Discipleship as Identification with the Sufferings and Presence in the Struggles of the People

by Bishop Poulose Mar Poulose

Text: Mark 8.34-35

What is it that marks out a disciple of Jesus from the followers of other religious teachers? Is it piety? Not at all. Jesus always warned against the empty, endless muttering of prayers. Is it the practice of cult? No. He subordinated worship of works of mercy. Is it the observance of religious laws? No. He often ridiculed it and challenged it. Not even love for one’s fellowmen. The injunction to love one’s kind is found also in the teachings of other religious seers and saints. What then is the distinguishing feature of discipleship under Jesus?

Fortunately, Jesus himself has given an answer. The occasion was his momentous journey to Jerusalem. He had just told his disciples that it was his destiny to suffer many things, to be rejected by elders, the chief priests and the scribes, and be killed. Then He added:

"If any man would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lost it; and whoever would lose his life for my sake and the gospel’s will save it."

Jesus here lays down two conditions for discipleship: denying oneself and taking up one’s cross.

Denying oneself means disowning one’s life, not clinging to it as something to be safeguarded at any cost. It involves detachment from vital interests. But why should the disciple disown his life? Because he must follow his master and fall in line with the master’s strategy. And that strategy was one of determined opposition to everything that deprived human beings of the right to live in peace and freedom. It was one of a radical disowning of the existing relations of wealth, power and ideas. It required repudiating the entire religio-political system of Jesus’ time presided over by the imperial power of Rome.

Let us look at some examples. Jesus said: "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." (John 2:19) I don’t think that people of Jesus’ time interpreted it as a purely religious assertion. Christians who were conditioned to the idea of the separation of polities in later times interpreted it as a religious assertion. But to the Jews of Jesus’ time, the temple was not merely a place of worship. It represented a total religio-political system which oppressed the common people. Hence, Jesus’ statement constituted a direct threat to the entrenched powers that governed Palestine in its everyday affairs. It was as much a political statement as a call to destroy the Parliament House or the Supreme Court would be today.

There is Jesus’ invasion of the temple to drive out the money changers. (John 2:13-16) Traditionally, this account has been interpreted as a protest against cultic impurity. But properly placed in the context of the day, Jesus’ action was a direct challenge to the total temple structure, not just to its religious practices.

These examples indicate that the New Testament in its present form definitely portrays Jesus not only as a preacher of the Good News but also a political activist who directly challenged the political power of the temple priesthood. If we would like to assume the same stance and reject the prevailing social order, then we should not cling on to our own self anchored and deeply rooted in the same society.

Let us go back to the text. Note the distinction. Jesus said: "If any man would come after me, let him... follow me." Jesus didn’t say: "If any man would like to save his life, let him... follow me." To be more explicit, "If anyone would like to follow the path that I take, let him follow me." And not, "If anyone would like to save his life, let him follow me." As a matter of fact, it has even been said that those who would seek their own salvation would lose it. This distinction is important to understand the essence of Christian discipleship.

Following Jesus is the most important thing, not saving one’s own life; saving one’s own life in the individualistic sense -- trying to reach "heavenly Jerusalem" leaving behind "earthly Babylon". We have been brought to earthly Babylon in order to sit and weep and try to escape into heavenly Jerusalem. Jerusalem has penetrated Babylon. The heavens have come down to earth. That is what the incarnation means.

Unfortunately in religion, people are preoccupied with the business of saving their own lives. That is why Karl Barth said: "Human religion has no worth not truth in itself" Barth was not saying that religion is not necessary. But he was criticizing the "get-heaven-quick" attitude or religious people.

The question before us is that are we ready to follow Jesus. Those who go to the church regularly and attend the rituals need not be necessarily followers of Jesus. Those who work for the fulfillment of his purposes, those who follow the path that Jesus took -- they are the followers of Jesus. But that path is not an easy one. It is a narrow path. There will be only sufferings if we follow that path, and there is even the possibility of dying on the way. If we stand with Jesus, we too shall be crucified.

What was the nature of the path Jesus took? Look at the life of Jesus. theory and practice, for Jesus, coincide in a comprehensive sense. His whole behavior corresponds to his proclamation. He was partisan for the handicapped. Jesus turned in word and deed to the weak, the sick, and the neglected. He offered a chance of being human to those who were set aside by society’s standards at the time: the weak, the sick, the inferior (especially the women), the despised. He helped them, gave health to many physically and mentally sick people, gave strength to the many who were weak, and hope to all the misfits. He took a stand and never compromised. He lived for all the people. He was the New Being for others. In this way, Jesus’ deeds elucidate his words and his words interpret his deeds.

But what happened to him? When He preached the kingdom of God, when He spoke against the status quo, when He exhorted the people for a new social order in which everybody can live in peace and freedom, the society criticized him; He was called a revolutionary and subversive; He was attacked for disregarding the traditions of religion and society. Wherever Jesus went, He was always spied on by the authorities. His enemies attempted to find fault with his teachings. He was hackled by malicious questions. All in all, most of the people considered Him a rabble rouser and a threat to the reigning emperor. And finally, He was crucified. Readiness to follow Jesus and to do his will is the litmus test of Christian discipleship.

If we follow Jesus’ path, it is likely that we also may have to go through the same experiences. That is why Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian, said: "When Christ calls us to follow him, He calls us to die with him."

