How To Be A Disciple in a Political World


One year ago yesterday, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America....Anyone feeling a little nervous about what I am going to say next?

In many churches, simply stating the fact of the anniversary of the inauguration would be enough to earn the preacher a charge of “preaching politics” (the unpardonable sin of the 21st Century mainline church). It might even be enough to prompt some congregants to stand up and walk out.

I trust you all NOT to do that, because we work hard to understand each other at Abiding Peace. When I preach something that bothers you, you come and TALK to me about it (a response that I deeply appreciate). And as a congregation we have made a commitment to Loving Dialogue – specific goals, grounded in scripture, for how we will approach each other when we disagree, and how we will call each other to faithfulness. That commitment is posted in our adult education room. We recognize that healthy community does NOT mean uniformity, and that there are many things, politics included, about which members of our community profoundly disagree.

But this is still the only time I have ever mentioned our President’s name from the pulpit. And the collective blood pressure in the room still rises whenever someone makes a political remark in adult forum. And it’s still really HARD for us to move from affirming our commitments to loving dialogue to actually putting them into practice, in an intentional way, as a faith community.

WHY is it so hard? We are a loving community, and members of the body of Christ. Why is it so hard to talk to each other about what is going on in our world, and what we think should be done about it?

I think that the answer relates to the way that our politics can get tangled up with our identities – that inner sense of self and worth that we all naturally defend. Any beliefs that we hold deeply or passionately can become emotionally connected to our sense of identity, and thus defending our beliefs can become a matter of defending ourselves.

Christian author and speaker Diedra Riggs talks about this connection between identity and the disagreements that can fracture Christian community in her book One: Unity in a Divided World.

She writes: “(The) question of identity is a crucial element in the journey toward the oneness Jesus desires for us. If we can extricate our identity from the result of any discussion, argument, debate or conversation, we stand a much better chance of achieving the harmony we so richly desire. Our identity is not impacted by whether or not others agree with us, or even by what others think about us. Instead, finding the right perspective on who we are is based on understanding whose we are.[1]

Today’s gospel reading, in seven short verses, offers us a rich resource for contemplating whose we are, and for understanding how that core identity – rather than our political identities - empowers us, as a loving community, to engage in political conversations.

This is a big claim, so I will explain this interpretation of our gospel text through two related points:

First, what does it mean to be a disciple?

This lectionary passage is generally referred to as the calling of the first disciples. So, what does “disciple” mean? The gospels frequently refer to “the twelve disciples” who were Jesus’ inner circle, but disciple also has a much more universal meaning, which applies to all of us who want to follow Jesus. And that broader identity relates to being a learner, or a student.[2]

In other words, as disciples we are people who know we DON’T have all the answers ourselves, and who want to be guided by our teacher.

Right off the bat, we see the power of this identity. Our identity as disciples is not caught up in always needing to be right (one of my particular weaknesses, as you all know), but rather in looking to learn from the teacher.

As Disciples, we get our identity from our teacher....A teacher who CALLS us, and in so doing makes a claim that he has something to teach us that is WORTH anything we have to sacrifice in order to learn; something that is worth accepting a new identity as ones who follows Jesus.

The original disciples left their whole lives behind in response to that call. And, intimidating as this story might be for comfortable Christians, there is a security in that sense of calling that applies to every person who is called to be a disciple, because that identity is defined by whose we are.

One more thing about our disciple identity. There is a quality of deep, transformative trust in the One whose we are, which is modelled for us in this short story about the calling of the first disciples: “immediately they left their nets and followed him.” (1:18).

Not only did they leave everything they had, and everything that defined their lives up to that very day;

Not only did they leave having no idea where they were going;

Not only did they leave “immediately,” apparently without a second thought and without doing anything to secure their possessions or say goodbye to their past lives;

But also the Greek word that is translated in verse 18 as “followed” means much more than physically following Jesus. The original language describes a relationship of discipleship, even of “siding with (Jesus’) party,” according to the Outline of Biblical Usage.[3]

Discipleship IS being lead. It is the following. It’s the commitment to doing things Jesus’s way. It’s the opposite of Country Club Christianity. It’s all-in.

