Discipleship: What’s St. John’s, Portsmouth is About!

Revd Dr Mike Michielin 2018 Rector’s Report: 
Discipleship: A Way Forward for St. John’s, Portsmouth

I am not a fan of churches engaging in long range strategic planning. It’s not because I don’t think it’s a good idea to get people together to discuss a church’s mission and ministry. But it’s often done without a clear understanding of what it means to be the Church from a biblical perspective, which inevitably leads to misguided mission statements, goals and strategies and frustration in fulfilling them. Adopting business style long range strategies is in vogue because many Church leaders don’t think theology – along with its doctrines, confessions and even liturgies – is relevant for Church practice. I want to dispel this fallacy by outlining for you in my annual report a theology of discipleship from Mark’s Gospel that I hope will inform how we move forward at St. John’s over the next few years. The first part of my reflection will focus on what it means to be called to discipleship. The second will focus on discipleship as obedience. Lastly, I will outline the implications of what I’ve said in the first two parts for St. John’s.

 Let’s begin by looking at Jesus’ calling of his first disciples in Mark 1.9-23,

 In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heaven torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased. …. Jesus came to Galilee proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.

As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea – 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 further he saw James on 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 hired hand and followed him. (Mk 1.9-23, NRSV)

Here Mark describes with amazing brevity how Jesus uproots, tears apart, and then reconstitutes the lives of his first disciples.  We have here the beginning of a new creation (2Cor. 5.17), that comes in the person of Jesus Christ. In this Jesus, we have the powerful arrival of divine grace who summons his followers to a life of discipleship.

Who is this Jesus who calls us to discipleship? In the baptism of Jesus (1.9-11), God the Father declares and the Holy Spirit confirms that Jesus is His one and only Son. In his resurrection, we learn that Jesus is not just an historical figure, but an ever-present reality. He not only spoke, but now that He is risen, can speak now to you, me, and whoever has ears to hear. He called people to follow him then; He calls us to follow him now; and He will call others in the future. With this in mind, let’s first consider what is the substance of his call? And, two, who does Jesus call?

 What is the content of Jesus’ call? First, Jesus is the new and unsurpassable revelation of God. In his baptism, we’re told, the heavens are literally torn apart with apocalyptic force at a particular moment in time and history in which God comes down, speaks and reveals this Jesus to be God’s only Son. The sheer intrusion of this event is striking. Jesus has not reached this moment through any ascetical training of the Torah as would a Rabbi. Instead, his status is simply declared in a single cataclysmic moment in time. Jesus’ baptism is not an occasion for mapping out his kinship with us, but instead the revelation of his divine difference.  As John says, Jesus is mightier than I (1.7).

Second Jesus is declared as the Father’s unique and only Son, AND the object of His pleasure and love: You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased. Psalm 2 echoes this statement: you are my son; today I have begotten you (v. 7). And as the Son of God, He is Lord above all lords: I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession (v. 8).

In Jesus is revealed, not only his divine status, but also a divine movement in time and history. In this movement of God in Christ an entire re-organization of human life takes place. That is the import of what it says in 1.14-15, after John was arrested, Jesus came to Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’  Because Jesus is God Himself breaking into this world, everything in it is redefined and fulfilled because as Jesus says, the Kingdom of God is near. That He is near means any pretense we have to be masters of our own lives has been overthrown. The only proper response is to accept that our pretense and isolation from God is over.  Therefore, the grace that God offers us in Jesus Christ comes to us as a summons to repent and believe in the gospel. But repentance is not mere remorse, although it can be that to some degree. It’s primarily a call to conversion, a total reorientation of one’s life around this Jesus.

What is the substance of his call? Very simply it is ‘follow me’. There are two characteristics to this call. First, it is a call that is ‘self-establishing’. When Jesus calls the disciples to follow they simply drop everything and follow. The event is over in a matter of moments. This short event is not an occurrence of Mark’s terseness, but instead reflects the authoritative nature of Jesus’ call. The summons to follow comes without any supportive evidence or even with any assertiveness. Still, it has absolute force. There is no insecurity in Jesus’ call to follow him. It simply presents itself, not for our consideration and judgment, but expecting our obedience because He is God.

Second, this self-establishing divine call carries with it authority and grace. What do we mean by grace. Grace is simply the coming of Jesus.  It is short hand for the fact that in Jesus we have the manifestation of God’s saving rule. As the manifestation of God’s saving rule, grace commands us with authority to a new life. Grace not only forgives us, but it also makes us into new people as foretold and promised in the OT.

But there is more that can be said about the substance of the call, ‘follow me’? He summons us to a life that renounces a self-directed path to enter one, which abandons all sense that I am my own lord. And the disciple follows this new path always at a distance. As Jesus says, follow after me. There can be no sense that disciples of Jesus are his companions along the road, or fellow travelers of equal ability and dignity. Jesus is present, yet always as our Lord. Therefore, the disciples always walk in the wake of Jesus. The disciple never moves beyond the condition of following.

