If you’re like me, the word radical might seem a bit scary and could make you nervous. When I was a kid at home, my parents used the term to describe people or behavior they considered extreme and, by extension, irresponsible and unreasonable. That is still probably the most common way the term is used—to refer to something that is extreme, maybe unreasonable, a bit “out there.”
I was still thinking of the word radical in those terms the first time I read the phrase “radical discipleship.” I couldn’t imagine that such an expression could refer to anything positive in relation to Christian living. Then I learned that our English word radical comes from the Latin word radix, which means “root.” So, to be precise, we should understand the word radical to mean “that which relates or pertains to the root” of something.
In other words, to call something radical means, at least technically, that it represents the most basic, most essential, most fundamental characteristics or qualities of the subject under consideration.
Radical discipleship then, at least as I will use the term, refers to following Jesus in the most basic, most essential way. It is discipleship that takes the teaching and example of Jesus seriously. Discipleship without any “fine print” that attempts to explain why the principles Jesus laid down in the Gospels cannot apply in “our day and age.” It is following Jesus without making excuses.
About midway between his baptism and his crucifixion, Jesus subjected his disciples to something of a reality check. Mark records that conversation in chapter eight of his gospel, verses 27-38. (Click here to read the passage in its context.) Here is my loose paraphrase of what Jesus said there.
In the kingdom of God, there are two categories of people. The first is a category of one, the king. That’s me, and that’s what you really meant, Peter, when you identified me as the Messiah. You meant that you believe I am the one spoken of by the prophets who will liberate Israel and bring about a government of peace and justice.
The second category includes everybody else, the followers of the king, the citizens of the kingdom, the disciples of the Messiah.
In both cases your understanding is distorted, your perception is wrong. You think of the Messiah in terms of power and conquest. Instead of that, you need to realize that what awaits me in Jerusalem is rejection and death.
You think of discipleship in terms of how the followers of the Messiah will benefit once he is established as victor over his enemies and ruler over all the earth. Instead of that, you must come to realize that those who follow me will need to put down their visions of grandeur and pick up their cross.
Luke records a similar emphasis in his gospel (ch. 14), and there he notes that Jesus established his most strenuous terms for discipleship when he was at the peak of his popularity.
25 Now large crowds were traveling with him; and he turned and said to them, 26 “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple. 27 Whoever does not carry the cross and follow me cannot be my disciple…. 33 So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions. (Luke 14:25-27, 33 NRSV)
Granted, Jesus used a teaching technique here called hyperbole. He laid out His terms in language that is exaggerated for effect, but his meaning is crystal clear.
He expected his disciples to be loyal to him, rejecting all competition. He required his followers to be willing to suffer for his sake, voicing no complaint. And he demanded that those who follow Him hold their possessions loosely, willing to surrender everything for the Kingdom, if necessary, expecting no compensation. This is straightforward, no excuses, “get-your-priorities-right” Christianity. This is genuinely radical discipleship.
And this shouldn’t surprise us. After all, the word disciple comes from the same root as the word discipline. Now that doesn’t mean that following Jesus is a joyless, burdensome, “boot camp”-like existence. It does mean that representing the king of kings before a watching world requires a seriousness appropriate to the endeavor.
And talk about joy. All those who embrace discipleship with this kind of earnest devotion are constantly motivated and encouraged by the prospect of hearing the king welcome us home with the words, “Well done, good and faithful servant. It is time for you to enter fully into the joy of your Lord.”
Radical Christian discipleship is simply a commitment to follow Jesus at the most fundamental level of life experience. It is the mark of a fully-functioning citizen of the kingdom of God. It understands that faith is not simply a veneer which we add to a life that is shaped and influenced by the culture more than the values of the Kingdom.
It is true that nobody but Jesus has ever been a perfect example of radical discipleship. Nobody but Jesus has ever lived according to kingdom values with absolute consistency. Despite that, our responsibility, and our great privilege, is to aspire to that kind of devotion and consistency.
None of us will ever, fully and completely, achieve our goal in this regard. That’s OK. That’s what the church is for. More anon.