October/November 2013 - Vol. 70

The Fruit of Discipleship and Love 
by Joanie Nath

From time-to-time the Lord puts a certain subject relating to the Christian life on my mind, often with an accompanying desire to learn more about it. For the past several months now, the subject of discipleship has occupied my mind and made itself quite at home with my daily thought life. 

Education of Jewish disciples
There is a natural curiosity that causes me to wonder what discipleship looked like in the time of Jesus. Study of Jewish history can be helpful in providing answers to many questions that arise on the topic of discipleship. I have found a couple of very good websites which explain a long-standing tradition in the education of Jewish disciples. It begins with a school of higher learning, which in Hebrew is known as Beth Midrash (House of Learning). It is the place where scholars and those in advanced studies still continue today to gather for lectures and individual instruction in the study of the Torah, Talmud, and other rabbinical writings. 

In biblical times in Jerusalem this school was typically located in the temple building precint. Only the “high honors” students were given the privilege of seeking out an esteemed rabbi under which to study, often leaving home to travel with him for an indeterminate period of time, frequently under harsh conditions. These students were called talmid(s) or talmidim in Hebrew, which is translated disciple.

There are some significant differences between a talmid and what we call a modern day student. What often motivates a student today is his or her desire to complete the course, earn a specific degree, or please a particular teacher for whom he or she has great respect. A talmid, on the other hand, is motivated by his desire to be like the teacher, that is, to become what or who the teacher is. The talmid is passionately devoted to the rabbi, forming his thoughts by the teacher’s words, learning to see things through his eyes and paying close attention to everything he says and does; he imitates the rabbi even in the very simple and insignificant tasks of living everyday life so as to become like him as much as possible. The relationship between the rabbi and the talmid, or disciple, is necessarily a very close one, intensely personal, and often more intimate than that of the disciple with his own father. The rabbi would be seen as “the teacher”, not just one among many; a teacher whose understanding of the Scriptures would be considered paramount. For the Jewish talmid the commitment to following a particular rabbi required much sacrifice of time, other interests, even his other close relationships. It was a life-altering commitment. For him, this was no half-hearted endeavor, but rather a sobering decision to radically change the course of his life. If he was earnestly seeking to become like his rabbi, nothing less than his undivided attention and total dedication would do.

Devoted to the Rabbi
 When we understand what it meant to be a Jewish talmid or disciple in the time of Christ we can draw certain parallels to what it means for us to live as disciples of Jesus Christ in the present day.First, like those students in the school of rabbinical teaching, we want to be passionately devoted to Jesus, our personal rabbi and master. 

 Jesus’ first disciples entered into an intensive study program that would last three years. This type of training involved learning what the master was teaching them, observing his actions, listening to his words, giving themselves to understanding what they were being taught.  They were becoming like their teacher. Like an apprentice who learns a trade from a master craftsman, they were learning to be like Christ. We, likewise, are also called to learn from the Lord Jesus and to imitate him. While not many of us will be called to leave our current occupations to devote three or more years to an accelerated, concentrated training program, we are, nonetheless, continually seeking to follow Christ and allow him to train us day-by-day as his disciples. The Lord gives us many opportunities to learn from him – during our daily time of  prayer, scripture study, spiritual reading, and attendance at church services. Approaching our commitments to our families, churches and communities with a high degree of seriousness and serving where God has asked us to serve with the people he’s called us to be with helps to focus us as disciples. 

 I read a story about the owner of a company who interviewed a former student of a professor friend. When asked about the young man being interviewed the professor replied, “He may have attended my classes but he was certainly not one of my students.” In a similar way, we can choose to put in time required for attending the classes, but never become a true learner or disciple. If we’re not diligent and intentional in our approach it can become quite possible to spend years attending classes, but look back and be able to see little measurable growth.

 Following Jesus with the devotion of a disciple, learning from him, imitating him, studying his words, and listening to his Spirit speak into our lives is a lifetime process – we should never think we have learned enough and can stop learning. To become comfortable with what we presently know of God and to be content with the growth we’ve already attained is to lose sight of the fact that he transcends all earthly knowledge and that he is limitless in what he would give of himself…if we would be determined to keep pursuing him.

Conformed to His Will
 Jesus was consumed with doing the Father’s will. His whole focus was to fulfill the plan his Father had for him while on earth.“My food,” Jesus said, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work.” In the same way eating a well-prepared meal of fine food provides us with energy to live our lives well, so doing the Father’s will filled Jesus and provided nourishment to his spirit. It’s what kept him going, giving focus to his daily life. In it he found strength, joy and satisfaction. His will was conformed to the Father and so he could rightly say, “My Father and I are one.” As Jesus’ disciples we should be doing the same. We, too, should be saying,” My food is to do the will of the one who sent me and to finish his work.”As weare conformedmore and more to the Father’s will we are better equipped to accomplish the work he intends foreach of us to do. As a result, the Kingdom of God is built and we enjoy the benefit of a deeper union with him.