Discipleship, sufferings and struggle are inseparable. According to the gospels, these themes constituted the very core of Jesus’ instructions to his disciples. As members and servant- leaders of the new Israel, they will have to follow the same path as Jesus took, and to face sufferings, persecutions, and death. Jesus’ message rings sound and clear. (Matthew 10:16-23)

To quote Bonhoeffer: "Just as Christ is Christ only by virtue of his suffering and rejection, so the disciple is a disciple only insofar as he shares his Lord’s suffering and rejection and criticism. Discipleship means adherence to the person of Jesus, and therefore submission to the law of Christ which is the law of the cross."

So, to follow Jesus, or to be a Christian does not mean to make something of oneself -- a sinner, a penitent, a saint, a righteous man or unrighteous one. It is by following the path that Jesus took, by dedicating oneself for the fulfillment of the purposes of Jesus, by participating in the sufferings of God in the secular life that one becomes a man and a Christian. The question Jesus asked the disciples in Gethsemane is still echoing in our midst: "How is that you were not able to keep watch with me even for one hour?" (Matthew 26:41) It can be paraphrased: Are you not ready to participate in the sufferings of God in the world? The cross represents God’s identification with the sufferings of mankind and God’s presence in the struggle of mankind to build a new human society; making history fulfillment of justice and love.

If any one dares to deny the world, the world, in turn, will deny him, i.e., refuse him the right to live. Jesus knew for sure that precisely this was to be his fate. He knew that the imperial power, in collusion with the lesser powers would send Him to the cross as it had many rebels before him. Equally, He could have foreseen that the disciples too would have to meet the same destiny at the hands of those who operated the machinery of repression. Hence, the call to them to take up the cross and follow him.

The cross that we have to take up is the obstacles we have to face in life when we decide to follow Jesus’ path. And Jesus was saying that these obstacles are inevitable and that we should be ready to face them. For Jesus, the cross was the real wooden cross on which He was crucified. For the Apostle Paul, the cross was sufferings of various kinds. He gives an account of that in II Corinthians 11:23-28. For some other apostles, the cross appeared in the form of persecution. For Bonhoeffer, the cross was the concentration camp and eventually the gallows. The cross each one of us should take up may appear in different forms. We should boldly take it like Jesus did, like the apostles did and like Bonhoeffer did. That is the challenge of the Gospel.

What are the implications of discipleship to the life and witness of URM? If we are to follow the path Jesus took, then we have to identify ourselves with the sufferings of the people and be present in their struggles for the realization of justice, peace and freedom. In the Bible we see God acting as the advocate for the powerless and voiceless. Here we shall examine three events by which God revealed himself in world history. In each of these events we see God taking side with the poor and oppressed.

a. Exodus. In the Exodus event, God revealed his might and power to liberate the slaves. God called Moses from the burning bush and told him of his decision of delivering the Israelites from oppression and sufferings. (Exodus 3:7-8) We see here God’s protest against injustice and suffering. He expressed this protest standing on the side of the slaves and the oppressed. During the Harvest Festival, the Israelites used to remember the mighty act of God by way of repeating a liturgical confession. (Deuteronomy 26:5- 10a) The Exodus event is actually a paradigm of how God is concerned about the powerless and voiceless.

b. Destruction of Israel and Judah. The prophets pointed out that the reason for the destruction of Israel and Judah was their total apathy to the poor in the society. The rich and mighty inflicted poverty, oppression, exploitation and injustice upon the poor. The prophets opposed and criticized idolatry. But more than that they criticized the exploitative systems in the economic field and the unjust attitude of the rich toward the poor.

During the middle decades of the 8th century B.C., Israel had achieved tremendous economic development and yet God sent prophet Amos to tell them that He will destroy the Northern Kingdom. Because Amos saw that behind all these economic development and prosperity, there was the exploitation of the poor. He called them a society "that trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth". (Amos 2:7) Those responsible for enacting legislation in the Israel of Amos’ time had put laws into effect which oppressed the widows, the orphans and the poor. God stood with the oppressed, the widows, the orphans and the poor. God stood with the oppressed and made Amos’ prophecy that He will destroy Israel and send them into exile.

c. Incarnation. God revealed himself completely by way of becoming a human being. Even in that great event He stood on the side of the poor and oppressed. God has become a reality in the flesh and blood of Jesus. Notice the attitude and actions of Jesus toward the widow (Luke 7:11-17, 21:1-4), the poor (Luke 6:20; 14:12-14), and those whom society rejects (Luke 7:36- 50; 15). Jesus is the advocate, the man for others. Thus His arrival on the scene comes as a Good News for the powerless -- the poor, the captive, blind and oppressed. (Luke 4.18-19)

As He was Messiah and the man for others, we who call ourselves Messiah’s people (that is what "Christians" really mean) are called to be a people for others. That is how we express our faith. Our calling is to respond to the Good News by acting as advocates for the powerless.

What guidelines do the prophets and Jesus give us as a community of activists. To be sure, they provide us with no specific answers as to how we should vote in the time of elections. Nor does the Bible furnish us with any blueprints or programs or the strategy for resistance in an unjust society. But one thing is clear. If we, as people of God, are interested in doing justice, we are asked to act as advocates for the powerless, lobbyists for those who have no place in the society.

[This Bible Study was presented at the URM National Coordinator's Meeting held in Hong Kong from 16-22 March 1991]