In our modern era--an age that values accreditation and authorization--the church itself looks skeptically on those who would attempt to “do ministry” apart from specialized training or recognition conferred from institutions. But institutions are notoriously hard to follow. Somewhere along the way we have lost sight of the wise and simple pattern laid down by the Master: come and follow.
Jesus selected tradesmen and villagers to follow him. In the act of following they became fit to do his work and to train others to do his work. They learned his ways not through formal education but by being with him and imitating him. When Mark’s gospel presents a list of the disciples it states simply that Jesus chose them “that they might be with him and he might send them out . . .” (Mark 3: 14). The pre-eminent qualification for ministry was that they were with him. Even their detractors observed by their actions that these men “had been with Jesus.” (Acts 4:13)
These men traveled with Jesus, camped with Jesus, and ate with Jesus. They shared life with him. If he was invited to a wedding, they went with him. If he taught the masses, they were with him. If he stayed up most of the night healing the sick, they were with him. It was their constant exposure to his presence and activity that became their school of ministry. Jesus did not assign readings or lecture extensively. If they had questions about what he said publicly, they asked him about it privately. If Jesus had a concern about their behavior he asked them about it (for example, “what were you discussing just now?” Mark 8:17).
It is worth noting that with respect to preparation for ministry, neither Jesus nor any of his original twelve disciples would be considered qualified to teach in a university or seminary today. Our educational biases tilt strongly toward knowing about Jesus or about the scriptures as opposed to knowing him or being with him. Objective knowledge is certainly easier to quantify, but Jesus cared far more about relationship than formal education. Clearly he and his disciples valued the scriptures--and all of them demonstrated knowledge of them, but these abilities were secondary to relationship with Jesus.
One gospel account in particular presents a challenge to our understanding of Jesus and his value system: after sending 70 of his followers out for their first ministry experience, he rejoiced before the Father with these words: “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this was your good pleasure. “ (Luke 10:21) What kind of person is delighted when the wise and learned are clueless?
Here’s part of our problem: for many of us “Come follow me” is too simple. Jesus is no longer here, how can we follow? Jesus lived in another place and time, how does his life serve as an example for ours today? Or perhaps the greatest challenge: Jesus is the sinless Son of God, isn’t it impossible to follow him?
Perhaps the very fact that we stumble at the invitation demonstrates why individual Christians (and the church as a whole) have difficulty impacting our society. We are good at study. We are big at planning and organizing. We are very good at structure and control. But we are not very good at following. Those who cannot grasp “Come follow me” underscore the problems we face.
I suspect that we are limited in our effectiveness because we have placed understanding above obedience. We have prized our intellectual capacities above the kind of love that causes us to become imitators of the Beloved. In a natural family children learn first by imitating their parents. Only later do they understand. In the family of God we are at risk of being the kind of people who James, the brother of Jesus, cautioned: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.” His warning reminds us that if we separate actions from what we learned we are setting ourselves up for deception.
Part of the solution is to look for his presence. It is that simple. He has promised it to us. Even as Jesus prepared to return to the Father, he made a startling assertion: “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28: 20) Through the agency of his Holy Spirit Jesus remains alive and present among us. We can train ourselves to recognize his presence. He did not lie to us; he is here for us today. Becoming a follower of Jesus is to refuse to settle for anything less than his presence. This is a challenge to a society (the church!) which has prized education over relationship. We have substituted learning about him for being with him.
If this first step sounds too mystical, too subjective, it may underscore the extent of our need. The plain promise of Jesus is that, through the agency of His Spirit, Jesus remains available for us today: to lead, to guide, in short--for us to follow. Our “studies” in his School of Ministry begin with the refusal to accept anything less than his presence.