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How to Use This Guide
If you want to learn how to be a follower of Jesus Christ, the natural place to begin is the Bible. Because the Holy Spirit guided the authors of Scripture, the book they wrote is an always-fresh source of wisdom and inspiration for walking along the way of discipleship.
In this book we will read excerpts from the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John to learn what these writers tell us about following Jesus. As we proceed, we will explore connections between what we find in Scripture, in the history of the Church, and our own lives today. The goal is to become more genuinely and consciously a part of the community of disciples who have followed Jesus through the ages.
Our approach will be a guided discovery. It will be guided because we all need support in understanding Scripture and reflecting on what it means for our lives. Scripture was written to be understood and applied in the community of faith, so we read the Bible for ourselves but not by ourselves. Even if we are reading alone rather than in a group, we need resources that help us grow in understanding. Our approach is also one of discovery, because each of us needs to encounter Scripture for ourselves and consider its meaning for our life. No one can do this for us.
This book is designed to give you both guidance for understanding and tools for discovery.
The introduction on page 6 will guide your reading by providing background material and helping you get oriented to the subject of our exploration. Each week, a brief “Background” section will give you context for the reading, and the “Exploring the Theme” section that follows the reading will bring out the meaning of the Scripture passages. Supplementary material between sessions will offer further resources for understanding.
The main tool for discovery is the “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” section in each session. The first questions in this section are designed to spur you to notice things in the text, sharpen your powers of observation, and read for comprehension. Other questions suggest ways to compare the people, situations, and experiences in the biblical texts with your own life and the world today—an important step toward grasping what God is saying to you through the Scripture and what your response might be. Choose the questions you think will work best for you. Preparing to answer all the questions ahead of time is highly recommended.
We suggest that you pay particular attention to the final question each week, labeled “Focus question.” This question points to an especially important issue about discipleship raised by the reading. You may find it difficult to answer this focus question briefly. Do leave enough time for everyone in the group to discuss it!
Other sections encourage you to take an active approach to your Bible reading and discussion. At the start of each session, “Questions to Begin” will help you break the ice and start talk flowing. Often these questions are light and have only a slight connection to the reading. After each Scripture reading, there is a suggested time for a “First Impression.” This gives you a chance to express a brief, initial, personal response to the text. Each session ends with a “Prayer to Close” that suggests a way of expressing your response to God.
How long are the discussion sessions? We’ve assumed you will have about an hour and twenty minutes. If you have less time, you’ll find that most of the elements can be shortened somewhat.
Is homework necessary? You will get the most out of your discussions if you read the weekly material and prepare your answers to the questions in advance of each meeting. If participants are not able to prepare, read the “Exploring the Theme” sections aloud at the points where they appear.
What about leadership? You don’t have to be an expert in the Bible to lead a discussion. Choose one or two people to act as discussion facilitators, and have everyone in the group read “Suggestions for Bible Discussion Groups” (page 92) before beginning.
Does everyone need a guide? a Bible? Everyone in the group will need their own copy of this book. It contains the biblical texts, so a Bible is not absolutely necessary—but each person will find it useful to have one. You should have at least one Bible on hand for your discussions. (See page 96 for recommendations.)
Before you begin, take a look at the suggestions for Bible discussion groups (page 92) or individuals (page 95).
Following Jesus, Then and Now
Jesus must have had a captivating appeal that made lots of people want to follow in his way. Being called by Jesus and accepting the challenge to follow him radically changed the lives of his first disciples. Today, Jesus continues to issue the call to discipleship, and people continue to choose to follow him. Reading the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ relationship with his disciples will challenge us to tackle the issues of discipleship—issues that deal with nothing less than the purpose and direction of our lives.
Each of the Gospels presents the call of the disciples at the beginning of Jesus’ public life. Then the Gospels focus on the disciples’ attempts to understand who Jesus is and what it means to be his followers. Through success and struggle, insight and misunderstanding, and triumph and failure, the disciples gradually come to know Jesus and commit their lives to following in his way. As we read the Gospels, we are challenged to place ourselves in the role of the disciples—to encounter Jesus Christ, to learn from him, to travel with him from Galilee to the cross, and to decide whether or not we want to be his disciples.
