Making A New Disciple

Jan 10, 2023

By Phillip C. Thrailkill

It’s a romantic ballad from 1970, but John Denver’s “Follow Me” has a chorus that echoes many of the themes of being a disciple:

“Follow me where I go, what I do, who I know/ Make it part of you to be a part of me/ Follow me up and down/ All the way and all around/ Take my hand and say you’ll follow me.”

My catholic (little c) theology is that I’ve been Christian since my baptism at age nine months on Easter 1954. Trinitarian water on my brow, a flame of the Spirit to light a candle within, a new family to sing me into the reality of “I Have Decided To Follow Jesus.”

A baptismal certificate hangs in my study above my ordination credentials. It came first and reminds me that I belong to One who claimed and then reclaimed me at a late adolescent turning point. Grace is developmental.

The Triune God was always part of life, sometimes ignored, but always an object of fascination and occasional fits of faith and repentance. I was an American by nationality, an unreflective son of the South by cultural heritage, and a loyal but sometimes loose-living Methodist during my mid to late teens. It was an inherited faith and the foundation for a soon-to-arrive living version. Someone was after me.

Those were the early days of the Jesus movement, and a honey blonde who was a year older and well into a new walk with Christ once asked me in the middle of a date, “Phil, are you a Christian, a follower of Jesus?”

My answer was, “I guess so. I’m a member of the Methodist Church.”

It did not impress her, “That’s not what I asked.” I’d given an institutional answer to a spiritual question.

She was soon done with me as a prospect, and when I soon made a surrender to Christ late one rainy summer night in an Episcopal church that left its doors open for local prodigals, it was with a bruised heart. Cupid’s arrows are painful in their extraction.

I wept my way into the Kingdom in the middle of a thunder storm, and when I rose from the kneeler, life had a new center. I was eager to be led, and for 50 years I’ve lived into an invitation first given to Peter, “Follow me, and I will teach you how to fish for people” (Luke 5:10b). Following means missions.

It’s a great deal to get a new life that keeps unfolding with fresh opportunities. I wear several hats, but at the center I’m a disciple of the man, an apprentice, a fan and follower, a part of his minority report and looking forward to being there when the new reality (my spin on the kingdom of God) comes in full. 

Sometimes I sneak into St. David’s, pull down the same kneeler, and pray, “Do it again, Lord!” It’s good to have a site of sacred pilgrimage.

A Formative Teacher. Within two months of these events I found myself sitting in a Wake Forest classroom listening to lectures by Dr. Charles Talbert in his “Introduction to the New Testament” class. My head and heart were ravenous for the riches of the faith. Little did I know he was a rising star and would soon be regarded as one of the world’s experts on Luke-Acts.

After that I took all his classes I could cram in. My father, a country doc, taught me to read the human document. Talbert taught me how to read the biblical document, and pastors need to have both skills. A call was not far off.

He taught me to map the text using the insights of ancient rhetoric that were designed for an audience of listeners. Once mapped, it’s much easier to follow the flow of the author’s thought and to extract its original intent and implications for preaching and teaching, worship and witness. Providence was at work.

A Big Project. I’ve spent close to 8,000 hours with Luke in the last two decades. Twice I’ve preached through it in order, covering all 94 thought units (think video clips). In the five years since retirement I’ve spent a thousand hours a year in research and writing, one of the fruits being three teaching manuals for a course I teach in Nigeria, Liberia, and Kenya. My goal is to prepare pastors to preach through Luke in order and to preach through one of the other three gospels every fourth year.

Luke is the “Discipleship Gospel.” Like Matthew he includes birth and resurrection narratives, but then goes on in Acts to demonstrate the grand continuities between Jesus and his followers. What he does in Luke, they do in Acts, with the Holy Spirit providing the linkages and holy energies. He rules them from above as they spread his name and fame.

So when a recent convert asked, “Why do you want me to read Luke?” my answer was, “I want you to know who’s messin’ with you! Reading our longest biography will prepare you for the roller coaster ride. You’ve trusted Jesus in order to follow him and to learn the ways and means of the new reality.”

“Can I really do that?” she asked.

“Yes you can. I’ve been at it a half century now, and every day I feel like a goober. Join the club! There’s always more of him to learn, and along the way you become a new kind of human being.”

