Archives for category: Discipleship

I was in Montreal, Quebec recently with my husband, just for fun, just to see it. I love traveling, but don’t particularly care for being a tourist. What happens, then, is a whole lot of wandering, getting lost, looking at buildings, and generally marveling at how lovely/wonderful/hectic/serene it would be to live in such a place. I should have studied a bit of French before going as everything is in French, with English subtitles.

The first day it rained. The second day was incredibly windy, but fully bathed in sunlight, which made ducking into cathedrals and church buildings that much more wondrous as the daylight illuminated every hue and variation in the stained glass windows. The third day we started out at St. Joseph’s Oratory, located on the southwest side of Mont Royal. Constructed largely during the first part of the 20th century, it is truly remarkable in its modern aesthetic. Wending up the hill alongside the dome is a garden with the stations of the cross. The statues reminded me a bit of socialist art both in scale and scoured simplicity. Each station was nestled back off the path, some a short ways, others were recessed more, and still others, like the Pieta, were tucked into the landscaping. Usually, this station is referred to as “Jesus is taken down from the cross” or the Lamentation. However, here is an intimate moment between Mary and her son, the crucified Jesus.

Montreal was originally called “City of Mary” (Ville-Marie), and it was amazing to see her everywhere. One of the grand cathedrals downtown is called Mary, Queen of the World, and it is majestic. While I am awed at depictions of Mary in art, having been raised mainline Protestant, I never quite know what to do with her. Yet I’ve seen her included in contemporary theologies even if merely to debate her significance and the virgin birth of Jesus. Similarly, there seems to be an openness to considering her among the disciples in biblical studies, which is certainly better than removing her from the narrative altogether. Too often Protestant / Evangelical commentators focus on moments when Jesus turns away from family, placing an emphasis on the Christian virtue of forsaking all–even family–for Christ Jesus, to which I have to ask, what then of the commandment to honor father and mother? The image of Mary with Jesus crucified is powerful, and an essential corrective to our forsaking of Mary, mother of God.

Recently I read the Vatican II document on the church, the Lumen Gentium, which ends with some comments on how the church is to revere Mary. Just as she is the mother of Jesus, so is she also seen as a “type of the Church in the order of faith, charity and perfect union with Christ.” The faithful are encouraged to meditate on and contemplate Mary in light of the Word made flesh (in her), and by so doing, enter into the mystery of the Incarnation. (Such a small excerpt doesn’t quite do the document justice, so I recommend reading it in context.) It got me thinking, in seminary we talk a lot about incarnational ministry and being missional communities, yet there is one aspect of the Incarnation which we consistently overlook: Mary, handmaid of the Lord God. Her response to the messenger truly is a model for us all; ‘God, I don’t know how You’ll make it so, but do as You will.’ Yes, one could argue that she didn’t have much of a choice, and that would be true as well. Of course she never imagined witnessing the gruesome death of her firstborn, but from the beginning she pondered the words of Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna in her heart. She must have been respected enough in the early church to have the words of the magnificat given to her in the gospel of Luke. Has she somehow fallen that we Protestants ignore her?

Perhaps it’s time for the Protestant side of the house to bring Mary back into the picture, and not just in the nativity scene.

At age 13, I told another adult that I didn’t want to go home to my mother. I couldn’t take her biting messages and wordspinning anymore. The adult was my guardian ad litem, a kind of court appointed advocate in custody battle cases. I didn’t really know what was going on between my parents—my mom didn’t tell me. All I knew was that this woman had started meeting with me, checking in on me; and she had power to do something. I think it was a Wednesday afternoon in February, and by the evening I had a bag packed and was headed to my youth leader’s home. Three blissful days with my youth leaders and their adorable daughters. Paul and Gina were as lovely at home as they were at church. I don’t remember much from those few days: school, meetings, maybe I went to the courthouse, I’m not sure. But I do remember thinking, why can’t I find a nice family to take me in? Why do I have to be stuck with mine? What I really wanted my court guardian to do was fix the whole situation: make my stepmother go away, or become nice, make my mom less crazy, and then make my dad’s work keep him in town so he didn’t have to travel.

