Christian Discipleship: An Introduction

In moments of cultural unrest and political crisis, identities become confused. I find it helpful in such times to review the basics of what it is to be Christian.

To be Christian is to identify with the cross of Christ, knowing that this secures to us eternal life now and in the future.

When we are baptized, we publicly identify with the death of Christ. His shameful death is ours; his surrender of his rights is ours; his being socially ostracized is ours; his refusal to retaliate or lash out verbally is ours; his love for enemies is ours; his praying for his persecutors is ours; his rejection of grasping after power is ours; his giving up control of the course of history is ours.

To begin as a Christian disciple, then, is to publicly surrender our rights, privileges, symbols of social status and the desire to control the course of history. It is to cast our lots with the coming kingdom of God rather than any earthly nation.

Much of Christian discipleship is the life-long discovery of just what we gave up when we considered everything loss in order to gain Christ.

In times of cultural unrest, when anxieties are enflamed, it may seem best to assert our rights, to fight our enemies, to grasp after power so that we might determine the course of history and to control national events.

Christians must see in this the temptation to give up our Christian discipleship, to get off the cross, to cut ourselves off from Christ.

And this would be a tragic mistake, for only those who identify with the death of Christ are guaranteed the hope of eternal life. Only those who surrender earthly rights will receive a heavenly kingdom. Only those who lose their lives will live.


Now, identification with the cross does not mean doing nothing. We are baptized into a new people, and we enter into wholly new social behaviors such as loving and serving others. We welcome strangers and those with no social capital and we treat them as equals and honored guests. Christians provide hospitality to others by feeding and clothing them and helping the homeless to find sustainable housing.

Consistent through the Scriptures of Israel, the teaching of Jesus, the apostles and New Testament writers, God calls Christian communities to do these things especially to those whom the majority culture demonizes.

These are all unusual behaviors. They are not the norm.

But Christians behave this way so that the God who loves his enemies will be truly seen in this world. Christians behave this way to make manifest that they truly belong to a coming kingdom. Christians behave this way because they follow a king who rules from a cross, who sits on his throne as a slaughtered lamb. And Christians behave this way because they believe that when they do, the Lord Jesus Christ and the God who sent him most effectively dwells among them.

In a time of cultural upheaval and enflamed anxieties, it may seem best to close our doors, to demonize others, to hate our enemies, to retaliate, to lash out verbally, to refuse hospitality to strangers and to deny refugees the basic care they need. It may seem to make sense to adopt the hopes and hatreds of the majority culture.

Christians must see in this the temptation to cease our Christian discipleship, to no longer be the radically alternative community ruled by Jesus, to see Jesus’ commands as burdensome, inconvenient, dispensable and undesirable.

Giving in to this temptation is to go the way of the world and to testify that we do not believe in a coming kingdom. It is to grasp after our lives now because we do not believe in the promise that by losing them now we will gain them later.

Christian discipleship is not the denial of politics. It is the rejection of the politics of power, quests for control and anger, and the cultivation of a cross-shaped politics of weakness, welcome and joy.

Refugees, the Church & Security

One would think that churches would be clamoring to welcome and support Syrian refugees in the midst of the current international crisis. After all, providing hospitality for these people would mean more of Jesus and more of God among us. Jesus said that when churches welcome those who have nothing, they welcome Jesus himself and enjoy God’s presence (Mark 9:35-37).

Perhaps one factor that keeps us from doing what Jesus says is the felt need for security. “What if some of these refugees are terrorists? What if they are coming into this country to kill us? Isn’t this what happened in San Bernardino?”

These kinds of discussions are not appropriate for the church.

I am not saying that security is insignificant. Just that safety and security are concerns of governments. Service, hospitality, loving and welcoming strangers are the tasks of the church. The church is a distinct entity from any state or nation and it cannot be concerned with security, self-protection and self-preservation.

Jesus stresses this at several points in Mark’s Gospel.


