I love the Southwestern United States: the dry desert and exotic cactus, the Native American traditions and the beauty of the red earth. While visiting New Mexico, I realized how vital grass is to life. Grass plays a remarkable role in the natural circle of the earth. Without grass, lands would either wash away into the rivers and streams or would dry up and blow away, as it does in the desert. Without grass, many of animals would have no food. Where would the deer lie at night and what would they eat in the morning?
Grass is indeed an integral part of so many lives on this earth. Yet, there is a secret to grass: One blade of grass cannot achieve its purpose alone. If the purpose of grass is to feed a herd, then there must be many, many blades with plenty of nutrients to do the job. If the purpose of grass is to hold the land in place, then there must be many, many blades with strong roots. Even if we only enjoy grass to lie on, walk on and mow every Saturday morning, we need more than one blade. God, apparently, did not create grass to be alone.
So it is with Jesus and his disciples. Jesus didn’t walk alone; neither did his disciples. Even today, disciples are not called to walk alone. Being a lone ranger was never part of the plan of discipleship.
The beginning of Jesus’ ministry was not a solitary event. Jesus found followers who weren’t attached to teachers. Back then, the Israelite tradition demanded that a teen-aged male chose a rabbi — a teacher — to follow, with whom to study. As Jesus, the rabbi, called these young men to follow him, they eagerly joined him. They were anxious to be worthy of tutelage. Philip was apparently well versed in the Torah, and was perhaps even a former follower of John the Baptist.
As is indicated in the story of Philip and Nathanael, discipleship is a transformative process that takes an individual through believing and then to being a disciple. The Quaker faith also places importance on the process of spiritual growth of an individual to becoming a disciple of Christ. The faith and practice of Quaker meetings lies in their members having their own experience of the Christ, sharing that experience with others and relying on the Spirit’s guidance in community.
The First Experience of Christ: Philip, having heard the call of Jesus, finds Nathanael sitting underneath a fig tree. But Nathanael is not a happy man. He is not a content man. His friend brings him amazing news — life changing news — and all Nathanael can muster is a nasty retort about Jesus’ hometown. Nathanael is not mentally prepared to hear the call of discipleship from anyone else but by Jesus himself. Jesus performs a miracle to convince Nathanael of his call. His attitude may have been poor, but he heard his friend call him to, “come and see.” You might say Nathanael was a convinced disciple. Just as Quakers use the word “convinced” to signify a member of the Society of Friends who wasn’t born into a Quaker household; a convinced disciple needed more from Jesus. He needed more than second-hand news. Nathanael needed personal experience; tradition and testimony wasn’t enough for him.
George Fox’s experience was much like Nathanael’s. As a young man, Fox left home and searched far and wide for answers to his spiritual questions. He couldn’t find any answers in the churches or from the ministers of the time. The answers came in the form of a personal, inward experience of Christ. From that moment on, it was revealed to Fox that all humanity could have a personal “existential” knowledge of Jesus.
The Shared Experience of Christ: Scripture doesn’t tell us how Philip experienced the call of Jesus. We don’t know if Jesus performed a miracle to call him. We do know the outcome, however. Philip is prepared to go and find his friends, to bring them to Christ, to share his testimony of Jesus and who Jesus is. After he experiences Christ, he immediately feels led to share the experience and finds Nathanael.
In times of silent worship today, we wait upon the Spirit to speak to us, then share the experience with the congregation. As disciples today, we rely upon experiences of God to uplift and guide our meetings. We believe that the Spirit speaks to all, and all are worthy of the Light of God.
Quakers have sat in silence, waiting upon the Spirit, relying upon the Spirit, inviting the Spirit to lead us in right paths. This pattern of experiencing God firsthand, sharing that experience and relying upon the Spirit as we share, has been and continues to be a valid model of discipleship for Quakers throughout history and in modern times.
Relying Upon the Spirit (Together in Community?): The disciples and followers of Christ sat waiting in the upper room after Jesus was crucified. They were afraid for their lives, but they stayed together. How could their purpose be fulfilled if they were torn apart? Their true discipleship began when the Holy Spirit gave them the ability to create disciples without the physical ministry of Jesus. As they fled Jerusalem, like grass seeds blowing on a desert breeze, the disciples sought out those to whom the Spirit would now testify and made disciples.
A piece of grass cannot fulfill its purpose, just as a lone disciple cannot share his or her discipleship with the world. George Fox did not wait after his experience with Jesus. He immediately began to travel the countryside, preaching for hours, bringing the Gospel message to the people of England in a new way. Many Englishmen and women heard his call and experienced Christ for themselves as never before. Likewise, they traveled far and wide to bring their testimony to the world. Today, Quakers still take their beliefs to many corners of the world, serving their brothers and sisters in Cuba, Jamaica, Belize, Palestine and Kenya, just to name a few. Several Kenyan disciples are ministering to their neighboring countries as well.
Grass will grow in fertile soil and disciples will spring forth all over the world. May we continue to flourish like the grass upon the earth and cover the land with our sacrifice and service as disciples of God.
Susann Estle-Cronau is part-time pastor at Hopewell Friends in Quaker, Indiana. During the week, she is a full-time program coordinator for incarcerated veterans at a special re-entry prison in Indianapolis. She is full-time mother of Case, 17, and Chloe, 15.