As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea, for they were fishers. And Jesus said to them, “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of people.” And immediately they left their nets and followed him. As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. Immediately he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
The first followers of Jesus weren’t the only disciples around at that time. It wasn’t a new concept. All the great Jewish rabbis had their disciples, but there was an important difference.
If you wanted to be a disciple of a rabbi, you had to take the initiative yourself. It was rather like applying for a place on a university course today. Unless you’re an extraordinary student, the faculties don’t come running to you asking you to join their course; it’s up to you to go to them and apply.
But it was different with Jesus: in each of the accounts we have in the Gospels, Jesus took the initiative.
God does not call us to ‘go’ but to follow.
So, discipleship begins with following, but it is at heart about learning. The Latin root of the word is ‘discipulus’ which is ‘a student or learner’. Disciples were those who gathered around a rabbi or teacher in order to learn from them.
But for what purpose all this learning and following? They followed in order to learn, to grow, to develop.
in the person of Jesus – God with us and amongst us, involved in our lives – we’re given an example, and his disciples are called to follow that example; to share his concerns and priorities.
The disciples of Jesus followed to where he was – amongst the hungry … thirsty … strangers … naked … sick … and so forth. (Matthew 25:35-6) – and in doing so learnt that even the most impoverished are valued and worthy and loved.
If that’s what being a disciple is, local churches shouldn’t just be purveyors of religious services; they should be communities where disciples get shaped and supported and sent out to where the poor, the sick and the ‘other’ are.
O let me see your foot-marks, and in them plant my own; my hope to follow truly is in your strength alone: O guide me, call me, draw me, uphold me to the end; und then in heaven receive me, my Saviour and my friend.
John Ernest Bode (1816-74)
The Rev’d Adrian Bulley is the Deputy General Secretary (Discipleship)