In the parable of the sower (Mark 4:1-20), Jesus speaks of the word that goes out and finds different kinds of responses. This is the announcement of the cross-shaped kingdom that is led by a cross-directed Messiah and calls disciples to pick up their crosses and to lose their lives.

Some of this seed falls among thorns that grow up and choke it (vv. 7, 19). Explaining this image, Jesus says that “the worries of this age, the deceitfulness of wealth, and desires concerning other things enter in and choke the word, and it becomes unfruitful.”

Unfortunately, many English versions translate merimnai tou aiōnos in v. 19 to refer to the “cares of this life,” calling to mind daily hassles faced by individuals. But merimnai are “worries, anxieties, cares” and aiōnos is “the age”—“this present age,” as opposed to “the coming age.” The expression could also be translated as “cares for this age,” referring to the concern to guarantee the present social order, or the preservation of “our way of life.”

Among the “anxieties of the age” are self-preservation, self-protection, concerns about all that we will lose if we respond to Jesus’ call to become Kingdom-oriented communities.

These anxieties – these worries and concerns that have their origin in this age – will choke the word. A community that nurtures impulses for self-protection and self-preservation will not bear kingdom fruit.

There is too much to lose. The cost is too high.

Perhaps this is what Jesus means by “the deceitfulness of wealth.” We imagine that we can secure our possessions if we hold on to them, especially our lives and our security. But Jesus says that if we seek to secure our possessions and our lives, we will lose them.

Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul (Mark 8:34-36)?

Jesus calls the church to welcome the needy, serving and loving them. This may cost our lives, but we must remain faithful to what Jesus says at the cost of our personal safety, since following his call guarantees our safe and joyful arrival in the world to come.

The cross shapes the identity of the church, which is a people who have surrendered their rights to their lives and possessions at the start. If we begin to clutch at our possessions and worry about self-preservation and security, we risk becoming communities that do not bear Kingdom fruit. We risk surrendering our place in the world to come.

In Mark’s Gospel, Jesus calls the church to a radical form of community life that is at odds with this present age and its values. Counter-cultural communities that embody Kingdom life serve the needy and provide hospitality for the socially marginalized. Having surrendered all rights to our lives by becoming disciples, we cannot begin to speak of safety and security.

Falwell, Muslims & the Offense of the Cross

Jerry Falwell, Jr., president of Liberty University, an evangelical Christian institution, ignited a firestorm in his comments about carrying guns and killing Muslims:

“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits, then we could end those Muslims before they walked in,” he says, the rest of his sentence drowned out by loud applause while he said, “and killed them.”

“I just wanted to take this opportunity to encourage all of you to get your permit. We offer a free course,” he said. “Let’s teach them a lesson if they ever show up here.”

Some Christians may feel that comments like these are acceptable. Others who wouldn’t say such things aloud may share the sentiment.

We see a world in chaos. We see mass murder and violence. We hear of plans for domination in the name of Islam and our fears are ignited. We grow suspicious of others and can only think of protecting ourselves.

In such times, talk about forgiveness seems irresponsible. Loving and praying for enemies sounds foolish.


I would argue that it is unacceptable for Christians to speak as Jerry Falwell, Jr. did. Put more strongly, this is an instance of a Christian being offended by the cross.

And this shouldn’t surprise us. While we may think that the cross is an offense to an unbelieving world, in Scripture the cross is an offense to the people of God.

In the first century God’s people were under the thumb of foreign oppressors. They were mistreated. The presence of Roman soldiers in Israel and Jerusalem was a daily reminder of the nation’s existential crisis.

They wanted Rome out. They were tired of being kicked around and wanted vengeance. They cried out for justice, God’s justice, and they longed for salvation, which they understood as the purifying of God’s land of their pagan oppressors and the liberation of God’s people. Their songs of praise envisioned freedom from enemies and from fear (Luke 1).

When Jesus arrived on the scene, they were primed for a militaristic Messiah who would rally the nation, take up the cause of liberation and bring about a glorious triumph. They longed for someone in the image of their most recent nationalistic hero, Judas Maccabeus (John 6:15).

