Dare We Be Disciples?

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For the past five years I have taught theology and ethics at University of the South, better known as Sewanee, located in Tennessee. One thing I love about teaching at Sewanee is the opportunity to meet and hear the stories of people who have done brave things. Recently, I have gotten to know Francis Walter, a priest who was active in the civil rights movement in Alabama.

Early in his ministry, Francis had been forced out of the Diocese of Alabama in 1961 by Bishop Charles Carpenter for his involvement with the Episcopal Society for Cultural and Racial Unity. In 1965, he returned to found the Selma Inter-Religious Project, an effort to maintain a clergy presence in Selma, Ala., after the historic march from Selma to Montgomery.

One of Francis' first duties upon returning to Selma was to bail out Jonathan Daniels from the jail located in Hayneville, where he and others had been arrested for leading a civil rights demonstration in Lowndes County. Francis met Jonathan on the morning of Aug. 20, and the two had a conversation that lasted about 10 minutes.

Francis' first impression of Jonathan was not overly positive - Jonathan was so hyper that Francis suspected him of having bipolar disorder. But then Jonathan said something that made Francis change his mind. When he learned that Francis had only enough money to bail him and a few other demonstrators out, Jonathan responded, "Unless we all get out, none of us is going to get out."

As Francis tells it, this brief exchange marked a turning point concerning his understanding of what he was fighting for in Alabama. Prior to that meeting, he fervently believed that racial integration was a clear implication of the Christian gospel that could be spelled out with doctrinal precision. But in that encounter he received a new vision of the Gospel: He encountered the demand for racial reconciliation as a kind of embodied argument in Jonathan's decision to remain in jail with the other protestors. Jonathan witnessed to the fact that the struggle for integration was not merely a political debate over public policy, or a theological debate over whether the kingdom of God Jesus inaugurates is primarily a present reality or a future promise. Rather, we misunderstand the Gospel itself if we fail to place the demand for racial reconciliation and justice at the center of the kingdom that Jesus inaugurates.

To be a Christian is to live in solidarity with all whom Jesus loves. To be Christian is to witness even in the face of danger. To be Christian is to see each person as worthy of the profound love and respect owed to all the children of God. Francis' encounter with the Gospel's power in the person of Jonathan Daniels was reinforced later that day when he learned that Jonathan had been murdered outside a store a short walk from the jail, shortly after the protestors had been unexpectedly released. In retrospect, however, what had changed his mind was not the selflessness of Jonathan's sacrifice, but the realization that the excitement Jonathan exuded that morning was not a sign of pathology but the feeling of liberation that comes from living faithfully. "I learned from Jonathan," Francis said, "that to be for justice is not only the right thing to do, but a joyful thing to do. It is freeing. It is good news."

I thought of Francis' story as I prepared today's sermon, for it provides handles that can hold the difficult and rich depiction of discipleship we encounter in today's reading from the Gospel of Matthew. Throughout our passage, we encounter disturbing images: Jesus describes the disciples as sheep among wolves and doves among serpents; he predicts that they will be betrayed by those dearest to them and dragged before worldly authorities; he promises that they will be hated by all and forced to flee from town to town as homeless refugees.

And yet, alongside these disturbing images, Jesus promises that God will be with them always. Although they are like sheep and doves, they will be wise with the wisdom of God. Although they will be powerless, God's Spirit will be with them, guiding them and giving them the words to say. Although they may be killed for the sake of the gospel, God counts the hairs on their heads and will protect their souls.

Viewed as a whole, today's Gospel offers a portrait of discipleship that follows the figure of Christ himself. The figure of Christ is evident not only in the images we have just reviewed, but in Jesus' declaration that "a disciple is not above the teacher" and that discipleship occurs when students are like their teacher. Just as Jesus was dragged powerless before the authorities and killed for proclaiming the kingdom of God, so too are his disciples called to deny themselves, take up their cross, and follow him. And just as Jesus was preserved by the Spirit throughout the difficulties of his passion and death until he was raised victorious on Easter Day, so too will his disciples be preserved by the power and wisdom of God, which the world does not know. Matthew relates these sayings of Jesus on discipleship, then, with a view towards what he later writes concerning the passion and resurrection of Christ.

