Ruminating on Discipleship

(system) #1

Discipleship characterizes one element in a relationship. Normally, it establishes the intellectual dependence of a student on a teacher. The primary objective of the disciple is to learn. The teacher may teach by passing out information, or by dispensing wisdom. In other words, what is transmitted from one to the other in the relationship may be information: facts, formulas, and so forth, or habits of mind that make possible discriminations, evaluations, judgments. Dispensing wisdom, the teacher serves as an exemplar in the use of knowledge, rather than as a depository of it.

Of course, the students of a teacher do not necessarily become his/her disciples. For a student to become a disciple, she/he must find a particular kind of authority in the teacher. A teacher may pass along valuable or irrelevant information, and students may discern the difference according to their own inclinations and needs. Filling their minds with what they consider valuable does not make them disciples of their teacher.

Teachers may recognize good students on account of their native intelligence, study habits, and personality traits. They may guide their learning individually and sponsor their progress in society. This does not guarantee that they have disciples.

Discipleship is sui generic. It is the result of a particular effect on the life of a person confronted with a living display of wisdom. While reading, one may find pearls of wisdom here and there that one recognizes as valuable and may wish to keep them in mind, thus granting authority to their authors. Disciples are those who recognize wisdom not in insights found here and there but in a person’s whole life and thought. They see in such a person a paradigm of wisdom. If one is very fortunate, the confrontation with a life of wisdom may be personal, a lived experience. It is also fortunate to find in books living wisdom.

Confronted with a personification of wisdom, one would naturally wish to keep close and distill as much of it as possible. On this account, it seems to me, the author of the Gospel of Mark quite often refers to the disciples of Jesus as “those who followed” him. Of course, being a follower, in our culture, is not considered a virtue. We are expected to be leaders, to be heroes.

The authors of the Gospel of Mark and of the Letter to the Hebrews present Jesus as the trailblazer, the one who walks ahead, the leader. Master teachers and leaders, however, conjure in our minds discrete images. Leaders attract attention to themselves. Master teachers point out the way of wisdom. If they serve as models of personified wisdom, it is not because they paraded it, but because others determined they spoke with authority.

Christian discipleship has been understood as one of the terms of a relationship in which the counterpart is not primarily leadership or the personification of wisdom, but lordship. Such is the case already with the author of the Gospel of Mark, who uses the journey from Galilee to Jerusalem in order to work out the implications of Jesus’ messiahship for the disciples. This means that the Christian understanding of discipleship depends on the definition given to lordship.

In other words, there have been and there are various definitions of Christian discipleship because there have been and there are many ways in which Christians have understood and understand the nature of Christ’s Lordship. I will call attention here only to the two most prevalent. The history of Christian theology, in fact, could be written in terms of the times when one or the other of these held sway.

At present, Christ’s lordship is understood in terms of his triumph at the resurrection. He is the enthroned Son of God who has achieved our salvation. We can rejoice and be glad in his victory over evil. Our redemption is secure; therefore, our discipleship is to be characterized by celebrations. To be a disciple means that you will be healthy, wealthy, and successful in every way. You may bask in the certainty of God’s love. At worship services, we sing inane little choruses that boost our self-esteem, address our providential good fortune, and express our desire to praise our Savior.

At other times in our not-too-distant past, Christ’s lordship was understood in terms of his crown of thorns, his determination to bear the cross all the way to Golgotha, his willingness to empty himself to the uttermost in order to become human and die. Our redemption has been very costly; therefore, our discipleship is to be characterized by sacrifices. To be a disciple means to take up my cross and follow him, to be willing to suffer social and cultural dislocations, to deny myself and be constantly on guard against worldly pleasures. I must be constantly in the fight to secure my salvation. At worship services, we sing mournful hymns with classic stanzas that affirm our self-denial and our willingness to die.

The sources of our Christological wanderings are readily available. It is not difficult to see that, in the Gospel of Mark, Jesus’ life is from the very beginning a journey to Calvary. The original version of this Gospel ended in 16:8, without a narrative of the resurrection. I am inclined to think that this omission was demanded by the author’s expectation that the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. was the beginning of the Parousia, the appearance of the apocalyptic Son of Man in the clouds in order to establish God’s Kingdom. To tell of the resurrection, for him, would have been anticlimactic.

By contrast, the author of the Gospel of Luke and Acts of the Apostles infuses his writings with a pervasive sense of joy, feastings, and multitudes becoming disciples. The authors of Matthew and of John, for their part, seek a balance between the two extremes. Matthew emphasizes the need to keep the commandments, to be perfect, and gives to the resurrection added power by superimposing the resurrection of saints at the time of Jesus’ death on the cross. John characterizes the crucifixion as the “glorification” of the Son. His triumph is not in the resurrection, but in his presence on earth. Thus, the Gospels give us options for envisioning Christ’s lordship.

It seems to me that the ideal way to envision Christ’s lordship is by balancing the cross with the resurrection, without allowing one to capture our imagination. It is, indeed, an ideal that is quite difficult to realize. If we succeed in maintaining the two in equilibrium, however, we will find ourselves in a better position to define our discipleship in terms of Christ’s lordship. We will then have to be just as careful in keeping in balance our need to sacrifice and obey with our affirmations of salvation and worth. Here is the genius of being a Christian disciple.

For your consideration:

Imagine different ways in which Christ’s lordship may be understood and how they would inform the way followers understand their discipleship.

Herold Weiss is professor emeritus of religious studies at St. Mary’s College, Notre Dame, Indiana.

This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at