THE FIRST DISCIPLES. Matt. 28: 16-end., Luke 6: 40 (the one verse only), John 13; 34-35

Few of today's Christians think of themselves as being ‘disciples’. Instead, most would consider that the title belongs to the very earliest days of the Church: particularly to the 'Twelve' who were closest to the Lord Jesus.
 
Do any of us here use the term 'disciple' in relation to ourselves? Most Christians see themselves as being 'believers' and 'followers', and tend to leave things at that. However, to do so raises a question.
 
Why is it that we are so reluctant to think and speak of ourselves as ‘disciples’? After all, it is the 'disciple(ine)’, or discipline of the Christian faith that we subscribe to, and claim to live by.
 
Although Jesus called people to 'believe', and to 'follow; he seems not to have referred to them as 'believers’ or ‘followers’; but, in a brief but powerful teaching, he did use the title 'disciple', in a very encouraging way.
 
He said: 'A disciple is not above his teacher, but every one, when he is fully taught, will be like his teacher (Luke 6: 40).
 
There is the strong inference that Christ is the teacher in question, and that we are the 'disciples' who, if we receive and apply that teaching fully, become Christ-like. Let us tease this out for a while.
 
As titles, ‘believer' and 'follower’ are not nearly as clearly distinguished; unchanging, and safe to use, as 'disciple' is; for these reasons.
 
Throughout the Church, there is no fixed, rigid, commonality of belief. Historically, denominations evolved through difference: as varying rituals and practices demonstrate. No fixed commonality of 'belief', means there’s no fixed common practice to follow.
 
Therefore, the titles 'believer' and ‘follower' are too wide and general. They can be made to relate to existing differences and diversity; and give Christians too much leeway in what they are prepared to believe; and how much they are prepared to express what they believe.
 
But, within the Christian Church, 'disciple’ is far more specific. It relates to a particular teacher (Christ) and to what he taught; and to a particular learner (you or me) and what we must learn; and apply; if we are to remain ‘disciples’. The title allows little or no divergence of belief, or practice.
 
There are just over 250 'disciple' references in the New Testament. Some of them relate to the Pharisees (John 9: 29) and their followers (Mark 2: 18). The Pharisees, and those whom they taught, were disciples of the long-dead Moses; and of a system of law, which threatened failure and punishment.
 
Most of the 250 'disciple' texts relate to the followers of John the Baptist, and of Jesus. Their followers were disciples of living and present teachers; whose very lives demonstrated the mercy, love and grace of God; and the blessings to be received through those divine qualities.
 
The Pharisees who taught; and their disciples who learned: concentrated almost entirely upon what God once did in the long ago; and, by so doing, they bound themselves to the past.
 
The disciples of John and Jesus began to discover, and share in, what God was doing in the present; and, by so doing, they released themselves into the experience of present blessing, and future hope.
 
Such different views of discipleship came into being because, for almost 500 years, there had been no new prophecy, teaching, or movement of the Spirit in the land. Everything seemed to be fixed and permanent.
 
What God had done centuries before, appears to be almost all that the Pharisees and their disciples had to believe in, and learn about.
 
Then came John the Baptist, and Jesus the Christ. They brought with them new prophecy and teaching. They demonstrated the active power of God's Spirit: and touched, and blessed vast numbers of people.
 
But the Pharisees did not see John and Jesus as innovators, with the hand of God upon them, but, instead, as heretics, caught up in blasphemies. Because they were not prepared to learn anything at all from Christ; with no question of them becoming fully taught and 'Christ-like': their functions and ministries became man-appointed, rather than God-ordained.
 
As with those 'First Disciples', long ago, who followed Christ: so with us. We, too, are called to discipleship: even if we do not normally use the term.
 
They were rooted in the best and essential things of their past: but were not bound by them. As disciples: they were very much alive and open to opportunities in the present. Through active faith in Jesus: they were expectantly hopeful of the future.
 
As they learned about Christ, through experience of him, their lives became enriched and enabled: and of deepening spirituality. What they learned, they lived out; what they lived out became wonderfully attractive.
 