Into this situation of unrest, Jesus came as a cross-shaped Messiah to form a cross-oriented kingdom. He preached repentance from quests for revenge on Rome and called God’s people to forgive their enemies and to pray for the ones persecuting them (Matt. 5:44).

This wasn’t a popular message.

He told his hometown that God’s long-expected salvation had arrived, which thrilled them (Luke 4:14-22)! But then he said that this salvation would include Syrians and other ethnic groups they had come to despise (vv. 23-27).

They were offended and tried to kill him (vv. 28-29).

He told his disciples that he was headed to Jerusalem to die on a cross (Mark 8:31-32) and called on his followers to take up their crosses and follow him (vv. 34-35).

Peter had had enough. What script is Jesus reading from!? How is any of this going to work!?

Is he serious about “taking up the cross,” the central symbol of violent Roman oppression of our people? Crucifixion was Rome’s method of terrorizing the imaginations of a conquered people. Jewish bodies displayed on crosses served as billboards, crushing hopes for freedom and warning against insurrection.

Peter was offended by the cross and began to rebuke Jesus (Mark 8:32). “Are you insane!? Do you have any idea that this is the worst possible way to liberate God’s people? How is this going to solve the pressing problem of our people being terrorized!?”

For Jesus’ disciples to go the way of the cross meant embracing God’s upside-down way of working, crucifying their desires for vengeance and retaliation. They were to form communities of hospitality and care for one another and others (including their enemies) while giving up guarantees of personal safety and learning to see all things through a cross-shaped lens, even during times of cultural upheaval.

The gospel reveals that God accomplishes his purposes through the cross, which is “foolishness” in terms of this world’s way of doing things. It is a scandal to God’s people because it calls for the crucifixion of all other loyalties. It crucifies us to the world (Gal. 6:14), including our hopes, longings, prejudices, assumptions, fears, our desires to determine the course of events and for security. It demands absolute allegiance.

God’s way of working is a scandal and it was God’s people who were scandalized (1 Cor. 1:23).

The same impulses that led to God’s people being offended are the ones that shaped Jerry Falwell, Jr.’s comments about Muslims.

Just let them come on our campus. We would “end those Muslims!” Looking at “those people” through the lens of the cross is out of the question. What good would it do? They want to kill us!

The cross is not a personal and private matter between me and God. The cross determines everything for God’s people. It claims our bodies, our communities, our loves and longings, and secures an eternal future for those who cling to it.

As in Jesus’ day, some who identify as God’s people are offended by the cross. It seems an impossible option in an intense cultural climate of unrest.

The Church, Refugees & Jesus’ Love

Christians often speak of “showing others Jesus’ love,” or perhaps “demonstrating the love of Jesus to others.” We may speak this way with reference to the poor, those in need or others whom we are serving. When we take the initiative to do good to those in need, we are extending Jesus’ love to them.

It may be surprising to learn that these common expressions are not biblical ways of talking. And while it may not appear too sinister, such talk actually reveals a corrupted imagination with reference to Christian action and the love of Jesus. Talking about “showing others Jesus’ love” perverts the character of Christian service and reveals a misunderstanding of God’s love and presence.

It seems to me that this sort of confusion partly is responsible for the tragically anemic response of American Christian churches to the current international refugee crisis.

I say this because to talk this way is to imagine that we are the possessors of Jesus’ love. We have it and it is up to us to dispense it to others. This puts us in positions of power and control. We are patrons and others are needy clients. We occupy a superior position to others and it leaves the choice with us as to whether the situation merits “demonstrating God’s love.”

Jesus turns this assumption on its head when he speaks of service.

Sitting down, Jesus called the twelve and said, “Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all.” He took a little child whom he placed among them. Taking the child in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever welcomes one of these little children in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me does not welcome me but the one who sent me” (Mark 9:35-37).

