First Steps in Discipleship

Image result for bilbo and gandalf artwork

Something deep in me stirs when I read tales of Middle Earth.  Middle Earth is the fictional land created by J. R. R. Tolkien that is inhabited by dwarves, elves, men, and hobbits.  The most famous pair of books that Tolkien wrote are Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  The latter one is the one I am re-reading with my son and daughter each evening this new year.  Bilbo Baggins is the main character and his family are respectable hobbits because they are prone not to go on adventures.  Settled into a stable life in his early fifties he is called on an adventure by Gandalf the wizard.  He resists, but Tolkien tells us that Gandalf sees something in Bilbo and hand-picks him for an adventure.  Bilbo’s life is never the same.

However, The Hobbit is a metaphor for those of us who settle into a rut.  We are as happy as we know to be and we are unaware of what lies beyond the horizon of our daily responsibilities.  “Ignorance is bliss” runs the old adage.  However, the bliss of our dogged ignorance can limit the significance of our lives.  Bilbo’s life becomes more significant than anyone could have predicted.  He becomes a major player in the affairs of Middle Earth.  This all happens because Gandalf sees him smoking a pipe outside his front door and challenges him to follow a greater destiny.

You will have heard from me before how I have, in my twenties and thirties, sunk a lot of time into playing a computer game called Lord of the Rings on-line.  It allowed me to develop a character and go on adventures.  As I completed adventures my on-line character, a dwarf called Plymgrimalin, got stronger.  I was noticed by a group called Ancient Glory and we ‘ran’ together in community.  We battled orcs, took down dragons, and completed quests together on-line.  Why do young men and women spend so much time playing games on-line in fantasy worlds?  It reflects something of the way that life was meant to be.  We were meant to fight for a cause.  We were meant to improve ourselves.  We were meant to complete tasks of renown.  However, in real life it is harder and slower to gain the qualifications, complete the training, and reach the dizzy heights of heroics that a game can provide more quickly.  Also, there are few mentors who really succeed at real life who take the time and show the patience to mentor someone and teach them the secrets of their success.  In books, movies and on-line we can find Gandalf and Obi-wan to see our potential and instruct us.  In our schools, in our churches, and even in our homes it is rare that people invest the time, effort, and resources to bring budding talents to full blossom.

In the Bible there are many stories of people who were moved by God to teach and train a younger man to reach their potential.  In the Old Testament we see Elijah and Elisha.  In the New Testament we see Paul and Timothy.  Jesus, sees the potential in every one.  He saw people’s hearts.  He took twelve people in particular and invested in them.  We call them the twelve disciples.  Luke 5:1-11 tells the story of how the first three were called.  Let’s read it together:

On one occasion, while the crowd was pressing in on him to hear the word of God, he was standing by the lake of Gennesaret, and he saw two boats by the lake, but the fishermen had gone out of them and were washing their nets. Getting into one of the boats, which was Simon’s, he asked him to put out a little from the land. And he sat down and taught the people from the boat. And when he had finished speaking, he said to Simon, “Put out into the deep and let down your nets for a catch.”  And Simon answered, “Master, we toiled all night and took nothing! But at your word I will let down the nets.” And when they had done this, they enclosed a large number of fish, and their nets were breaking. They signalled to their partners in the other boat to come and help them. And they came and filled both the boats, so that they began to sink. But when Simon Peter saw it, he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, “Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord.” For he and all who were with him were astonished at the catch of fish that they had taken, and so also were James and John, sons of Zebedee, who were partners with Simon. And Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; from now on you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed him.

In this passage the Sea of Galilee goes by its alternative name, The Sea of Gennesaret.  This was the name of the region to the northeast of the sea which centered on Capernaum.  Jesus was using Capernaum as his base and had taught in the synagogues and befriended some of the locals.  One of the locals in particular is singled out in Luke’s retelling of the incident.  In some of the accounts we get an impression that Jesus arrives out of nowhere, calls complete strangers to follow him and they come.  If we harmonize the gospels, we see that Jesus has been in the region for a little while and Luke 5 tells the events of how Simon Peter, James and John become disciples.  We will think about three ways that Simon Peter’s call to discipleship teaches us to understand our call to discipleship.

