Last year I attended a seminar at the annual national conference for the Christian student movement I’m part of. It’s topic was discipleship — what it looks like to follow and imitate Jesus.
A key moment in the seminar came early on, where our speaker framed the question of discipleship like this:
“We can’t walk on water. We can’t cure lepers. So what does it mean to say we want to be like Jesus?”
When he said this, we all chortled along. I did too. (I even tweeted it.) Haw. Haw. Yes. Of course!
And he had a point. When Jesus talks about what it means to follow him, he always emphasises being conformed to him in his self-emptying for the sake of others.
Christian discipleship is about following the path he walked. Service. Self-denial. Suffering.
But I’ve realised that there’s another chapter in the story of discipleship. In many ways it’s the chapter of discipleship’s future — the glory following the suffering, the resurrection following the crucifixion.
The New Testament gives us a preview of this when one disciple does in fact walk on water.
In Matthew 14, the disciples see Jesus walking on the water. Most of them freak out — not sure what they’re seeing. But Peter has faith, and asks if he can go out to be where Jesus is. And Jesus agrees.
It’s a dramatic moment. And if it’s meant to be a picture of the Christian life, then surely it’s primarily about where that life is heading — towards the glory of sharing in Christ’s perfect rule over creation.
And yet there’s also much about Peter’s faltering combination of courage and doubt (overwhelmed and distracted by his circumstances) that speaks to us of the Christian now.
Indeed, the themes that swell in this story — trust, loyalty and the need to develop a Christ-centred gaze — simply are the main themes of the Christian life. They’re as true and urgent now in our conformity with Christ’s sufferings as they will be when we join him in his unveiled glory.
For the invitation contained in Christ’s call to follow him is the invitation to take up our fullest and truest humanity. Humanity in fellowship with God. Renewed in his image. And renovated by his Spirit.
And to do so not simply after we’ve emptied ourselves but also in emptying ourselves.
That is the next chapter of the discipleship story. The chapter in which discipleship is the glorious road to our best humanity. Trusting and looking to Jesus above all. And becoming like him — even when that means falteringly setting out across the waters…