iDoubt Week 1: What does it mean to be a disciple?


Today we begin a 7 week series called iDoubt: Questions about Faith. We will spend 7 weeks answering and dialoguing around questions that you have submitted that you have about faith, God, the Bible, following Jesus, and a bunch of other themes and topics. I’m excited to begin to explore these questions together and dialogue around them. But I also wanted to say something right from the start. During this series and in the topics of discussion, we might come to a place where we disagree with each other. You might disagree with where I come out in relation to one of the questions and I want you to know that that is okay. And that when we begin to dialogue let’s keep the dialogue open, loving, and respectful. It is okay to disagree, but we need to do it in love and grace. And I also want to say, let’s stay in the tension and in relationship. All too often when the church disagrees we feel this need that we need to split and not be in relationship. So let’s fight against this tendency, stay in relationship, love each other, even in midst of the tension. With that being said, I don’t think this week we’ll have much to disagree with each other about.

This week’s iDoubt: Questions about Faith question is “What does it mean to be a disciple?” I chose this question to explore first because I believe this question lies at the center of everything. I believe this question is the crux of the matter. I believe if we get the answer to this question wrong, than everything falls apart. And if we are honest with ourselves, the modern American church has in fact gotten this wrong. Dallas Willard in his book The Great Omission says this, “The greatest issue facing the world today, with all its heartbreaking needs, is whether those who, by profession or culture, are identified as ‘Christians’ will become disciples – students, apprentices, practitioners – of Jesus Christ, steadily learning from him how to live the life of the Kingdom of the Heavens into every corner of human existence.” And so according to Willard, people truly believe that it is possible to be a Christian but not be a disciple. That we can have Jesus as our savior, so that we can go to heaven when we die, but we don’t have to have him as Lord impacting how we live our life in the world until we die. This is not the gospel. This is not possible. You can’t be a Christian without being a disciple. But what does it actually mean to be a disciple?

First, before we jump into the Scripture for the morning, I think it might be a good idea to look at the word disciple and what the word actually means. This isn’t a term that we use in our world a lot unless we are talking about it in religious circles. But disciples were very common in the 1st Century Jewish world. The term "disciple" is derived from the Koine Greek word mathetes, which means a pupil (of a teacher) or an apprentice (to a master craftsman). I like the idea of an apprentice. In the trade world we have master plumbers (builders, etc..) who have apprentices who learn everything they can about the trade by basically staying on the hip of their “master”, and then doing the same thing that their “master” did. A disciple is no different in religious terms. In following Jesus we learn how to live the Kingdom life by watching how Jesus lived, and then seek to emulate his life in our own life. What he did, we are then called to do.

So if we were to then ask Jesus to answer this question for us what would he say? “So Jesus what is a disciple?” In Mark 8:34-38 we read words that Jesus speaks that, I believe pretty clearly defines for us what He believes a disciple of Jesus is. Mark 8:34-38 says, “Then he called the crowd to him along with his disciples and said: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.  For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it.  What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul?  If anyone is ashamed of me and my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, the Son of Man will be ashamed of them when he comes in his Father’s glory with the holy angels.”

According to Jesus, to be a disciple means simply (it is simple to understand and incredibly difficult to live out) to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow him. That’s all. Jesus is saying that to be his follower you must die. That you won’t truly live until you walk down death row with Jesus. You can’t live a resurrected life in the way of the Kingdom without dying first.

When Jesus mentions the cross, all his listeners knew exactly what he was referencing. Everyone knew that the cross was an instrument of death. The cross was a way to execute people. His listeners walked by crosses everyday where those who got out of line were placed. Where “criminals” hung dying in front of everyone to see. And so the cross, the Roman cross, was an instrument of torture, of death, of execution.

The problem that we have now is that the cross has been sanitized. We have beautiful crosses that adorn our church buildings. We have gold crosses that are put around our necks. They are shiny, beautiful, and unlike the real thing. The cross was the ultimate instrument of death in Jesus’ day and his hearers knew that if they were to follow after Him, that it would lead to their own cross. Maybe not an actual cross and an actual death (though many who did follow him were put to death, some even on a cross) but a death to self, their own desires, and what they wanted.

What would restore the horror and true meaning behind these words in context for us? What if the text said something like “denying yourself, sit down in the electric chair, and follow me”? How does that come off? Jesus doesn’t promise us an easy life for those of us who have chosen to follow him. Jesus says that if we want to follow him, we must seek to do what he did, and that means death. It means the cross (or the electric chair if you like that picture better)

But what does it mean to take up your cross. Well Jesus said to deny yourself. So denying yourself equals taking up the cross. Denying yourself means to live as an others centered person. Jesus was the only person to do this perfectly, but we are to follow in his footsteps. So if a disciple is called to deny themselves and take up their cross, then a disciple of Jesus by definition is an other centered person. A disciple of Jesus puts other people before themselves. A disciple of Jesus puts other people’s needs before their own. I think all too often we have made being a disciple about things we do, like we pray, read the Bible and go to church. And also about things we don’t do; we don’t swear, drink, chew, or hang out with those who do. When in reality the life of a disciple is a lot about love of God and love of others. After all didn’t Jesus say, “They will know we are disciples by our love”?