The first lesson we learn from looking at Simon Peter’s call is that we submit to the word of God.  God’s authority in Jesus and the word that he communicates calls the disciple to a life of obedience.

The word disciple means student or learner.  Simon Peter has been a disciple of Jesus for a little while already.  He has learned from Jesus’ word of authority in the Capernaum synagogue and he has learned about Jesus’ authority over sickness and death.  The crowds that surrounded Jesus had all been touched by Jesus in some way.  They recognize that he is not a regular member of the community but that he is a Master.  We use the word Master in a similar way when we talk about someone who teaches martial arts or we see in Star Wars that Yoda is a Jedi Master.  Jesus has proved his competency to the masses.  Simon Peter, when asked to act in ways that seem strange to him, obeys because he sees that he is in the presence of a man with uncommon abilities.  Let’s remember, though, Peter is a fisherman who owns a fishing boat.  He is a manager in the fishing industry.  Jesus is a carpenter and preacher.  When Jesus asks Peter to obey him with the use of his boat Peter gives up a day’s fishing and he also gives up his most prized possession.  He hands over his means of livelihood.  This may not be too remarkable when we think that Jesus is using the boat during the day.  The best fishing is done in darkness.  However, Jesus flies in the face of experience when he tells the fisherman to put out into the deep water to catch fish there in the middle of the day.  This is particularly strange to Peter because he didn’t catch any fish the night before.  However, in spite of his own extensive knowledge Simon Peter obeys Jesus because he has submitted to Jesus’ word.

I know I mention my mother a lot, but she has been a good example in many ways.  My mother is genuinely bewildered by some other Christians who do not submit to Jesus.  We both agreed that the way to read the Bible is to see what it says, understand it and obey it.  That is how the Bible works.  The example we talked about was regarding submission of a wife to her husband.  The Bible clearly lays out that husbands love their wives and wives submit to their husbands.  My mother has talked with many women who have said, “but my husband isn’t a Christian …”  or “but my husband doesn’t pay me attention … “ and other such excuses.  My mother said, “But the instruction isn’t conditional on the man.  I may be naïve.  However, if the Bible says it, we must just do it.”  She is able to speak with some credibility into these women’s lives.  She had that obedient attitude to God’s word, even with a husband who was not a believer in Jesus and who was not easy to live with.  My mother learned this principle very early in life from her mentor/teacher Lynn Green.  Lynn had a high view of God’s word and submitted to it.  When she taught others she communicated a high view of God’s word.  Even when my mother blew raspberries at the ideas expressed in the Bible, Lynn Green asked my mother for submission to it and modeled that kind of submission herself. Now my mother has passed on the same attitude to me.  If I know that the Bible requires something of me, I am not at peace if I do not submit to that command or way of thinking.

We all have teachers, rabbis or masters that we follow.  We have all, in some way, been educated.  There are three ways to look at how we are taught.  There are formal, semi-formal and informal ways of being taught.  The formal places where we set up people as teachers are in our schools and colleges.  Semi-formal locations like churches or book-clubs have leaders who help us gain knowledge.  However, we often forget that we are being educated in informal environments.  The home educates us through the words and attitudes of our parents.  Our friends educate us when they share information on Facebook.  Directors and producers educate us through movies.  Song-writers inform us of the way they see the world in our songs.  So who are we and our families setting up as our teachers, rabbis and masters?  Who are the authorities in our lives?

Jesus says in Luke 6:40, “The student is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher.”  If that is so, it is true of church, school, and the culture.  Who is teaching in the church?  Do we really want to be like them?  If I have responsibility to teach, do I see that I have authority and it shapes people?  Where were we schooled?  What happened when we became like our teachers?  Which traits did we take on?  Which did we consciously reject?  If the advertizers and movie-makers, if the singers and performers, teach us to be like them, who will we become?

