Discipleship

An Insight into the Life of Evangelical Counsels

“And Jesus said to them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you become fishers of men.’ And immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (Mk 1:17-18)

[1] Origin. A Greek word mathētēs in the New Testament expresses the idea of a disciple, but there is no word discipleship. The verb mathētēuō means, ‘to make someone into a disciple’ seldom appears, and akolouthein, “to walk behind” or “to follow,” is frequently used in the NT it indicates following Jesus. It characterizes the central quality of existence as a disciple.1

[2] The changes in following Jesus. “Change” is a consequence of following Jesus; it is either a name, an occupation, or daily activities. In the Jewish culture name indicates the being of the person, and its profession tells the being of the person, agere sequitur esse; on the other hand, the discipleship of Jesus recreates the person, a new genesis, a new beginning for those who become his disciples. It depends on how close he follows Jesus. A Greek word akolouthein translates as following behind Jesus in an earshot distance, and can hear Jesus, indicates a real closeness to him.

[3] Jesus calls directly and personally. One does not become a disciple simply by the desire to follow certain ideologies. Jesus Christ calls the disciple to follow him into a form of life, a consecrated life. “One becomes a disciple when called by Jesus himself (e.g., Mark 1:17; 2:14). The initiative lay with Jesus alone; apart from his call, there is no recognizable motive for one to become a disciple and follow Jesus.”2 The Church represents Jesus through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, whose call to his disciples during his lifetime is as good as today. She mediates between the “called” and the “Caller” through the Holy Spirit, who still personally calls whom he wants to follow Him, which is the mysterious aspect of vocation.

[4] Renouncing the source of security. The Calling Jesus shows the sovereignty of his freedom, which the social conventions of his time did not determine Him regarding whomever he wanted; his call indicates the liberating aspect of vocation – the freedom from social conditions. The radical natures of Jesus' call is the breaking-off (i.e. breaking with the past and family relations). “It is evident that Jesus called people into fellowship regardless of social, religious, and ethnic background or gender. The call demanded a total break from the past. The disciples immediately left their families and their vocations (e.g., Mark 1:16–20; 2:14), and followed Jesus.”3 The breaking of family relations is unusual for a Jew like Jesus; on the other hand, others were familiar with it in the examples of the prophets. It poses challenge to Asian value system of close family ties because, it requires that the disciple loves “more” Jesus than the family. The other break-off is distancing from the source of economic security, from the secular job to dedicate oneself to the Kingdom of God, not to the kingdom of gold.

[5] Distancing from the past. The breaking-off from the source of security is difficult, but breaking off from one’s personal history is very difficult because a disciple must forget what he was before discipleship to embrace a new task. (e.g. you were boss in the past, now you are a porter or vice-versa). “Finally, it also belonged to discipleship that customary values be radically broken. Conditional relations are to be carefully considered in light of the break with the past: It is discipleship that demands and makes possible this break, but the break itself is not to be equated with discipleship. The call of Jesus demands and makes possible the break with the past inasmuch as it gives the disciple a new future.”6 This break-off is synonymous with renunciation. However, renunciation is not discipleship unless one embraces the new life and new future arising from following Jesus.

[6] Center of discipleship. The center of discipleship is not the teaching of Jesus but his person.7 Discipleship shifted its focus from the Law or doctrine to the person of the Master. There is no mastery of doctrines but a deepening of the relationship. Discipleship is not doctrinal but relational. The person of Jesus renders and distinguishes discipleship into Christian discipleship.8 However, the teachings of Jesus must not be dismissed as unnecessary nor should they be considered optional because the teachings of Jesus point to himself, to God. They are the guideposts of discipleship. The institute’s Rule and Constitutions are like maps of the whole journey of discipleship.9

[7] Purpose of discipleship. The Catechism of the Catholic Church teaches the scope of the invitation of Jesus to follow him: “follow me: These words indicate the nature of their calling to win others for Christ. The Apostles were called to preach in the name of Christ with the aim of bringing the Gospel to all people. The call of Christ to discipleship is direct and personal.”10 Preaching the person and works of Jesus is a lifetime task. It demands discipleship with an undivided heart, therefore, radical renunciation is a must. This has been shown in the life of Jesus’ close collaborators, especially the apostles. “Having renounced all possessions, they lived a life of wandering and homelessness, even after the death of Jesus, and carried the message and power of Jesus to the people.[…] In the latter case, their renunciation of possessions would not have been a condition but a voluntary act. Even when seen from a sociological point of view, it remains certain that Jesus himself and his message is the only factor that can explain the origins of the Twelve.”11 Jesus is the pearl of great value that the first disciples found. He was the prime purpose of discipleship and the supreme cause of renunciation of everything that has nothing to do with following after him.

