Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls (Matthew 11:29).
A yoke is the harness-collar that a draft animal wears in order to pull a heavy load. Such horses and oxen are trained and disciplined to respond to commands — “walk on,” “whoa,” — or to turn in response to a pull on their leather leads.
Jesus’ invitation to discipleship involves learning from him, listening to his commands, responding to his direction.
Jesus calls people, not farm animals, to follow him, but he still expects us to pay attention, listen, learn and follow his commandments. Jesus’ first disciples devoted themselves to being like their teacher, walking in his ways, paying attention to what he said and did, and practicing what they had been taught.
Like Jesus, the first disciples proclaimed the gospel with boldness, cast out demons, healed people of their diseases and even raised the dead. They taught the way of Jesus.
If we are disciples of Jesus or if we are going to fulfill his great commission to go and make disciples, we had better be familiar with what Jesus said and did. It is not enough, however, for us simply to know about Jesus and follow his example.
Saint Augustine said that, although one becomes a barrel-maker by learning to make barrels, one does not become a Christian by learning about Christ or even practicing being Christ-like.
Jesus’ first disciples tried very hard to follow in their master’s footsteps, but it was dying and rising with Christ that made them gentle and humble in heart.
Luther, himself a “disciple” of Augustine, was very clear that before we can follow the example of Jesus we must first accept the gift of Jesus.
Christians do not imitate Jesus; we are in Christ Jesus and he in us; one flesh (cf. Ephesians 5:31-32). Saint Paul explains himself this way, “It is no longer I who live, but it is Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20a).
Our spiritual discipline, our discipleship, is the same as John the Baptist’s who said, “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).
Only those who have died with Christ in the waters of baptism and come forth a new creation can genuinely follow the example of Christ. That is what we see in all of Jesus’ disciples.
They are transformed from sinners doing the best they can into sinners justified by grace through faith.
Trying to be the best
Peter tried so hard to be a good — the best! — disciple, but he failed again and again! He stumbled, nearly drowned and even denied Jesus three times. From this experience of death only the gift of Jesus as savior could raise Peter to new life. Then it was no longer Peter who lived, but Christ who lived in him.
Paul, too, tried very hard to be the very best person he could be:
circumcised on the eighth day, a member of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew born of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless. Yet whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ (Philippians 3:5-7).
Paul decreased and Christ increased. Just so, Paul warned the Christians in Galatia who had succumbed to the temptation to make something of themselves: “If those who are nothing think they are something, they deceive themselves” (Galatians 6:3).
Jesus told his disciples,
If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it (Matthew 16:24-25).
The greatest part of our discipleship must be devoted to becoming more transparent so that others can see Christ in us.
Jesus himself exhibited this divine transparency: “Whoever believes in me believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees (not me but) him who sent me” (John 12:44-45).
Our spiritual discipline is simply our doing what our being in Christ dictates. When we worship, hear God’s word, eat God’s supper, receive God’s bath, pray, serve, study, wait (I’m convinced waiting is a spiritual discipline) and enjoy one another’s fellowship; all this serves to make the presence of Christ in us more apparent.
Jesus’ first disciples never succeeded at becoming better people.
Peter never did get the knack of walking on water.
Paul was never rid of that thorn in his flesh.
But those first disciples were powerful witnesses of the sufficiency of God’s grace.
Each of them regarded him- or herself as “least of the apostles, unfit to be called an apostle,” but by the grace of God each of them was what they were, and God’s grace toward them was not in vain (cf. 1 Corinthians 15:9-10a).
R. Don Wright is the pastor of St. John’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, Hatboro, Pa.