One of the most familiar pictures used in the Bible to teach us about our relationship to God is that of a Shepherd. The imagery of sheep and shepherd was familiar enough to ancient Mediterranean people, given the importance of sheep in the economy. The shepherd was concerned first and foremost with the welfare of his flock. He provided them with the necessities of life—food and water and safety. When a wild animal attacked, he would risk his life for the sheep.
Jesus used this image of the shepherd because it was a common image of the time. He then went further, as John’s gospel records it, when we find Jesus attempting to defend his claims as the son of God as well as speaking to whom he considered to be his followers. Who were Jesus’ disciples. What is a disciple anyway?
The word disciple comes from a Greek word that means “to grasp, to take hold of.” A disciple is one who grasps or takes hold of a teacher and his or her teachings.
This is an apt topic today, because we are having a number of baptisms this morning and the individuals being baptized are committing themselves to be disciples—to affirm the role of the teacher, Jesus. For the young children being baptized, they will later in life, have an opportunity to confirm that commitment.
So during his lifetime, Jesus had a wide assortment of disciples. Some whom we would have expected to be good were actually not so good, and some that we expected to have the most shortcomings, were among the best.
And, this morning as we think about the people being baptized—and thinking back on our baptisms—we can look at the various disciples and identify ourselves with one of several types. These types of disciples can be understood in a few different ways.
The first level, are disciples who merely came to be with Jesus and nothing more. Psychologists tell us in every crowd there are people who are there just because they like to be with large or important groups. We might call these the “groupies”.
Are you feeling neglected or bored? Then get with the crowd! Rub elbows with people and you’ll feel more a part of something important that is going on. Observers of the Times Square New Years Eve celebration say that many people go there for the sole purpose of pressing up close to another human being.
Why did some people follow Jesus? They wanted to be part of the crowd, a part of the action. Some wanted to see a local celebrity, to draw from his charisma. Maybe some of them came to see and be seen—to catch up on the latest gossip.
This level of association is a low level of discipleship, if indeed; it can be called discipleship at all.
A second level of discipleship are those who came to see Jesus not only to be seen, but to hear what he had to say.
Some folks came out of curiosity and they still do. In Jesus’ time these were people who wanted to hear something new—a new idea. And it’s the same in our time. Some people want to be around to be up on the latest thinking, the latest philosophy, the newest insight.
Some years back the New York Times advertised a new subscription service that would tell you the title, author and main idea of a popular book, which enabled a person to name-drop without ever reading the book. And so, some people came to Jesus, and some still do, in an effort to keep up on the in-group name-dropping.
In respect to twenty one centuries of history, many of us as disciples have not changed too much. Jesus—today—is used to endorse about everything and every cause. Jesus is used to bless dictatorships and democracies, unions and management. Jesus is quoted for every existing protest, old and young alike. Hawks and doves claim Jesus. Anarchists and law-in-order advocates do the same.
So when we move to our own contemporary time—our day and age-- we have to ask of ourselves: at what level of discipleship are we? Are we Christians who are here to endorse our own ideas and plans, or the reinforcement of our own vision or social schemes?
To be a true follower of Jesus we have to be disciples who are at a whole different level than we have just described. As true disciples we do what Jesus says: “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” And Jesus says, “I told you and you do not believe.” What Jesus is looking for people are people who do something rather than just listen and talk. He’s looking for people with the courage to act.
Jesus was esteemed by many as a man of crystal-clear character. Many respected his teachings and revered him as a great man. Some even thought they ought to follow him. Others turned away when they heard his demands.
And what are these demands in our time? He asks us to do the work of believing and loving. We don’t have to be powerful or well-born to do that. Male or female, any color, old or young, any gender—anything different at all--it takes all of us to make a difference. Believing and loving are possible for all of us. And when we become disciples who believe and love, things happen in our lives. We’re linked to God in a new way and we’re attached to God’s mission for the world. We’re stretched to the full stature of being a human being.
Centuries ago when the Hebrew people were lamenting a lack of knowledge of God, the prophet Isaiah said, “If you will loose the fetters of injustice, if you set free those who have been crushed, if you share food with the hungry, if you give clothing and shelter to the needy—then says Isaiah, “God will answer-‘Here I am’” and God will be your guide and companion. Those who believe and do the acts of love enter the knowledge and the world of God.
Amid all the opportunities we enjoy, do we hear Jesus’ call—do we hear it today—to a higher level of discipleship?