One of our strategic priorities commits us to rediscover what Jesus was doing when He invited others to follow Him. Then we follow His lead by shaping our lives individually and congregationally around this well-known practice of Jesus. Jesus discipled people deeply! But how? What precisely did Jesus do?
First and obviously, Jesus called people to walk with Him, literally to leave where they were (at least temporarily) to become His companions as He lived His life on the move from one place to another, doing what God the Father had called Him to do. This is important, even if obvious. Jesus had a life in relation to His Father and He invited people into that — His — life. Interestingly, His call targeted a number of people, with varying backgrounds — fishermen, small tradesmen, government workers and perhaps a political activist. Today we would say Jesus invited a diverse group of people into His life. He called them to follow him, yes, but “follow” meant something more and deeper than we normally imagine.
Indeed, those who became companions of Jesus in this way entered a kind of total immersion in a different way of life, centered around Jesus. Jesus lived in the company of these friends and they lived in the company of Jesus. The gospels tell us, in fact, that Jesus could be alone only by withdrawing from them to some other place, often in the middle of the night. Normally, then, they ate, traveled, rested, taught, prayed, served, healed and whatever else together — total immersion.
We should remind ourselves that this life of Jesus, into which followers of Jesus immersed themselves, was itself a life shared consciously and interactively with the Father — so much so that Jesus simply broke into conversations with the Father aloud from time to time. The first followers of Jesus were immersed in Jesus’ life, which they experienced as a life shared with the Father.
Within the context of this immersion in shared life, Jesus taught them. He taught them by what He said and by what He did, but at first not directly, it would seem. Jesus had a message about the arrival and nearness of God’s kingdom, which He then demonstrated with acts of healing, deliverance and forgiveness. According to the record, only after Jesus’ ministry was well on its way and, after there were a considerable number of followers together, did Jesus take time to teach them directly. Otherwise, Jesus taught whoever would listen, healed those who came seeking, and He did so in the context of preaching and illustrating what it means to live in the kingdom of God. His disciples were with Him in all that He does, but, at first, they mostly watch and listen. Sometimes they had questions, and Jesus answered their questions, often by asking them to think about other questions. Mostly, however, they spent a lot of time just being with Jesus and observing what (and how) Jesus says and does.
Then the day came when Jesus told them He wants them to go on their own (not alone but in smaller groups) to other places and do in those places what Jesus and they had been doing together So, they preached what Jesus preached, they received the sick, prayed for them, and healings came. They called the demons out of those possessed by them, and then called people to live according to Jesus’ way of life. Jesus told them they could do this and then sent them to do it. And, amazingly, they did. It wasn’t the same as Jesus, but it was like Jesus — so much so that it got the attention of the powerful among the political and religious authorities of the day. It wasn’t the same as Jesus, but it was somehow the same Jesus now working through their efforts. In time, it was the same Jesus whose name and ministry became known through their efforts throughout the entire world.
As I consider this overview of Jesus’ discipling activity, several things strike me as takeaways. Many of the things discipleship brings to mind are nearly absent — such things as doctrinal or biblical content, devotional practices and skills, and an ordered process for each individual. Instead at the heart of it is intimate relating to God — as God reveals Himself in Jesus — and knowing Jesus, loving and following Jesus in daily life with an eye out for some others who might like to try this themselves. My disciple-making in following after Jesus, therefore, should be much more about inviting a few others into the middle of my interactive relationship with Abba-Father, and all that flows from it. My disciple-making should connect the dots between loving responses to God and who I am becoming, and how I am actually living from day to day. Some of my best contributions to the making of disciples of Jesus will trace back to my own ongoing shaping as Jesus’ disciples.
Bishop David Kendall is an ordained elder in the Great Plains Conference who was first elected to the office of Free Methodist bishop in 2005. He is the author of “God’s Call to Be Like Jesus” and the co-author of “The Female Pastor: Is There Room for She in Shepherd?”