes discipleship is in response to the need for a more purposeful life, or the result of a new awareness of the damage being done to one’s truest self as a result of serving a master other than God. Sometimes turning to Jesus comes in the midst of a life crisis, such as failure, sickness or the loss of an important relationship. Some, like George Fox, turn to Christ present within because other teachers have not “spoken to their condition.”
Quakers have often used the term “convincement” when they describe the decision to become Christ’s disciple. My own convincement has come as a series of calls to follow Christ, the Light, in new ways.
However the call comes, and whatever the life circumstances may be when one responds faithfully, following Jesus Christ is life-changing! When people acknowledge their need for guidance and enter into an ongoing relationship with the Living Christ, the compassionate Good Shepherd invites them to begin a spiritual journey to wholeness, or resume the journey if they have lost their way like the prodigal son and his older brother did. Though the brothers were very different, both needed to be reunited with a loving father (Luke 15:11-32). Discipleship is the pathway to God’s forgiveness and encouragement, the process by which friends of Jesus find power in community to overcome fear, pride and hardness of heart that interfere with living in God’s loving Light.
What led you to become a disciple of Jesus? What has kept you committed to Jesus as important to your spiritual life?
How has deciding to follow Jesus impacted your life?