I have voiced some reservations in a couple of recent posts about the appropriateness of modelling the life and mission of the church on the form of discipleship found in the Gospels (see ‘Alan Hirsch, The Forgotten Ways, and the future of the church in Europe’ and ‘We have to go back, but not to square one’).
There is a fully understandable desire abroad - as a reaction against big church, as a reaction to the distintegation of the Christendom mentality - to recover the immediacy and humanity manifested in the community of followers that Jesus gathered around himself. Sometimes this is expressed as a strong preference for this model of radical, itinerant, liminal community against the seemingly more institutional form of the Pauline churches.
But what does following Jesus actually look like? What we find when we examine discipleship in the Gospels (we’ll look at Mark below) is that it is a calling and way of life specifically associated i) with the eschatological announcement about the impending action of God in Israel, and ii) with the formation of a group that would have to live the story of the Son of man in Jesus’ slipstream, that would have to follow him down the narrow and dangerous path leading to vindication, to the giving of kingdom to the Son of man and to the community that remained loyal to the new covenant in the face of Jewish apostasy and extreme pagan hostility.
I don’t see how this can be made in any simple sense normative for Christ communities today, except perhaps, analogically, in situations where believers face similar violent opposition. We are not called out of the people of God for the sake of a programmatic campaign of preaching to that people that God is about to act as judge and deliverer. We do not expect to be dragged before ecclesiastical and civil authorities to be arraigned for heresy and sedition. So does it make sense to model ourselves principally on the community of Jesus’ followers?
It could be argued, of course, that with the collapse of Christendom (if we accept that premise) we are again in a position (analogically) to announce to the whole creation that God is doing something remarkable in the midst of his people so that his name may be hallowed, and that we should expect as a result to be dragged before ecclesiastical and civil authorities, because we have come to exist as a challenge to the established order of things. If we can genuinely rediscover this sort of radicalism in response to the contemporary crisis of Western church and culture, then perhaps Alan Hirsch has a lot to teach us. That certainly needs thinking about.
The radical Jesus movement of the first century was shaped by the need to announce a profoundly disturbing good news to a world that was quite prepared to kill in order to protect itself. If we come to that point again, then by all means let us model ourselves on the disciples of Jesus. In the meantime, it seems to me that the ‘new creation’ motif best captures the vocation of the people of God. This is not to say that we have nothing to learn from Jesus, that his story is not critical for our self-understanding, that we do not have an announcement to make, or that we will not face opposition. But I do think it is going to be difficult to discover the fulness of God’s purposes for his people in the Gospel story, which is why we have the rest of the New Testament and the Old Testament before it. It remains a crucial part of our story, but it is not the whole story.
So I would suggest that the following synopsis of the material in Mark’s Gospel that relates to discipleship demonstrates clearly enough that it was a vocation governed by two fundamental responsibilities. The first was to continue the very specific work of announcing to Israel that YHWH was about to act decisively as judge and saviour, an announcement that was backed up by healings and the casting out of demons, and which, I think, from Jesus’ point of view was ultimately fulfilled in the destruction of Jerusalem.
The second was to overcome as a community the intense opposition that they will encounter as this announcement is made first to Israel and then to the pagan world so that the people of God would have a future. The disciples are the bearers of the DNA of the future people of God, but their life as disciples is shaped under the conditions of eschatological transition and that is what we see depicted in the Gospels. Both history and eschatology take us beyond this narrative (I would say beyond the vindication of the parousia), so the question must arise whether Jesus-discipleship remains normative for the people of God.
Obviously, this synopsis does not take the other Gospels into account, but I would not expect them to present a fundamentally different picture.
The disciples in Mark
Jesus’ work, as Mark tells the story, sets out from the announcement of the ‘gospel of God’ to Israel: ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel’ (Mk. 1:15). This ought to suggest that the call to discipleship has a specific temporal framework in view and a specific mission.
Jesus immediately calls the first disciples, four fishermen, who are told that they will become ‘fishers of men’ (1:17). They have been recruited to the task of announcing to Israel that the time is fulfilled, that God will come as king in the not-too-distant future, and that the right response to this expectation is to turn back and believe in the announcement.
Jesus explicitly takes the disciples with him for the purpose of preaching this ‘good news’ to Israel (1:38).
A tax collector is invited to follow him; he responds immediately (2:14).
People ask the disciples questions about their rabbi’s eccentric behaviour, though Jesus doesn’t give them a chance to answer (2:16-17).
The disciples show culpable disregard for the Sabbath laws by plucking and eating grain on the Sabbath (2:23).
Jesus takes his disciples with him to the sea of Galilee and instructed them to get a boat ready in case he was crushed by the crowds (3:7-10).
He chooses twelve from the disciples, who will also be called apostles, who will be with him, whom he will send out to preach the same good news to Israel, and who will have authority to cast out demons (3:13-15).
He explains the parables privately to the disciples, because, as Isaiah understood, Israel invariably fails to grasp the significance of what is happening. The disciples have been let in on the secret that the kingdom of God is about to come, that God is about to act in Israel to overturn the present state of affairs (4:10-12, 33-34). Jesus is anxious that they should properly understand this and behave accordingly (4:24).