“I need that,” she said, and laughed.

Two years ago I came up with a list of essays to strengthen my teaching manuals, and one was to be titled “Discipleship in Luke.” But when I reviewed Luke’s 94 thought units (think paragraphs), I discovered that 51 touched on discipleship.

The best image for the third gospel is a rope of two strands: a rich gold cord representing Jesus intertwined with a deep blue cord representing his followers. A smaller red thread is for his foes and a light blue thread for his fans. Luke’s intent is to answer two basic questions: Who is the trustworthy Jesus? And who are his not-so-trustworthy followers? Think not the three but the Twelve Stooges!

Layer by layer Luke builds up a portrait of Jesus as the God of Israel’s only Son and chief Agent dropped behind enemy lines in a surprising conception. His words and works reveal the mystery of his identity.

In the light of Jesus’ bodily resurrection we read Luke a second time with insight and appreciation for the disciples who became his new reality road show and a mutually corrective memory bank for their three years together. It was the finest education ever offered. The lectures were at the speed of walking and listening. The lab was every day and all day long. Theirs was an immersive formation in Jesus and the new reality of loving God and neighbors with wisdom and power from above.

Luke’s Christology has been well explored, but not his Discipleology (my new term!)

Two Case Studies. Luke’s literary preface to his biography of the founder of a new movement is 1:1-4. All who heard it read would be impressed with its rhetorical sophistication. Style as well as substance mattered to Luke, who in addition to being a physician and missionary was a first class biographer according to the standards of his day.

What interests me most is that Luke was a special kind of academic disciple. Someone has to have the time, interest, support, and rhetorical training to gather the sources, interview the eyewitnesses, then dictate a complex story to a scribe for a first copy. Luke was a traveler, sleuth, archivist, compiler and arranger, theologian and publisher. That he made the canonical four is the church’s “Yes” to his labors. All disciples follow the same Jesus, but some form a brain trust for the preservation and propagation of the records of divine revelation. We need a few eggheads and artists!

A second teaser is the call of Peter (Luke 5:1-11). It’s technically a “Call and Commission Story,” and Luke-Acts contain 25 examples of this genre (a great Bible study). What’s often missed is how prepared Peter was to confess his sins (5:8) and accept Jesus’ call (5:10-11). He and Jesus had a brief history.

The tool Jesus used to prepare Peter for the dislocations of discipleship was a series of miracles where the love and power of God broke in to deliver and heal. The Father willed it; the obedient Son took action; the Holy Spirit provided the powers of holy love to make it happen. Jesus lived and worked in radical dependence.

Peter, the married fisherman, is facing a Triune Reality deeper than he can comprehend. He’s likely in the Capernaum synagogue when Jesus casts a noisy demon out of an afflicted man (4:31-37). In the next scene Jesus enters Peter’s home to heal his fevered mother-in-law with a word of command (4:38-39). That Sabbath evening Peter’s courtyard becomes an emergency room as Dr. Jesus moves from one to another to heal and deliver (4:4-41). The new reality descends on Peter’s town, and none are disappointed. This is what life looks like when God shows up.

Early the next morning Jesus announces his mission to move beyond Capernaum (4:42-44). Only then does Luke narrate the reluctant obedience of Peter leading to the miraculous catch of fish and of Jesus’ invitation to have Peter and his friends join him in the laboratory of the kingdom of God (5:1-11). Miracles may be a catalyst to trust and faith. Discipleship involves both the seen and unseen worlds that overlap and interlock.

The gold and blue cords are woven together. Christology (the doctrine of the person and work of Jesus) is the basis for Discipleology. Luke has 51 such stories. It’s time to follow and learn. Truth is where you find it, and often in unlikely places:

“Follow me where I go, what I do, who I know/ Make it part of you to be a part of me/ Follow me up and down/ All the way and all around/ Take my hand and say you’ll follow me.”

Phillip C. Thrailkill is a retired United Methodist minister teaching in Nigeria, Liberia, and Kenya. His two previous books are Mary: Lessons in Discipleship from Jesus’ Earthly Family (2007 ), and Resurrection: A Pastor’s Reading of the Major New Testament Resurrection Passages (2014). He served for seven years as the Chair of the Theology Commission for The Confessing Movement and for five years chaired the board of The Mission Society for United Methodists.

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