Instead, I lived with my father and stepmother; my court guardian became my counselor. By the end of highschool, my faith in pop psychology to heal was about as weak as my belief that families are good. I had no confidence in the system. I knew God had a way of changing things for the better, but couldn’t figure out how. I knew that healing comes, but couldn’t see from where. I knew that Jesus was my source, my wellspring, but my lips were dry and cracked. I just wanted to see what normal could be like.

God’s funny about how he pursues us, what little seeds he sets in our hearts (or thorns, depending on how it feels). As much as I wanted to experience an average, comfortable life, the knowledge of something better, stranger and more adventuresome, consistently drew me back to God.

Sometimes I can almost imagine what it may have been like for the early church communities: after the excitement of the apostle’s visit, after the authorities cracked down (again), long after the last disciple had passed away, and the Jesus stories were no longer new. Isn’t this the backstory of the letter to the Hebrews? People respond to the gospel of Christ, choose to have faith in Jesus, have an amazing experience, until suffering and persecution enter the picture. At first they’re able to stand in solidarity, having compassion for those imprisoned and not feeling overly anxious when they’re homes are ransacked, “knowing that you yourselves possessed something better,” the author reminds them. But it’s hard. If only life could go back to normal.

Here’s the kicker, though, they know the truth of the living God, and the story of salvation in Jesus Christ:

Do not, therefore, abandon that confidence of yours; it brings a great reward. For you need endurance, so that when you have done the will of God, you may receive what was promised. For yet, “in a very little while, the one who is coming will come and will not delay; but my righteous one will live by faith. My soul takes no pleasure in anyone who shrinks back.” But we are not among those who shrink back and so are lost, but among those who have faith and so are saved. Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible. [Hebrews 10:35—11.3]

So much for normalcy.

What is faith? How do we live by faith? I mean, I hope someday to have a house of my own, but what assurance could I possibly get for that? And, while I haven’t seen the middle of the earth, I’m fairly convinced it’s there, but only because such a thing as liquid hot magma exists, and can be seen and studied. Faith… Hope… Conviction… How do these things fit together?

We know what faith is not: it isn’t gullibility, we can’t fall into it. It isn’t a surface trust that breaks easily, like winter’s first ice on a lake. And it isn’t something abstract—there must be an object or person at the other side of faith. More than just anything or anyone, it must be something/someone with enough substance for us to sink down on.

Hope is a word that gets short shaft in the English language. Hoping quickly becomes synonymous with wishing or wanting. But, we can only hope for something that has been promised to us. Again, it’s the difference between an unattached wish, and something that might actually exist. Abram and Sarai wanted a child in their younger years, but hope arrived when God spoke.

The author of Hebrews lists our ancestors of faith, Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham; and how we know they lived by faith is that they never received what was promised to them. “They confessed that they were strangers and foreigners on the earth, for people who speak this way make it clear that they are seeking a homeland.” (Hb 11:13b-14)

What has been promised to you?

Abraham did receive one promise while on the earth: a son born to him and Sarah, even in their advanced years. Not simply family, but a descendent, the promise of a legacy. But that was only a portion of God’s promise to him. It all started with the direction to go to the land God would show him. It was the land and nationhood that God promised Abraham. Then, after he arrived there, came the promise for descendents to fill the land. As the author of Hebrews describes, “By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised, as in a foreign land, living in tents, as did Isaac and Jacob, who were heirs with him of the same promise..” (Hb 11:9-10)

Endurance… To live by faith is to go on a journey. It is to set out, destination unknown, but with a promise as coordinates. ‘Head that way’ This is no easy task. Sometimes, the promise can be as simple (which is to say, vague) as “I will be with you.” Yet even that needs to be enough to hold our confidence. Why did Abraham go camping in the promised land? For he looked forward to the city that has foundations, whose architect and builder is God. There’s no going back.