In the Old Testament, Israel was chosen to be the disciple of God. Through his prophet Isaiah, God said to his people, “I am the Lord your God, who teaches you for your own good, who leads you in the way you should go” (Isaiah 48:17). Through the psalmist, God said, “I will instruct you and teach you the way you should go” (Psalm 32:8). Throughout salvation history, God dwelt with Israel and was her divine teacher; Israel received God’s instructions and followed in God’s way.
God’s prophets chose disciples to learn from them and to share in their mission. Elisha was the disciple of Elijah, and Baruch the disciple of Jeremiah. These disciples played a significant role by passing on their teachings, which have come down to us in the prophetic books. In Jesus’ time, Jewish students chose rabbis to follow. The student would absorb the rabbi’s teaching and imitate his life. Then after applying himself sufficiently, the disciple would himself become a rabbi.
New Testament discipleship of Jesus differed considerably from that of the followers of the prophets or the rabbis. Jesus chose his disciples: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15:16). The disciple ideally remained committed to the person of Jesus throughout his life, always remaining a disciple. The task of the disciple was to proclaim Jesus—by word and by example. In these ways, the model for Christian discipleship is not the relationship of a follower to a prophet or rabbi, but the relationship of Israel to God. The disciple of Jesus was taught by Jesus, given a new way of life, and offered a new future.
In each week of this six-week exploration of Scripture, we will look at a different experience of discipleship. In the first week, we will examine Jesus’ initial call for several people to follow him. We will look at what that call involved and the response of Jesus’ first disciples. In the second week, we will examine the costs of discipleship. We will see how the disciples often misunderstood Jesus and what Jesus taught them about the demands of following him. In the third week, Peter’s successes and failures will serve as an example of one man’s struggle to be Jesus’ disciple. In the fourth week, we will consider John, the beloved disciple, and see how his love for Jesus inspired his discipleship. In the fifth week, we will look at Mary Magdalene to learn what her faithful devotion to Jesus can teach us about following in his way. In the sixth and final week, we will discuss how Mary the mother of Jesus is an inspiration for model discipleship.
Discipleship today essentially means being a Christian—entering into a lifelong relationship with Jesus. Today’s disciples are challenged to do what Jesus did: teach, heal, take up the cross, and bring signs of God’s kingdom into the world. Being a disciple of Jesus does not involve just an individual relationship with Jesus but also a bond of unity with the other disciples. It is a calling that embraces the whole of our human existence at every level. Discipleship involves both an interiorized spirituality and an external way of life. Let us enter the Gospels to explore what it means to be a disciple of Jesus, and then let us decide to answer the call and follow him.
The Call of Jesus to Discipleship
Questions to Begin
Use a question or two to get warmed up for the reading.
1 What was it like for you to leave home to begin a new phase of your life?
2 When you go on a journey, do you usually pack too much or leave things behind?
Keep your eyes on the one who refused to turn stones into bread, jump from great heights, or rule with great temporal power. . . . Keep your eyes on the one who is poor with the poor, weak with the weak, and rejected with the rejected. That one is the source of all peace.
Henri Nouwen, World Vision magazine
Opening the Bible
Read the passage aloud. Let individuals take turns reading paragraphs.
What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? Mark explores this question for the Church in his own day, probably in first-century Rome. In doing so, he explores this question for people in every age who are seeking to understand what it means to be called by Jesus and to follow in his way. The fundamental quality of genuine discipleship is following Jesus wherever he leads. These passages from the early chapters of Mark’s Gospel offer us several narratives in which Jesus calls people to discipleship, indicating that discipleship is rooted in his personal call. Of those who are called in these accounts, most accept the call to be with Jesus and share in his mission. One does not accept the call, indicating that discipleship can be refused. Mark challenges us to consider our own discipleship as we seek to follow in the way of Jesus in our age in history.
The Reading: Mark 1:16–20; 2:13–17; 3:13–19; 6:7–13; 10:17–31
Jesus Invites His First Disciples to Follow Him
1:16 As Jesus passed along the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the sea—for they were fishermen. 17 And Jesus said to them, “Follow me and I will make you fish for people.” 18 And immediately they left their nets and followed him. 19 As he went a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets. 20 Immediately he called them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.
