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Sermon Summary: A renewed understanding of discipleship

One of the areas where the Spirit is renewing GCI’s understanding and ministry practice is that of discipleship. We see him leading us to embrace an approach to discipling others (disciple-making) that emphasizes the hope and healing that is ours because of Jesus’ faithfulness, not our own. This approach is helpfully examined by Wesley Hill in a Christianity Today article titled “How I Found Healing for My Spiritual Blindness.” Hill describes how his understanding of discipleship was renewed by an in-depth study of the Gospel of Mark. His article would make a good outline for a sermon on this topic. Here are excerpts from the article:

I was hungry for instruction—guidance in how to go about deepening and enriching my faith. I wanted to grow, to change…. I read books and attended seminars that promised things like “seven steps to freedom”…. I followed these steps [but] predictably, my zeal foundered… Was this guilt-inducing cycle really what Christians meant by “discipleship”?

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A few years after… I discovered the Gospel of Mark… [and] began to grapple with Mark’s distinctively dark spirituality and his portrayal of Jesus’ disciples, in the designation of E. S. Malbon, as “fallible followers”….

One of the first things that stands out [in Mark] is his bleak view of the disciples…. When Jesus stills the storm, for example, and the disciples cower in fear for their lives, he rounds on them: “Why are you so afraid? Do you still have no faith?” (Mark 4:40)…. Taken literally, Jesus’ words imply that the disciples are not yet believers! As if that weren’t enough of a sting, Jesus soon thereafter accuses Peter of channeling the Devil’s point of view (Mark 8:31–33). After Jesus predicts his death and resurrection, Peter chides him, and Jesus fires back, “Get behind me, Satan! You do not have in mind the concerns of God, but merely human concerns” (Mark 8:33).

Later, at the Transfiguration, Peter reveals his earthly-mindedness when he offers to build some tents for his luminescent Lord, and Moses and Elijah who are with him, foolishly hoping to freeze-frame this glimpse into Jesus’ kingdom (Mark 9:5). And once they’ve descended from the mountain, Jesus’ disciples are almost immediately found arguing with one another about which one of them is greatest (Mark 9:34). Their debate comes right on the heels of Jesus’ insistence that he will soon lose his life at the hands of his enemies (Mark 9:31). Two more different scenes can hardly be imagined, but Mark jams them together in an especially painful juxtaposition.

Maybe the most telling moment in Mark’s dark portrait of the disciples comes when they are with Jesus in a boat on the Sea of Galilee (Mark 8:14–21). Earlier that day, they had seen him provide an abundance of food for a hungry crowd (Mark 8:1–10, repeating a similar miracle from Mark 6:34–44). In other words, they had seen proof positive of Jesus’ compassion and care. But, as if that proof had never appeared, they scold one another for failing to remember to stash some bread on board. Overhearing them, Jesus asks, incredulous, “Why are you talking about having no bread? Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? And don’t you remember?” (Mark 8:17–18)….

It is not just Israel as a whole who has hardened hearts and blinded eyes: it is Jesus’ inner circle, his closest confidantes, his chosen few…. Mark goes out of his way to portray the disciples as clumsy, self-absorbed, and insensitive to the Spirit. They can’t see Jesus for who he really is. They may have eyes, but they’re no better than sightless glass. Their hearts are as lively as cold stone.

Odd as it may sound, as a frustrated young Christian, disappointed with my efforts at spiritual self-improvement, I found comfort in Mark’s dark view of the disciples. Looking back on my quest for the right formula for holy living, I remember being unsure what to make of Bible verses that promised, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin” (1 John 3:9), and, “[T]hough you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart” (Romans 6:17). I had no trouble, though, identifying with Mark’s disciples: sometimes eager, often failing, occasionally getting things right and demonstrating faithfulness, but more regularly getting things wrong and showing infidelity. The disciples in Mark’s gospel are not so much paragons of sainthood as they are examples of the full range of human fallibility. Mark shuts the door on the naïve notion that Jesus came simply—in the words of theologian Robert Farrar Capon—to teach the teachable or improve the improvable. And that meant I could stop trying to drum up teachability or improvability on my own….

Jesus didn’t come to improve the improvable, he came to do something better: to heal the sick and to raise the dead. That’s where Mark’s portrayal of Jesus’ disciples ends—with a ray of light shining into the disciples’ darkness from the outside.

Immediately following Jesus’ blunt question, “Are your hearts hardened?” (Mark 8:17) comes a glimmer of hope. Having just finished castigating his disciples, Jesus meets a blind man (Mark 8:22). He gently leads the man away from the crowds, spits on his eyes, and touches him. “Do you see anything?” he asks. “I see people,” the man answers. “They look like trees walking around” (Mark 8:23–24). The man is healed, but not yet fully. So Jesus touches his eyes one more time, and Mark tells us that the man’s “eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (Mark 8:25).

It was a profound moment [when I understood]… that this was a parable of what Jesus planned to do with his disciples’ spiritual blindness. You can see this by noticing where Mark places this story. Immediately following the account of the blind man’s healing comes the story of Peter’s confession of Jesus as the Christ. “Who do you say that I am?” Jesus asks pointedly, and Peter gives the right answer: “You are the Messiah” (Mark 8:29). But it is an answer that apparently lacks full understanding because Jesus responds by urging Peter to keep it secret (Mark 8:30). Like the blind man who sees the blurry shapes of walking trees, Peter can see—but he can’t yet fully see.

Not content to leave Peter there, however, Jesus goes on to say that “the Son of Man must suffer many things and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and after three days rise again” (Mark 8:31). In the face of Peter’s misunderstanding, Jesus proclaims his true identity: “Yes, Peter,” he seems to say, “you’re part of the way there. I am indeed the Messiah. But you can’t see me fully and truly until you see me as the suffering, crucified Messiah.” By placing this cruciform message alongside Jesus healing the blind man, Mark intended to show his readers that Jesus would take his disciples by the hand, anoint the eyes of their hearts, and heal their spiritual sight—by dying for them (Mark 10:45).

Peter and the other disciples, with their misinterpretations of who Jesus really was, are like the partially healed blind man looking at blurry images and unable to see anything clearly. But Jesus would touch them again, and his death would restore their eyesight fully and finally. And with that, as the New Testament scholar Todd Brewer has put it, the Gospel of Mark “reframes discipleship not on the conditional basis of one’s personal faithfulness to Jesus’ commands but upon Jesus’ own unconditional promise.” What matters, in the end, is Jesus is determined to heal.

It’s no surprise that Mark’s gospel ends with a promise of sight. When three women show up on Easter morning to find Jesus’ tomb empty, a young man wearing a white robe says to them, “See the place where they laid him” (Mark 16:6). Furthermore, he gives them a guarantee: “[Jesus] is going ahead of you into Galilee” (Mark 16:7). At the very end of the Gospel, the real nature of discipleship comes into clear focus for the first time. It doesn’t have to do with what Jesus’ followers will achieve for him but everything to do with what he has done and will do for them.

Following Jesus isn’t ultimately a matter of figuring out the right steps and straining my spiritual muscles until I can keep up with his demands. Nor is it about drumming up some extra spiritual powers to try to inoculate myself against hard-heartedness. Rather, discipleship means trusting in the one who can open blind eyes and soften hard hearts. It means trusting the one who went to the cross to do exactly that—the one who goes ahead of us still.

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