When I told my court guardian that I couldn’t go back, I knew that life with my stepmother would be far from serene; this was no promise land I was headed towards. Yet, I knew enough about God to know I’d get through it; perhaps even experience some healing. Living with my father and stepmother felt like tenting in a foreign land, which is a strange thing to say, (but true); and, I’m becoming grateful for it. As the author reminded the church, “in your struggle against sin you have not yet resisted to the point of shedding your blood.” (Hb 12:4) There’s hardship…and then there’s what Christ endured. In the journey of faith we encounter tests and trials–it’s no secret or surprise. For this reason we cannot abandon our confidence in Christ, we cannot shrink back in the face of suffering. We cannot go back to normal.

Mark 3:13-21. And he went up on the mountain, and called to him those whom he willed; and they came to him. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons: Simon, whom he named Peter; James the son of Zeb’edee and John the brother of James, whom he named Boanerges, that is, sons of thunder; Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.

Then he went home; and the crowd came together again, so that they could not even eat. And when his family heard it, they went out to seize him, for people were saying, “He is beside himself.” [The word of the Lord; thanks, be to God]

Mark’s gospel is about two things: Jesus, the Son of God, and Discipleship. Achtemeier, Green and Thompson (Introduction to the NT), Say this regarding “Christology and discipleship…how one understands the first will influence one’s understanding of the second, and vice versa.” The Markan narrative consistently uses the motif of conflict to highlight contrasting elements, which can make for a rather jolting storyline. But it makes us pay attention. Some are with Jesus, others against him. The twelve are appointed, then the family steps in.

Jesus is portrayed in Mark’s narrative as a powerful teacher, a miracle worker; people are flocking to hear him speak. He speaks with authority on the Scriptures as he casts out demons and gives sight to the blind. In Mark, there is no refined sermon on the mount or on the plain, such as what Matthew and Luke included. Rather, in chapter 4, Jesus teaches large crowds beside the sea. He describes three metaphors for the kingdom, each having to do with seeds: the parable of the sower, the mustard seed, and an allusion to Isaiah 55.

Compare: The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how. (Mk 4:26-27)
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth;
(Isa. 55:10-11a)

Those near Jesus, followers and the Twelve, are told, “to you has been given the secret of the kingdom of God, but for those outside, everything comes in parables;” (4:11). [Great! So what does it mean, Jesus?] “Do you not understand this parable? Then how will you understand all the parables? The sower sows the word…” (v.13ff)  Even his explanations tend to confound his disciples.

The author of Mark makes Jesus’ identity clear from the beginning—1:1 [reads] The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. How do we know he’s the Son of God? John the Baptist heralds him; the Holy Spirit descends at his baptism; he endures testing in the wilderness; and he casts out evil spirits. Jesus is the Messiah. As readers, we have the privilege of this information, not so for the other characters in the story.

Discipleship, shows another image. It’s wrought with failure, lack of understanding, and sheer buffoonery at times (recall episodes with Peter, or, a certain young man running off naked from the authorities). And, while we are certain about who Jesus is, we don’t always know who’s in or out when it comes to his followers. The author of Mark’s narrative uses terms like ‘disciple’, ‘crowd’, ‘followers’ and ‘the twelve’ in some fluid ways. An example: The crowds at first are close to Jesus, and the disciples initially called from their fishing duties seem to be part of the crowd. But quickly Jesus is teaching the crowd from a distance—he’s on a boat with the disciples, while the crowds are on shore. Next there’s the story of Jairus interrupted by the woman: so, we see a religious leader calling on Jesus for help (remember, his constituents are plotting against Jesus), but before they can get to his daughter, this woman comes out from the crowd and receives healing. The labels change, but you’re either near or far from Jesus.

Without some comprehension of Jesus and his authority as Christ, the disciples have a limited understanding of their own role and purpose. Suzanne Watts Henderson in her study on the story of the sea crossing, (“‘Concerning the Loaves’ Comprehending Incomprehension in Mark 6:45-52”) attributed the disciples’ struggle to their inability to comprehend their own authority over the sea [a symbol of chaos, evil] even as [they share] in Jesus’ calling, mission, authority, kingdom work. Linked to their incomprehension of their own authority is their inability to recognize Jesus walking on the water. Without seeing, knowing, and imitating him, disciples can only grasp part of the kingdom message.

