Disciples: Students of Jesus.

The word disciple gets flung around Christianity all the time. Usually we mean by it “an acolyte of Jesus.” Someone who’s interested in him, fascinated by him, hangs around him, name-drops him. Not so much someone who actually does as he teaches; just someone in Jesus’s vicinity. A fan.

Yeah, some of you are going, “Waitaminnit, “disciple” does not mean a fan. It means someone who personally follows him. A devotee. A student.”

Oh I’m fully aware of how the popular dictionaries define the word. But let’s be honest: What Christians actually mean by the word, is demonstrated in how we live it out. Some of us “students” of Jesus are exactly like those kids who sit in the back of the room, sometimes asleep, perfectly happy to get D’s, and absolutely outraged when they find out they’re not just failing but getting held back. Somehow they never saw it coming. They figured attendance should count!

Yes, disciple means a follower, but we’re talking literal followers: They were in the crowds surrounding Jesus wherever he taught. God forbid he actually challenge them; they’d balk, and leave.

John 6.60-66 NRSVue
60 When many of his disciples heard it, they said, “This teaching is difficult; who can accept it?” 61 But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, “Does this offend you? 62 Then what if you were to see the Son of Man ascending to where he was before? 63 It is the spirit that gives life; the flesh is useless. The words that I have spoken to you are spirit and life. 64 But among you there are some who do not believe.” For Jesus knew from the beginning who were the ones who did not believe and who was the one who would betray him. 65 And he said, “For this reason I have told you that no one can come to me unless it is granted by the Father.”
66 Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him.

Or they take the more usual way out: Christianism. They follow popular Christian culture. Jesus, not so much. They imagine what they’d like Jesus to be like, project their dreams and wishes all over him… and sometimes even quit following that image when he doesn’t come through with those wishes precisely the way they want ’em.

Does this sound extremely cynical? Honestly it’s not. I’m describing all disciples; not just Christian.

Disciples should be close followers of the person they consider their master. Fans of self-help experts, fans of radical economists, fans of this or that philosophy, fans of this or that theologian. Whether a martial arts master, a philosophy or religion teacher, or any sort of authority; we should expect a “disciple of Ayn Rand” to do exactly as she’d have them do. And they don’t.

Too many of them are trying to make a name for themselves, and sometimes the way they do it is to say, “Well my master says this, but I think…” yet they insist they still follow their master. Christians are hardly the only ones with loopholes. Rand fans seldom do exactly as she’d have them do. (Like quit their jobs and go hide in the mountains till the economy collapses.) Plenty of Rand fans claim to be Christian, but Rand’s philosophy is largely based on her devout atheism, her full-on Mammonism, and her pure contempt for Christian teaching. She’s in no way compatible with Christianity… and yet many of her disciples insist they’re totally Christian. In reality, they compromise either Rand or Jesus. Or both.

There are self-described disciples of all sorts of gurus. And every time these gurus push their disciples farther than they’re comfortable, they step back, reassess, and frequently go their own way. Yet they still claim to be a disciple, ’cause they’ve invested a lot of money, time, and pride in calling themselves disciples. Yeah, it’s hypocrisy. But hypocrites are everywhere.

Happens to Jesus; happens to everyone. We really shouldn’t be surprised it happens to Jesus so often. He’s got exponentially more fans than any other guru. And no, it’s not a failing with Christians; it’s a failing with humans. It’s life.

Radical followers.

Here’s the thing: Jesus requires his followers to really follow him. Really obey him. Hardcore follow and obey him. He’s not just asking for our loyalty; he wants our souls.

You knew this already. But maybe it just hasn’t sunk in just how much he means it.

Mark 8.34 NRSVue
34 He called the crowd with his disciples and said to them, “If any wish to come after me, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. 35 For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. 36 For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life? 37 Indeed, what can they give in return for their life? 38 Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Jesus tells us to take up our crosses. Yes this is hyperbole; he doesn’t expect every Christian to get flogged, nailed to two posts, and die slowly. Certainly not voluntarily. But the reason he deliberately brings up crosses is because it’s the very least comfortable thing to be on. (By design.) It’s outside everybody’s comfort zone. Even people who like pain absolutely wanna avoid crucifixion!

And that’s how hardcore he wants us to be when we follow him. Forget everything which makes us comfortable: We’re only to seek and find comfort in Jesus. Forget ourselves; forget our egos. We’re meant to be good as dead. This isn’t about getting famous, getting rich, and gaining the world!