Simon Peter was spending more and more time with Jesus and Jesus called him to be like him.  We see how his life was affected in where he spent his time and his resources.  If we open our checkbook and show our weekly schedule, what would it show has been the authority in our lives?  In my estimation, the majority of Americans believe that they must keep very busy so that they can earn the most money possible.  This money needs to be spent on leisure time and having fun.  Somehow most Americans have learned that their sexuality is central to their identity.  They have learned that sexual expression is the core of their being.  Most Americans believe that if there is a God he is remote and uninvolved.  Somehow he will take care of eternity, but for now it is a time to experience the most pleasures as often as possible.  Which authority taught them this?  To whom are they submitted?

Have we spent enough time with Jesus for his teaching to show up in how we live?  He is the author of life and he has the authority over life.  He shows us how life must be lived.  Somehow the time we spend studying and learning about him should be at least as much as the time we spend learning our trade, studying for our hobbies, or studying in college.  There is a way to integrate these things, to see Jesus as the authority in all our studies, but for today suffice to say that the example of Simon Peter shows us that a true disciple submits to the authority of Jesus and his word.

The second lesson we can learn from Simon Peter in Luke 5 is by seeing that Peter elevates Jesus to his rightful position.  Acknowledging Jesus as Lord is key to discipleship.  Seeing someone as a truth speaker causes us to submit to their words.  Seeing someone as a ruler causes us to submit to their person.  Simon Peter calls Jesus Master before the miracle with the fish.  Simon Peter calls Jesus Lord, a term often used for God, after he sees the miracle.  To fall at Jesus’ knees like Peter does, is not just to acknowledge that Jesus knows best about fishing.  To fall at Jesus’ knees and call oneself a sinner shows that Peter knows there is a huge chasm between himself and Jesus as people.  Jesus is in essence transcendent and Peter elevates him by lowering himself.  This is an act of worship.  Peter expresses insight into the relative worth between Jesus and himself.

Diamonds are of value because diamonds are forever.  The value of an object is sometimes judged by its resilience and durability.  The Bible talks of humans as grass.  It grows, fades, and passes away.  People are mist.  They evaporate in the warmth of the day.  Jesus is beyond all other people.  Simon Peter grasps something of the magnitude of the one whose presence he is in.  Although, Simon Peter is a business owner, he has property – he is somewhat successful – all this pales into insignificance before Jesus.  Somehow Jesus is everything and Peter is nothing.  The pain of his own insignificance and Jesus’ worth is overwhelming to Simon.  He cries out for Jesus to depart.  Maybe it is shame on the part of Simon.  Maybe it is just an inability for a flawed person to endure in the presence of a perfect one.  However, Peter can not endure in the presence of this holy man.

Luke 5 reminded me of a scene in The Crown where Elizabeth the Queen Mother visits the Castle of Mey near John ‘o Groats.  The Castle is run down and in need of much repair.  The owner has lived in relative isolation for some years and he looks with bewilderment at the former queen of England.  He feels that he must have seen her somewhere before.  He wonders if she is a movie star and she smiles at the idea.  Then, after she has purchased the castle for a hundred pounds, they walk back along the windswept beach together.  It is at that point that they are met by someone who calls the Queen Mother “Her Majesty” and realization dawns on the face of the seller.  In awe he asks, “Why didn’t you tell me?”  She jokes that he would have charged double the price.  But his sudden awe at realizing he was before royalty is a pale picture of the sudden awe Simon would have felt as he realized something more of Jesus’ identity.

Just as Jesus was present with Simon Peter on the shores of Galilee, so he walks with us today.  Jesus is working in the world and many of us fail to notice.  He touches the lives of those who seek him and he works miracles in unexpected places at unexpected times around the world.  The news is out there for those of us who will read it with faith.  It doesn’t make the mainstream when missionaries see Jesus bring people to himself.  It doesn’t get reported when Jesus comforts a parent who has had a child die.  We have to seek out news of the way Jesus touches the earth.  However, if we are silent and reflect just for a little while we become more conscious of his personal touch to us.

