Christian - Believer - Disciple
There are three words which are often used interchangeably – which shouldn’t be. Those words are Christian, believer, and disciple. I am not saying that they are in no way related; I am simply pointing out that they allow quite differing understandings of what it means to think of oneself as one of Jesus’ crew.
This long and somewhat disjointed reading from Matthew provides an opportunity to call attention to what it means to be a part of Jesus’ movement. What I intend to this morning is use it to illustrate a tendency to short-change what it means to be invited to become one of God’s chosen. And I am going to do so by taking about those three sometimes supposedly interchangeable words to do so – Christian, believer, and disciple.
Let’s start with “Christian.” If you have not read C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity, I encourage you to do so. A coffee conversation a week or so ago reminded me that this book is still popular. That discussion also brought back to mind the content of this short book, particularly it’s opening chapters. (Actually, stop reading after those opening chapters; the later sections of the book are rather dated.) Lewis reminds us that “Christian” is the title used to describe someone who is a follower of Jesus. To be a Christian means that one is following. The word is applicable whether that following is done well, or not so well. Lewis decries the tendency to evaluate whether one is following sufficiently, or in a way which meets the standards of the one doing the evaluation.
Hence, we will sometimes hear “They claim to be a Christian, but are not.” To be a Christian means one thing and one thing only – that you are following Jesus. Sometimes we do that well, sometimes we do not. But once we are a follower, we are a Christian.
In today’s Gospel lesson, we are told that Jesus is traveling among the cities and villages and there are these folks following him. They are watching what he does, they are noting what he says, and they are learning from him the content of the Good News to be shared. Of those following him, twelve are singled out and named. Of course Peter, and James and John are there. So is Thomas, whose story was retold the first Sunday after Easter. Remember, he is the one who expresses deep doubts. Matthew the tax-collector is named. This may be significant because it is in the opening verses of this same chapter that Matthew is called. He is a newbie, a recent addition to the group, so he could not have yet learned very much. But Matthew is named among the followers. And so is Judas – with a note that he is the one who will betray Jesus – but he is there, named among the followers of Jesus.
To be a Christian is to be a follower. It is to willingly give over any attempts at a self-directed life in favor of a life spent following.
I don’t think this is what we have in mind, when we use the word. In modern usage, to call someone a Christian has more in common with calling them a “believer.” “Believer” is the second word in my list of three. And while “believer” is often used interchangeably with “Christian” or “Disciple,” it doesn’t automatically mean the same thing.
However, “believer” is the word which captures what many if not most within our culture associate with being Christian. Believing – believing certain things – particular teachings or affirmations – this is what we most often imply when we ask whether someone is a Christian. We aren’t so much trying to find out if they are following Jesus; we wonder if they believe certain things about Jesus.
Back to my reference to CS Lewis’ book. He warns that we are losing the meaning of the title “Christian,” when we begin to allow it to be used in a way which can be subjectively evaluated. One of my Facebook friends posted on Friday, “Well, I was just told that I am an atheist.” At dispute was her understanding of how a follower of Jesus is to live in the world. The person who refused to allow the label to be attached to her had decided that her way of following Jesus was wrong – so she isn’t a follower, i.e. not a Christian.
If being a Christian is reduced to being a believer, then believing something different from other followers of Jesus opens one up to being prohibited from using the title. If being a Christian is reduced to being a believer, where is the action and activity? Look back at our Gospel lesson. Jesus didn’t ask them what they believed or whether they believed the right things or whether they believed. He merely said, “Follow me.” Remember what the disciples did on that first Easter day? They hid out in a locked room or went fishing. Actions seeming to confirm that they had believed Jesus or believed in Jesus when he told them he would not leave them abandoned.
I am a teaching preacher. Most of my sermons aim at teaching rather than inspiring. So I do have a high regard for knowing, for knowing the right things, and believing them. But believing is not the same as following. And following is what makes one a Christian. Being a Christian involves willingly giving over control of our lives. No longer do we ask what is best for me and mine; we strive for that which will better the world which God has made and died to redeem.
Which brings us to our third word – disciple.
Matthew 10.1 tells us that Jesus summons his disciples. He gives them authority over the unclean spirits, and he sends them out. The disciples are those who are sent into the world. No longer merely followers, they begin to share in the significant work of the one whom they have been following.
Being a disciple does seem to be yoked with what it means to be a Christian. Certainly, being a disciple involves more than merely being a believer.
Too often, in our culture, the emphasis is placed on believing. I have already acknowledged that there is a value to be placed on believing certain things and perhaps even on believing particular things. But believing isn’t what Jesus calls on us to do. Jesus calls on us to follow, and to share in his work.
It is possible to think, given that there are twelve who are set out from the rest, that these tasks or duties or marching orders are only for the few. It is possible to think that – and I am in no position to say that that would be incorrect. But, I would point out that the title “disciple” is used in verse 1, and when the list of twelve is given the writer has introduced the word “apostle.” If you are looking for a way to place yourself outside the category of disciple, verse 2 might allow you to do that. But I am not sure such an attempt at dodging Jesus’ commission will hold water.
I want to pick up on one aspect of today’s reading from Exodus 19. There is a response from the persons to whom God extends the invitation, but that is merely a response. They didn’t decide whether God would choose them. They didn’t follow because they came to believe these things about themselves. God acted – they become aware of God’s claim on their lives and on their very identity – and they respond.
We become Christians when some combination of events and/or circumstances makes us aware of the invitation to come and see, the invitation to follow Jesus. Jesus calls us to himself and sends us out, as his disciples into the world. This is what it means to be a Christian and a disciple. These titles imply a whole lot more than simply believing. All we really need to believe is that Jesus is the one who has called and that Jesus is the one who is sending us out.
What we believe does matter. Because what we believe will give rise to what we do. Those who follow Jesus do the work in the world that they have seen Jesus do. Jesus’s disciples bind up the broken hearted and attend to those who are weighed down.
May we all become believers in the call to follow Jesus. May we all come to believe in the command of Jesus to cast out unclean spirits, curing every disease and sickness.