3:14-15. And he appointed twelve, to be with him, and to be sent out to preach and have authority to cast out demons

Large crowds are gathering to hear Jesus’ teaching and to receive healing (3:7-8). It’s at this point in the narrative Jesus calls by name twelve of his disciples. This is a calling with a purpose: so that they would be with him, and so that he could send them out to do as he has been doing. Discipleship…Authority…

For disciples to be appointed specifically to be with him is significant in the face of intense opposition. Following the naming of the Twelve (3:14-19), Jesus’ family attempts to take him away, saying he’s out of his mind (3:21,31). (Imagine starting an internship only to find out that your mentor/supervisor is considered crazy by his family and a threat according to the authorities.) To be with him is significant in another way, though. Remember who is in a place to hear explanations of the parables; to witness sick people healed; to hear the demons as they come screeching out of their victims.

The second aspect of the disciples’ commission, that he might send them out, takes place three chapters after they had been appointed (6:7). Finally, the twelve are sent out with authority to do what Jesus has been doing. Note the conflict, though: they go after Jesus was unable to do any miracles in his hometown (6:5). Again, Suzanne Henderson:

“At least from a narrative standpoint, the disciples emerge not as lackeys or as foils to Jesus but as full-fledged participants in the drama of the inbreaking kingdom of God. Indeed Jesus himself has conferred on the disciples both the authority and the responsibility to share in his mission, and, at least in this instance, they [weild] their power well.”


What was Jesus saying, then, in the kingdom parables that disciples must learn? And now here, dear listener, I’ll expand ‘disciple’ to include each of us. “A man scatters seed [the word] on the ground. Night and day, whether he sleeps or gets up, the seed sprouts and grows, though he does not know how” (4:26b-27).

And listen again to Isaiah 55, this time beginning with verse 6:

Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way And the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon. [“your sins are forgiven”] “For My thoughts are not your thoughts, Nor are your ways My ways,” declares the LORD. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, So are My ways higher than your ways And My thoughts than your thoughts. For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven, And do not return there without watering the earth And making it bear and sprout, And furnishing seed to the sower and bread to the eater; So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; It will not return to Me empty, Without accomplishing what I desire, And without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.”

It’s been said that the Markan narrative is about Jesus and his followers. Yet, here is a glimpse into the meaning of the kingdom parables, and who do we see but the One true God. God did and is acting. God sent his Son, who sends the Twelve—these are kingdom actions expected to yield results.

As you hear these words, where are you?

Going with Authority

The way of discipleship as seen through Mark’s gospel appears to be that of consistent failures. Even those closest to Jesus fled at the time of his capture. Peter, the first to speak out that Jesus is the Messiah, denied knowing him three times. If those who followed after Jesus so closely could turn and run, what encouragement do we have? Some say that Mark’s portrayal of the “fallible followers” is, ultimately, a source of encouragement. But it’s only an encouragement when we know exactly who Jesus is.

Who’s your teacher?

Who do you get close to?

Just as the mustard seed begins as a speck and grows to provide shade, the natural order is consistently turned upside-down in God’s kingdom, to the degree that even disciples that can’t seem to get it right are full participants in kingdom mission. (Consider, Judas Iscariot is even said to have fulfilled a purpose, cf. 14:21).

Jesus calls us where we are, and sends us out with authority, when we don’t know exactly what we’re doing. Each one of you are called as his disciples, to go meet with students, teenagers in the coffeeshop, military personnel on the base; to take no iphones or day planners with you; to proclaim an alternate reality, anoint the sick with oil, bless and heal them; cast out demons of fear and annihilate their lies. How is this possible? Because God said so and did so, on the cross, with Jesus. Through His Spirit in you. God’s word does not return empty, without accomplishing what he desires. And we know, that we know, that we know, God’s desires are good.