The highlighted themes of this blog were presented by Dr. Walt Stuenkel at the Synod's first Great Commission Convocation, with much of the commentary coming from Martin Franzmann's commentary on the Gospel of Matthew. We were all blessed that day when Walt shared these major themes on "discipleship" and I hope that they will be a blessing to you this Easter season and beyond.
1: The right to discipleship was earned for us by the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
The kingdom of God is not the development of forces latent in humankind and in history but it comes by way of a direct intervention of God in history. Because humankind cannot save itself, due to its bondage to sin and death, God Himself must intervene on humankind’s behalf and provide a way of salvation. GOD IS LOVE and, out of His great love for all people, He devised a plan. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have eternal life. For God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:16-17).
In order to accomplish our salvation, and for us to experience new life and to be His disciples, the Son of Man came not to be served, BUT TO SERVE, and give His life as a ransom for many (Mark 10:45). At His baptism by the prophet John, Jesus was baptized in order to “fulfill all righteousness” so that He might be “the Lord, our Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6). But not only is He our righteousness, He is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world (John 1:29). Paul ties together and explains the content of this Good News from God in these words: “but now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from law, although the law and the prophets bear witness to it, the RIGHTEOUSNESS OF GOD through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe. For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are JUSTIFIED by His GRACE as a GIFT, through the REDEMPTION which is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as an EXPIATION BY HIS BLOOD, to be received by FAITH” (Romans 3:21-25a).
Daniel 2 made plain that the Kingdom of God would come solely by a sovereign act of God. The dream of the king, as interpreted by Daniel, sets the imposing colossus of the world empires over against the Kingdom of God. The mighty figure of gold and silver and bronze and iron and clay (symbolizing the ancient world empires) is struck by a stone (the Christ and His Kingdom) and is broken to pieces and becomes like chaff of the summer threshing floor and the wind carries it away, so that no trace of it remains, while the stone becomes a great mountain and fills the whole earth (Daniel 2:31-45; Matthew 13:24-32; 36-43).
That stone, when compared with the colossus of the world’s empires, is not an impressive entity but it is the Lord’s way to choose the things that are base, despised and are nothing in the world in order to confound the things that are. A Child is born in a stable and the world’s Savior is rejected by His own people (John 1) and crucified on a cross, yet this unique plan of salvation is God’s way for the sinner to be reconciled to God (2 Cor. 5:14-21) and experience the abundant life (John 10). Luther called this the “theology of the cross” in which God accomplishes the greatest of things – our salvation – in the most hidden and despised of ways, that is, the cross. Luther also called this saving activity of God the “great exchange” in which Christ gets our sin and we receive His righteousness; He gets our death and we receive His life; He gets our wrath and we receive God’s grace and mercy.
In order to prepare people for the coming of their Savior, John proclaimed that every person is sinful and living under God’s wrath. God is like the great Winnower standing on His threshing floor, with His winnowing fork in His hand, in order to clear His floor; therefore everyone is to REPENT and turn to the Lord for mercy and forgiveness. Those who heard John were to rend their hearts and not their garments, that is, God desired a deep repentance of the heart and of life and not a superficial, ritual repentance. God, through the message of His prophet John, demanded repentance not only of the prostitutes and tax collectors but also of the "outwardly" pious.
Yet John was not just a messenger of wrath, for John’s name means “the Lord is gracious” and GRACE is the burden of his message (Ephesians 1:8). Dietrich Bonhoeffer described it as “costly grace”: it is costly because it costs a man his life (Mark 8:34-38) and it is grace because it gives a man the ONLY TRUE LIFE (John 10:7-11); above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son (for you were bought with a price) and it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us all.
2: What is a disciple? A disciple is a learner. A disciple always involved a relationship to a person, not just a relationship to a book or a teaching.
The usual rabbi-disciple relationship had its basis in something that transcended both rabbi and disciple: the Torah. Within Judaism, it was the disciple’s respect for the rabbi’s knowledge of the Law, and his skill in expounding the Law, that drew the disciple to the feet of his rabbi.
The relationship to Jesus is much more than the wisdom that Jesus had in expounding the Scriptures. This intimate and dynamic relationship of Jesus with His followers can be seen in the behavior of the disciples at the death of Jesus for none of them takes comfort in the fact that, at least, they have the legacy of Jesus’ teaching given to them – instead, the Master meant everything to them and gives us some insight into the depth of grief that the disciples experienced on Good Friday when Jesus died.
That is why those first disciples gathered in Jerusalem, after His resurrection and ascension, DEVOTED THEMSELVES to the apostles’ teaching that they had received from Jesus (Acts 2:42). That is why Jesus did not leave them, nor does He leave His followers today, as orphans in this world, but gives to them the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of truth, who: dwells in them (John 14:16-18), teaches them the things of Jesus (John 14:26), bears witness to Jesus (John 15:26), and guides them into all truth (John 16:13) through the witness of the inspired Sacred Scriptures. This living relationship with the risen and ascended Christ is experienced wherever two or three are gathered in His name, there He is in the midst of them.
3: A disciple is always chosen by Jesus Christ, the Teacher.
Within rabbinic circles, the disciples “followed” their master and the initiative lay with the disciple to “take to yourself a teacher.” The call of Jesus was much different in this regard. “You did not choose Me, but I chose you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last” (John 15:16).
As Jesus called His disciples, there was no stress placed on the quality of the person called. There are no likely candidates for discipleship. The twelve disciples were an oddly assorted group of men but there was one characteristic of them all – they were like forgiven debtors, men who were living a lost and forfeited existence, but who were released from their sins and bondage and restored into God’s family.
In the call, God was laying claim to the person and the person called was to obey and obey they did. The four left their boats, their nets, and their fathers’ house in order to follow Jesus. Matthew left his tax office when Jesus called him. To the candidate who wanted to go home and first bury his father Jesus replied, “leave the dead to bury their own dead.” In other words, nothing was allowed to impede the person from following Jesus, not even filial piety, a piety rooted in the fourth commandment and strongly felt in Judaism and by any culture that values parents. Yet, in His call, Jesus is evangelist and not a legislator. His claim and call is the personal claim of grace, not the external pressure of the Law. The renunciation that He claims is the renunciation of the man who, in his joy, sells all that he has in order to buy the one field that contains the great treasure (Matthew 13:44) and why the merchant searching for costly pearls sells all he has to possess the one pearl of great value (Matthew 13:45-46).
Toward the middle of April, I will share the remaining five major themes from Walt's lecture on discipleship with you. May you be a "wise disciple" -- someone who has built his or her life on the words of Jesus and who puts them into practice.