 The writer of Psalm 119 is not only passionately devoted to the word of God, but he desires that his will be conformed to the will of God. His love for God’s laws and his commands are at the very core of his being. In the psalmhe pours out his great affection for the Lord’s words and his deep desire to obey God’s commands by using phrases such as these:

  Blessed are they who keep his statutes and seek him with all their heart;
  Oh, that my words were steadfast in obeying your decrees;
  I have hidden your word in my heart so that I may not sin against you;
  My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times;
  I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands;
  Let me understand the teaching of your precepts.
 The words statutes, decrees, laws, commands and precepts all translate in a similar way. They relate to the covenant and translate: covenant directives, regulations, requirements and stipulations. This psalmist is a disciple who is wholly occupied with a desire to obey God’s will for his life by conforming it to the covenant directives asrevealed by God to his people. Night and day he is seeking to know and better understand what God requires of him and how to fulfill his part of the covenant.

 We too live by a covenant. Whether we consider the covenant which God made with his people on Mount Sinai in the giving of the Ten Commandments, the New Covenant teaching which Jesus gave to his disciples on how to love one and serve another, or the particular way of life we believe the Lord is showing us in our  Christian communities, we need to see Jesus as “the” teacher, patterning ourselves after him, seeking to know and understand how he wants us to live out   the covenant which he is calling us to embrace.

 The disciples heard the Father on the mount of Transfiguration say, “This is my beloved Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” “Listen”as it is used in this context means “to learn by hearing; to gain understanding”. So here we have the Father himself telling Jesus’ disciples to be serious about discipleship. He is saying, “Learn from my Son who is your teacher. Listen carefully to his words and devote yourself to his teaching. Gain understanding so that you may know what it is I require of you.” In the King James Version the verse ends with an exclamation point adding emphasis to the Father’s directive. He wants us to stop daydreaming in class and to sit up and pay attention!

Imitating Our Teacher
 I remember hearing someone say that God is a ridiculous optimist in that he allows us to continue as a race, in spite of all our failings. That caught my attention because my nature can often tend toward being a ridiculous pessimist! So, as a disciple, I decided that I needed to beginto check my negativity at the door and become who the rabbi is, a ridiculous optimist, seeing the best in people, situations and circumstances, not like a Pollyanna with my head in the clouds,but rather choosing to find the good and the best in people, rather than assuming the worst. It requires a conscious effort, a decision of the will guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit to take on characteristics of Jesus that are sometimes not natural to my makeup. 

 Philippians 2:13 tells us that “it is God who works in you both to will and to act according to His good purposes.”He inspires and gives grace and then we respond to him. It is a balance; a combination of our effort and God’s grace working together.Sitting in a room while the professor is teaching will not guarantee that valuable information will actually be absorbed.So too, discipleship is not a passive activity. It requires pro-active participation in the process and doesn’t happen simply by association. Discipleship is an association with a purpose, that of becoming who the teacher is. We have to respond to the nudging of the Holy Spirit. And it isn’t a one-time decision. Too many things can easily crowd our lives and push Jesus further into the background; we would be prudent to reassess and reaffirm our commitment to be disciples from time-to-time.

 A group of Apollo astronauts in the US were interviewed recently on a talk show, the host assuming they spent a great deal of time on leisure activities as they travelled to the moon. She was surprised to find that the astronauts were required to make course corrections every ten minutes from the time the spaceship launched, until they reached their destination.I think we would be wise to do something similar with our spiritual lives. Occasional course corrections can keep us from drifting far from our original goal, that of being disciples whose vision and focus should be solely on becoming who our rabbi is. And as we practice being who the teacher is, allowing the Holy Spirit to work those changes in us, we will incrementally look and become more like Jesus, our Rabbi, being transformed more and more into His image and likeness.

Love and discipleship
 What is the end result of our discipleship? What is it that God is trying to accomplish in us by having us imitate him? What is all this learning leading to? 

 Jesus identified two distinctive characteristics by which people would recognize his disciples and by which his kingdom would grow. The first is that we have love for one another. Jesus told his disciples,“By this all men will know that you are my disciples – that you love one another.” John 13: 35.

