By Ric Hudgens
*This is the tenth installation of a year-long series of posts from contributors all over North America each answering the question, “How would you define radical discipleship?” We will be posting responses regularly on Mondays during 2019.
What is radical discipleship?
I’m in bed recovering from a stroke. I have dramatic weakness on the right side of my body. I can only walk with assistance. I talk slowly and softly. It is difficult for me to write. I am poor in physical strength, but rich in friends and strong in faith. Maybe I’ll be back to normal some day; or maybe it’s time for me to find a new normal.
Do I have be at full (physical) strength to be a radical disciple of Jesus? Or can I at most hope to be a plain old (un-radical) disciple? Or maybe I can no longer be a disciple at all!
We are not radical because of our gender, or age, or abilities. We are not radical because we wear the coolest t-shirt, or hold extreme opinions, or eat radical food. We are not radical because we read radical books, attend radical conferences, or speak radical words. What makes a radical disciple is learning from a teacher who is radical.
Flannery O’Connor understood something disturbingly true about the radical Jesus. In her novel Wise Blood she wrote of her protagonist Hazel Motes:
He [Hazel] saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark where he was not sure of his footing, where he might be walking on the water and not know it and then suddenly know it and drown.
Jesus as a “wild, ragged figure” is quite different from the well groomed and ever so clean person portrayed in the Sunday School literature of my youth. O’Connor’s Jesus is a mysterious character, given to the shadows, obscure and difficult to see. This Jesus is a threatening figure who gives us pause as he calls us off onto uncertain paths; or leads us out into the stormy depths where we might lose our lives.
This is a figure too scary for Sunday School children to hear about and perhaps that is part of our problem. The Jesus we were taught about as children is not the radical Jesus at all. And having been taught about a phony Jesus when we are children, the radical Jesus encountered as an adult is unrecognized.
We are disciples of a radical Jesus.
Not every Christian understands Jesus in a radical way. An orthodox (or creedal) statement about Jesus may make him sound unusual, but not radical.
James Cone for example has noted how creedal confessions mention Jesus as Lord, Savior, born of a virgin, created not begotten, raised from the dead, ascended to heaven, etc; but exclude anything that Jesus taught or the ethics Jesus embodied. There has been a conscious, theological and political effort by many to separate radical from Jesus, to separate radical from disciple.
Radical disciples are not radical because of temperament or disposition, height or weight, strength or weakness, but because we are perpetual students of a radical teacher.
Our view of Jesus matters.
A radical disciple is radical because of a radical Jesus.
Even when life (e.g. my health) takes an unexpected turn I am not disqualified. It wasn’t about me anyway.
Following a radical teacher is challenging. Jesus is constantly challenging us to look and look again, to listen and listen again, to love and love again.
Even when we are flat on our back the radical Jesus calls us to see things from a new angle.
As a radical disciple.