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A Crisis in Discipleship

By Charlie Clauss

“Only those who are forgiven and who are willing to forgive will be capable of relentlessly pursuing justice without falling into the temptations to pervert it into injustice”
― Miroslav Volf,  Exclusion and Embrace, 123

It might be that I have heard one too many sermons telling me that I need to “do” something. I might just be lazy, but I cannot shake the feeling that these demands are made out of order. They can come from progressives calling for social justice, or from conservatives calling for evangelism or for more conservative social and political action. But from whatever side it comes, there is a crisis in the Church today over discipleship (the goal of Jesus’s Great Commission – making disciples). Disciples are indeed called to do good works, but this comes after they’ve become followers of Jesus, and too many preachers and teachers are too quick to jump to the end of the cycle.

Works of mercy and justice are a part of the life of a disciple, as is verbally proclaiming the reign of Jesus and calling others to join his kingdom. But for most people, the call to action is heard as an echo of the primordial story of Eden where the woman and man could not act as they should. Hence when we hear those repeated calls, we hang our head in shame and then follow Adam and Eve into the bushes to hide. In our shame and guilt, we become self-protective and flee from the calls to action.

Calls to action – stand against gun violence, protest at the border, call your senators, protest abortion, stand against (or for) gay marriage, volunteer at the food pantry, tell your neighbor about the gospel, give more to the church, give more to missions – are like asking someone with a broken leg to run a marathon. They cannot do it. Likewise, we are broken people, and before we can do any of those things, we first need to be healed, and fundamentally to be healed from “death.” Christian discipleship must start with this idea, and continually cycle back to it: We must get hold of what Jesus has done for us before we think about what we can do for Jesus.

This is the only way forward for the disciple. Make no mistake: what Jesus has done for us is to show us the love of God. The life of the disciple must be rooted in the knowledge and experience of that love. Oddly this is hard for us, for to embrace what God has done for us in Jesus is to admit the brokenness, the darkness, the death in each of us. However, if we do not accept these facts about ourselves, the idea that Jesus is showing us God’s love will be mere sentimentality. N.T. Wright gives an example: if someone jumped into the water with you when you were drowning and simply drowned along with you, their death would be pointless. On the contrary, Jesus’s death has accomplished something: atonement. His sacrifice has “fixed the problem”.

The disciple now takes her next steps – including the life of discipleship in service to the world. No doubt, the disciple will need to circle back to this foundational step, much like Luther would speak of his baptism as a touchstone of his life. I know in my own life I seem to take one step back for every two steps forward as I seek to live out my discipleship in the world. In those moments I retrace my steps and remember what Jesus has done, get back up, and walk on.

I close with this admonition to preachers and teachers: do not neglect the preaching of the cross as atonement and skip to “getting things done.” Rest your call to action on what the loving God has already done for us in Jesus. It is not just the case that Jesus has provided an example of how we should live. His life, death, and resurrection have provided much more. Our wounds and broken bones are healed and mended so that we can take those next steps. His gift of the Holy Spirit, made possible by his sacrifice, provides us with both the guidance to act with wisdom and the power to walk effectively. Knowing that our original state could not hold God back from acting on our behalf, we now know that any stumble or failure of ours in the future will not “separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ” (Rom 8:39) This frees us to be bold and courageous. Maybe most importantly of all, Jesus’s death, Resurrection, and gift of the Holy Spirit mean that in every call to action, we have the promise of his very presence with us. “Lo, I am with you always” (Matt 28:20).

Discipleship is a hard road to walk. Maybe the better analogy is a very high mountain to climb. No one climbs a high mountain without proper planning, preparation, and training. In the same way, to climb the mountain of Christian discipleship we must first start with the planning, preparation, and training that God has provided for us in Jesus’s life, death, and Resurrection. Then with joy we walk together in service to the world.

Charlie Clauss is a technical support representative for a company that builds humidification equipment.

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