Radical discipleship! That’s what this gospel passage is all about. The second of five great discourses of Jesus found in the Gospel of Matthew, Biblical scholars refer to this passage as “The Missionary Discourse.” It lays the groundwork for how the closest disciples of Jesus are supposed to carry the Good News into the world. But I suspect all of us find these words difficult to hear.
Radical discipleship! What does this mean? To place it in the context of the Gospel, you need to realize that Jesus is not simply speaking to the crowds who followed him, but to his closest disciples whom he thinks have the potential to be totally committed to his mission. Jesus makes it clear that to be a disciple is to be committed not only to him, and not only to his community, the Church, but beyond that to the mission of the church in the world. And that mission is to give flesh to the love of God in all situations of life.
As Episcopalians, radical discipleship is spelled out for us in the Baptismal Covenant: to continue in the Apostles’ teaching and fellowship; to resist evil and repent; to proclaim the Good News of God in Christ; to love your neighbour as yourself; and to strive for justice and peace among all people. In the larger sphere, the mission of the church is to work for social justice and social compassion for all the peoples on the globe.
This call of Jesus to his disciples asks two things of them: boldness and courage. Jesus commands them (and us) to be bold: “What I say to you in the dark, tell in the light; and what you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops.” They are sent out to unleash the Good News in a way that is visible and loud so that all the world can see and hear.
Jesus tells the disciples (and us) that they are called to be courageous. We need to realize that what the followers of Jesus were doing was something quite new and extraordinary—and as such, very much against the norms of the day. At one point or another, it’s clear that the ministry of Jesus and the work of his disciples antagonized large segments of the population of his day. To stand up in opposition to the status quo takes an exceptional amount of courage.
In the history of the church there are numerous examples of this courage, but someone who stands outs for me in more recent times is Dietrich Bonhoeffer. One of the most brilliant Lutheran theologians and preachers of the 20th century, he heard God’s call to radical discipleship. He opposed the Nazi regime in Germany, not only in his writing and preaching, but even by taking an active role in a plot to assassinate Hitler. He could have fled to the United States, but his conscience and faith in God would not allow him to abandon his countrymen to their fate, and it cost him his life.
In our own lifetime we have the living example of John Lewis who also displayed courage born out of his faith. Following Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In the fight for equality and civil rights he continues to live a life of self-sacrifice and service to others. Whether participating in the 1961 Freedom Ride to Alabama or leading the march across the Pettus Bridge in Selma, Lewis has consistently challenged the status quo and the treatment of black Americans. He too has paid a hefty price, suffering abuse and physical harm.
Both of these men faced significant repercussions because they heard the call to boldness and courage and were willing to challenge what was wrong in the world. It is in those moments of danger faced by those first disciples and those experienced by Bonhoeffer and Lewis (as well as many others in more recent times), that we see the true meaning of radical discipleship.
And what about us in these tumultuous times? Will we answer the call to radical discipleship in our own time and place? Are we willing to share the message of Christ beyond the usual boundaries? Are we prepared to proclaim the love of God in new, more powerful, more meaningful ways? Will we live out the promises made at our baptism that make it clear it is God we are serving?
As Christians, as those called to radical discipleship, we have to approach the things that we see wrong in creation with new eyes. We have to be willing, without thought of cost to self, to call out and reject evil. It means looking beyond what is right in front of us and consider what might be there, just out of sight. It means taking what God whispers to each of us and shouting it aloud. It means attending to the Spirit’s promptings and then putting them into action. It means acknowledging Christ before others and embracing the radical discipleship to which he calls us.
The outrage over the death of George Floyd has caused a lot of people, especially white people, to begin to recognize all of the inequities that exist purely along racial lines. People are looking deeper into what is right in front of us and considering how that should change. Many in the church are realizing how much racial inequality has been built into our society. Christians are searching for ways to resist the evils of racism and to affirm that “Black Lives Matter” as we strive for justice and peace among all peoples.
If you have not read the recent article in Tune-Up from our deacon, Lauri Watkins, read it now! She makes it clear that racism is not only unacceptable: it is morally wrong; it is sinful. And because of our inaction in the face of systemic racism, we are all complicit, we are all guilty. “We are those who allow such hateful and immoral acts to continue.” Lauri is on fire with radical discipleship. Thank you, Lauri, for your witness. Thank you for your boldness and courage!
What is it that holds us back? What is it that keeps us from seeing the racist result of our actions or inactions? I think it is fear. Jesus recognizes that it is fear that causes the failure of discipleship: because the faithful proclamation and practice of the gospel inevitably puts disciples on a collision course with the powers of this world. This is why Jesus highlights the dangers that await his disciples, so that they will be free from the tenacious grip of fear. We are not to fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather we are to fear only God who can destroy both soul and body.
The threat of violence and death were very real concerns for those first disciples, but it was no longer the determining force in their lives. Jesus encourages the disciples to remain true to their mission and firm in their commitment to Jesus, even when that mission generates inevitable conflicts – even within their own families.
Although Jesus called his disciples to be peacemakers, his mission does not bring peace. The very act of peace-making generates violence, for healing, restoration, and the conquest of death threaten the foundations of all human assertions of power in defiance of God.
We cannot ignore that in first century Palestine “taking up the cross” implies identification with the marginal people (slaves and rebels who were not Roman citizens). But Jesus promises that those who “lose their life” for him will in fact “find it,” while those who “find their lives” in the world will lose them. This is his answer to fear: a clear-eyed recognition of the facades of human power; awareness of the conflict and division the gospel inevitably produces; and a deep conviction that God is present in the world, in mercy and compassion. Ultimately, he lived this out in his own crucifixion.
Paul refers to this paradox as walking in “newness of life” in the portion of his Letter to the Romans we have heard today. He is reassuring us that as we share the death of Jesus through our baptism, we also shall rise with him. What a glorious, comforting thought in the midst of a world that tries to scare us to death. Dying to sin, dying to selfishness, dying to desires that oppress instead of liberating us – all this dying in order to glorify God and walk in newness of life.
Radical discipleship! Newness of life! It means that we have to approach our society with new eyes and deeper insight. It means being willing to forego our privilege in order to eradicate inequities. It means finding ways of showing Christ to the world in the midst of struggle. Do not be afraid! Take a deep breath, a breath of the Spirit (some inspiration), and step into the world of radical discipleship to which Jesus is calling us all.