Jesus Calls Levi the Tax Collector to Be His Disciple
2:13 Jesus went out again beside the sea; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14 As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, “Follow me.” And he got up and followed him.
15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16 When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax collectors, they said to his disciples, “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?” 17 When Jesus heard this, he said to them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.”
Jesus Chooses Twelve
3:13 He went up the mountain and called to him those whom he wanted, and they came to him. 14 And he appointed twelve, whom he also named apostles, to be with him, and to be sent out to proclaim the message, 15 and to have authority to cast out demons. 16 So he appointed the twelve: Simon (to whom he gave the name Peter); 17 James son of Zebedee and John the brother of James (to whom he gave the name Boanerges, that is, Sons of Thunder); 18 and Andrew, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus, and Simon the Cananaean, 19 and Judas Iscariot, who betrayed him.
Jesus Sends the Twelve Out on Mission
6:7 He called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits. 8 He ordered them to take nothing for their journey except a staff; no bread, no bag, no money in their belts; 9 but to wear sandals and not to put on two tunics. 10 He said to them, “Wherever you enter a house, stay there until you leave the place. 11 If any place will not welcome you and they refuse to hear you, as you leave, shake off the dust that is on your feet as a testimony against them.” 12 So they went out and proclaimed that all should repent. 13 They cast out many demons, and anointed with oil many who were sick and cured them.
Jesus Calls a Rich Man to Follow Him
10:17 As he was setting out on a journey, a man ran up and knelt before him, and asked him, “Good Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?” 18 Jesus said to him, “Why do you call me good? No one is good but God alone. 19 You know the commandments: ‘You shall not murder; You shall not commit adultery; You shall not steal; You shall not bear false witness; You shall not defraud; Honor your father and mother.’” 20 He said to him, “Teacher, I have kept all these since my youth.” 21 Jesus, looking at him, loved him and said, “You lack one thing; go, sell what you own, and give the money to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.” 22 When he heard this, he was shocked and went away grieving, for he had many possessions.
23 Then Jesus looked around and said to his disciples, “How hard it will be for those who have wealth to enter the kingdom of God!” 24 And the disciples were perplexed at these words. But Jesus said to them again, “Children, how hard it is to enter the kingdom of God! 25 It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They were greatly astounded and said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” 27 Jesus looked at them and said, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”
28 Peter began to say to him, “Look, we have left everything and followed you.” 29 Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or fields, for my sake and for the sake of the good news, 30 who will not receive a hundredfold now in this age—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields with persecutions—and in the age to come eternal life. 31 But many who are first will be last, and the last will be first.”
Briefly mention a question you have about the reading or one thing in it that surprised, impressed, delighted, or challenged you. No discussion! Just listen to one another’s reactions.
Exploring the Theme
If participants have not read this section already, read it aloud. Otherwise go on to “Questions for Reflection and Discussion.”
1:16–20. While he was passing along the Sea of Galilee, Jesus issued a personal call to four fishermen, Peter and Andrew (verses 16–18) and James and John (verses 19–20). While they were engaged in the ordinary routine of their lives—casting and mending their nets—Jesus offered them a clear invitation: “Follow me.” These men did not come to Jesus asking to sign up; they were not volunteers. Jesus took the initiative. They were chosen not through any merit of their own. Their call was pure, unexpected grace—a gift from God.
This is the way it always is with God. Why did he choose a slave in Egypt (Moses) to form the Hebrews into a nation? a widow from Moab (Ruth) to prepare for Israel’s monarchy? a young girl from Nazareth (Mary) to bring the Messiah? Why choose Israel out of all the peoples of the earth? God’s invitation is not something one earns; it comes freely from God. Over and over God seems to choose the least likely candidates.
The chosen disciples immediately leave everything behind to follow Jesus. The spontaneous clarity of their response will contrast with the ambiguity of their response later in the Gospel, when the challenges of discipleship become great. Here they place their fate and future into the hands of the master. Jesus and his mission—the proclamation of God’s kingdom—become the new focus of their lives.
