Ordinary disciples

classroom-of-empty-chairs1We’ve all got a lot to learn.

Like most kids, I went straight through from preschool to kindergarten, then on to elementary school and junior and senior high. After college, there was a break of about four years during which I worked and got married. We were off to graduate school on our second anniversary. I became a professor six years later, before finishing grad school.

That was 30 years ago. The way I figure it, I’ve been in classrooms, either as a student or a teacher, for a total of about 50 years now.

Someday in the not too distant future, I’ll retire from teaching, at least formally. But in one way or another, I will be a student until the day I die.

As we’ve seen in previous posts, John the Baptist had his own “disciples.” The Greek word is related to the verb “to learn,” and is the root of our English word, “mathematics” (I threw that in for my wife, who’s been teaching math longer than I’ve been a prof). The word was used for people who would attach themselves to rabbis, to shadow and learn from them. And the Baptist, apparently, had trained his students well. When John pointed to Jesus as the Lamb of God, his disciples left him to follow Jesus, with no long goodbyes.

We know little about Jesus’ disciples overall. But perhaps the most noteworthy thing about them as a group is that they were quite ordinary men from different walks of life. Simon, for example, was a fisherman. When he met Jesus, he promptly received a new name and identity: henceforth, he would be Cephas, Peter, the Rock. But no one else got as bold a prediction of his potential.

Take Philip, the only one in John 1 whom Jesus calls directly. What little we know about Philip from the gospels isn’t terribly encouraging.

In John 6, for example, Jesus knows that he’s about to miraculously feed 5,000 people from a boy’s sack lunch. But he decides to test Philip first. “Looks like we’ve got a lot of mouths to feed, Philip,” Jesus observes. “Where can we buy enough bread?”

Philip doesn’t pull out his iPhone and ask Siri for the nearest supermarket. He probably utters the Aramaic equivalent of “No way!” and insists that they don’t have the money to buy that much food anyway. He’s not expecting a miracle. He can’t imagine what’s possible for Jesus, only what seems impossible for anyone.

Later, in John 14, Jesus tells his disciples that he must leave them soon, to prepare a place for them in his Father’s house. Understandably, the disciples are distraught and confused. Philip reaches out for reassurance: “Lord, show us the Father, and we will be satisfied” (vs. 8). I can imagine Jesus sighing wearily as he responds: “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and you still do not know me? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (vs. 9, NRSV).

For a disciple, Philip doesn’t have particularly impressive gifts of knowledge or insight. But maybe he doesn’t need to. In John 1, he acts faithfully in two ways. First, when Jesus calls, he follows. And second, he invites a friend.

Nathanael scoffs when Philip tells him that Jesus is from Nazareth (scholars tend to read this as a bit of small-town rivalry). Philip doesn’t answer Nathanael’s skepticism directly. Instead, he simply says, “Come and see” (vs. 46) — and it’s no accident, I think, that Philip’s words echo Jesus’ own (vs. 39).

What makes us disciples, in other words, is not that we’re straight-A students. We’re all learners, and we always will be. Like Philip, we may even lack imagination.

But we can follow when Jesus calls. And even if we don’t understand everything we’re taught, we can always invite a friend to come and see.