Reflections on Discipleship – Fears and Fantasies

Last Sunday I was preaching at a St Andrew’s Day Patronal Festival, and although I must have read the passage in question (Matthew 4:18-22) hundreds of times, I was struck afresh by two things, both of which I believe are good news for would-be or slightly nervous disciples.

You see in my experience people have some pretty powerful fantasies about what it would mean if they really decided to follow Jesus, to surrender everything to him. This passage speaks powerfully into some of those fears.

I noted firstly that here and elsewhere Jesus often calls disciples in pairs. Here we have Andrew and his brother Simon, followed by James and his brother John. In John’s account of the story, these two pairs are followed by Philip and Nathaniel. It seems to be a bit of a pattern. I wonder if this is because Jesus knows just how difficult it can be to swim against the tide on your own. People often feel, I reckon, that to follow Jesus will isolate them. Their friends won’t like them any more, or understand them: they won’t fit in at work, or down the pub, or at the golf club, or wherever it is they live and move and have their being. They’ll turn into religious nuts, unable to take a place any more in normal society. So it is significant that in the case of these disciples Jesus calls them together. We’re stronger when we’re not alone. Later on Jesus is going to send them out to put into practice the things he’s been teaching them, and again they are sent out in pairs. We’re meant to support one another in this enterprise of discipleship, and I believe Jesus knows that. If you are feeling some kind of sense of call to go deeper with Jesus, the first job is to ask who else around you is feeling the same call, and whether you might respond together. Tragically it can be the case that church is the last place where we can really speak about our relationship with God. But if we can foster a culture where such conversations are common currency, I bet we’ll see more people discovering the same call, so that we can strengthen and support one another as we respond and obey.

But the second bit of good news might just be even more important. Look what Andrew and Simon are called to. ‘You’re fishermen’ says the ever-astute Jesus (I reckon it might be the boats, nets and all-pervading smell of fish which gave him the clue). How do you fancy catching people instead of fish? I think this is significant because another common fantasy people have is that if I really obey the call of Jesus to follow him I’ll have to go to Africa. Serious Christians always seem to get called to some awful mission-field, so although I do like Jesus I’d better keep a bit of distance. I can’t tell you how many times over the years I’ve heard this fear expressed. In fact Jesus is calling them to do what they’re already good at, and presumably enjoy, but with a new twist.

When I was 18 I went off to university to become a chemistry teacher, but for reasons I won’t bore you with (but which you can read about in my God’s Upgrades … My Adventures) it didn’t work out. But a couple of years later, when God got his hands on me again, I started the journey to Christian ministry. Now 33 years on the thing people say most often about me is to thank me for my teaching ministry. There are, of course, several aspects of my ministry which go the other way, and I’ll spare you the details of what people say I’m lousy at, but the point is that my instinct to teach was a good one, but that God wanted to take it to a new level. He hadn’t created me to teach people about chemistry, but about his Word and what it means to live for him.

So if God is calling you to go deeper with him (or if you are involved in caring for and nurturing those who he is calling) look for the stuff you’re already good at, passionate about, and experienced in. It may well be that God doesn’t want to turn your life upside down, but merely to enhance what he has already put it in your heart to do for him.

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