The shocking call to discipleship
by Colin Duthie, first published in Compass, Spring 1997
Among the most threatening words in the Bible for me are those of Jesus in John 20:21, “As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.” The fact of the commission is clear. The scary bit comes from reflecting on the underlying question, “How did the Father send Jesus?” Herein lies the most compelling reason for us as communities and church groups to choose against discipleship. To imitate Jesus in his living and ministry style violates everything that our natural instincts tell us is necessary for survival, let alone success, in contemporary society.
‘As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’
— The Lord Jesus
Let’s begin our meditation by considering the most succinct statement of the Incarnation we have (from John 1:14), “The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us.” “The Word became flesh” is an offensive statement to normal religious belief twice over. First, because of the impossibility that the one who spoke the world into being should become part of the creation. Our familiarity with this (for those of us who have been around church for a while) blinkers us to its absurdity.
Second, while we are reeling from this revelation, another stuns us to silence. What was God as a human being going to be like? What manner of life would he lead? What kind of legacy would he leave behind? How would human society contain him? Nothing would prepare us for the truth if we did not know it—raised a peasant, misunderstood by family, friends and public alike, given to apparently foolish and reckless acts of compassion and solidarity with society’s rejects, living at enmity with the leaders of his own religion, and ending up naked, executed as a criminal by a foreign regime. After all this, unbelievably, the resurrection (the only possible godly conclusion) remained largely obscured from public view.
A worldly understanding of God moves us to reject the very picture of God that Jesus gives us. We have become familiar with a God-King who sits on his throne in heaven, personally immune from the pain that is part of life for the subjects of his Kingdom. With this view of God, for example, we read the story of Job as if God and Satan are playing a board game. Job and his community are the pieces that are moved around. We have a similar response to our own suffering: we imagine God as a clinical counsellor or distant friend rather than a Companion Griever, bent over with our pain.
We cannot cope with a wandering Jewish sage as the “exact representation of his being” (Hebrews 1:3). Our culturally-conditioned theology numbs us to the profundity of a vulnerable God, and insists that this was, at best, a “strategy” to achieve the end of salvation. How could God be like this? An incarnated, suffering God is offensive to us, even though we love to quote the poem in Philippians Two at our gatherings.
As individuals and as groups, we have too much at stake to have the “same attitude” (Philippians 2) as Christ. We want to be in control of our destinies. We much prefer the world’s offer of (illusory) security through financial investments and sticking with consensus. As for ministry involvement, give us prominence, numbers, success, power, real estate, technology, and friends in high places any day.
I wonder which distortion comes first, the view of God as immune from suffering, or our image of ministry as power play? Either way they feed off each other. Christian service as isolation from the ordinary, often “messy” bits of human life necessarily imputes to God an image of control, power and rigidity. Once this becomes gospel, our preferred mode of living is justified and the cycle continues.
To the second part of John 1:14 “. . . and lived for a while among us.” If the key word for the first part of the verse is identification, then the key idea here is accessibility. No longer is there any excuse to misunderstand who God is, and what he is like.
Accessibility means many things, among them relevance and closeness (or availability). For God, the act of incarnation was an aggressive one—it had to be, it necessitated denial of his natural state. Yet his posture, once among us, was almost unobtrusive. He sought out the least powerful among us. He chose ordinariness as a pattern of life. But he left behind the aroma of the Living God.
This is incarnational ministry. It is the way of life Jesus has given us. It is discipleship. In our stronger moments we love to talk about it, even write about it, but when I turn my computer off, my heart beats fast with apprehension at the thought of living it.
Incarnational ministry is fundamentally about being among people as God’s voice and hands. It is about our churches and communities belonging as prophetic, yet healing, insiders in the towns, suburbs and networks in which we exist. It is not about evangelistically-motivated [assaults] into the world. It is not about methodology or agenda-driven programs. It is living the Gospel in the ordinary routines of individual and corporate life because that is who we are—followers of Jesus. It is choosing a lifestyle that puts us among people, identifying with them and consequently making the Gospel accessible to them.
This is what Jesus did for us. For him it meant denial of his natural self and shocking humility. “As the Father sent me, I am sending you.” Yes, Jesus’ words frighten me.