When disciples serve by providing hospitality and care for those with no social status (in this instance, children), they are not showing Jesus’ love. The biblical logic works in reverse. When disciples provide hospitality to people who don’t matter in the eyes of the world, they provide hospitality for Jesus. They encounter and serve Jesus and God when they serve others.

Christ Blessing the Children

The same logic runs through Matthew 25:31-46, in which Jesus tells the parable of the sheep and the goats. Those who served the socially marginalized and needy were actually serving Jesus. Those who did not serve these people withheld service from Jesus and were headed for judgment.

John 12:26 makes the same point. Jesus says, “Whoever serves me must follow me; and where I am, my servant also will be. My Father will honor the one who serves me.”

Where do we find Jesus so that we may know where his servants should be? Throughout the Gospels Jesus is with all the wrong kinds of people according to those who were very assured of their insider status with the God of Israel. The Pharisees imagined that they possessed God’s love and they withheld it from the unclean, from traitorous tax-collectors and other sinners. They were enraged when they found Jesus touching unclean people and providing hospitality for tax-collectors and sinners.

We find him entering a house in Tyre and healing a Syrian-Phoenician woman’s demon-possessed daughter. Mark exploits this episode to reveal and subvert the ethnic prejudices of his audiences in Mark 7.

Welcoming and providing hospitality and care for the needy, and in this case refugees, is not an option for the church. We should imagine this situation from both a hopeful perspective and a severe one. Hope, because serving others contains the promise that we will experience more of the life-giving presence of Jesus. Severity, because if we are presumptuous of our possession of God’s love and complacent regarding service to others, we risk having no connection to Jesus.

Rather than speaking of showing God’s love to others, we should talk about opportunities to encounter God’s presence and enjoy Jesus’ love. This happens when we put ourselves into uncomfortable situations and serve the needy. When we do this, we are the ones being blessed because in those acts of service we encounter Jesus and his life-sustaining presence.

God Abandons Corrupt Institutions


I’ve been enjoying David Garland’s excellent new work, A Theology of Mark’s Gospel, especially his treatment of Mark 13. This paragraph sums up the relevance of the chapter brilliantly:

Contemporary readers should learn from this historical disaster of the temple’s destruction that they should not be blind to the corruption of their own sacred religious institutions and think that they are immune to God’s wrath. Christians of any era can be deceived by appearances and fooled by the great stones of modern edifices that project the illusion of the invulnerability of a nation or of a hallowed organization or cause. They must not be deceived by appearances and also must be ready to read the signs and dissociate themselves from false ideologies even when they are attached to sacred institutions (p. 527).

Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem, Francesco Hayez

How easy is it to presume God’s loyalty to a nation, church, denomination, Christian school, mission organization?

God abandoned and judged the one institution that had more of a claim to his protection than any other in history. How wary ought we to be of the institutions and causes that elicit our loyalty, asking us to give them the benefit of the doubt?


Refugees & the God of Israel

The God of Israel was intensely concerned that the nation treat foreigners, including immigrants and refugees, with justice, compassion and love. Israel’s Scriptures reflect this concern throughout.

Fundamental to Israel’s identity was that they were an alien people who were badly mistreated. They were refugees who had been settled in the land by God. This identity shaped Israel’s vision of God and the outrageous grace and mercy he showed to them.

They were always to remember that the God of Israel is unlike anyone else, upsetting all expectations. He chooses the younger over the older, a nation of slaves and refugees over the empires of the world. Because God is the sort of God who commits himself to a nation of slaves and settles them graciously in the land, God repeatedly commanded Israel to love and welcome foreigners.

Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt. Do not take advantage of the widow or the fatherless. If you do and they cry out to me, I will certainly hear their cry. My anger will be aroused, and I will kill you with the sword; your wives will become widows and your children fatherless (Exodus 22:21-24).

“When a foreigner resides among you in your land, do not mistreat them. The foreigner residing among you must be treated as your native-born. Love them as yourself, for you were foreigners in Egypt. I am the Lord your God (Leviticus 19:33-34).

