I’ve been thinking a bit lately about what it means to be a disciple. I think it was Dallas Willard who said a better word for us today is apprentice. What does it mean to be an apprentice of Jesus?
We generally think in terms of Christian/not-Christian. The aim of many within Christianity is to see not-Christians become Christians, after all, let us not forget the Great Commission where Jesus commands his closest disciples, “Therefore, go and make Christians of all nations…”, or something like that. To make this move to “Christian” generally means acknowledging particular beliefs (primarily about Jesus) and accepting them as true.
Of course no where in the Holy Bible does the term “Christian” even appear. In fact, as has been noted the term was first used derrogatively towards believers. We often act as if to fulfill the great commission is to get folks across the not-Christian/Christian threshold. Once there, we celebrate! Much has been written to rightly call this into question.
So. Apprentice. What might it mean to be an apprentice of Jesus? Well, the first thing that comes to mind for me is that it is a path one begins down as opposed to a threshold one crosses. It is difficult to pin down just when one is an apprentice. “Apprentice” describes a trajectory, not a final destination. The goal with an apprenticeship is not the apprenticeship itself but what lies ahead. Similarly, the goal with being an apprentice of Christ Jesus is not the apprenticeship itself but the goal towards which the apprentice is headed, namely, union with God in Christ (and in the community which surrounds him). For the believer, to be an apprentice is a lifelong commitment.
Second, to be an apprentice is to submit to the master. It is, first and foremost, to admit that I know not what I am doing nor how to do it. All I have is a strange desire to learn but in order to do so requires me to admit my incompetence and to submit to the way of the master (ht Ray Comfort!). So then, to be an apprentice of Jesus is to hear the call that the disciples heard, namely, to leave everything and follow Jesus. This is the call that goes out to everyone that might follow him.
To be an apprentice of Jesus is to let go of all ones plans, desires and hopes. Not because these things are bad but because we can never presume in advance what the way of the master may be. Perhaps our plans, desires and hopes do not line up with the plans, desires and hopes of the master. Are we, in this case, willing to humbly submit to the point of letting go of our plans, desires and hopes? Are we willing to say “yes” to the way of Christ Jesus even if it means saying “no” to our own way. Think about that. And don’t answer quickly. Really, are we willing to embrace this position of humble submission and obedience? Because, unless we are willing to accept this position we can never be an apprentice. The minute we grab on to the steering wheel and assume that we know how the grace of God may appear to us (and begin to plan accordingly) then we proclaim of ourselves, “I am no apprentice! I am a master!” (This can often be a very advantageous position for a Christian – though not an apprentice – to assume).
Proverbs 14:12 comes to mind here: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but in the end it leads to death.” Our ways usually seem right to us, don’t they? So, we plan accordingly. We make all sorts of plans and have all sorts of hopes for our future based on what we desire. Yet if we forget that we are the apprentice and not the master these ways can lead to death. Why? Why can our ways lead to death even though they seem right? Not because our ways are “bad” in and of themselves, but because saying “yes” to our seemingly right and good ways can mean saying “no” to God’s way. And to say “no” to God’s way is to refuse relationship and instead choose to go off on our own apart from Him. This is death.
The Psalter begins with a contrast between the way of the righteous and the way of the wicked. I am convinced that many Christians today are just that, Christians (one’s who have crossed the threshold). Forgetting all the while that we are called to be apprentices (one’s who lay down their plans, desires, and hopes and pursue Jesus in humble submission). And we are rather comfortable with this. One can be a Christian while refusing to journey on down the path after Jesus (“Thanks Jesus, it was pleasant travelling with you this far but we’ll get off and set up camp here”). But one cannot be an apprentice and refuse to do so. To be an apprentice is to continue on down the path after Jesus. Note, to be an apprentice is not to be perfect, but to simply keep going. One may stumble and trip the whole way along but so long as we are headed after Jesus we are an apprentice. Perfection is not the goal, perseverance is (and in all of our stumbling God takes our human fallibility and uses it…grace).
Contrast this with being a Christian. To cross the threshold requires no perseverance, but once there it does require perfection. One could, I imagine, accept Jesus and cross the threshold into “Christian” and from that point on say “no” to the way of God because we’re too busy saying “yes” to our own ways (we’ve forgot our position as apprentice). One could, I imagine, arrive at the end of their life and look back on all of the nice things they’ve accomplished: a nice family, a nice home, a respectable job and reputation. Add to this “believing in Jesus” and you have yourself a fairly nice life. The only catch (of course there’s a catch) is that one could accomplish all of this while the whole time saying “no” to the way of God. I suppose what I’m trying to say is this. You can be a nice, morally upstanding Christian with a comfortable and respectable life while saying “no” to God and “yes” to yourself. In essence, it is possible to acknowledge Jesus and pursue all of your goals and dreams but actually remove yourself from relation with God by forgetting your role as apprentice. So, may we hold all of our desires, plans and hopes lightly and be always willing to lay them down and give them up at any moment for the sake of Christ Jesus our Lord. For this is life. To chose any other way is death.
What the world needs, I think, are a few less Christians and a few more apprentices.