Sunday 18 February

Preacher: The Most Rev’d Geoff Smith, Archbishop of Adelaide

You can listen to a podcast of the sermon here:

‘Discipleship in Mark’ – 1

This is the first of four talks on the topic of Discipleship in Marks gospel. The topic came about because the Dean invited me to give some addresses during Lent.

Discipleship is something I think is absolutely critical to the future of the church and this year is the year the church’s lectionary, the program of bible readings for the year for use in services, focuses on Marks gospel especially for the Sunday readings. So that’s how the topic came about. Discipleship is very important for Christians. Discipleship has been called the great omission in the life of the church and we need to reclaim the concept the word and the lifestyle and it’s a good idea as we focus on Mark for this year to focus on Marks understanding of discipleship of Jesus.

It might sound a bit odd to focus on one of the gospels. After all you might ask, aren’t the four gospels the same? The answer is ‘no’. They are in fact very different. They have different approaches, different areas of focus and emphasis.

We understand that the final form of the four gospels was established quite a while after the death and resurrection of Jesus based on reliable eye witness accounts and with some of the original witnesses still alive or known to the church community, but reflecting the situation of the church from which the individual gospel accounts came.

They were not word for word reports of the words of Jesus, or the life of Jesus but were shaped by the situations from which they came and the individuals who contributed to them. The four gospels are not just four historical versions of the life and ministry of Jesus, they each have their own emphases. The centre focus was the same-Jesus the messiah, his life death and resurrection, but the details, are certainly different.

And you can pick that up just by reading each of them Matthew Mark Luke and John from end to end, something we don’t do very often perhaps. We do tend to read little chunks of each gospel but if you read them from beginning to end the differences can be seen clearly.

So the emphasis over these weeks is discipleship from the perspective of Marks gospel. One thing you might like to do is to sit down and read Marks gospel this week. It will only take an hour or so

The question of discipleship in Marks gospel is not just an interesting theoretical exploration. It has impacts for all who have any interest in Jesus.

All of us who are baptised whether we were baptised as babies or adults, with lots of water or just a little are called by Jesus through our baptism to follow him, to be his disciples. This is our calling, our primary vocation in life so it’s a really important topic.

A disciple is not a super Christian-one step up from an ordinary Christian. To be a Christian is to be a disciple of Jesus, so it’s really important that we understand what it is to be a disciple and put that into practice in our life for the sake of the work of Christ for the world.

The first question is what is discipleship and what is a disciple? Disciples may not be common today in our society but they were very common in the ancient world. Greek philosophers like Plato had disciples. It was common for rabbis in Jesus time to have disciples. We know for instance from the gospels that John the Baptist had disciples. Peter and Andrew were originally disciples of John before they became disciples of Jesus. We also know that there were disciples of the Pharisees.

So the idea of disciple and discipleship was not unique to Jesus. It’s not something he invented. It was a common custom for people to follow teachers they admired and learn from them.

The process of learning though wasn’t like a classroom situation where the learners turned up for lectures at certain times (or logged on to a video conference or downloaded a podcast) and then went off to the café or the pub.

In the ancient world the disciples went with the teacher.  A disciple hung around with the teacher, followed the teacher, listened to the teacher, watched the interactions the teacher had with other people. The disciple or learner stood ready to pick up any pearl of wisdom the teacher might have cast in the process of a conversation or interaction with someone else. A disciple absorbed not only the teaching but the teacher.

Disciples not only learned a bucket of stuff for their heads, they became like the teacher, reflected the character and style of the teacher and continued the work of the teacher on. As Bishop Tom Wright says in his little book Following Jesus -Biblical reflections on Discipleship (p39) ‘Disciples’ means not just head learners. Not just heart learners, but life learners’.

In his helpful book Real Life Discipleship American pastor Jim Putman defines a disciple as one who follows Jesus, is being changed by Jesus and is committed to the mission of Jesus.

It seems there were two groups of disciples who related to Jesus.  First, those who out of their own interest decided to follow Jesus, and second, those who Jesus specifically calls to follow him.

The first group was much larger and seems to have ebbed and flowed with people coming and going out of curiosity. The smaller group are those called specifically by Jesus and they are the ones we know most about from the gospels. They are often referred to as the twelve.

Jesus called them to follow him and they literally did that, they left what they were doing and went with Jesus. Mark 1.16 is very clear about this:

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake—for they were fishermen. And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me and I will make you fish for people.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.

The disciples ate with Jesus, worshipped with Jesus, stayed with him, listened to him, watched him and at least once were sent out by Jesus to do what he had been doing-proclaiming the coming of the kingdom of God by what they said and what they did. Finally, after Jesus death and resurrection he commissioned them to continue his ministry in the power of the Holy Spirit.

There are a number of features about discipleship of Jesus generally that are worth remembering.

  1. The first is that Christian discipleship is very clearly about Jesus, not a vague sense of God or general spirituality or values or ethics or morals. Discipleship in the Christian context is completely focussed on Jesus. It is Jesus who calls and it is Jesus the disciple follows. It is Jesus the disciple seeks to become like. It is Jesus ministry the disciple seeks to continue. Christianity and Christian discipleship are very clearly and explicitly about Jesus.

It is Jesus who calls to follow him. To follow Jesus is then is not just the acceptance of an invitation it is an act of obedience.

  1. Obeying the call to follow always involves leaving.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his classic book The Cost of Discipleship says (P79) that everyone who hears the call to follow must heed the call to abandon the attachments of the world.