 There is something so radically different about the love we are to have for one another as disciples of Jesus that people observing us should instantly recognize it as a godly, supernatural love. It is more than what the world shows or defines as love. Love and discipleship cannot be separated from one another. Our love is the proof of our discipleship. It is one of the unmistakable marks of a disciple of Jesus Christ. He says, “…they will know that you are my disciples…”  Not John the Baptist’s, not some other rabbi, not some other teacher, but His, by the love we have for one another.There are many things that should markthe life of a disciple: study, prayer and service, to name a few.  But Jesus tells us that loving one another is the primary wayhis disciples should be recognized over all the others.

We often hear it said that living in Christian covenant community involved a radical choice and way of life. Our community gatherings, our pastoral care system, our approach to worship and music, the exercise of the charismatic gifts, the way we live our daily lives and raise our children…all of these things may make our life appear radical to other people, especially as our secular culture drifts further and further away from a Judeo-Christian ethic. Jesus never said, “By the way you run your Summer Camp program, then people will know that you are my disciples” or “By the quality of your teaching programs people will know that you are my disciples.” But, he did say that it would be the way we love one another that would grab the attention of onlookers and make our life together point to the power of the resurrected Lord Jesus who enables us to live a “radical” call and way of life that is different from the world. 

 I know a man named Jake. Jake is a disciple, disguised as a retail sales person at an outlet store near my home. I was there to buy a treadmill. As Jake and I walked back to the sports equipment area he seemed to be in a significant amount of pain from some sort of foot injury. Later, as I was at his checkout counter he noticed a cross necklace I often wear whichlead to a conversation about spiritual things, including the condition and care of his wife who is dealing with Multiple Sclerosis. His foot injury turned out to be a tear in his Achilles heel from lifting her in and out of her wheelchair.In the course of our conversation he told me that he has many good people in his church family who come to his home daily to help his wife so that he can continue to work and provide for his family.He then said, “You’d be amazed how many people (in the world) ask me, “Why are you still with her?”I was stunned and stared at him in disbelief, not knowing what to say. He went on, “I made a promise to my wife 18 years ago, before God, not knowing what he had in store for me or her or our family.  I had no crystal ball to foretell the future. I’m in this for better or for worse. I promised her that I would be here until the end. Should I walk away now because it’s hard?” I asked if I could pray with him and at the end of my prayer he came from behind the counter and gave me a hug. As he pulled away I could see tears in his eyes. I saw in this man a brother disciple who was sticking it out through the tough times, faithful to his wife, his family, and his God. He loves his wife in a way that makes other people stop and question the nature of that sort of love. It is counter-cultural, it is supernatural; it is the radical love of a disciple of Jesus Christ.

 Over the years some of us, maybe many of us have asked ourselves or had other people ask us that same questionwith regard to our marriages, our churches, or our involvement in community. Why are you still here? Why are you still with these people?Why are you still doing this?” People can be hard to love. It can be difficult to love selflessly, unfailingly, unconditionally, like our teacher. At times we might be tempted to walk away, to turn inward, or to back away in a cocoon of self-protection. We may find it easier to just show up in class or to skip class altogether than to follow the master, to love the difficult ones all the way to the cross, which is inevitably where discipleship takes us. 

 Most of us have heard the word “agape”. It is the Greek translation for the word “love” that the apostle Paul uses inthe very familiar “love chapter” of1Corinthians 13. The footnote in my Bible defines it this way: The Greek for this word indicates a selfless concern for the welfare of others that is not called forth by any quality of lovableness in the person loved, but is the product of a will to love in obedience to God’s command. It is like Christ’s love manifested on the cross.

 We can look at all we do to serve the wider Body of Christ and especially the way we live our life in communityas radical expressions of living the Christian life. But Paul tells us that if we do not learn to love one another in the midst of it then all of our efforts are useless, pointless and meaningless. We become a source of noise and irritation to the people around us. 

 How we feel about our brothers and sisters is irrelevant. Whether we think they deserve to be loved is irrelevant. Whether we even like them is irrelevant. We are called to love. We are commanded to love. It is not an option for those who would call themselves disciples of Jesus Christ. “I give you a new commandment: love one another even as I have loved you!”When we confess our sins, our failures to love should be at the top of the list because it is from that failure that all other sin originates. Jesus said, “You shall love the Lord your God with your whole heart, your whole soul, your whole mind and with all your strength, and you shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments hang the whole Law and the Prophets.” Matt.22:37, 39b-40.As Christian disciples our whole life is based on living these two commandments, love of God and love of neighbor.