It’s not that Jesus doesn’t care about us and our needs. Of course he does. It’s that our needs come a distant second to Jesus. Our priorities come a distant second to Jesus. Our lives come a distant second to Jesus. We’re to radically follow him—and in so doing, radically love people, forgive people, be gracious to people, be patient with people, exhibit crazy levels of the Spirit’s fruit, and be like Jesus to our hurting world. Not contribute in any way to why the world hurts.

Our personal victories don’t achieve Jesus’s kingdom. Our #blessings don’t lift him up as much as we imagine. So when the Son of Man comes to inaugurate his kingdom, where are we gonna be? With him among his followers, or watching him take over the world and shouting, “What do you mean I’m not in charge anymore?”

Christians are meant to be hardcore followers of Jesus, and you know full well many of us are not. We’re hardcore followers of all sorts of things, and have slapped Jesus-labels all over them to make ’em sound Christian, but Jesus never endorsed ’em, and his Sermon on the Mount even forbids us from indulging in them. But Christians typically prioritize them over his Sermon. It’s absolutely gotta be the other way round.

Students of Jesus. Not other gurus.

There’s a line Paul once wrote to the Corinthians—

1 Corinthians 11.1 NRSVue
Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.

—and Christian gurus have used it ever since to justify getting themselves some disciples. “You wanna follow Jesus better? Follow me then.” Or, to use today’s social-media terminology, like and subscribe.

And typically Christians who wanna get serious about Jesus, tend to find one of these Christian gurus and become their disciples. We read everything he writes, download every podcast he uploads, watch all his videos, fill out all his workbooks, and every word out of our mouths parrots the stuff they teach. Some of us are more devout about these gurus than we are towards Jesus himself.

Isn’t that idolatry? Duh; of course it is. But they figure it’s totally fine when their favorite gurus are Christian. After all didn’t Paul tell the Corinthians to do the very same thing?

Still, it’s contrary to what Christ Jesus himself teaches.

Matthew 23.8-12 NRSVue
8 “But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all brothers and sisters. 9 And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father, the one in heaven. 10 Nor are you to be called instructors, for you have one instructor, the Messiah. 11 The greatest among you will be your servant. 12 All who exalt themselves will be humbled, and all who humble themselves will be exalted.”

Jesus is our rabbi, a title which most Christians assume means “a Jewish pastor.” It’s actually Hebrew for רַבִּי/rabí, “my master”—a title Pharisees gave their scribes to indicate these were masters of the bible and its interpretation. Thing about Pharisees is, they had multiple masters. Rabbis advising them this way and that. So if Rabbi Shammai said one thing, and Rabbi Hillel said just the opposite… hey, if one of those masters doesn’t work for you, choose another! And if that master stops working for you, choose yet another master. Pharisees had hundreds.

Christians don’t get to do that. We have one master. One rabbi. One Messiah and king. We might have various Christian experts, and refer to them from time to time, but there’s only one final authority in Christendom, and that’s Christ Jesus.

Lest you take Jesus over-literally and insist the Roman Catholics are absolutely in the wrong for calling their priests “Fathers” and the ancient Christians “church fathers,” I remind you Paul and John used that term to describe church elders who trained newbies. 1Co 4.15, 1Jn 2.13-14 It’s perfectly all right to have “spiritual fathers.” Jesus isn’t forbidding Christians from seeking and finding mentors; he’s reminding us that regardless of those elders, we’re his disciples, not theirs. He’s our Lord, not them.

They’re fellow Christians. They’re equals. Πάντες ὑμεῖς ἀδελφοί ἐστε/pántes ymeís adelfí éste, Jesus said—“all of you are siblings.” Brethren. Brothers and sisters.

Our leaders sometimes lose sight of the fact they’re just as much Jesus’s disciples as we are. As anyone is. Just because Jesus puts us in charge of certain things doesn’t mean we’re therefore extra-holy, infallible, or super-saints. We’re all still students. We always have things to learn from Jesus. Got that?

So while Christian gurus might know more about Jesus than we do (for now; or at least think they do) we don’t follow them with the same devotion we do Jesus. They’re fallible; Jesus isn’t. Sometimes they’re wrong; we all are. Some of them are profoundly wrong, mostly because they refuse to listen to fellow Christians, and allowed their power to go to their heads. It happens. And when we’ve made ourselves disciples of them instead of Jesus, we won’t realize we’ve slipped into a cult till things go horribly wrong. It’s why it’s never safe to limit all our Christian studies to only one teacher, only one church, only one movement. It turns them into our masters—and they’re not the Master. Don’t lose sight of Jesus!