My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
‘If you want to be my disciple’, Jesus told his followers, ‘you have to deny yourselves, take up your cross, and follow me’. What better day than Good Friday to think about discipleship in these terms? If you have watched the controversial Passion of the Christ you will have seen one person’s suggestions about the extreme nature of the suffering Jesus went through for love of the human race. It does not make comfortable viewing, and it challenges the sanitised ideas we have about crucifixion. Of course we know it must have hurt, but we prefer not to think about just how much. So why did Jesus use the picture of a cross to describe discipleship? Is it really meant to be that awful following him?
First let’s clear up one misunderstanding. In common parlance our ‘cross to bear’ means some unfortunate circumstance with which we feel our life to have been blighted, anything from a bad back to a nasty mother-in-law. This is manifestly not what Jesus is talking about. We ‘take up’ our cross, not have it bonked down upon us by fate or circumstance. A cross is something we choose, not something we’re stuck with. Martin Luther King chose, at great personal cost, to speak up for persecuted black people in the USA. It led him to vilification, attack and finally martyrdom. Countless others throughout history have deliberately chosen to go down the more difficult path, knowing it could, and often would, lead to their death. At any moment they could presumably have chosen to lay down the cross and walk away to safety, but they didn’t. They walked that path to the end. And that is discipleship. It’s our choice.
Of course, while discipleship often has been so extreme as to lead to death, it needn’t. It might be small things. I once worked in a warehouse where the lads would greet visiting drivers, take them off to the canteen and get them a cup of tea while the rest of the gang ransacked the back of the truck looking for anything worth nicking. They didn’t kill me because I refused to join in, but I wasn’t flavour of the month. Maybe we make a stand in our community against some injustice, whistle-blow at work, enforce Christian standards among our kids, sign a petition saying that gay marriage is not just what our country needs right now, or refuse to fiddle our expenses. But we do what we do because we believe in something worth fighting for. Or alternatively we keep quiet, merge into the crowd, and save our reputations. It’s up to us what, if anything, we feel strongly about.
That’s the thing about following Jesus – he always gives us space. He makes the highest of demands, but understands if we don’t choose to rise to the challenge, and keeps the door open until we decide to go his way. Like so many others he paid the ultimate price for his obedience to the Father, but as the forerunner of others he showed that even discipleship to the point of death isn’t terminal.
“Madero de Tormento” by Rubén Betanzo S. – Mi PC. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg#/media/File:Madero_de_Tormento.jpg