So if we, as a group of people who are seeking to follow Him, don’t put others before ourselves. If we don’t live out the truth of this statement made by former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, “the church is the only organization that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.” If we care more about our comfort in here, and our ease in here, and our safety in here, than taking risks, being on mission, and loving people out there. Then I would say we aren’t disciples. We aren’t truly following Jesus, who we claim to love and serve, if we aren’t living life together on mission, and following his footsteps. We haven’t denied ourselves, taken up our cross and followed him.

Taking up your cross also means letting go of yourself and making God the center and focus of you life and in turn living each day for him. You are no longer your own. You have been bought with a price, the price of Jesus death on the cross. Now because you have been bought, live like the one who purchased you for himself. Living like the one who purchased you for himself means loving others, even our enemies. In fact, I would even say that loving his enemies was central to who Jesus was. So loving your enemies needs to be a huge part of being a disciple of Jesus.

And that point, when you’re no longer willing to carry your cross (whatever that point may be…may be it relates to loving your enemy, may be it relates to holding a grudge and wanting the other person to get their just deserts, maybe it relates to holding onto unforgiveness, bitterness, etc..), is the point at which you are no longer following Jesus. Where in your life do you struggle at carrying the cross? Where do you need Jesus help in picking up that cross and continuing to follow him? Jesus calls us to live a cruciform life, shaped by the cross into the shape of the cross. So a huge part of what it means to be a disciple is about living a cross like existence.

This whole text in Mark is kind of like the book “Alice through the looking glass” by Lewis Carroll. The idea being in the book, that if you want to go towards a place, in that world you actually need to go “away from it” to get there. Jesus calls us to a “looking glass” like existence he calls the Kingdom of God. He says that if we want to live, we have to die. If we want to save our lives, we must lose them. If we want to be great in the world, we have to be a servant. To be a disciple is to live out the upside down Kingdom of God in our world today. NT Wright has this to say about denying yourself, taking up your cross, following Jesus, and the upside down Kingdom that Jesus calls us to, “Jesus’s call to follow him, to discover in the present time the habits of life which point forward to the coming kingdom and already, in a measure, share in its life, only makes sense when it is couched in the terms made famous by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: “Come and die”. Jesus didn’t say, as do some modern evangelists, “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” Nor did he say, “I accept you as you are, so you can now happily do whatever comes naturally.” He said, “If you want to become my followers, deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow me” (Mark 8.34). He spoke of losing one’s life in order to gain it, as opposed to clinging to it and so losing it He spoke of this in direct relation to himself and his own forthcoming humiliation and death, followed by resurrection and exaltation. Exactly in line with the Beatitudes, he was describing, and inviting his followers to enter, an upside-down world, an inside-out world, a world where all the things people normally assume about human flourishing, including human virtue, are set aside and a new order is established.”

So what does it mean to be a disciple? What does a disciple of Jesus look like in America in the 21st century? In one way it looks exactly the same as it did 2000 years ago. It means apprenticing yourself in the ways of our Master Jesus. It means standing on his hip watching how he lived his life. (We stand on his hip watching the master through classic spiritual disciplines like Bible Reading, Memorization, Prayer, Solitude, etc..) And then it means putting into practice the things that he did, in our life. It means loving like he did, and loving the people he did. It means serving like he did. It means living like he did. It means getting on your knees to wash the feet of people. It means loving your enemy when you would rather hate them. It means turning the other cheek when you want to react violently. It means blessing and not cursing. Wishing the best and not hoping the worst about people. And it means climbing up and putting yourself on the cross time and time and time again. To be a disciple of Jesus means dying to yourself in order to live for him.

So let’s talk more about what it means to be a disciple? What other questions come up in your mind? Where do we need to flush this question out more? In what area of your life do you find it harder (harder than normal…dying to yourself is hard as it is) to die and live for him? What might God be saying to each and every one of us today about being a disciple of Jesus?

1. What thoughts, questions, comments, insights, etc.. do you have about the question (what does it mean to be a disciple), the Scripture and/or the message?

2. If someone asked you the same question (what does it mean to be a disciple) what would you say? To what Scriptures would you point them? Would you use Mark 8: 34-38?

3. In what area of your life do you find it hard to die to yourself and live for him? (Not like that it is easy in any area). Where do you need work as a disciple?

4. What is God saying to you and what are you going to do about it? What is God saying to us and what should we do about it?