In my freshman year of college, a professor handed us a piece of paper with a two- or three- sentence paragraph and told us to count the number of times a particular letter occurred, for example the letter H. I counted carefully and was confident that there were a total of six, only to be told that there were actually nine. I was informed that what I had experienced was due to an area of diminished vision within the visual field called a scotoma (Greek for darkness).
The more I study discipleship the more I am convinced that the reason the disciples had problems understanding Jesus and the reign of God is that they had areas of diminished vision within the visual field that Jesus set in front of them. So Jesus called and taught as he accompanied them, as a guide accompanies one who lacks sight. The call to discipleship was and is a call to grow into the likeness of Jesus and to participate in the reign of God. However, the disciples had never seen such a kingdom, and as often as Jesus explained it to them, they had difficulty seeing. Jesus endured the problem all prophets encounter: seeing things as they ought to be, and when they courageously speak of their visions, hoping to reconcile the community to wholeness, they are often met with resistance as troublers of the community.
If we take the Sermon on the Mount as the “manifesto of discipleship,” then we must recognize that this is a vision many of us do not readily grasp or are easily given to practice. Some call it an impossible ideal, which opens up room for one to justify falling short as being realistic or pragmatic. In that sermon, Jesus urged the disciples to redefine their motivations to suit the purposes of God. Motivation was once geared toward outward self-serving displays designed to prove that a person met the demands of the law better than someone else. But Jesus confronted the inner sanctums of the individual, where the private practice of all manner of evil runs rampant. Jesus invited his disciples to return favor for malice, forgive those who wronged them, and not to seek vengeance on enemies, but indeed to do the seemingly impossible and love them.
The first step toward becoming true disciples is recognizing that a call to discipleship is a call to a baptism in compassion. The Gospels suggest that to be a disciple is to be moved by human pain, to respond with compassion, and then to be actuated by that compassion to work for restoration. Jesus urges us never to be acclimatized to human suffering and to remember that authentic worship attends to human needs first. However, meeting human needs are ends in themselves and should not be used as coercion tactics or gimmicks to proselytize. God is distressed when we know what is right, yet harden our heartschoosing instead cultural, religious, political, and economic self-interests. When we so choose, we end up working against the reign of God. Thus, we are called through compassion to cleave our most cherished prejudices, traditions, practices, interpretations, and self-serving theologies.
The second step is realizing that we cannot let go of such ingrained tendencies easily. For this reason, Jesus spent time with the disciples, teaching them over and over again, leading them into sight, and re-creating them into new beings. It is worth noticing that the Twelve are called disciples first and apostles later. Even after Jesus sent them out the first time, they returned to continue their learning. Their apostleship was couched in their discipleship, and the authenticity of their discipleship depended upon their continual fellowship with Jesus. Hence, discipleship should be the context of all that we are, as well as the prism through which we look. In view of that, discipleship is a perpetual enterprise and one can ill afford a hiatus.
The third step, which is crucial, is participation in fulfilling the law of God. Jesus distilled the commands into love for God with all that one is and can muster and love for neighbor as self. Though short and succinctly stated, this distillation has proven all too difficult to embrace and practice. In Matthew 5:19, Jesus teaches that anyone who practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. The least are those who do not. Love for God and neighbor is the foundation of everything that we are as disciples, and we embody this love when we are sent out as representatives of Christ. Pity, shame, or guilt can sometimes be disguised as compassion, and can lead one to do great thingseven alleviate human sufferingall without ever truly seeing those in need as human beings of equal worth. There are too many examples of missionaries who have spent their lives in far away places, establishing hospitals, churches and digging wells, yet never quite seeing or addressing any of the indigenous people as worthy equals. True discipleship nurtures a compassion borne out of a love for God and love of fellow brothers and sisters. It is humbling to realize that this way of being and seeing is not something we can acquireit is a gift of grace given to teachable souls in the capable hands of God.
Let me propose something that might induce discomfort among some, by redefining the Great Commission. The Great Commission is to love God and neighbor and to learn continually how to do so as we attend to the other. This will quicken our efforts and successes as we attend to the other commission that we have interpreted as great, which is “to go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt. 28:19). If in our discipleship we are ever learning how to love God and neighbor, then going to make disciples will naturally flow or burst forth from within us. All too often, however, the missionary zeal outweighs the love component and importance is focused on numbers and honorable mention, as well as voyeuristic interest in pitiable conditions of existence, all of which steal the focus from the trajectory of the reign of God.
To prepare for discipleship is also to prepare for opposition. Jesus did good things at no one’s expense and faced opposition. This is part of picking up a cross and following him. His was the opposition that came from without, the kind he generously faced with redemptive holy courage. This kind of opposition comes from the purveyors of tradition and detractors. There is a kind of opposition that comes from within, which can be a result of calculating the cost of carrying one’s cross. After all, more often than we care to admit, “blessed are the peacemakers” has led directly to “blessed are they that mourn.”
In conclusion, we are hard pressed to name even a handful of people who have demonstrated true discipleship in our own lives. Most of us have only caught brief glimpses of the Sermon on the Mount. Our challenge is to let our lives be demonstrations of such true discipleship, discipleship that is immersed in a compassion birthed by love for God and all human beings. In so doing, we will multiply the glimpses of the Holy in our communities.
Paul Mugane writes from San Diego, California.