Jesus himself is the fisherman here, and the four men are the fish. Jesus casts his word and they are caught up into the reign of God. Jesus calls them in turn to fish for people on this deeper level. “I will make you fish for people,” Jesus says, inviting them to share in his mission. Through their work, others will be caught up into God’s reign and follow Jesus.
For us, as for them, the heart of discipleship lies in following Jesus. His call is the invitation to make him and his mission our life’s first priority. As we study the first disciples of Jesus, we are challenged to ask ourselves where our hearts lie. Is Jesus at the center or merely at the periphery? Is Jesus truly the one we follow, the master of our hearts and our lives?
2:13–17. The call of Levi shares many similarities with the call of the first four disciples. While he was walking along the lake, Jesus saw Levi engaged in the ordinary routine of his life. Jesus issued the personal invitation, “Follow me,” and Levi got up and followed him immediately. Like the four fishermen, Levi separated himself from his daily occupation to form a personal attachment to Jesus and join him on his way.
Mark inserts this account into his narrative to make a point about the kind of people who followed Jesus as his disciples. Tax collecting was considered a despicable occupation by first-century Jews. “Tax collectors and sinners,” a phrase used three times in verses 15 and 16, indicates those groups that were ostracized from Jewish society. The fact that Jesus calls his followers from among the outcasts, and even eats with them, was scandalous. Mark adds an explanatory note to the description of Jesus’ table companions—“for there were many who followed him” (2:15)—indicating that by now Jesus had a large number of followers and that some of them were former tax collectors and sinners.
Those Jesus called were certainly not holier or more capable than anyone else. The fact that Jesus called fishermen and tax collectors indicates that discipleship is not something for which we need to qualify. Jesus called sinners and brought them healing and forgiveness (2:17). He is willing to touch us precisely where we think we are most untouchable.
3:13–19. The core of Jesus’ disciples were twelve in number. Jesus calls those whom he chooses. The Twelve are not more qualified than others; the only difference is that Jesus has called them. The unconditional response of the Twelve is captured by the phrase “and they came to him.”
There are two parts to the disciples’ commission: “to be with him” and “to be sent out” (3:14). These are not two distinct activities but two inseparable aspects of the one call. Being with Jesus and being sent by him is the life of a disciple in a nutshell. Those called to follow were to be the steady companions of Jesus, living with him, being formed by him, and identifying their lives with his. Only then could they be sent out to serve, to continue his mission. We too must come to know and love Jesus intimately before we can continue his work and bring others to him.
The call to discipleship is not a private companionship with him; it is a call to community. The twelve disciples are a motley and diverse group. Greek names like Philip and Andrew are mixed with Hebrew names like Simon and Matthew. There are the “Sons of Thunder” and Simon “the rock” and Judas the betrayer. We are told in other Gospels that Matthew is a tax collector, and thus a supporter of Roman domination, and Simon is a zealot, which probably means that he is an opponent of Rome. The two men represent opposite extremes in Jewish society at this time. Jesus calls different, unique individuals to form a community of disciples.
6:7–13. The twelve disciples who were called to “be with” Jesus and to join him in ministry are now sent out. Discipleship always has a missionary dimension. It is not simply an interior spiritual quest. The Twelve went out and proclaimed the Good News by preaching, teaching, exorcizing demons, and anointing the sick with oil for their healing.
Jesus told them to “take nothing for their journey except a staff” (6:8). They must travel light because of the urgency of their mission and their need to rely on God alone to accomplish it. Not finding security in themselves, they must learn to trust completely in God. When people refuse to hear or receive their message, they must not tarry, seeking to persuade them, but must move on. The mission belongs to God.
10:17–31. Again, while Jesus is journeying, he issues an invitation: “Come, follow me” (10:21). But this time the call is refused. When Jesus issues his call to radical discipleship, the rich man goes away shocked and grieving—“for he had many possessions” (10:22).
The wealthy man seemed sincere in his desire for eternal life (10:17). He had followed the commandments since his youth. But Jesus told him that more is necessary than obeying the teachings of the law. The man could attain his goal only by selling what he had, giving to the poor, and following him. Jesus’ reply falls on the astonished man’s ears in five urgent imperatives: go, sell, give, come, and follow.