In our book, Kelli and I wrote a chapter “Prepare to be Amazed.”  It recounts in detail some of the things that God does in each of our lives every day.  Of course a miraculous catch of fish would gain our attention, and God has done large miracles in our lives.  He has brought us children to complete our family in a way that had his fingerprints on it.  However, as well as the big things, a knowledge of the holiness and wonder of God is communicated through the sunlight, the storms, the snow and the wind.  With eyes of faith we see not only the natural phenomena around us but the spiritual purposes and the hand of God orchestrating everything.

Some people are able, like Simon Peter, to see their place in the world and be humbled.  When we see how great the distance is between Jesus and common people, we find that we are personally put in our place.  Our unimportance in the scheme of the universe and the magnitude of the grace that we have received should cause us to love God and be loving to our fellow man.  However, many of us have learned that it is weak to bow the knee to anyone.  Many of us find it hard to serve unless we ourselves are served.  We can have a heart of contrition or a heart of contempt.  The heart of contrition sees that God is God and we are not and seeks to serve.  The heart of contempt sees that we are better than our peers in some way and focuses on the adoration (or at least respect) that we do not receive.  In the emptiness of our own feelings of injustice a bitter heart is formed.  It will not bow the knee.  It will not submit.  Which one are we?  We fluctuate.  Like Simon Peter, though, we don’t need to focus on people and their weaknesses.  Instead we focus on Jesus and see our identity in light of his greatness.  This leads more to a life of humility.

If we are a disciple like Simon Peter we submit to the authority of Jesus as teacher, we elevate his status in our life to Lord, and finally we realise that we are called to fish for people.  Jesus transformed Peter into a fisher of men.  The analogy needn’t be pressed to hard.  We do not catch, clean and sell people for dinner if we are disciples.  We do find that people are caught.  Simon Peter knew how to mind his own business, but he didn’t meddle enough in the business of others.  It would seem that nothing had grabbed Simon Peter like Jesus and his teaching had.  He had probably drawn people into his business through the promise of payment or a regular supply of food.  However, Simon Peter did not see himself as a fisher of men in the way that Jesus did.  The fact that Simon Peter sees himself as unworthy makes for a good start.  Jesus can use him because Peter will always fall back on the realization that his own ways are not the best.  We notice that Peter does not now need to make himself a fisher of men for Jesus but that becoming a fisher of men is the promise of Jesus to Simon Peter.  The role of a committed disciple to Jesus is to be self-replicating.  Jesus has modeled how discipleship works.  He has taught Simon Peter truth in the synagogue.  He has healed his mother-in-law.  He has enriched his profession.  Now Simon Peter will learn to teach Jesus’ truths to people.  He will care for their needs.  He will enrich their lives.  The truth of Jesus will be so compelling that other people will come. Simon Peter is loved by Jesus not targeted as a trophy.  There is an interpersonal essence that foreshadows the values of knowing and being known that Jesus will teach through his words and actions.  Simon Peter commits everything to the task and leaves behind anything he doesn’t need.  He is sure of his calling because he has become sure of the one who has called him.  His change in vocation is rooted in the relationship with his new friend.  We will see in the gospels how when he thinks he has lost his friend, he also loses his sense of calling.  It is not a new career that compels Simon Peter to follow, it is a new relationship which results in a new career.  So the person and principles behind the calling lead to a passion for the calling itself.

Perhaps one of the greatest challenges to my sense of calling that I have experienced is reading the life of Che Guevara.  I profoundly disagree with what he stood for and what he did, but that is what makes his life more of a challenge.  If he could be so committed to a lie, why am I sometimes so lackluster in my calling?  Che Guevara was a poster-boy for Marxism in the mid to late 20th century.  He supported Castro’s rise to power in Cuba, and did so at great personal cost.  He and his Suicide Squad fought battles where they were outnumbered 10:1 and they prevailed.  He sometimes would go days without food so that he reached his military objectives.  What motivated him to complete these deeds and to ultimately give his life for the cause of world-wide revolution?  In his twenties he traveled through South America and was overcome with grief when he saw the deprivation and the squalor that many South Americans were reduced to.  At this sensitive time a Marxist complained to him bitterly of their persecution and Che Guevara was deeply affected by their plight.  It was that experience that led him to become a revolutionary Marxist.  Like Isis and their commitment to an evil cause is a challenge to us today, Che Guevara is a challenge from recent history.  In each case, though, when people are committed to a cause so completely that they will deprive themselves for it, suffer for it, and even die for it, that cause is furthered – followers or disciples are replicated.  In many cases in recent history the passion of godless causes fills the vacuum where the cause of Christ should be.  If Che could become a fisher of men for Marxism, how much more value will it be if we dedicate our lives to Jesus and so become fishers of men for good?

