The Metaphysics of Discipleship

Perhaps the recurring issue in discussions of Christian discipleship regards simply whether or not it is something that Christians should think they can actually do. Not long into the established church’s history the notion became prominent that the ethics of Jesus, particularly as recorded in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 5-7) and other prominent texts in the gospels (cf. Luke 6:17-46; 14:15-34), simply cannot be done by people who live in the real world. They are rather “counsels of perfection” which are either only for a specific clerical or monastic caste (as in Medieval Catholicism) or they are simply there to remind us all of our complete inability as sinners to conform to God’s commands (as in Luther and most of Protestantism after him).

Now of course this whole discourse of perfection, impossibility, and the real world is problematic on numerous levels. If you want to see them all blown out of the water, just read Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus. However, here I want to focus on at least one underlying issue that informs how we even imagine the shape of any discussion about discipleship. The first thing to be observed is that, no matter what, whenever we read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount we all have a sense of its radical hardness. Even if we believe it is possible, we know its not very likely. However, if we avoid lifting these discourses of Jesus out of their narrative context, things get more interesting. Jesus seemed to think the very opposite in regard to the message he was preaching: “Come to me, all you that are weary and carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light” (Matt. 11:28-30).

In Jesus’ view, the call to discipleship that he was preaching was not something hard and burdensome, but rather a call to leave such burdens behind. Jesus seems to think that discipleship is easy, and that by contrast it is restless striving of the Gentiles and the burdensome commands of the priestly elite that is hard (cf. Matt. 6:32; Luke 11:46; 12:30). In other words, Jesus viewed his call to radical discipleship in a way that is exactly opposite from how we view it when we encounter it. What is to us an impossible demand that must have some other explanation is for Jesus the call to anarchic liberation from the dominating forces of slavery and death.

What I want to suggest then, is that the call of Jesus to discipleship is not merely a moral call to a really, really difficult way of living for the sake of becoming virtuous. Rather it is a call that fundamentally challenges the conventional metaphysics of violence whereby we construe the entire shape of the cosmos. The call to discipleship is a call to nothing less than a counter-metaphysics which suggests that it is in fact supremely difficult to live in this world as a murderer, a liar, or an adulterer. As Stanley Hauerwas has rightly remarked, becoming a liar is a substantial moral achievement. Practicing these acts are what is hard; they are what put us at odds with the shape of the cosmos. Truth-telling, confession, the love of enemies, and the sharing of possessions are not, according the metaphysics of discipleship what make for a difficult life. Rather they are the true shape of human life which, if entered into constitute a cessation of striving against the grain, of kicking against the pricks. In other words, it is the case, as John Howard Yoder said, that “people who bear crosses are working with the grain of the universe.”

None of this is to suggest that discipleship will simply take no effort. The world, which we have come to know in Christ as ultimately bearing the shape of resurrection rather than final death, remains a contested place. The powers of death and slavery continue to rage against the Lord and his Messiah. However, the shape of the universe has been constituted anew in Jesus’ resurrection. As such it is those powers and the lives of slavery that attend them that are ultimately out of place in this world. It is lives of sin, violence, and indifference that are ultimately futile and unattainable.

Because Jesus has been raised, his love, which completely defined the shape of his life is inexhaustible.

His love has been terminated by death and yet it still lives. If this is the case then there is no boundary that can threaten the victory of that love. If this is true then the only actions in this world that are ultimately possible, that ultimately will not be undone are the actions of radical discipleship, that is to say, the actions of radical love.

If we wish to push this line of inquiry to its furthest point, we might even dare to say that only the kind of life that Jesus describes in the Sermon on the Mount is ultimately possible. Such is the sort of description that coheres with the metaphysics of discipleship and resurrection.

 

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