Furthermore, Jesus’ call to follow me is irreducibly personal in its nature. It’s a call to enter into a relationship with this Jesus. Discipleship is a matter of following Jesus not a commitment to some cause or principle as if Jesus were a symbol or the highest instance of something else. This point is particularly important to register because there is a strong tendency in some preaching to substitute something else for Jesus, for something more generic that does not bring with it the affront of Jesus’ singular rule to follow him. Contemporary substitutes for Jesus are justice, spirituality, or inclusiveness from the liberal side. From the conservative side orthodoxy or moral truth often substitute for Jesus. Although these substitutes do have some value in and of themselves, they can easily redirect our attention away from this God-Man who is the center of all reality and thus of our calling.

Now to our second question. Who are those that are called by him? Once again, the brevity of Mark’s description of those whom Jesus first called is startling. We hear their names, the activities they were about and their employment but nothing more. Beyond this Mark has no interest. They have no history of expectation or preparation anterior to the coming of the Messiah. Instead Jesus breaks into their lives like a traffic accident. There is no match between their past and their present. Jesus simply comes. What do we make of this?

Nothing can be said about the competency, readiness or suitability of those whom Jesus calls. But, it appears to have no consequence. Therefore, we can only conclude the summons of Jesus is creative. He makes disciples and does so out of nothing. Jesus does not recruit certain persons who he deems suitable for what he wants them to do. He takes us as we are and creates us into his disciples

The Obedience of Discipleship

So, what does openness to Jesus summons look like? Its form is simply obedience. When Jesus first called James and John (1.16-20), and later on Levi the tax collector to follow him (2.14), they simply got up and followed. When Jesus reveals himself to us the only response is obedience. For true knowledge of God is accompanied by our yes to God’s call or it’s not true knowledge. That is why there was no consideration on James, John or Levi’s part how to respond. They simply dropped everything and followed. This does not mean we have no free will. God does not force us to follow him. Yet when confronted by and fully aware of who makes this call, the only reasonable response is obedience.

Furthermore, our obedience is totally dependent upon God’s prior grace. Both the call and our decision to follow that call depends on the prior work of God. Grace does not fall away when we begin to talk about discipleship as if it’s now up to us. There is no natural tendency in us to take up this call and follow once Jesus has initiated the call.  Why? Because in his obedience of the Father’s will, Jesus has taken our place, having already walked the path that he has now called us to walk. To say we can respond without grace would deny the Gospel itself. If we can respond without God’s help then Jesus did not need to be our substitute, he did not need to justify us. 

That is the first movement, the initial dropping of all things to follow Christ. The second movement, which I’ve already hinted at, is the ongoing life of regeneration. The disciple repents, not only in her initial decision of obedience, but repeatedly throughout her life from a self-centered life to one that is oriented around Jesus. Our initial decision to follow Jesus begins a life-long transformation with a future goal in mind, the perfection of our being. Therefore, we don’t stop needing to repent and praying for God’s grace and mercy at every turn in the Christian life. We can’t just rest on our accumulated maturity or experience. The disciple is always a beginner because discipleship is receiving the kingdom of God like a child.

Therefore, the life of discipleship is a constant re-awakening to humility. Jesus teaches us this at length in the middle of Mark’s Gospel where he connects the life of discipleship to his cross: He called the crowd and his disciples, and said to them, ‘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, and for the sake of the gospel will save it (Mk. 8.34-35). To be a disciple is to lose one’s life, to be willing to bear one’s own cross, and only thus to save it.

Let’s spell this out in more detail. The life of discipleship is a life of mortification, a life that renounces oneself. What does such a life of renunciation entail? First, it involves rejecting any confidence in our material wealth. Jesus said to his disciples, how hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God (Mk. 10.23). The disciples are amazed at his words. But Jesus again says, children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God. It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God (v. 24). For those whose earthly riches, which also include social status etc., is their god, they cannot enter the kingdom of God. The force of the text, immediately they left everything (1.18), is clear. The life of discipleship requires us to renounce any allegiance to worldly riches that usurps our allegiance to the God who summons us.

Second, the disciple is called to renounce absorption in human relationships. When called by Jesus, James and John leave their father, Zebedee (1.19). The point here is not the utter abandonment of all human relations to follow Jesus. What it does say is that Jesus’ call relativizes all other relationships. Why? When human relationships are elevated in importance above that relationship we have with Christ as his disciples, they bear within themselves the possibility of destructiveness. Making our relationship with Jesus a priority over all other relationships will not diminish but enhance them. That is the force behind when Jesus says to his disciples, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters, or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age – houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions – and in the age to come eternal life. (Mk. 10.28-30)

Third, the disciple is to renounce status, honor and fame. Jesus says to his disciples, you know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers, lord it over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. For the Son of Man came not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many. (Mk. 10.42-45) The disciple is expected to renounce prestige, and in particular, ranking oneself over another. As Jesus came to be a servant so are his disciples called to be the same. As Jesus tells his disciples, the cup that I drink you will drink; and with the baptism with which I am baptized, you will be baptized. (10.39)

Fourth, enclosed in all these renunciations is the loss of self. Self-loyalty, building oneself up or self-affirmation is to be laid aside. If anyone wants to become my followers, says Jesus, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me (8.34). To defy his command, says Jesus, would bring ruin: Whoever seeks to save one’s life will lose it (8.35). That is why the Christian life involves the repeated renunciation of pride or a self that wants to replace Jesus as its center.