Some of us are nervous that we don’t have what it takes.  We should take heart from Simon Peter’s call.  He knew that he didn’t have what it took.  The security of his call was not from what he took but from what he left behind and the one who took hold of him.  Hebrews 13:21 promises us that Jesus will equip us to do the work he has called for us to do.  Fishing for men is a natural outworking of living for Jesus in a godless world.  It takes right insight and right doctrine.  Simon Peter followed Jesus and saw how Jesus spoke God’s word into all of life.  Peter would not have started with the godless perspective on life that is promoted in our countries.  However, his view of God was nothing near complete.  As Jesus taught him truth it became a message that he would one day preach.

If we had to assess the level of our encounter with Christ, is it growing?  It can never be complete as Jesus and our experience of him has infinite potential.  Like all of our relationships, our relationship with Jesus and our grasping of his truth must grow each day.

For those of us who are not motivated to share with others about Jesus, did we become Christians at some time as if that was all the relationship was about?  It could be compared to turning up on the wedding day and then living apart from our spouse as if the wedding day was all the marriage is about.  As the life of another consumes us, so we can not help but talk about them to others.

When have we felt most motivated in following Jesus in our lives?  It should be a time of great fellowship.  Discipleship is a call to fellowship.  Peter, James and John are called together.  However, the fellowship seeks to share its joy with others not contain it within.  There are practices that a fellowship of disciples might participate in which will lead to more enthusiasm for fishing for men.  One is talking frequently and openly about Jesus.  The other is following what Jesus says and communicating the positive changes and challenges that God brings into our lives.  Our lives go from pointless routines lived on an insignificant planet to meaningful stories told by the God of Creation for his own glory.

So we have seen that Simon Peter’s encounter with Jesus is a model for us because it shows how Simon Peter submitted to Jesus’ authority because he was his master.  Simon Peter then increased his reverence for Jesus as he grasped more of Jesus’ identity.  Finally, Jesus promised that he would equip him to be self-replicating and have significance in his life.

As I worked on preparing a sermon on Luke 5, I discussed my ideas with Jonathan Panek, a former student.  I was talking about disciples and how we do church.  Jonathan said that he had been reading a Francis Chan book called Multiply which is all about discipleship.  I read the first section of that book twice in preparation.  What struck me, though, was how Jesus has touched my life and made it significant.  Jonathan was my former fifth grade student and I have talked with him more and more openly about my walk with Jesus.  As I do so a stronger connection between us grows.  I have had the honour of discipling him and his wife.  When I look at those who I have had the privilege of reaching out to, I haven’t really thought about it as fishing.  I haven’t really thought about it all.  In the passion of following Jesus I enjoy talking about the one I follow.  They then become followers of Jesus.  What was wonderful about preparing the sermon for today was that one of my students was discipling me and letting me know what I could read to grow closer to Jesus and fulfil my calling.

So, Simon Peter’s call to discipleship shows us how to begin and grow in our own discipleship.  We must submit ourselves to Jesus and his commands.  We must raise Jesus up to his rightful position whilst, at the same time, humbling ourselves.  And lastly we must follow him at his calling and he will make us fishers of men.

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About Plymothian

I teach at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. My interests include education, biblical studies, and spiritual formation. I have been married to Kelli since 1998 and we have two children, Daryl and Amelia. For recreation I like to run, play soccer, play board games, read and travel.
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