Great numbers of people responded to what they saw, and turned to God in consequence. God makes converts, but the Church, through its existing disciples, makes new disciples.
Just as legal and medical men and women, take hold of those who feel themselves called to these professions; and teach them what they know; and make new lawyers and doctors: so with the Church.
 
According to Christ’s word, at Matthew 28, the task of disciples is not to make converts to Christianity, but to take those whom God has converted, and teach them the discipline, beliefs and ways of the Christian faith.
 
Peter and Andrew, James and John, and many others became 'fully taught' and, themselves, became teachers. Later, Paul followed that pattern.
 
First, Paul had to be converted. Only then could he truly learn what faith in Christ meant; and, himself, teach Christian beliefs. Before his conversion, Paul was a powerful believer in, and follower, and teacher of Jewish law.
 
As a devout Pharisee, he was willing to condemn; and have killed: those who believed otherwise. Paul was a 'believer’ and 'follower' in ways that cut against much of what Christ stood for.
 
Paul’s conversion changed the thrust and drive of his faith, from ancient tradition, to the Living Christ. Having been confronted by Christ: in a life-changing experience; he hardly knew what to believe, or in which direction to turn, and go.
 
Then something happened, as he records at Galatians One. That 'something' was that Paul became a 'disciple of Christ'. He wrote that the Christian gospel, and all that it entailed, was not received by him from the Apostles at Jerusalem; or from any other human teacher …
 
... but direct, from the Lord Jesus Christ, through spiritual revelation. Paul said that he received those revelations during a three-year period in Arabia, after which, Christ instructed him to join the others at Jerusalem ...
 
... and take his place as Apostle and Teacher to the Gentiles. He did so, and, in turn, became a 'maker of disciples'.
 
A church that believes that God makes converts, and then commits itself to making disciples, does things in the biblical way. It then receives a new vision to refresh it, a Kingdom-extending zeal to strengthen it, and the indwelling Presence of the Holy Spirit, to fulfil its life and ministries.
 
Acts 3: 19 uses a beautiful image, when it says: 'Repent, therefore, and turn again, that your sins may be blotted out, and that times of refreshment come, from the presence of the Lord’.
 
Jesus spoke of 'living water', to indicate continual freshness within the Christian life. In ordinary terms, fresh water is 'fresh' because it has gone through the renewing process of evaporation and condensation. And so with the life of the Church: and of all who belong to it.
 
To retain vision and zeal, and to experience the ongoing Presence of the Holy Spirit; a church must live within the continuing process of refreshment and renewal - and so stay fresh.
 
If we, through the mercy, love and grace of God, experience a 'time of refreshing', what are we doing to maintain it? Such times do not come into being, and remain of themselves. As the text from 'Acts' says, they take place 'in the presence of the Lord', as part of the blessing of obedient discipleship.
 
Our personal make-up, and religious background, may lead us in a particular direction: and persuade us to use, one title more readily than another.
 
However: Christ’s command, at Matthew 28: was not about us making ‘believers’ or ‘followers', but 'disciples', and that it takes one, to make one.
 
Only God can undertake conversions; and only the one who has been converted can truly 'believe' and 'follow'; but 'believing' and 'following' needs the nourishment and strength that proper Christian teaching gives.
 
The Church is called and commissioned to give that teaching, to receive those whom God is converting, or has converted, and then, through sound teaching, make disciples of them.
 
Of the 106 biblical names and titles borne by Christians; none carry the personal stamp of Jesus the Christ more clearly than 'disciple', for; by his own statement, it is his fully taught disciples who become something like him; their teacher and Lord.
 
Of those 106 biblical names and titles, which also describe something of the Church, as Christ commissioned it; none bear Christ's direct command more clearly than 'disciple-making’. 'Go, therefore, and make disciples’.
 
The obedient disciples of Christ; who become Christ-like and attractive to the needy world all around; also become enabled by the Holy Spirit, to fulfil their God-given ministries. 
 
God called the ‘First Disciples’ into being long ago: but our discipleship, and our ministry, is very much in the here-and-now of the present.
 
                                                                                                            Amen.