After the resurrection and before the ascension, Jesus told his followers to “Go and make disciples of all nations.” In our postmodern times, we may think that means merely attending Sunday worship, going to Sunday school, confirmation prep classes, mission trips, and eventually full membership into the church, but Jesus has something else in mind. In today’s gospel reading, some of us are shocked by the criteria Jesus has set for his followers. He tells us that in order to follow him, we must hate our families, take up and bear a first century torture device, and then if not enough, divest ourselves of all our possessions. Honestly, those membership requirements are more than most of us are willing to accept in order to claim the title “Jesus Follower.”
That kind of commitment does not seem real or even possible today. Jesus’ demands of his followers sound more like he was living in some kind of first century fantasy-world and of course, none of this applies to we sophisticated, educated, and savvy Christians today. Are we confused by these discipleship standards and do we wonder, how we 21stcentury folks even follow Jesus today. What of his demands are real and what is mere fantasy? We all need a little clarity from Jesus about what he expects of us, especially in a world where truth and reality seem so elusive in our culture today.
Pokemon Go Discipleship
Alternative facts, incongruent news headlines, and even Smart Phone technology blurs reality and fantasy. What is real and what is fake these days? We even have something called Augmented Reality (AR), as if the real world we live in were not challenging enough. AR is an interactive experience of a real-world environment. Objects that reside in the real-world are enhanced by computer-generated perceptual information across our five sensory modalities. For example, there is a game out there called “Pokemon Go,” a free smartphone app that combines gaming with the real world. It uses location tracking and mapping technology to create an ‘augmented reality’ where players interact with and train imaginary Pokémon characters in real locations. Pokemon Go allows players to play in the real world, but without any real commitments, with no real life-changing experiences, no costs at all (the app is free) and all in the arena of escapism and make-believe.
When we hear Jesus’ demands of discipleship, do we think it is mere fantasy? Most of us deep down would rather seek a commitment to Jesus that lets us dabble in his teachings, but with no risks or costs. To really follow him though we need to seek the real life-altering, fully participative, ultimate reality way of life he offers us. We cannot merely put on ear buds, fire up our Apple phones, and play “’Pokemon Go’ be a Christian.” To study his life, to really live like he lived, and to allow God’s spirit to transform us is hard, difficult, and demanding. Following the one who loved beyond our capabilities, healed those who also crucified him, and never once retaliated against his betrayers is not something we see as normal, amongst our friends and others we meet in our local Publix or Walgreens or local restaurant.
Many of us would rather be in an augmented reality discipleship program where we merely play the game, or intellectually dabble in his teachings, or make gentle infrequent excursions into fellowship with his followers, all the while afraid to jump into full the reality of God’s grace and mission call. So, what does it meant to really follow Jesus, especially when he sets out the criteria he gives us today. Which is it, this mission call we have, “Go and make disciples,” or do we merely play “Pokemon Go and make disciples.”
Criteria of Discipleship
Jesus said,“Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. That may seem like fantasy, but most scholars say he was NOT telling us literally to hate our families. Dr. Leslie Holmes asserts, “The Aramaic word for “hate” that Jesus uses … actually means to, “love much less than.” It is a word that tells us that the love we have for our closest family members, compared to the love Jesus demands from us, looks almost like hatred.”(4) What Jesus tells us is that to be like him, we need to make sure God is at the top of our relationship list, and thus all our relationships will be transformed by that reality. Putting God first, and allowing that new reality to change how we cultivate and care for our other relationships, makes following Jesus seem possible doesn’t it?
Next Jesus said,“Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple.” We do not really have to experience crucifixion to be a disciple, but what Jesus is telling us that to be like him, we need to be willing to go the distance with him, all the way to a life of self-giving love, in which others are above self, and the pouring out ourselves in service to others is the new reality. Jesus said, “So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” Jesus is telling us that to be like him nothing material, nor nothing of this world should get in the way of our doing as he does, loving as he loves, and being as he is. Holmes states, “‘If you are looking for a cheap ticket to glory, you are not going to find it with (Jesus). The life of disciples is a life of suffering and difficulty. If you come expecting a free trip along easy street, you will soon go away disappointed.’” (4) We all know that nothing of value, nor anything worth doing in this life (in the reality of this life) is easy or comes without real sacrifice, nor does our journey with Christ.
