Over the next three to four weeks, I’d like us to engage in some hands-on Bible study on the topic of discipleship. I’ve always thought “discipleship” took on a whole new meaning when we consider its relationship to the word discipline. It becomes harder, more difficult, like a feat if you can achieve it. But, “discipline” also gives the concept of discipleship a certain weight it didn’t have before. There’s a real prize at the end, just like you’d expect there to be if you disciplined your body in preparation for a long and difficult race.
Paul’s Second Letter to the Corinthians doesn’t discuss discipleship in any explicit sense. Instead, Paul talks about mirroring Jesus Christ and the way he lived in the world. To be Christ’s disciples means to make his mission in the world our mission in the world.
Holy God — our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer — guide us this morning by your Word and your Holy Spirit, so that in your light we might see light, and in your truth, we might find freedom, and in your will, we might truly discover peace through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
2 Corinthians 2:12-3:6
When I came to Troas to proclaim the good news of Christ, a door was opened for me in the Lord; but my mind could not rest because I did not find my brother Titus there. So I said farewell to them and went on to Macedonia. But thanks be to God, who in Christ always leads us in triumphal procession, and through us spreads in every place the fragrance that comes from knowing him. For we are the aroma of Christ to God among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing; to the one a fragrance from death to death, to the other a fragrance from life to life. Who is sufficient for these things? For we are not peddlers of God’s word like so many; but in Christ we speak as persons of sincerity, as persons sent from God and standing in his presence. Are we beginning to commend ourselves again? Surely we do not need, as some do, letters of recommendation to you or from you, do we? You yourselves are our letter, written on our hearts, to be known and read by all; and you show that you are a letter of Christ, prepared by us, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts. Such is the confidence that we have through Christ toward God. Not that we are competent of ourselves to claim anything as coming from us; our competence is from God, who has made us competent to be ministers of a new covenant, not of letter but of spirit; for the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.
“I Have Decided to Follow Jesus” — Frederick W. Faber (YouTube video for in-home worship: https://youtu.be/5OWWqS1jnOw)
I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; No turning back, no turning back. The world behind me, the cross before me, The world behind me, the cross before me; The world behind me, the cross before me; No turning back, no turning back. Tho' none go with me, I still will follow, Tho' none go with me I still will follow, Tho' none go with me, I still will follow; No turning back, no turning back. Will you decide now, to follow Jesus? Will you decide now, to follow Jesus? Will you decide now, to follow Jesus? No turning back, no turning back. I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; I have decided to follow Jesus; No turning back, no turning back. (Repeat)
Any conversation about what discipleship means for us today has to begin with the Book of Acts. Luke opens up Acts with a reference to the Gospel he had just finished. The two books are two halves of the same story, he effectively says, seeing as they’re both based entirely around the mission of Jesus Christ even though at the end of the first one Jesus is gone and ascended into heaven. Listen to how Luke puts it in Acts 1:1-2. “In the first book, Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commandment through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen.” That word “began” is crucial. Through the power and vision of the Holy Spirit, the very mission of Jesus continues on in his disciples (that’s us!) and spreads all the way to the ends of the earth (Acts 28:16-31).
Which brings us to 2 Corinthians 2-3. Here Paul is highlighting the fact that his mission mirrors the mission that Jesus also performed. What Jesus did in his earthly life — his teachings, healings, sacrifice, and resurrection — Paul and all disciples of Jesus are called to do as well. Just as Jesus’ mission began with the coming of the Holy Spirit upon him at his baptism, so our mission begins when the Spirit descends upon our own lives. After all, as Paul mentions, it is only through us that God spreads the good news (2:14).
The significance of the Holy Spirit’s presence and empowerment cannot be overstated. Paul’s apostleship, and thus his mission, had come under attack by some people in Corinth who thought themselves more capable and more worthy of the gospel ministry. This letter serves as Paul’s defense of his apostleship and mission, a defense that finds its basis in God’s calling and the Spirit’s continued presence and teaching, not in his own salesmanship (2:17). There’s a lesson here: As missionaries of Christ sent by the Father, through the Spirit, and in Jesus’ name, we mirror Christ to those in front of whom we speak and live.
A good word for all of this might be that we are Christ’s “ambassadors” to the world. Our mission is first and foremost a call to embody Christ among everyone, both to those who accept him and those who reject him (2:15). But we are not the “fragrance” or “aroma” itself. No reason for us to get big heads, now! We are merely the bearers of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ that he preached and lived, which means that our mission goes beyond preaching words and includes actively working to heal the world, just as Jesus did. So, we witness to what God has done and is continuing to do to heal and save the world, and we do this through our lives and our message. Through all of this, the Spirit uses us to bring new life (3:6).
The genuineness of Paul’s mission found its basis in not only his life as it reflected the life and mission of Christ, but also in the life of the Corinthians who believed his message and were sealed with the Holy Spirit (3:3). Paul’s confidence came directly from his dependence upon God and thus upon God’s faithfulness to him (3:4-6). For Paul in the first century and for us today, this confidence is a key component of discipleship. Just as God did not leave Christ in the grave but resurrected him from the dead, so he will not leave those of us who mirror Christ. We enjoy the same hope of resurrection life both now and in the future.
An important implication rises out all of this. If we see our mission as continuing Christ’s mission, then our confidence is not dependent upon the numerical outcome of our mission but upon God’s ability and faithfulness to us. This means that the success of our mission doesn’t depend upon us. It depends upon God and God alone. After all, Jesus got crucified for going about his mission, which means that the outcomes aren’t always what we might expect them to be.
In the end, we’re called to obedience, to be faithful to the person of Christ in our words and through our actions. We do what he did and say what he said because it is there that we — and the world — find God’s new and beautiful life.
Questions for Reflection
- The mission of Christ was to come and die. How can you mirror Christ’s mission by sacrificing today?
- Have you ever been worried about witnessing to God’s saving love and action because of a fear of failing? How might it help to know that we’re called to faithfulness and obedience, not success?
Holy God, help us to be your disciples who through your power and grace proclaim your truth with boldness, perform your justice with compassion, and love all of our neighbors and strangers with faithfulness and sacrifice. We ask this in the name of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.