Hebrews 12:1-2. Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
What does it mean to follow Jesus Christ today? I want to address three aspects that are pertinent to the concept of discipleship in our times: the need to address injustice in the world as indispensable to discipleship, the relevance for discipleship of our access to the historical Jesus, and the necessity of deconstruction of self as the beginning and continuation of true discipleship. We can call them the horizontal, ecumenical, and self-reflective dimensions of discipleship.
1. Our world has grown extremely complex. Each human being is part of multiple communities, interest groups, structures of existence that vie for our allegiance or simply leave us no choice for self-determination. One way or another we are wrapped up and unconsciously implicit in practices that perpetuate injustice. Irrespective of our own personal ethical choices, we are inextricably linked to institutionalized evil if only for the mere fact that we, as human individuals, are part of the human race. How are we to understand the nature of discipleship in the midst of this? What is our responsibility? Does it mean to interpret the exhortation to fix “our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” as a command to ignore the world and concentrate on “my personal Jesus” who in good faith and due time will snatch me away from this evil planet?
Such vertical escapism needs to be denounced in the strongest possible terms. Discipleship is always discipleship in the world, never away from it. Discipleship is per definition related to the other. If discipleship denotes emulating Jesus Christ, and if Jesus Christ represents the new humanity, then discipleship means embodying that new humanity. Human existence is communal existence and therefore communality is transformed and renewed in the new humanity of Jesus Christ. This can never mean a Church that shies away from the world for reasons of ethical purity, for the very essence of its ethical goal is to be new humanity, to be new community. At the heart of this new communal existence stands the cross, the emblem of self-giving to the other, whether friend or foe. This means addressing injustice wherever we find it in this world and becoming agents for change at whatever cost. We can call this the horizontal dimension.
2. In evangelicalism there is an implicit connection between the emphasis on Scripture and the positivistic assertion of access to the historical Christ on the one hand and discipleship on the other. Indeed it is true, it is the Christ of history that addresses us through Scripture and calls us to follow him. But there is a reductionistic danger in that believers may think that such an approach to Scripture or such foundationalist theology is the sole guarantee of access to the true Jesus, that somehow evangelicals have the monopoly on Jesus, or that somehow their theological output automatically renders the one and true Christ. This is the ecumenical dimension of discipleship.
We should realize that our encounter with the historical Christ is mediated through Scripture and that our encounter with Scripture is mediated through our hermeneutics which in turn functions as a mere building block for a constructive theology of our own making. It is wrong to think that evangelical foundationalism (or any theological method for that matter) has the monopoly on the real Jesus. Other people are also in the business of listening to Jesus. They may be Roman Catholics, liberals, liberation theologians of various kinds, but what unites them is the desire to address the call of Jesus to discipleship in a plurality of contexts. They picture themselves sitting at Jesus’ feet and consider themselves his disciples. I find it remarkable, for instance, how Bonhoeffer, who is adored by many evangelicals as a great example of discipleship and martyrdom, arrived at his radical lifestyle through a liberal paradigm. Ironically it is the liberal Bonhoeffer who is one of evangelicalism’s most celebrated heroes!
3. The One we call Jesus is always partly the product of our own imagination, shaped in our image. It is so easy for us to reduce the challenge of Jesus Christ to merely one aspect of our existence. For some this turns into the call for justice or equality, for others to private ethical existence. To the extent that we narrow the call to discipleship to merely one part of our existence, we betray the very Christ we claim to follow. As an evangelical I am deeply concerned about evangelicalism’s preference for a Jesus who merely resides in the Christian’s heart. Inner motives are judges, the ethical boundaries of the ecclesial community are held in high esteem, but nothing really changes. Discipleship is prone to be reduced to something that is utterly detached from a world in which human trafficking, violence, ecological destruction, and economic oppression continue unhampered. It is de-incarnated discipleship.
We need to realize that the encounter with Christ must be an existential encounter. Christ is the Other over against us. He is not merely the hermeneutically sanitized Christ of our own constructive theologies. We cannot get around the mediated forms, but if Christ is real he will break through these layers and address us. The real Christ will speak to the real me with all of its shortcomings. Postmodern deconstruction is not a new fad. It has happened throughout history whenever women and men were encountered by the living God; when they were addressed in their existential situation and found themselves exposed to the truth of God. As such discipleship is perpetually self-reflective. Discipleship means deconstruction: what we are, is exposed for what it is so that a new construction may begin that conforms us to Christ who is our role model. Throwing “off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles”, then, becomes the transformation that is divinely required in my particular context. Motivations are judged; blind spots are exposed; secrets are brought to light; transformation happens; relationships are renewed; the self-giving begins.
These three aspects, then, I think to be most relevant in our current situation. So much change has to take place in the way we think about our relationship to the world, our ideas about how we have access to Christ, and the way Christ addresses us, before we can begin to understand what it means to follow Jesus Christ today. And the need to do so is urgent simply because we have been called to be disciples of Jesus Christ.