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Where Discipleship Starts

I am a lover of open spaces. My earliest childhood affection was for windblown wheat fields, ripe for running and rolling and dancing in. On a recent flight, I rode the clouds over Michigan. It was nearing dusk and the sun seemed to stretch forever over a carpet of golden billows. It looked like a heavenly wheat field, and I longed to leap from my airplane seat into the wild freedom of that sky.

But alas, the jet that held me began its descent. Gradually I noticed open patches in the clouds, revealing the landscape of gloomy, economically depressed Detroit below. It was wet and gray down there. All of me screamed to stay aloof.

It wasn’t until we taxied into our gate at the airport that a strange inner paradox in me came to my attention. My heart had ached with disappointment when we sank below the line of clouds and returned to land. But less than a week before, I had been startled by a completely opposite experience. Sitting in an IMAX presentation about deep space, we were taken out of earth’s atmosphere through the wonders of computer graphics, beyond our solar system, away from our galaxy, and into the outermost reaches of our expanding universe.

It was scary out there, even from where I sat in my cushioned seat. I felt lonely and homesick for my sun. As the image turned around and our imaginary spaceship sailed back through the Milky Way toward earth, I became aware of a strange sensation of relief welling up in me. “Ah, home,” I sighed.

This week, the Adventist community studies discipleship. I will not presume in one thousand words to write comprehensively about a topic on which I myself am only still an amateur. But I think I can here at least identify the place in which discipleship starts.

To be a disciple means to be a follower in the most intentional and responsible of ways. In the Christian context, to be a disciple means, specifically, to be a follower of Christ. In a rather difficult passage, Jesus made it clear to his listeners what the authentic experience of his disciples would be: “If anyone would come after me,” he said, “let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses himself for my sake and the gospel’s will save it” (Mark 8:34).

Reading Mark 8:32 in this week’s Sabbath School lesson study, I was impressed by how directly it seems to smack against the narcissism inherent in much of our culture’s loose spiritual quest for self-actualization and personal fulfillment. The text affirms that Life is indeed possible, but not by way of any “happy high road.” Life, says Jesus, comes only as we taste death, its seeming opposite. And so there is tension, as there is tension in my paradoxical inner longing for earth and air, for safety and for free sky.

In his book Catholic Spirituality, Its History and Challenge, Catholic theologian James Bacik warns readers against the perils inherent in pursuing a spirituality not fixed in something firmer than ourselves. “Divorced from a solid theological foundation, spirituality is in danger of becoming faddish, superficial, and unbalanced,” he says.1 Much of the rethinking being done by Christians today over issues in dogmatic theology is proving fruitful. But the dark underbelly is revealed when departure from authoritative thought-structures of the past cause us to pursue individualistic and soft self-styled spiritualities instead.

In these we are tempted to embrace personal biases that would otherwise be sifted out through interaction with thoughtfully crafted doctrine. When not rooted in the balancing effects of life and death—cross and resurrection—we become gluttons for good feelings that are often shallow and seldom lasting.

What theology, then, is foundational to our spirituality as Christ-followers? What undisputable authority rests over us? When I consider the transcendent yearning I experience to rise over golden clouds, and when I come to terms with the innate fear I have in conjunction with that very same desire, I realize that it is God. I ache for intimacy with Forever because Forever is. I feel it. But I also fear it, because he and I are not the same. The Absolute lives, but I am not that Absolute. That makes him my God.

After placing ourselves into the steam of this new, gracious Authority, we begin to understand the complexity and simplicity of discipleship as outlined in Mark 8:32. We perceive that God is responsible for every spiritual quest, for if he Is, then we cannot be. In self actualization, we take the initiative. We instigate; we judge. But in the Christian discipleship, God does all these things and more. Holy waiting and holy acceptance are foundational to the experience. Dietrich Bonhoeffer expands on this well:

The Christian is the man who no longer seeks his salvation, his deliverance, his justification in himself, but in Jesus Christ alone. He knows that God’s word in Jesus Christ pronounces him guilty, even when he doesn’t feel his guilt, and God’s Word in Jesus Christ pronounces him not guilty and righteous, even when he does not feel that he is righteous at all. The Christian no longer lives of himself, by his own claims and his own justification, but by God’s claims and God’s justification. He lives wholly by God’s Word pronounced upon him, whether that Word declares him guilty or innocent.2

This comes as a blessed relief to those who are serious about following Jesus. By simply subjecting ourselves to the initiative of God, we, in essence, begin the process of self-denial that is so central to the journey called Christian discipleship. (“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”)

But the clincher is that this experience is available only to those who have married their spirituality to the humble theological paradox of Mark 8:32. It grows only in people who have enough modesty to admit that as much as our souls scream for eternity, such wonders also cause us to tremble. You and I are not God.

As soon as we enter into this tender and painful reality, we find ourselves in the position to follow Christ with abandon and perhaps, even, with joy. We take up the cross, which keeps our feet on the ground, where God in flesh has met us. But in following him, our hearts begin to touch Heaven. (“…Whoever loses himself for my sake and the gospel’s will save it.”)

This is where discipleship starts.

Notes and References

1. James J. Bacik, Catholic Spirituality, Its History and Challenge (New York: Paulist Press, 2002), 6.

2. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 21, 22.

Rachel Davies is the youth and children’s pastor at the Toledo, Ohio, First Seventh-day Adventist Church.

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