Stanley Hauerwas writes, “If Jesus is the Messiah, it is surely absurd to think we can follow Jesus while clinging to the attachments of the old age. Rather, to be his disciple means that all our past … are now put in a new context.” (3) In other words, if we are really willing to travel the rough journey that leads to self-sacrifice (the cross), and are we willing to put Jesus above everyone and everything else, then following him is not as difficult as it seems. Although Jesus’ criteria to be followers seem outrageous at first, in reality they are very easy to do, especially if we allow the Spirit to transform us, to be more like Jesus each and every day.
“So Eric,” you may say, “let’s put the augmented reality discipleship metaphor aside, and just tell me what I need to do to follow Jesus.” Simply, we must first decide to make the commitment to live our lives imitating Christ. Next, we must commit to learning more about Jesus and the life and ministry he led and the life he wants us to lead. Finally, we must live that life in reality every single day, accepting that we will not get it right, and that we will fail. We must be at peace with the fact that it is only by the grace of God that we can become and remain a disciple of Jesus, because we cannot do it alone.
James Samra explains, “Discipleship involves both becoming a disciple and being a disciple. At times the focus is on the entrance into the process (evangelism), but most often the focus is on growing in the process (maturity); it includes both teaching and life transformation.”(1) In other words, the title disciple that each of us claims really means we are striving to be “Christ like,” and that means we have to work at it. Here is how we do that.
Be a Disciple!
First, simply read, mark, and inwardly digest scripture, so you might understand how Jesus lived and what he taught, and studying with others is one of the best ways possible. If you think you are going to learn enough to be a Jesus follower from hearing me ramble on for 15 minutes once per week, you are mistaken. Join one of our small study groups, or come to my study each week. If you were going to learn to be a pilot, you surely would need to do more than just go watch airplanes takeoff and land at the airport once a week. You would need to read, study, and yes, get into the airplane and take the controls and practice.
Yes, to become a disciple, you need to practice what you have learned. Through local mission service, or serving on a ministry team in the church, or gathering with other Christians to do something for God’s Kingdom, you are practicing the faith. Gather together with other Christians, so you can experience how others follow Jesus, and you can begin (as Samra asserts) “imitating those who manifest the nature of Christ in their lives and are living out the truths of Christianity.” (1)
The truth of the matter is that following Jesus is really our acts of love in response to the abundant grace God pours out on us. When we commit to the reality of following Jesus, we do it not because “God is the cosmic bully who demands our compliance with the divine directives . . . or else. Rather, (we follow him because) he risks condition-less love in perfect freedom, knowing it might not be returned.” (2) God risks rejection from us, but loves us beyond our ability to comprehend it.
So remember, following Jesus is not something you can do alone in some augmented reality game. There is no “Pokemon Go Make Disciples” App you can download for free. Honestly sisters and brothers, being a disciple is not something you can do with merely a once-a-week, well meaning but limited liturgical engagement. We have to choose to follow Jesus, and if we do, we will experience joy, peace, and love that is real, love that will last our whole lifetimes, and surely a love that will last into the next.
To become a disciple takes commitment, dedication, and real sweat and determination on our part. Today’s Old Testament reading advises, “Choose life so that you and your descendants may live, loving the Lord your God, obeying him, and holding fast to him; for that means life to you and length of days, so that you may live.” So, forget “Pokemon Go be a disciple”, go out there in the real world and live, love, study, serve. “Go and be a disciple.”
(1) Samra, James G. “A Biblical View of Discipleship.” Bibliotheca Sacra, vol. 160, no. 638, Apr. 2003, pp. 219–234.
(2) Wollenberg, Bruce. “Summoned.” The Christian Century, vol. 121, no. 17, Aug. 2004, p. 17.
(3) Hauerwas, Stanley. “Hating Mothers as the Way to Peace.” Journal for Preachers, vol. 11, no. 4, Pentecost 1988, pp. 17–21.
(4) http://day1.org/1059-discipleship_is_demandingDiscipleship is Demanding! The Rev. Dr. Leslie Holmes