When Jesus calms the storm on the sea (4:35-41), the disciples gain a glimpse of how Jesus was playing the role of YHWH who delivers his sinful people from their distress, who restores them when they are scattered amongst the nations (cf. Psalm 107, especially verses 28-29).
The disciples cannot tell Jesus who touched his cloak (5:31).
Jesus takes three of his disciples into the house with him when he revives the daughter of the synagogue ruler (5:37).
The disciples accompany him to his home town (6:1).
He sends out the twelve to call Israel to repentance, heal the sick and cast out demons as a sign that God was about the restore his people. If people refuse to hear the message, the disciples are to shake off the dust from their feet as a symbolic act of condemnation (6:7-13). They return and report everything that they had done and taught (6:30).
Jesus challenges the disciples to provide food for five thousand (6:37-38), and later for four thousand (8:2-5). This leads to a conversation in which he accuses them of missing the whole point of the feeding incidents - perhaps something along the lines of: it is not the teaching of the Pharisees or the power of Herod that will save Israel (8:14-21).
The disciples are terrified when they see Jesus walking towards them on the water (6:49-50).
Some of the disciples don’t bother to wash their hands before eating in disregard of the traditions of the elders (7:2).
There is a crucial incident at Caesarea Philippi when Peter recognizes that Jesus is the Christ of God who will save Israel. In order to explain this, however, Jesus tells the story of the Son of man, who will be rejected by the rulers of Israel, be killed, will rise again, and will be vindicated when he comes to receive the kingdom from God. He also includes the disciples in this story: they will take up their cross, they will lose their lives for his sake, but they will be vindicated with him. All this will take place within the lifetime of some of the disciples (8:27-9:1).
Three of the disciples see Jesus transfigured on a mountain, and later discuss among themselves what the rising from the dead might mean. They ask Jesus why the scribes say that Elijah must come first (9:2-13). When they get back, they find that the rest of the disciples have been having a hard time casting out a demon from a boy. Jesus explains that ‘This kind cannot be driven out by anything but prayer’ (9:14-29).
Jesus again tells the disciples that the Son of man will be killed and after the third day will rise, but they don’t understand him (9:30-32).
The disciples argue about which of them is the greatest. Jesus tells them that the one who wishes to be first ‘must be last of all and servant of all’. The disciples will be received as though they are little children (9:33-35); and anyone who gives them water to drink (when they are imprisoned, for example) will be rewarded (9:41).
Jesus tells the disciples that ‘the one who is not against us is for us’ (9:40).
The disciples must preserve their ‘saltiness’ as agents of the gospel of God because Israel faces a judgment by fire, the judgment of gehenna (9:42-50).
The disciples get Jesus to explain his teaching about divorce (10:10-12).
They try to prevent people from bringing children to Jesus, which doesn’t go down too well (10:13).
A good man cannot follow Jesus because he is unwilling to leave his wealth behind. The disciples wonder whether any wealthy Jew will be delivered from the destruction of Israel. Jesus reassures Peter that the community that has left behind home and family for the sake of the gospel will be rewarded in the age to come (10:17-31). Again, a critical issue of discipleship centres on the difficult and costly journey that must be made from the present state of Israel under judgment to the coming time when the people are restored to wholeness.
Jesus repeats the point about his coming death and resurrection (10:32-34).
When two of the disciples ask to be granted seats either side of Jesus when the Son of man receives sovereignty from God, he asks them whether they are willing to drink the cup of suffering that he must drink or share in his baptism of suffering. He again tells them that greatness must be measured in terms of servanthood and reminds them that they are part of the story of the Son of man, who ‘came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many’ (10:35-45).
Two of the disciples are sent to requisition a colt. The disciples then enter Jerusalem with Jesus (11:1-11).
The disciples overhear Jesus curse the fig tree. The next day they point out to him that it has withered, and Jesus teaches them about asking in faith; they should also forgive others when they pray (11:14, 20-25).
Coming out of the temple the disciples exclaim, ‘Look, Teacher, what wonderful stones and what wonderful buildings!’ Jesus takes this as an opportunity to tell them what they should expect to happen in the coming years as Israel descends into a chaos that will culminate in the war against Rome and the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple. They face a period of extreme testing, but eventually they will be vindicated. They must be prepared and not be caught out by events (13:1-37).
The disciples eat the Passover meal with Jesus, which he reinterprets in terms of his own death and of the new covenant that will bind them to him throughout the coming time of suffering until the reign of God over his people is established (14:12-21).
The disciples struggle to stay awake in Gethsemane while Jesus prays; Peter lays into the servant of the high priest with his sword; the disciples all flee when Jesus is arrested; and Peter later betrays him as predicted (14:26-50, 66-72).
The women are there when Jesus dies and they are the only ones to visit the empty tomb (15:40-41; 16:1-8).
In the inauthentic ending to the Gospel Jesus appears to two of the disciples while they are walking in the country (16:12-13); and he sends the eleven out into the world to make the announcement about what God is doing for Israel to the whole creation. Those who believe and are baptized into this new community will be saved; those who reject the announcement will be condemned. Marvellous signs will ‘accompany those who believe’ (16:14-18).