Today's reading from Matthew also stresses that specific moments of decision and dedication lie at the center of what it means to be Jesus' disciple. To be a disciple is to make a deliberate break with the world we know in order to live according to the new world that Jesus is bringing into being. This break with the old world inevitably involves conflict, even violence. Therefore, the decision to be a disciple is not something that happens organically or in the normal course of events. It is a moment in which we decide to stand with Jesus and for Jesus regardless of the outcome.

This decisiveness is implicit in today's reading, but it is explicit throughout Matthew's Gospel. Toward the end of the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus tells the crowd to "enter through the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the road is easy that leads to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it" (5:48). Jesus repeatedly tells his disciples, "If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me" (16:24). Moreover, throughout Matthew's Gospel, there are stories and teachings that highlight the necessity of turning toward God and away from even our closest ties to family and friends. The disciples leave their families and their nets; Matthew leaves his profession as a tax collector and its ill-gotten privileges; Jesus tells his disciples that their love for him must be far greater than their love of father, mother, son, or daughter (10:37).

If you are like me, you have heard several preachers try to do similar justice to today's Gospel and passages like it by reinforcing its hard edges and speaking about the call to discipleship largely in terms of self-denial. Without question, the motivations of these preachers are laudable, for the Gospel does require renunciation and surrender. We must surrender ourselves and our wills to God if we are to be of any use as Jesus' disciples. Moreover, concrete examples of the kind of discipleship described in today's Gospel are rare. Indeed, one reason the martyrdom of Jonathan Daniels inspires us is because people like him have become so rare that they appear radical.

Ironically, in a time in which our church increasingly speaks with one voice on matters of racial reconciliation in resolutions at general and diocesan conventions, we no longer seem to have the same passion for particular acts of courage like Jonathan's. As such, we have become a church of grand gestures, but little discipleship. Consumed by internal debates over sexuality and concerned with our own self-preservation, we have lost sight of the church's mission to share the good news of the Gospel with the poor, the hungry, the naked, and the imprisoned. Given the state of our church, do any of us dare to follow Jonathan's example? Can any of us persevere in being the disciples Jesus calls us to be in today's Gospel?

Francis Walter's encounter with Jonathan Daniels, however, provides insight into why these clarion calls for radical discipleship often fall on deaf ears. For as I mentioned earlier, what Francis found most remarkable about Jonathan Daniels was not his act of sacrifice but the freedom and joy that Jonathan experienced when he choose to remain in jail with the other demonstrators. This joy and freedom lies beneath everything we encounter in today's Gospel, and we do not understand the call to discipleship rightly unless we see the trials depicted against a backdrop of abundance and generosity.

What finally makes the call to sacrifice we encounter in the Gospel of Matthew comprehensible is that it is an expression of the unbelievable generosity that God has shown us in Jesus Christ. The beginnings of this generosity are evident in the incarnation of Jesus himself, which is the fulfillment of the promise that God will send his Son who will be called Emmanuel, that is, God with us. This generosity is also evident in the new law and power to forgive that Jesus places at the heart of the Sermon on the Mount. It is evident in the reconciliation Jesus effects in the lives of his disciples, placing outcasts and sinners at the center of the kingdom of God. This generosity is evident in Jesus' resurrection and the gift of the Spirit that empowers the disciples to spread the good news of God's salvation through Jesus Christ.

If we forget this generosity, we will neglect the very thing that makes discipleship possible. Indeed, God's generosity appears unfailing; God never gives up on us, even when we fail to live faithfully as Christ's disciples. This also is evident in the Matthew's Gospel, for during his passion, Jesus' disciples fled and denied him despite what he had taught them. Nonetheless, at the end of Matthew, the disciples are sent out into the world as Jesus' emissaries to make disciples in his name.

Today's Gospel, then, provides an opportunity for us to remember the joy as well as the sacrifice of discipleship. It provides an opportunity for us to remember that the difficult path of discipleship also leads us to abundant life.

May God make us hungry for the freedom and joy of being his disciple, and may this freedom and joy be with us, empowering us to witness and act in Christ's name. Amen.

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