Disciples Produce Fruit
  The second unmistakable, distinctive mark of a disciple is the producing of fruit.“This is to my Father’s glory, that you bear much fruit, showing yourselves to be my disciples.”John 15:8.One version says, “…provingyourselves to be my disciples”. In addition to the love we are to have for one another, the proof of our discipleship is in the bearing of fruit. This bearing of fruit is not limited to the fruit of a holy and virtuous life, but also of making other disciples for the Lord and His kingdom. To bear fruit is another way of saying to “reproduce”. There are many factors involved in successfully making disciples for the Lord. We can read about some of them in the parable of the sower and the seed as found in Matthew 13:1-23.  But, we might also reasonably deduce thatif we are not reproducing by making other disciples, then the quality of our discipleship might need to be examined.

  Jesus said, “Go make disciples of all men, teaching them to obey all that I have commanded you.” Matt28:19a, 20a. In other words, “Teach them everything you’ve learned from being with me these past three years.” We can’t teach someone else to become something we ourselves are not. A nurse cannot teach someone how to be a dancer if she hasn’t been trained in the art of dance. A master musician most likely would not be hired to teach biochemistry. If we are to make disciples, if we are to reproduce other disciples for the Lord, then we need to be disciples ourselves. And we make disciples by “teaching” them to obey all that Jesus has commanded us. “Teaching” as it is used here, means to “enroll them as a scholar”. Here again we are patterning ourselves after our master rabbi who has enrolled each of us as scholars in the school of discipleship. A scholar is not necessarily someone with extraordinary intelligence although that’s the way we often interpret it. Webster’s defines a scholar as a learned person, someone who possesses knowledge by having given themselves to study, as opposed to just showing up in class. It has little to do with actual intelligence. It has more to do with posturing yourself with a desire to learn and giving yourself to that. 

 We read in the fifteenth chapter of John’s gospel that it is only by staying attached to the vine that thebranches are able to produce fruit. Jesus told his disciples, “As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me…for apart from me you can do nothing.”John 15:4b, 5c.To “abide” in the Greek means to stay in a given place, relationship or state of expectancy; to continue to dwell in, endure, be present to; remain, stand, and tarry long. “Abiding” is not just doing out of a sense of duty what we’ve been taught. It’s about staying in or dwelling in a certain place, being in a certain kind of relationship with the Lord and the people He’s called us to be in covenant with.  It’s an enduring kind of posture, tarrying long in the presence of God and with this people, having an expectation of Him and the relationship that doesn’t grow weary or give up when the road is hard. “Apart from me you can do nothing.” A branch out of contact with the vine or one which has been uprooted is lifeless. A disciple who has drifted or disconnected from the rabbi, one who has ceased to remain in that certain place or moved on because the waiting is long will not be able to reproduce or make other disciples.Sometimes we are tempted to “disentangle” ourselves from other parts of the vine. If we attempt to do so we risk breaking the branches; we risk our own brokenness. We need to endure in discipleship, tarrying long with the Lord in this place he has called us to. We need to “abide” in the Lord so we are able to produce fruit.

Refocusing Our Hearts
 Hopefully, most of us are enthusiastic disciples who have set our hearts unswervingly to becoming who the rabbi is. Someone once said, “If you are not convinced, you will not be convincing.” Are we convinced disciples who can convince others of the truth of the gospel? If we examine ourselves we might find that maybe we have become comfortable with our lives, content with what we presently know of God and self-satisfied with the growth we’ve attained thus far. We may think we’re “good enough”. We may no longer be the zealous disciples we once were.Some of us are tired disciples; age can be a factor in how much enthusiasm we have. Maybe we’ve been following the Lord for a long time and we’d be happy if we could just coast to the finish line. Like the folks in the parable of the Great Banquet (Luke 14:15-24), some of us may be distracted by our fields and oxen that have come to us in the form of our homes, jobs, activities, leisure time, and even our children or grandchildren.We were given an invitation once that maybe seems less important now than when we first received it. Other, “more important” thingsmay have crept in and are taking precedence. Maybe some have grown complacent or even lazy and are tempted to disentangle from the vine and the other branches. Maybe you are one who hasdecided the cost is too high and are asking yourself, “Why am I still here?” “Why should I love these people?” “Why should I continue doing this?”

 Jesus is looking for disciples who understand that the cost is high, often inconvenient, and will requiretaking up the cross and carrying it daily. He wants students, scholars in the school of discipleship, who not only come to class but want to learn, who want to become who the teacher is by loving as he loves and producing fruit for him, proving themselvesto be his disciples. He is looking for those individuals who are committed to “becoming who the Rabbi is” and are willing to say, “My food is to do the will of the Father and to finish the work he sent me to do.”

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Joanie Nath has been married for 36 years and is the mother of three grown children. She has been a member of the People of God Community in Pittsburgh for 30 years where she serves as a Senior Woman Leader and retreat speaker. She also serves in the Sword of the Spirit North American Region as a Regional Senior Woman Leader. She resides in Bridgeville, Pennsylvania, USA.

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