So, to summarize the first point: to be disciples is to be learners who know our identity is secure in the one who called us and is teaching us, rather than in being right; to be people who trust the one we follow, even when we cannot clearly see the road; and to be people who are all-in on living in the way of Jesus. That identity is the invitation and the challenge of this gospel passage.

So far, so good. Possibly intimidating, possibly encouraging. But I promised to explain how this disciple identity helps us to deal with political divisiveness. So…

Second point: What does it mean to be a disciple in a political world?

The first thing to notice is that Jesus’s disciples were disciples in a political world.

So far, we have focused on the second part of today’s reading, but the full text begins by telling us that these things happened “after John was arrested.” And, of course, John was arrested for political reasons. He was preaching a baptism of repentance, which was a repudiation not only of the ways of the world, but also of the powers that be.

His call for repentance and his wilderness life rejected the wealth and skewed priorities of the political and religious elites, and his preaching[4] directly challenged the right of the king to abuse his power and to break God’s law. We also know, as Mark’s audience would have known, that John’s arrest and the content of his preaching leads to his execution.

And then along comes Jesus and his preaching ups the ante.

Jesus does not merely preach repentance, he declares that the Kingdom of God has come near! He makes the claim of an historical shift where God’s way of doing things is breaking into the world, just like God’s Spirit broke through the heavens at Jesus’s baptism a few verses earlier.

As one commentator says: “Announcing that God’s reign is near has the consequence of an urgent call for repentance,” which means more than just as general remorse for sin; it means “aligning one’s values and way of life to God’s ways.”[5]

Jesus’s message has political consequences, and so, being Jesus’ disciples has political consequences.

Jesus proclaims two clear commands: REPENT and BELIEVE. CHANGE the way you think and live; and put your TRUST in God’s very different way of doing things.

These are political claims because they demand our allegiance over and above any other authority or loyalty that would try to lay their claims on us. They are claims that our disciple IDENTITY (who we are), comes hand in hand with our primary LOYALTY (whose we are).

But beyond the political nature of Jesus’ commands, they are also GOSPEL claims, because they call for us to trust in what God is doing in Jesus.

Repentance doesn’t happen on its own. It comes with belief in the Good News: that God has broken into the world through Jesus and it is Jesus who calls us, who gives us a new identity, and who teaches us as we walk the road with him.

Of course, this good news has too often been contorted into sets of precepts or actions that claim to define what it looks like to be disciples of Jesus.

And these contortions often take on political identities that associate our faith with one or another political party – this happens on BOTH sides.

December’s issue of Gather Magazine, a publication of Women of the ELCA, included an article on the way that we try to substitute claims of absolute truth for absolute trust in God. The author quotes pastor Yvette Flunder, as saying that “religion is violent because we insist on making the uncertain certain.” The article continues “clearly we Christians are not alone in wanting certainty about our religious tradition. But Flunder challenges us to find that assurance in the core of our faith and not necessarily in a prescribed list of beliefs and practices.”[6]

Our faith absolutely engages the political world, but the politics is not where we put our faith. Jesus is.

So, what does this passages say to our second question: what does it mean to be a disciple in a political world? It means that we let go of the need to be right, but not of the call to live rightly as citizens of the Kingdom of God. It means that our identity and our trust and our loyalty all belong to Jesus above EVERYTHING else. It means that we know who and whose we are, and that is our touch point in every political conversation.

We are called to be disciples of the incarnate, crucified, and risen Christ.

Of course, that’s not the end of the conversation. Our participation in the Kingdom of God means that we need to evaluate the policies and actions of EVERY administration from the perspective of how well or how poorly it aligns with Kingdom priorities. Our disciple identity is most certainly NOT the end of the conversation.

But it is the necessary start of the conversation. And it is the secure identity we are called to share, even when our politics disagree. Which means that we really can talk to each other in loving dialogue – even about politics.

And do so to the glory of God.

[1] Diedra Riggs, One: Unity in a Divided World, Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2017, p. 26.

[2] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?page=2&strongs=G3101&t=NIV#lexResults

[3] https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G190&t=NIV

[4] See Mark 6:14-29.

[5] Stephen Hultgren, “Mark 1:14-20, Working Preacher.org. http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=217 (accessed 11/13/2017).

[6] Carol Lahurd, “Shalom comes first: Replacing claims of absolute truth with absolute trust in God,” Gather Magazine, December 2017, p.11.

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