[8] The Fourfold Gospel. The four gospels are witnesses of the One Gospel – Jesus Christ. They stressed different facets of discipleship. a. Matthew. The Gospel according to Matthew demands the perfection of the disciples, “You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”12 This perfection had to surpass the righteousness of the Pharisees, “For I tell you unless your righteousness exceeds that of the scribes and Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.”13 “Discipleship is a radical way of life, radical also in obedience to the will of God, as it is interpreted through Jesus.”14

[9] b. Mark. The Gospel according to Mark points out the human character of discipleship, human failure. “It emphasizes the fact that failure and discipleship do not necessarily disqualify each other.”15 Mark presented Jesus who approached people and in return, these people approached others the way Jesus did to them. The discipleship is not through life's condition but because of the call of Jesus and not just a personal decision of the one called. For Mark discipleship is utterly Christological in its orientation; in a disciple replicates the service of the Son of Man as humility, service, and peacemaking.16 The Holy Spirit renders possible today the experience of Christ by the first disciples.

[10] c. Luke. The gospel according to God’s physician highlights discipleship through the painting of the twelve apostles and stressed the continuity of the disciples with the period of Jesus’ life and their continuity through the Holy Spirit after his ascension working in the early Church.17 Notably, the disciples of Jesus includes also the marginalized of the society (e.g. women, the poor, pagans, the unlearned of the Torah, etc.)

[11] d. John. The gospel according to John highlights the conversion of the disciples to Jesus. They are expected to remain faithful to the word of Jesus – an expression of a dynamic relationship with Jesus – whose service in love makes the disciples into friends for keeping his commandments.18 The primacy of love in discipleship became the norm of the community of John.19 “Analogous to the sending of the Son, the disciples are also sent into the world;20 in God's gift to the world, which became an event in the incarnation of the Word, perpetuates itself.”21 Discipleship is making first the Word become flesh in the lives of the disciples and then proclaiming the Word-Made-Flesh through their lives testimony.

[12] Peter and Paul’s sequela Christi. These two apostles were the exemplar of discipleship. They did not just follow Jesus but imitated their master in life and death. Peter's call is not all at once ideal discipleship but a process of becoming. He did not let himself to have succumbed to his failure but in the resurrection of Christ, he arose with Him. He let the resurrection of Christ transform his whole being, from fear to boldness. The fisherman of Galilee was turned by the grace of Christ into a fisher of men. St. Paul, on the hand, is another masterpiece of God. God redirected him from being a dying hard defender of the OT Law to a dying hard apostle of Christ. The Church he wanted to destroy, he ardently participated in her building-up. The Christ he was persecuting became his master, the destroyer became an imitator of Christ.22 In the weakness of these disciples God has shown the greatness of his grace.

[13] Conclusion. Like the phrase evangelical counsel, discipleship as such is not in the Sacred Scriptures, however, the reality of discipleship is embodied in the disciples, especially of Christ. By looking at the lives of those who followed Jesus one can understand what Christian discipleship meant. Primarily, discipleship indicates the figure of Jesus Christ being followed “closely”, so close to the point of imitation like Peter, Paul, and St. Francis of Assisi. Discipleship implies too “breaking off” from the source of security and the past, and embracing a new life and activities. Above all, it indicates putting Jesus at the center of one’s life.


1 “All 261 references to ‘disciple’ in the NT are found in the Gospels and Acts. The emphasis clearly lies in the Gospels, inasmuch as only 10 percent of the references occur in Acts. The case is like that of the word akolouthein ‘to follow after’: Of the 90 occurrences, 79 are found in the Gospels, the rest in Acts (4), Revelation (6), and 1 Corinthians (1). This discovery already indicates that discipleship is a phenomenon which demonstrates a close association with Jesus himself” (Hans Weder, “Discipleship”, Anchor Bible Dictionary, Dennis Martin (trans.), Volume 2, 2070-2075. [New York: Doubleday, 1992]: 2071).

2 Ibid., 2071.

3 Ibid.

4 Cf., Lk 9:57–60; ibid.

5 Cf., Mk 10:41–45.

6 Ibid, 2071.

7 Cf., ibid., 2072.

8 Cf., VC, 36.

9 Cf., ibid., 37.

10 Cf., CCC, 787.

11 Cf., ibid., 2073.

12 Mt 5:48.

13 Mt 5:20.

14 Ibid., 2074.

15 Ibid.

16 Cf., ibid.; cf., Mk 9:33–50; 10:42–45.

17 Cf., ibid.

18 Cf., Jn chapters 13 & 15.

19 Cf., Jn 13:34.

20 Cf., Jn 17:18.

21 Cf., ABD, 2074.

22 Cf., 2Thess 3:7 and 3:9.

Author

Fra Alfonsus D. Panaligan, OFMConv., SThD
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