 On the surface, all this renunciation appears completely out of reach. But in light of God’s grace, Jesus, not so. The reason why this renunciation is not out of reach is because it has already, as was said before, taken place in Jesus.  Jesus, as our representative, has already mortified the flesh on our behalf when he died on the cross. Our renunciation therefore, is simply the enactment of what has already taken place. The old has passed away and the new has come. Because the time is fulfilled, because the kingdom of God is utterly real and established then the disciple can engage in this movement of renunciation by God’s grace.

Furthermore, renunciation is not just renunciation for its own sake. The end goal in mortifying the flesh is so the disciple can come alive. We die to the ways of this world, the ways that lead to bondage, suffering and death so we can come alive to Christ, a way of joy and freedom. In particular, we die to the ways of the world so we can be free to be true selves without restrictions. But let us not confuse this new life of freedom in Christ with a culture that values self-fulfillment above all things. There are different forms of self-fulfillment in today’s culture and not all of them are noble. The dominant civic, economic, and sexual images culture presses upon us are often pretty tawdry. The private and public sphere communication around choice and acquisition presents itself as a rather stimulating and colorful way of life. But in reality, it has no place for human relations, generosity and trades away human worth with breathtaking ease. The life of discipleship takes us in the opposite direction.

Implications of Discipleship for St. John’s, Portsmouth

 By way of conclusion, let’s consider how Mark’s understanding of discipleship impacts how we make disciples at St. John’s. The most important thing to say is that in and of itself the Church does not make disciples, God does. Therefore, let us beware of thinking that the gospel’s effectiveness hangs on what we do. This only has the effect of depressing rather than giving us life. Making disciples are not made by coming up with strategies that will somehow make the church more attractive to a greedy culture. Disciples are only made in the wake of Jesus’ summons to follow him. And therefore, our main task at St. John’s is to point people to the one who does the summoning in the first place, Jesus Christ.

 How do we point people to Jesus Christ? The answer is testimony and obedience. We testify and bear witness to this Jesus when our conversations with others reflect a confidence that Jesus’ call is clear, persuasive and winsome. To do so involves being charitable to other peoples’ points of view and sharing what we believe as Christians in a joyful and hopeful manner. The last thing we want to be is argumentative with people who disagree with us. That will only shut down conversation and any opportunity to discuss and share the Gospel in the future. But if we’re going to engage people in a discussion about Jesus, and be equipped to engage other peoples’ perspectives charitably, yet critically, it’s incumbent upon ALL of us to be students of Jesus. Ongoing learning by reading the bible, participating in Life Groups, regular worship and reading in general is fundamental.

Second, we need to take mentorship seriously at St. John’s. What do I mean? Just as an apprentice learns how to be a bricklayer from a master mason, likewise this is how younger members of St. John’s can learn about how to be a disciple from its senior members. We have a wealth of knowledge and resources at St. John’s in its people, especially those of you who have a life-long experience of living the life of discipleship at St. John’s. But if we’re going to take mentorship seriously, it’s incumbent upon all of us to take seriously what following Jesus looks like, as I mapped it out for us in part II: constantly re-awakening to humility, renunciation of social status and love of money, and a joyful trust that God’s grace is sufficient.

But what does mentorship practically look like? It can take various forms. One it happens in our Life Groups. When we gather, study and discuss what the bible has to teach us about discipleship, we mentor each other. Two, when we offer to care and minister to each other when we’re sick or in need. Caring for people is a way of mentoring people in the life of discipleship. Third, I would like to set up a mentorship program in which senior members of the parish voluntarily are paired up with younger members where support and gained experience can be shared. Four, mentorship happens when people are invited to come on board to help out with various ongoing ministries: Lay Reading, leading in the prayers, altar guild, serving, leading a Life Group, etc. If you are interested in offering your services in any of these areas, please speak with me. Lastly, I am hoping your will consider becoming a contact person for anyone who is new to the parish. It will be your responsibility to help people know what is going on at St. John’s, introduce them to others in our Church, invite them out for coffee, lunch or supper?

The most important way to influence and mentor others is by reflecting a joyful confidence that Jesus is ever present, winsome and effective in his call to follow Him. In a time when the culture general rejects Christianity and our Church attendance is low, it’s easy to not reflect such joyful confidence. But remember what I said earlier, Jesus calls and creates disciple ex nihilo, out of nothing! Just as Jesus arrived out of nowhere, unexpectedly, called and turned Simon, Andrew, James and John into his disciples, He can call anybody and turn them into His disciples today.