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Although Terry Jones of Dove World Outreach Center has now cancelled his plan to burn Qur’ans, the general outline of the situation as it unfolded over the last few days is disturbingly familiar. Here is yet another leader of a small religious fringe group who threatened to commit an extreme act unless his demands were met (meeting with the leaders of the Islamic cultural center in New York and/or negotiating its relocation). Change the details, and that could describe any number of terrorist groups rather than a Christian one.

 I don’t think we should be surprised that the 9/11 attacks, committed by those on the radical fringes of Islam, would elicit a mirror response from someone on the fringes of Christianity. The point is, Christians who vehemently disagree with Jones’s stance toward Islam and his plan to burn the Qur’an now know something of what most Muslims feel when terrorist acts are committed in the name of Islam.

 May such empathy help lay a foundation for understanding that leads to peace in the face of the fear and tension felt by so many around the country.

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I’ve just started Patrick Miller’s new book on the Ten Commandments. I’m still in the first chapter on the first and second commandments, but one of the aspects of the book I appreciate already is that, beyond merely explicating its meaning, Miller surveys how each commandment is picked up and used throughout the rest of the biblical literature beyond its appearance in Exodus and Deuteronomy.

For example, Miller notes that Jesus affirms the first commandment (“you shall have no other gods before me”) by quoting Deut. 6:13 when tempted by the devil to bow down and worship him: “The Lord your God you shall fear/worship; him [alone] you shall serve.” For Miller, the significance of this is that, even—or especially—as the Son of God, Jesus’ relationship to God is not marked by special privilege that exempts him from giving ultimate allegiance to God; rather, the opposite is true. For Jesus’ disciples, this means that

Following Jesus is not to replace the object of our worship but is a commitment to follow no other gods, however tempting they may be, and to worship the Lord your God and the Lord alone. Whatever identity is made between Jesus and God, whether in the language of “Son of God” or of “Lord,” the incarnate one embodies a faithfulness to the First Commandment that shows the way for all who follow him. (44)

I don’t think the significance of this can be overstated. The point can be made in many ways, but it’s especially obvious in the story of Jesus’ temptation: Jesus (and the early church) saw himself as being faithful to the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Did God do something unprecedented in raising Jesus from the dead? Yes. But for those early Jewish Christians, Jesus’ resurrection meant not the beginning of a new religion but the affirmation of the faithfulness/righteousness of the God the Jews had known from of old.

As Christians learn to follow Jesus, we learn that we are part of a story that stretches back to and begins with God’s creative intentions for the world, and includes the way God chose a people to embody those intentions. If some of our earlier ancestors in the faith had remembered this, perhaps some of the tragic history of Christian anti-Semitism could have been avoided.

Reading: Mark 10:17-31

This story is really interesting and bears looking into with some detail, although I will not be able to do so here. Rather, I’ll simply make some observations.

First, in the past I’ve read this story as though the man (not identified by Mark as a “rich young ruler”) was insincere. After all, isn’t his reference to Jesus as “good teacher” an obvious attempt to ingratiate himself? Isn’t he just looking for a shortcut to salvation? Now I don’t think so. I think that for us to feel the story’s full power, we need to see that the man was completely sincere, even when he declares that he has kept at least 5 of the 10 commandments since he was a youth, and even when Jesus deflects his attempt to write Jesus off as just another teacher (at least, I think that’s what Jesus is doing). No, the man is sincere. He really does want to know what he must do to inherit eternal life. As, by the way, do we. The text clearly asserts that Jesus “loved” him—an assertion that would be odd if he was just putting Jesus on (and wouldn’t Jesus know that?).

Second, Jesus connects “eternal life” with keeping the commandments that deal with how we treat each other. If nothing else, this should cause us to rethink our own ideas of what “eternal life” might be. Yes, Jesus goes on to say that eternal life will be given in the “age to come,” but we don’t get any real idea of what that is in this passage. Except that Jesus, after the man leaves, connects all this to “the kingdom of God.” Here we need to notice that Jesus twice asserts how hard it is for the rich to enter the kingdom of God, but that these statements frame a more general statement that includes everyone: “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God!”

Third, the disciples’ astonishment seems to come from their apparent belief that wealth indicates blessing from God; therefore, if it is difficult for the wealthy to enter the kingdom, it must be impossible for those whom God has not so blessed. And Jesus does affirm that impossibility—but then immediately asserts the possibility of the impossible with God.

Finally, Peter declares that the disciples have done what the man could not—given up all they had to follow Jesus. Jesus doesn’t deny this, and affirms that those who do such things will be given back “in this life” what they gave up and receive eternal life in the age to come. But then comes that saying that seems to have been one of Jesus’ favorites: “But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”

We need to pay attention to that final statement of Jesus. This is a story about discipleship and the difficulty of discipleship. Jesus’ statement to the man that there was “one thing” he should do was not some sort of universal key to the secret of salvation; it was what that man needed to do to. Only by giving his possessions away could he gain the perspective needed to be Jesus’ disciple—to see himself as “last” rather than “first” or, to put it another way, to recognize that it was only through the power of God that he would inherit eternal life.

The other disciples had done what the man could not, but this does not mean that they were any more privileged than him—hence Jesus’ final admonition. So, for those of us who would be Jesus’ disciples, we need to hear this story as being directed squarely at us. Like the man and the disciples, we need to come to Jesus sincerely as we seek eternal life. We need to hear from this story that eternal life in the age to come has a great deal to do with ordinary everyday life in this age. Loving God means loving our neighbor. But we also need to be ready to hear Jesus tell us to give up something we’re hanging on to, something that keeps us from seeing ourselves in proper perspective. The question is, will we have ears to hear?

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