And calling the crowd to him with his disciples, he said to them, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the gospel's will save it.
You can hit the bullseye in life and still miss the mark—if you are aimed at the wrong target.
Pastor and theologian Hans Byers asks a striking question of Christian discipleship along these lines: “What if I am missing it?” A disciple is anyone seeking to learn from and become like another. Education, training, mentorship, “woke,” leadership development, social media “influencers,” fashion trend-setters: all of this and more are forms of discipleship. The question then becomes what is the right target to aim at and how would I know? If God entered human history in the first century as a man named Jesus from Nazareth, died by execution on a Roman cross, and rose from the dead, then that must be the point to which all of life and all of history points. Jesus redirects our discipleship aim toward a way of life we were created for, a calling that is personal, sacrificial, and missional.
The first mark of Christian discipleship is that Jesus calls. God takes the first step, and we follow. When Jesus calls out to a few men at work in the fishing industry, they jump at the opportunity to get in on what He is up to (Mark 1:16-20). The invitation is inseparable from the Gospel: God’s good and loving purposes for the world have come to a head. God’s the true King running the world, and He is bound and determined to sort out the mess we have made of things and set it all right again. You are headed in the wrong direction so turn around and get in on God’s awe-inspiring, life-transforming work of redemption (Mark 1:14-15). Discipleship is not some optional add-on to the Gospel perhaps reserved for Sunday mornings and Wednesday nights or for really serious Christians. It is a calling to YOU.
The next point to see is that Christian discipleship is personal. The counter-cultural nature of this way of discipleship is illuminated by considering what Jesus does not say. He does not say, “Go study the Bible so that you will know all the right answers and make sure everyone else knows that you do too. Then the Kingdom will come.” He does not say, “Go ‘play the game’ to access power and privilege. Then the Kingdom will come.” He does not say, “Go to war against all the evil pagans suppressing the people of God. Then the Kingdom will come.” Jesus does not proclaim any of these strategies of discipleship although they were all available options—see the Pharisees, Sadducees, and the Zealots for prime examples. Instead, Jesus says, “Follow Me. . . .”
Later in the Gospel of Mark, we see that discipleship to Jesus is sacrificial. Jesus says, “If you want to come after me, you must take up your cross and follow me” (Mark 8:34). If you are hell-bent (literally) on running your life, than you will ruin your life. However, if you give up your life to Jesus, you will truly find it. For those of us who have been discipled in the gospel of pulling-yourself-up-by-your-own-bootstraps, we can only get going in discipleship to Jesus when we finally realize that in matters that really matter we have no bootstraps to pull.
Lastly, discipleship to Jesus is missional: “Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men” (Mark 1:17). Discipleship involves following Jesus into the world where we learn to do what Jesus would do in the way in which He would do it for the well-being of others. As it says in Norman Maclean’s novella A River Runs Through It, “ You can’t catch fish if you don’t dare go where they are.” Transformed people on the heels of Jesus (disciples) in community (the church) learn to live as Christ would live in the lives that are theirs (discipleship) to make clear that God is in charge of the world for good and loving purposes and that all who will come are invited in on it (mission). If you seem to hit the bullseye but keep feeling as if you have missed the mark, than perhaps you should find a different target. The way of really living in this life and the one to come is the way of discipleship with eyes dead-set on Jesus.