Moses Receives the Law

Deuteronomy 26, a passage that is central to the faith of Israel and the theology of Israel’s Scriptures, makes this same connection. When Israel came to worship, they were to repeat their history, reminding themselves of their identity as mistreated aliens, of God’s rescue and care for them and God’s provision for their needs.

This passage also connects Israel’s worship with their providing for the needs of the Levites, the priestly tribe that didn’t have resources to sustain themselves. They were also to look after foreigners, orphans and widows, groups that were deprived of the natural care provided by extended families and a well-established system of social connections.

Then you shall declare before the Lord your God: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down into Egypt with a few people and lived there as an alien and became a great nation, powerful and numerous. But the Egyptians mistreated us and made us suffer, subjecting us to harsh labor. Then we cried out to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our voice and saw our misery, toil and oppression. So the Lord brought us out of Egypt with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm, with great terror and with signs and wonders. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey; and now I bring the firstfruits of the soil that you, Lord, have given me.” Place the basket before the Lord your God and bow down before him. Then you and the Levites and the foreigners residing among you shall rejoice in all the good things the Lord your God has given to you and your household. When you have finished setting aside a tenth of all your produce in the third year, the year of the tithe, you shall give it to the Levite, the foreigner, the fatherless and the widow, so that they may eat in your towns and be satisfied (Deut. 26:5-12).

Israel’s worship was vitally connected to their daily care for refugees and immigrants. God called Israel to embody his intense love for foreigners by providing them with care, feeding and welcoming them, loving them as brothers and sisters.

Now, America is not Israel and the church of Jesus Christ is not Israel. But the God who rescued and redeemed an enslaved nation of aliens has not changed. God wanted Israel to be a model for how the nations could walk in the ways of Israel’s God. Israel’s neighbors weren’t supposed to become Israelites, but they were supposed to consult Israel’s Torah and observe Israel’s practices to determine how to treat one another and others under the reign of the one true God.

These texts from Israel’s Torah, therefore, must shape Christian reflection, speech and action regarding our contemporary refugee crisis. God’s intentions for Israel are a model for the church’s response, which should include advocacy and care for refugees.

At the very least, we can say that there is something dramatically wrong when people who claim to know Israel’s God demonize foreigners, stir up suspicion of refugees and call for them to be shut out.

Refugees & the Church

Early this morning I read this article in today’s NY Times about Syrian refugees who have been settled in Michigan. After having experienced relief and being grateful for safety and some measure of security, many in this Michigan community are becoming fearful in the wake of growing anti-refugee sentiment and the reactionary rhetoric from public figures.

After our church service, we heard a powerful presentation from one of our church members who works with Bethany Christian Services to settle refugees here in West Michigan. It was exciting to hear the enthusiastic response of many in our congregation who want to get involved in providing hospitality and relief to traumatized people fleeing war-torn places.

The Hospitality of Abraham

It’s difficult for anyone to ignore the present international refugee crisis. Because I’m in the midst of studying Mark’s Gospel, I’ve been processing what I’m hearing through the lenses of the cross, commands to provide hospitality to the socially ostracized and marginalized, and Jesus’ teaching on service. I’m also nearly finished with John Barclay’s marvelous book, Paul & the Gift, which offers a compelling vision of the church as a social body that instantiates the incongruous grace of God. Because God’s grace is given without regard to worth–to the “ungodly”–the church always must struggle to identify its antipathies to those it deems “ungodly” or “unworthy” of God’s kindness and embrace others, even (especially!) those it considers threatening.

Because these are such pervasive themes in Scripture and since the implications of the cross are so extensive with regard to this pressing contemporary issue, I may roll out some thoughts over the next few weeks regarding biblical resources for Christian thinking about refugees. This crisis presents a wonderful opportunity for Christians to think and speak from their fundamental identity as Christians, rather than from earthly loyalties.