Jesus does not require every disciple in every age to give up their possessions and embrace poverty. The cost of discipleship varies for each person. Yet would-be followers of Jesus must rid themselves of anything and everything that impedes their following Jesus wholeheartedly. Apparently this man’s riches were the hindrance that kept him from committing himself completely to Jesus and devoting himself to the mission of God’s reign.
Jesus turned from the rich man and spoke to his disciples about the obstacles to salvation created by possessions. The disciples were “perplexed” (10:24) and “astounded” (10:26) because their culture had understood wealth as a sign of God’s blessings. Jesus never taught that wealth in itself is evil. But love of money, desire for possessions, and attachment to wealth can become an insurmountable hindrance to true discipleship.
The teachings of Jesus on the dangers of wealth for the life of discipleship are often explained in ways that make it less upsetting to our system of values. Yet we cannot escape the fact that Jesus speaks to us all when he quietly affirms that the fullness of life is found not in accumulating things but in disencumbering ourselves of them. If we are not shocked, grieved, perplexed, and astounded by this teaching, then we have not yet heard Jesus correctly.
Reflections. The foundation of Jesus’ call to discipleship is radical commitment. Discipleship today means accepting the same call that Jesus issued to his original disciples—the call to follow him and allow him to be the master of our lives. As in the Gospels, our discipleship involves two elements: being with Jesus and being sent out by Jesus. Being with him means cultivating a relationship with him, listening to his word in Scripture, and encountering him through the sacraments of his Church. Being sent out by Jesus means witnessing him through the example of our lives, teaching gospel principles in our family and society, and extending his healing ministry to those in need. Like the disciples of the gospel, we must renounce everything that stands in the way of responding to his call wholeheartedly. Jesus continues to call disciples today. Our challenge is to allow his grace to open our hearts to him.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
Choose questions according to your interest and time.
1 In what way is “fishing for people” a good metaphor for discipleship?
2 The fishermen might have been paying extorted and inflated taxes to Levi. How do you think the fishermen and tax collector got along as disciples?
3 In the Gospel accounts, Jesus doesn’t call those we might expect: the educated, the religious, or those who are financially and socially successful. Why do you suppose this is?
4 What does it mean to you to be a disciple of Jesus Christ? In what way do you experience a personal calling from Jesus?
5 The disciples of Jesus were a mixed and varied group with totally different political perspectives and social backgrounds. In what ways does diversity present challenges to the community of Christ’s disciples today?
6 Jesus charged his disciples to travel light while on their missionary journey. In what way does your Christian discipleship require you to simplify your life?
7 Jesus said that for mortals it is impossible to be saved, but “for God all things are possible” (10:27). Why is it impossible for us to earn salvation? Why is salvation best described as a gift?
8 The wealthy man’s many possessions were the hindrance that prevented him from following Jesus. What hindrance stands in the way of your full commitment to discipleship?
9 For personal reflection: The teachings of Jesus concerning wealth shocked, grieved, perplexed, and astounded his disciples and the rich man. What is your response to this teaching?
10 Focus question. In what way do the two parts of the disciples’ commission, “to be with him” and “to be sent out” (3:14), define the Christian life? In what specific ways do you feel called by Jesus to be with him and to be sent out?
Prayer to Close
Use this approach—or create your own!
♦ Slowly pray together the following prayer by St. Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow.
My Lord, I don’t know what I ought to ask of you.
You and you alone know my needs.
You love me more than I am able to love you.
O God, grant to me, your servant, all which I cannot ask.
For a cross I dare not ask, nor for consolation;
I dare only to stand in your presence.
My heart is open to you.
You see my needs of which I myself am unaware.
Behold and lift me up!
In your presence I stand,
awed and silenced by your will and your judgments,
into which my mind cannot penetrate.
To you I offer myself as a sacrifice.
No other desire is mine but to fulfill your will.
Teach me how to pray.
And may you yourself pray within me. Amen.
The Corporal and Spiritual Works of Mercy
This section is a supplement for individual reading.
Jesus called his disciples to compassionate service. The forms of practical spiritual and physical service are traditionally categorized as spiritual and corporal works of mercy (see the
Catechism of the Catholic Church, section 2447).
