Reflections on Discipleship

prayer-candlesMatthew 16:21–27 21 From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and suffer greatly from the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed and on the third day be raised. 22 Then Peter took him aside and began to rebuke him, “God forbid, Lord! No such thing shall ever happen to you.” 23 He turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are an obstacle to me. You are thinking not as God does, but as human beings do.” 24 Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me. 25 For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. 26 What profit would there be for one to gain the whole world and forfeit his life? Or what can one give in exchange for his life? 27 For the Son of Man will come with his angels in his Father’s glory, and then he will repay everyone according to his conduct. 28 Amen, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

Eugene Boring [The Gospel of Matthew in The New Interpreter’s Bible, 351-53] had a particularly good reflection following his treatment of our Gospel narrative. Rather than summarize it, it is perhaps best to simply let the author speak for himself.

The function of this scene is to make an important theological claim about Jesus: His death occurred as part of God’s plan of salvation. “While the narrative function of the three passion announcements is to prepare the disciples, their theological purpose is to assure the readers, first that Jesus’ violent death is not a meaningless accident of history hut is part of God’s plan, and, second, that Jesus was not a hapless victim but a knowing [and willing) partner in the divine strategy.” [here quoting Douglas Hare, Matthew, 232]

The Christian life called for is not a reflection of, let alone the baptism and blessing of, the egocentric culture, but its polar opposite. Self-denial is not part of our culture’s image of the “good life.” But neither is the Matthean Jesus’ call for denying oneself to be understood as asceticism or as self-hate. Just as Jesus’ call to discipleship is not a joining in the cultural infatuation with self-esteem, neither is it the opposite. Nor is the self-denial to which Jesus calls the opposite of self-fulfillment. Just giving up things will not make one Christian; it will only make one empty. What is difficult for our culture to understand, indeed what it cannot understand on its own terms, is an orientation to one’s life that is not focused on self at all, either as self-esteem or self-abasement, as self-fulfillment or self-emptying.

This call to discipleship is based on faith in Christ and confidence in the future victory of God; it is not a matter merely of high human ideals or noble principles. That is, the life called for here is not based on a reasoned conclusion about how things ate, inferred from observation or general principles, but on faith that something has happened that makes everything different. To believe in Jesus as the Christ and to live accordingly means to reorient one’s life toward the good news that God has acted decisively and ultimately in Jesus, not that Jesus has some good advice on how to Live (by what criteria could such advice he judged to be good?). The call to discipleship here expressed is based on the past and future revelatory act of God. The call to discipleship of vv. 24-26 is inseparably related to the confession in v. 16 and to the expectation in vv. 27-28, all bound together with Jesus’ self-proclamation as Son of Man in vv. 13 and 28. The christological confession of v 16 is not abstract doctrine about the “person” of Jesus, but is realized only as it leads to the life called for in vv. 24-26.

This call to discipleship is a matter of confession, which means declaring one’s faith in Jesus as the Christ, as God’s definitive act of revelation and salvation. The word used to mean “confession” (martyrion; Matt 8:4; 10:18; 24:14) also means “martyrdom,” in the sense of witness. The giving of one’s life is presented as an act of testimony to a truth bigger than oneself. Its result may be literal martyrdom, as had happened in Matthew’s church and in every generation since, and continues today. But it may also mean the daily giving of oneself away in commitment to Christ (so Luke 9:23 explicitly). While many readers of this commentary will no longer live in a situation such as Matthew’s in which the result of authentic Christian confession can be literal martyrdom, the call to give one’s life as a testimony to the truth of the gospel is no less real. Orientation toward God, revealed in Christ as the Lord of one’s life, rather than idolatrous self-orientation, is the decisive, crucial difference.

This call to discipleship is a matter of community. This is not an individualistic ethic of the solitary “I,” but is the ethic of the community of disciples that confesses Jesus to be the Christ and lives toward the full coming of the kingdom of God for which it prays, accompanied by the presence of Christ during its time of mission.

The meaning of discipleship is learned along the way. The disciples in this story have been disciples for some time, called personally by Jesus (4:18-22; 9:9; 10:2-4), sent by him to preach and heal (10:5-8). They now learn the meaning and cost of discipleship, which cannot be explained in advance but must be learned en route. Many sensitive Christians may have wondered about the integrity of their own Christian life, since they “didn’t know what they were doing” when they “joined the church.” Neither did the Matthean disciples, who only learn in 16:21-28 what following Christ means, and who will yet falter and fail before the story is over. There is encouragement here for Christians who are concerned about past lapses (with more sure to come) and who are sure they do not understand as much as they should about the Christian life, just as there is warning for Christians who are sure that they do understand and have no need to change their present conceptions of the way things are.

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