The icon above, by the way, is “The Hospitality of Abraham.” “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it” (Heb. 13:2).

Worldliness & the Social Scandal of the Cross

One of the many benefits of John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift is the manner in which he captures how for Paul the effects of the cross are seen in the social ordering of churches.

The cross is a world-shattering and world-creating event, refashioning the cosmos, effecting a new creation. This cosmic upheaval brings about a radically new social order among those communities that claim loyalty to Jesus Christ.

978-0-8028-6889-3_Barclay_Paul and the Gift_jkt.indd

Speaking for all those in Christ, Paul says that “the world has been crucified to me and I to the world” (Gal. 6:14), creating a community in which ethnic distinctions no longer determine social capital (v. 15).

This is why Paul reacts so strongly to communities that are still ordered socially according to worldly valuations such as gender hierarchies and claims to ethnic and racial priority that privilege one group over another. These hierarchies belong to the world that has been put to death in the death of Christ (Gal. 6:14), and if they continue to shape Christian communities, then those communities are inherently worldly.

Such communities manifest a cosmic reality in which “Christ died for nothing!” (Gal. 2:21, NIV). Such churches proclaim the death of Christ as impotent to bring about the reality that Paul’s gospel declares.

The cross is not a private reality. The cross is public and political because it calls into being a visible community that enacts in its transformative social practices the gift given without any consideration of worldly measures of worth.

This is the scandal of the cross.

The Cross Shatters All Norms

I am thoroughly enjoying John Barclay’s Paul and the Gift. He has developed a unique vocabulary and grammar to articulate the shape of Paul’s theology.

Barclay, Paul and the Gift

It’s simply beautiful to read and I find myself re-reading and savoring many of his paragraphs. In his discussion of Galatians 6:11-16, he powerfully captures Paul’s argument regarding the power of the cross:

The cross of Christ shatters every ordered system of norms, however embedded in the seemingly “natural” order of “the world” (cf. 4:3). In form (as unconditioned gift), in content (as death), and in mode (the shame of crucifixion), the cross of Christ breaks believers’ allegiance to pre-constituted notions of the honorable, the superior, and the right. Whereas Philo took “the world” (ὁ κόσμος) to be the properly ordered gift of God, whose stable values were reinforced by gifts to worthy beneficiaries, Paul parades the cross as the standard by which every norm is judged and every value relativized. This single and particular event is of universal significance not because it reveals some timeless and universal principle of the cosmos, but because it is beholden to no pre-calculated system of distinction, and privileges no subset of humanity. It is the original radically unconditioned event (p. 395).

Inadvertent Servants

Commentators make much of the two massive feedings in Mark 6:35-45 and 8:1-10. The narratives are pregnant with significance. From one angle, the two episodes can be read as failures on the disciples’ part. The first comes just after their initial mission as agents of the kingdom’s miraculous power (6:13), yet they fail to imagine how to feed the large crowd. In the second episode, Jesus seems to be giving them a second opportunity by describing at length the situation in 8:2-3. It’s as if he’s saying, “Okay, boys, we’ve seen this before – large crowd, deserted place, need for food . . . , sound familiar?”

Both times the disciples fail to see how God’s provision might work out (6:37; 8:4).


I find it striking that in the face of the disciples’ failure, Jesus doesn’t feed the crowds to the exclusion of the disciples. He makes them servants despite themselves.

The first feeding takes place in Jewish territory, and Jesus multiplies the food and gives it to the disciples who then set it before the people like table-waiters. In the second feeding, in the region of the Decapolis, Mark stresses the disciples’ inclusion in serving the people. He notes that Jesus multiplied the bread and gave it to the disciples “to serve “ to the people, “and they served them to the people” (v. 6). After he multiplied the fish, Jesus gave it to the disciples “to be served,” too (v. 7).

Even though they are hard-hearted, slow to understand (6:52), and failing to faithfully discern Jesus’ identity and mission, Jesus is transforming them into servants to Israel and to the nations.