Thursday, June 20, 2013

Discipleship as a Journey

As a Christian, I’ve found that the “big” moments in my life are rarely the end of a chapter. Instead, they are almost always a beginning.

Last Saturday, I was attempting to express to our youth Confirmation class that I had very much enjoyed the journey we had been on together. The next day was Confirmation, and the eight of us—six teenagers and two adults—would likely never meet in the same capacity again. Over the preceding months, we had gotten together numerous times—mostly every other week—for a community-based, conversation-driven course of Confirmation preparation. We had been on an overnight retreat. We had shared prayer concerns. We had voiced deep questions about life and faith. We had really gotten to know each other, yet Confirmation itself was far less of an end than a beginning.

In this Sunday’s gospel lesson, Jesus heals a demoniac. In that passage, I’ve identified a number of things that confuse me. On Tuesday, I wrote about the community’s baffling reaction—that, when confronted by Jesus’ healing power, they push him away. Now, I’d like to turn to Jesus’ strange reaction to the man’s request to become a disciple—when asked by the man if he can follow, Jesus says no.

I think we’re supposed to wonder why Jesus wouldn’t let the man follow him. That he asked and was rejected is the kind of detail a gospel narrator would probably leave out if it weren’t important. It provides the kind of uncomfortable rub that gets my attention and probably for good reason. The man came to Jesus and “begged that he might be with him,” but Jesus said no.

It could be a racial issue. The man was a Gentile, and, although Jesus had welcomed an outcast tax collector to be one of his disciples, all twelve were Jewish.  Or it could be an evangelism issue. Instead of letting him follow, Jesus sends the man back to his home in order to “declare [to them] how much God has done for you.” The same people who were afraid of Jesus, it seems, needed another chance to digest what had happened. Maybe they were too afraid to hear it from Jesus, but the man himself—a familiar though once-estranged member of their community—would have more success. That’s part of it. But I also think it has something to do with the man and discipleship more generally.

Throughout this post and throughout this week, I’ve used the word “follow” to describe the man’s request of Jesus, but that’s not what the text says. Instead, the man “begged that he might be with him.” The Greek doesn’t use a more complicated word than the English rendition conveys. It’s as simple as that. The man asks merely to be with Jesus. But that’s not good enough, is it? Following and being with are different.

Everyone else is a follower of Jesus. In some cases, that is a literal, physical description. The crowd actually walks behind Jesus as he makes his way from one town to another. For others (like me), it is a description of a spiritual journey. My faith still involves movement, growth, exploration. If I said that, as a Christian, all we are called to do is “hang out” with Jesus, it might convey a positive sense of proximity, but it would miss the whole point of being shaped by the one whose company we keep. The man didn’t ask to be a disciple. He didn’t ask to journey behind Jesus. Maybe it’s splitting hairs, but I hear the man’s request as a destination rather than a starting point.

When we first know God’s saving power, we discover not an end but a beginning. When we emerge from the waters of Baptism, we accept a new calling. When we rise from our Confirmation, we take the first steps of a new journey. If we ask Jesus to let us remain with him, he will always say no. He sends us out or beckons us on. Jesus wasn’t telling the man that he couldn’t be a disciple. He wasn’t just saying no. He was saying yes but go.

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