Day 20 – Why Discipleship to Jesus outside of Relationships with Others Is Not Discipleship to Jesus

Ephesians 4:1–3 NRSV

I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Consider This

We come to one of Paul’s favorite literary strategies’the well-placed “therefore.” You know the strategy of “therefore.” It is meant to cause us to ask the seminal interpretive question, “What is it there for?”

“Therefore” is a hinge word. It moves us from “because of this” to “now that.” Chapters 1 through 3 of Ephesians present the case of what God has done. Chapters 4 through 6 present the practical implications. Paul moves us from indicative to imperative, from gospel message to gospel mission.

The operative words in today’s text are “calling” and “called.” Note, Paul is not writing to an ever-shrinking group of people in some kind of ecclesial system or graduate school trying to qualify themselves to enter into the ordained ministry. Unfortunately, this is largely what the notion of being “called” has come to mean in much of what we call church today. I don’t mean to diminish this dimension of calling, but this is only a small segment of a much bigger picture.

Actually, we need to get away from a two-tiered approach altogether. There are not two categories but one. The one category to which all the followers of Jesus belong is the category of the called. Within this category are a diversity of expressions of calling, but there is only one category. In a few verses, Paul will get to several particular kinds of callings, but he begins the conversation with the larger concern.

I, therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called . . .

Before this calling is any particular kind of activity, vocation, function, role, duty, or anything else, it is a life. He means a life steeped in the truths and realities delineated in chapters 1 through 3. He means a life supernaturally alive with the life of God; a life that inhales mercy and exhales grace; a life rooted and established in the only love that is truly love; a life ever-grasping more of the life whom to know is to love. He means a life lived in the rich fellowship of the friends of Jesus, of slaves becoming sons and daughters, of sinners becoming saints, together filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.

In that spirit, let’s remind ourselves once again that when Paul says “you” he means not “you” but “we,” not “me” but “us.” The New Testament “you” is most often second-person-plural. Watch where Paul takes this next: With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.

The other mistake we make with this idea of calling is that it is individualized. Our calling is together. It only makes sense together. It’s why Jesus didn’t set up a multilevel pyramid scheme with his disciples. It was not Jesus doing one-on-one’s. It was Jesus and the twelve in community. So if it wasn’t Jesus doing one-on-one’s back then, how has this become our primary model now? Our relationships tell the story (or not). It seems obvious to point out, but humility, gentleness, and patience don’t happen by themselves. It’s why he takes it even further here: Making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

Can I be bold with what I am about to say? Discipleship to Jesus is either profoundly relational or it is not discipleship to Jesus. By relational, I don’t mean a personal relationship with Jesus. I mean at least that, but I am coming to question whether a personal relationship with Jesus is even possible apart from other people. Stay with me. I find when it is just me and Jesus, Jesus tends to think a lot like I think. He tends to affirm my biases and overlook my sins. I’ve talked to other people about their “me and Jesus” approaches, and their experience is quite different. Their Jesus often sounds like a real jerk to me. Sure, we are all quoting different Scriptures from our foxhole quiet times, but we’ve pretty much got Jesus crafted in the image of our own broken past lives or cast in the image of our self-righteous deceptions.

I am not overstating my case to make a point here. New Testament Christianity assumes discipleship in bona fide relationships with other believers. I am convinced the failure to identify and essentialize this largely assumed conviction is to blame for the arrested development of most Christians in America today. Frankly, I think it’s to blame for the anemic understanding of calling and being called in the present age.

Our highly individualized sense of personhood in America has brought us many good gifts. It is time, though, for this way of living and being to be brought into the searching light of the gospel for the thoroughgoing critique of the cross. For us to “live a life worthy of the calling to which we have been called” will require it.

The Prayer

Abba Father, we thank you for your Son, Jesus, who first called twelve to be his disciples. Would you instruct us in the clearly demonstrated yet unwritten ways of discipleship to Jesus? I want the real Jesus and not my self-constructed imagined version. We pray in Jesus’ name, amen.

The Questions

Do you think I am overstating my case? Why or why not?

Would you describe your discipleship to Jesus over the course of your life as mostly relational or mostly individual?

Are you leading a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called? Where is the growing edge for you there?