The first disciples according to Mark, left their boats and their nets and their families to follow Jesus. To follow Jesus involves leaving habits, lifestyle and priorities to take on Jesus’ habits lifestyle and priorities. Discipleship encompasses this total God-ward transformation which takes place when individuals and communities intentionally, sacrificially and consistently live every aspect of their daily life in commitment to following Jesus.

The Anglican Consultative Council has published a resource called Intentional Discipleship and Disciple Making and includes these words (p4) ‘As we read the Gospel narrative we quickly observe that the ‘following’ also involves a repentance (a radical turning around) of life style-world view and spiritual orientation, a total transformation of the self, so that Paul is led to claim ‘so if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see everything has become new! (2 Cor 5.17)’.

Discipleship encompasses this total God-ward transformation which takes place when individuals and communities intentionally, sacrificially and consistently live every aspect of their daily life in commitment to following Jesus. But in the end that may well involve a leaving of something, or some place, some attitude or some priority and that may be an ongoing process as we continue to follow Jesus.

  1. There is a cost in discipleship

Apart from the cost of leaving which I mentioned a moment ago there may well also be a cost to us in other ways. Dietrich Bonhoeffer suffered torture and execution at the hands of the Nazi’s just days before world war 2 ended. He suffered because he was a Christian. Bonhoeffer says in The Cost of Discipleship (P78) ‘Suffering then is the badge of true discipleship. The disciple is not above his master. Discipleship means allegiance to the suffering Christ, and it is not all surprising therefore that Christians should be called upon to suffer.’

There is no doubt that many of Jesus first disciples suffered for their faith. Many like Jesus were executed. Millions of Christians have paid all kinds of cost since. It is a sobering thing to remember there is a cost to following Jesus. Christian discipleship is not about self- actualization or soothing our emotional or spiritual sore spots, it is about going with Jesus in Jesus way where Jesus leads and that can be very costly.

  1. Disciples continue the ministry of Jesus

Each of the four gospel accounts contains a commissioning of the disciples to continue Jesus work.

Matthew in chapter 28 has: ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you’.

Mark in 16.15 has ‘Go into all the world and proclaim the good news to all creation’

Luke in Acts 1.8 has-‘you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria and to the ends of the earth’

Finally John in 20.21 ‘As the father has sent me so I send you. If you forgive the sins of any they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any they are retained’.

Again, discipleship of Jesus is not just a private religious matter of the heart. It’s not just about belief or faith or private piety but about ministry. Continuing the ministry of Jesus.

  1. Finally an integral part of discipleship of Jesus is making disciples.

The commissioning in Matthew’s gospel is the most explicit command to make disciples and the first disciples certainly heard it. They helped others to encounter Jesus through their speaking and their actions, their lives. They helped others to become and continue and be formed as disciples of Jesus and that practice has continued which is why there are more than two billion people in the world today who call themselves Christians.

As always the big question is: and so for us?

Well in summary as it was for the first disciples it is for us. Over the next couple of weeks we will see discipleship through Marks eyes but in the meantime we can be sure that we are called to be disciples of Jesus. If we are  baptised we are called to be disciples, not just believers in Jesus or members of the Anglican church. We are called through our baptism and we hear and obey that call as a decision to follow Jesus.

It is of course not a single decision but there is a first decision. Discipleship doesn’t happen by chance it must be intentional. Somewhere along the track we must decide to follow Jesus, to live his way, to become like him, to continue his mission and make disciples of others and to keep doing that and not give up.

The resource produced by the Anglican Consultative Council called Intentional Discipleship and Disciple-Making says (P6) ‘Discipleship can never be about a single aspect of our lives., or behaviour, or religious expression. It is about the whole life of a Christian and the Christian community and this means the whole people of God, young and old, lay and clergy and everything they do and say on a daily basis. Intentionally following Jesus Christ will place demands upon individuals our family relationships, the way we handle money, our attitude toward employment and leisure activities, our exploitation of the environment, our political choices and much more’.

It is clear that Jesus disciples spend time with Jesus. Rowan Williams in his book Being Disciples, Essentials of the Christian Life (p15) says for the Christian today that means seeking constantly the company of other servants of Christ, the company of the revelation of Christ in scripture, the company of the Father and the Son in the Spirit in prayer. At the primary level that will mean learning and deepening our attentiveness to the bible, to the sacraments and to the life of the body of Christ.

Being with Jesus also means be where Jesus is. Again Williams says (p16) being where Jesus is means being in the company of the people whose company Jesus seeks and keeps. Jesus chooses the company of the excluded, the disreputable, the wretched, the self -hating, the poor, the diseased; so that is where you are going to find yourself as a disciple of Christ.

Its very challenging to be a disciple of Jesus in Australia in 2018. The encouraging thing is that no matter the year or the location being a disciple of Jesus has always been challenging. Its never been easy. It is the narrow way because it goes against our selfish and sinful grain. But disciples of Jesus have caught something of the vision of God for the world seen in the ministry of Jesus. We have experienced either in our life or the life of others something of the reality of God, the presence of God, the activity of God or we may have sensed the wisdom of God in the ordering of the world. However it has come, our interest has been peaked. And so the call of Jesus to follow him is for us.

The opportunities to serve Jesus are huge. The potential for good if all who are called respond in obedience to Jesus is enormous. Just think how the community could be changed for the better, the light come if all of us are intentional about being disciples and making disciples of Jesus. That’s an exciting vocation to consider and more than that to embrace. But it is not easy and may well be costly.

Over the next few weeks we will see how Mark especially sees discipleship playing out in the hope that all of us will grow in discipleship of Christ and be used to change the world.

Let us pray.