The corporal works of mercy. (1) Feed the hungry. Examples: Fasting to foster empathy with the poor, serving a meal to a hungry person, and working to improve economic and social structures so as to help eliminate poverty. (2) Give drink to the thirsty. Giving cool water to a thirsty person and providing unpolluted water for those who don’t have access to it. (3) Clothe the naked. Offering sufficient clothing, bedding, and tools for labor; suggesting other ways of restoring dignity to those stripped of their self-respect. (4) Shelter the homeless. Offering a sense of belonging to the alienated, abused, and misunderstood; offering housing to migrants, refugees, orphans, and street people. (5) Visit the sick. Giving care and companionship to the ill, homebound, and elderly; meeting the needs of the physically and emotionally disabled. (6) Visit the imprisoned. Providing opportunities for education, job training, and spiritual and psychological counseling to the incarcerated; freeing victims of violence and injustice from psychological wounds. (7) Bury the dead. Providing companionship, grieving with the bereaved, and helping the dying to prepare for death.
The spiritual works of mercy. (1) Admonish the sinner. Offering advice to help a person turn from sin; setting a good example. (2) Instruct the ignorant. Correcting misunderstandings and prejudice based on ignorance and fear. (3) Counsel the doubtful. Giving helpful advice, good examples, and encouraging words to a person struggling with doubts about faith. (4) Comfort the sorrowful. Giving attention and empathy to the bereaved, lonely, and alienated. (5) Bear wrongs patiently. Responding with patience and understanding rather than retaliation to wrongs done to us, in order to prevent harm from escalating. (6) Forgive all injuries. Seeking to heal physical, mental, and verbal injury rather than becoming bitter, resentful, and vindictive. (7) Pray for the living and the dead. Offering intercessory prayer; asking the saints and angels to assist the living and the dead.
The Three Movements of Discipleship
A disciple is a learner, a pupil who follows the way of a teacher. Jesus taught his disciples through the rhythm of his own life, which consisted essentially of three movements: quiet prayer, supportive community, and active service. Throughout his life, Jesus kept these three movements in balance. He taught his disciples to do the same.
Quiet prayer. All of the Gospels, especially Luke’s Gospel, show Jesus habitually in prayer. It is primarily through the example of Jesus praying that his disciples learned the significance of solitary prayer, and it is through portraying Jesus in prayer that the Gospel writers teach future disciples how to make prayer a part of the rhythm of life.
Jesus spent time in prayer particularly at the critical points in his life. When Jesus was praying after his Baptism, the Holy Spirit descended on him and a voice from heaven said, “You are my Son, the Beloved” (Luke 3:21–22). This anointing by the Holy Spirit was a turning point for Jesus and marked the beginning of his public ministry proclaiming the reign of God.
When it came time for Jesus to choose the twelve who would be his closest disciples, he “went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God” (Luke 6:12). After this night of quiet prayer, Jesus chose his twelve disciples “when day came.” Through his own example, Jesus showed his chosen ones the importance of turning to God in solitude to seek his will. He demonstrated that quiet prayer is essential when we are faced with important decisions or when we are at a turning point in our lives. Only in solitude can we know that we are God’s beloved and become sensitive to the movements of God’s Spirit guiding us in the face of critical decisions.
Later in his ministry, Jesus began to tell his disciples that his mission would involve laying down his life. His death would not be a random accident, but the culmination of his life of giving and loving. In quiet solitude Jesus prayed to the Father. While Luke does not tell us the content of his prayer, we may suppose that he spoke to his Father about his upcoming death and asked the Father to give his disciples understanding. Luke’s Gospel relates this scene midway through Jesus’ public life: “Once when Jesus was praying alone, with only the disciples near him,” he asked them, “Who do you say that I am?” (Luke 9:18–20). Only through understanding his identity could they accept the necessity of his suffering. Jesus then went on to speak about the rejection, suffering, and death that his mission would entail. Like Jesus, disciples accept their identity and mission through quiet prayer in communion with God.
