Excerpt from message, We Need Each Other, by Dawn Neldon, RBCPC, 10.11.15
If you’ve been around church for a while you’ve heard the word disciple a thousand times but if you’re new to the church then it’s not a word you hear much in normal conversation. And no matter how familiar or foreign the word is I am fairly certain we all have a slightly different understanding of what it means. So let’s take a moment to focus on this together.
A disciple is literally a follower or a student. But to understand what that means to us we have to know what it meant in Jesus’ day. Because to be a disciple meant something very specific in Jewish culture. Today we can follow a band or sports team or follow a twitter account for that matter. And in our minds, being a student usually involves sitting still and homework and tests. That is not what it meant to be a disciple.
In those days Jewish followers of God had become supremely concerned with religion. Religion is different than following God. Religion is a long list of do’s and don’ts against which we measure ourselves. And the Jewish people had developed quite a list. If you were a righteous person you followed all the rules to a “T”. And Rabbis had the weighty task of interpreting God’s word for everyday living and making the rules that the people had to follow in order to be considered righteous.
Cool side note: The teachings of a specific rabbi was called his yoke. When you became a disciple you took on the yoke of the rabbi. And to be sure, some of the yokes out there were heavy. They were oppressive and Jesus comes on the scene and says, “Here, take my yoke. It’s easy and the burden is light.” I mean, no wonder the other religious leaders didn’t really like him.
Rabbis were kind of a big deal. Would-be disciples would approach the Rabbi and seek to become a follower. And because the task of telling everyone exactly what God desires in life is a big job, rabbis would only choose the best of the best to become their disciples. They chose only righteous, rule-following, Jewish boys. Becoming a disciple was an honor and they didn’t care how heavy the yoke was; if you were chosen you said, “Yes!” So if you were lucky enough to make the cut you had only one job – to follow your rabbi. I mean, actually follow them. You would walk behind them in the streets, observe what they bought at the market, how they behaved at the dinner table. Day in and day out you watched how they interacted with people and how they prayed, everything that they said and did. And then you did exactly those things. A disciple completely submitted to the will of God as interpreted by their rabbi.
The job of a disciple was to follow; to literally and actively follow and in so doing submit their own desires to the ways of their rabbi. There was a phrase in those days, “May you be covered in the dust of your rabbi,” which meant “May you be following so closely as he walks along the dirt roads that you literally become covered in the dust from his shoes.”
Now here’s the crazy thing that Jesus did when he came and called his disciples: he set the bar really low. Most rabbis and pharisees of the day would have said you can join the club if you measure up; if you meet this set of criteria we can work with you. Their primary concern was that people believe right and behave right. Believe and behave and you can follow.
And then Jesus comes on the scene. Part of the reason that Jesus caused such anxiety among his fellow religious leaders was because he turned that model on it’s head! Jesus said follow me. You don’t have to measure up. You don’t have to believe right or behave right. Just follow me.
Let’s take a look at Mark chapter 2: 13-14.
So Jesus, the rabbi, is wandering the towns doing what rabbis do: Teaching his interpretation of the will of God. Except oh, by the way, he kind of had an inside track there because well, he was God. So there’s that. And he happens upon a tax collector, one of the most despised and marginalized people in the Jewish culture. And of all the things that Jesus could have said to him he chose, “Follow me. Be my disciple.” Literally Jesus might as well have invited a drug-dealer to join his band of merry men! Levi must have kind of looked around like, ”You talking to me?”
But here’s the amazing thing about what Jesus did. He said, “There is no minimum criteria.” He would literally take anyone. And I believe it’s because he was not concerned with gathering a group of people who could behave right and believe right. He was not gathering a group of people who could get the religion down. Jesus wasn’t inviting his disciples into a religion. He was inviting them into a relationship. He actually believed that if people would choose relationship with Him, if they gave up their plan and surrendered to following Jesus as their rabbi, then they would change. So the starting place didn’t so much matter because he believed that a relationship with him was transformational.
Let’s be clear on this: the only criteria for being a disciple of Jesus is that you are following him. Does that describe you? Are you following Jesus? If so then it doesn’t matter what mistakes you have made or in what ways you continue to fall short. If you are following Jesus in even the messiest of ways then you are you are a disciple. And the promise of Jesus is that if you continue to follow, you will begin to live a life that mirrors your rabbi. You will change. The writer of Hebrews describes the messy process of transformation that Jesus offers like this:
“Jesus has made perfect those who are being made holy.”
I love this picture of Jesus’ followers. Because of the sacrifice of Jesus we are at once perfect and somewhere in the messy process of being made holy. This is what it means to be a disciple. It’s the life long process of fumbling towards holiness by following Jesus.
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