On the night before his death, Jesus went out to pray in a secluded area on the Mount of Olives “as was his custom” (Luke 22:39). As Jesus withdrew to pray, he urged his disciples to pray also. In solitude, Jesus abandoned his life into his Father’s hands: “Not my will but yours be done” (22:42). We say the words Thy will be done when we pray the prayer that Jesus taught his followers, and we often say these words without a second thought. But there may be points in our lives when these words choke in our throats, when abandoning ourselves or our loved ones to the will of God takes everything we have. Jesus’ prayer at the time of his looming death did not come easily for him either.
Jesus offered his last two prayers on the cross. He prayed for those responsible for his death, asking the Father to forgive them (Luke 23:34). And at the last moment he prayed, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). In suffering and at the point of death, Jesus prayed to his loving Father, knowing that he was God’s beloved. With this knowledge, renewed in solitary prayer, Jesus was able to give his own life and the lives of his persecutors into the hands of his Father. Jesus invites his disciples into the deep trust in God that comes from knowing that we are his beloved children. This trust can help us deal with a great amount of success and a great amount of failure without losing our true identity and our confidence in God.
Supportive community. So often, we try to do something ourselves. When that doesn’t work, we go to others for help, and try to do it with a community. When that doesn’t work, sometimes we start praying. But the order that Jesus teaches his disciples is the reverse. Discipleship begins by being with God in quiet prayer, then it creates a supportive community, and finally it goes out in active service of others.
After praying all night, Jesus chose his disciples. His solitary communion with God must have helped him realize his need and desire to share his mission with others. Jesus did not choose disciples because he couldn’t do it on his own. He chose them because in his prayerful solitude before God he was moved to activate his divine mission through a community of disciples.
A community is not a group of people who think, talk, and act alike. That is called a club, a clique, or a social group. A community is a diverse group of people seeking to be faithful to an identity and a mission that they have been given. The community of disciples is the followers of Jesus seeking to be with him and to do what he did. The first community to gather around Jesus was composed of men and women who were far from similar; they were a collection of different, and often conflicting, personalities.
A healthy community must be founded on the solitary prayer of each individual. In quiet prayer before God, a person discovers his real identity and call. In the silence of God’s presence, we discover that we are loved unconditionally by God. Only when we are comfortable in quiet with God will we be comfortable with others.
Whether our community is a religious order, parish, family, marriage, or friendship, we cannot expect another person to give us what only God can give. Another person cannot make us feel totally loved and satisfied. When we expect other people to do that for us, our relationships can only be resentful, manipulative, and demanding. Community cannot be formed with lonely people seeking out other lonely people. Only through being alone with God and knowing that we are loved can we become the kind of people who can form supportive and life-giving communities.
Active service. The first word of Jesus to his disciples was always come—come follow me, come learn from me, come to watch and listen. Only after they came to Jesus and lived with him and learned from him could he say, “Go.” First, Jesus called the Twelve “to be with him,” and only then could they “be sent out” (Mark 3:14).
Jesus sent out his disciples to preach and to heal—essentially, to do what he was doing. After being formed in prayer and community, the disciples were ready to share in the work of God’s kingdom. Now they were able to be a community of disciples, proclaiming the Good News in word and deed, and serving humanity for the sake of the kingdom.
All disciples are called to active engagement in the world. Discipleship can never be simply a personal relationship between Jesus and me. As St. Teresa of Ávila said, it means being the hands and feet of Jesus, the eyes through which he looks with compassion on the world.
Jesus sends his disciples into the world for the same reason that he was sent into the world—for the salvation of people. Disciples are to be obedient to Jesus in the same way that Jesus was obedient to the Father. Genuine obedience has nothing to do with forced compliance or unthinking submission. In both Hebrew and Greek—languages in which Scripture is written—the word translated “obedience” is rooted in the verb to listen. Jesus listened intently to his Father in prayer and then responded with his life. He taught his disciples how to listen so that they could then continue his teaching and healing mission.
As disciples of Jesus, we are instruments of God’s saving power in the world. We need to listen to him. If we listen to our own fears, to our desires for power, to the false messages of our world, and to those opposed to the way of love, we are failing to listen closely to Jesus. The disciples in the Gospels failed often because they did not listen to Jesus. They heard the other voices and they denied Jesus and fled from him when conditions became difficult. The way of discipleship means listening to Jesus, imitating him, following him, and taking up the cross.