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Discipleship:
Going Places
With Jesus

by Joseph Grant

Could you have kept up with Jesus? He must have walked 1,000 miles in three years and worn out more than a few pairs of sandals! Throughout his travels, his most frequent invitation to the people that he met, stated 15 times in the Gospels, was, "Follow me!" Crisscrossing the country, following in his footsteps as one of his friends, was a real workout!

Those who took up that invitation to follow were called disciples, a name that means learner, someone who follows, someone who is going places. Are you considering 21st-century discipleship? You need to ask yourself four questions: Where are you going? Who are you going with? Whom do you hope to meet? What do you intend to do when you get there?

Going Places

Travel, new places and different kinds of people are among my personal favorites. My experiences in different countries, making connections with different kinds of people, opened my eyes. These travels had a significant impact on the way I live my life.

Have you ever paid attention to the journeys Jesus made and the people he spent time with? If we were to trace his footprints through the Gospels, we'd be led along major highways and city back streets, into rural villages and busy fishing towns. Those footsteps would take us into the homes of wealthy and poor people, into the open country as well as synagogues and the Temple. We'd also find ourselves in the houses of foreigners and public sinners.

Jesus visited with children and poor beggars, sick people and social outcasts. He often encountered people who were considered possessed, crazy or evil. He openly welcomed the hated tax collectors and the enemies of the Jewish people such as Roman officers and Samaritans. It was into these situations, and these strange relationships, that Jesus brought his followers, his disciple-friends.

In this new century, disciples are followers of a Jesus who is real, alive and among us "in the flesh" today. As followers, we believe that Christ is risen, alive and present in our world, present in the lives of all the people we come across. But we are also expected to follow a Christ who lives along the edges, the fringes of society. We believe that Christ is present in a special way among the outcasts, the struggling and the suffering poor people of our world.

Being a 21st-century follower is much like being a disciple in Jesus' own time. It means going out of your way, to out-of-the-way places, to look for Christ present in our world. To be a disciple today means visiting the kinds of places that Jesus visited, noticing and listening to the kinds of people that Jesus spent time with.

Imagine your feet left indelible footprints behind, footprints that traced all the places you had been over the course of your life. What kind of journeys would those footprints recount? Where has "discipling" taken you? How have you gone out of your way to follow Jesus?

Go It Alone—Never

Think over your most memorable travel experiences. Can you recall the people you traveled with or those you met along the way? Often the best memories in life have a lot to do with the company you keep. In life, it's the people we journey with that make all the difference. So who are you traveling with?

Jesus seldom journeyed alone. He purposely gathered a community of friends and followers around him. Together they brought God's message to the people. In fact, you could say that by going out and visiting people together, they became the message: "God has visited you; God's Reign is here among you!"

With his community of disciple-friends at his side, Jesus brought good news to people. When he sent his followers out to visit the local towns and villages, they were not sent out alone but in small groups of two or three. Jesus even reminded his followers that whenever two or three of them got together, in his name, he would be there, too.

Being a 21st-century disciple means not traveling alone. It's impossible to be a disciple all by yourself. Instead, disciples become a Church that is always going out to meet and greet and visit God's people. Disciples don't just hang out together, but together they move out, they are sent, they have a mission.

Being a 21st-century disciple is all about the company you keep. Who do you get together with? Do you belong to a group that you'd call disciple-friends? Are you part of a family group, a parish youth group, a religion class or school service group that you could call a community of disciples? What do you do when you gather? What places and people do you visit?

Friendship Turned Inside Out

Across three different continents, I have worked with teenagers. While the challenges and experiences of the young people in each of these situations are very different, they all seem to possess the same special ability: the gift of making friends. What kinds of people do you call your friends?

Jesus befriended a wide assortment of people. He used the word friend to describe his closest disciples. These included fishermen, women, a tax collector and an extremist rebel. He also made friends with the people he encountered and listened to, people like a Samaritan woman and a woman facing the death penalty. His friends included the children who crowded around him, an officer whose servant he healed, the mother-in-law of his friend Simon and many others.

Those who became friends of Jesus were changed forever by his friendship. This friendship opened the eyes, the ears and mouths as well as loosened the limbs of those who were physically impaired. He also opened the eyes, ears and hearts of the friends who followed him.

The people to whom Jesus reached out also touched him. The woman at the well and the Syrophoenician woman (see Mark 7:24-30) challenged him to be open and he openly cried at the death of his friend Lazarus. In the final moments of his life, he even extended friendship to the condemned man dying at his side.

Being a 21st-century disciple means following Jesus into friendship with friendless people. He challenged his followers to avoid becoming an exclusive group or a clique. Instead, he turned the friendship he built among them inside out.

In his company, these friends learned to notice and listen to people in need. They were taught how to heal and serve, to forgive and feed people. This open-ended friendship inspired others to become his disciples.

Who are your friends? How have you befriended people who need your support and presence? How has this kind of open friendship changed you and the way you look at your life?

Being a follower of Jesus in this 21st century means finding ways to turn your friendships inside out, becoming a friend to a world full of friends in need. Disciples can list hungry and homeless people, refugees and outcasts, misfits and lonely people among their friends. Disciples are also available to become friends with people who are addicted or in prison, who are sick, elderly shut-ins or mentally ill.

Can you imagine the transformation that is waiting to happen when the millions of Catholic teens in this country reach out to become the friends of the nameless, unknown people around them?

Think about what would happen to your life if you were to become the good friend of someone suffering with HIV/AIDS. What would it mean if you and your friends were to befriend someone who is homeless or you become the friends of a teenager whose family are undocumented immigrants?

How is your life affected by becoming the close friend of someone who is excluded in school or work because of skin color, appearance or accent? What would it be like to be a friend to someone who is unemployed, mentally ill or dealing with substance abuse? Being a teen disciple means knowing the names and stories of such people and becoming connected to them.

When young disciples befriend people that society would consider least important, they see the world through different eyes. They become implicated, involved and in touch with the stories and struggles of people whose lives are very different from their own. They may find themselves speaking up or standing up for the rights and needs of the ones they have chosen to befriend.

In this way, teen disciples become teachers and leaders in their homes, their schools and their parishes. They show their parents, teachers, adults and even their ministers how to enter into disciple-friendships.

People Alert

When my daughter was three years old, she taught me a memorable lesson about discipleship. We were parked outside our local cathedral, where sandwiches are given to homeless and hungry people. A bedraggled homeless man walked in front of our car. From her car seat, my daughter asked, "Daddy, why's that man so dirty?"

"He's a homeless man," I replied. "He has nowhere to live and nowhere to get washed."

"Oh!" she responded. "Just like Jesus was a homeless man!"

I found myself thinking, "Why didn't I recognize that this homeless person was Christ?"

The truth was that I hadn't really noticed him. I remembered this passage from the Gospel of Matthew (25:31-46): "'O Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or ill or in prison, and not minister to your needs?'...I say to you, what you did not do for one of these least ones, you did not do for me."

Who gets your attention and who is easily overlooked in your everyday life? How often do you recognize Christ in the flesh?

Jesus noticed people. He saw the poor widow putting her meager offering in the Temple treasury. He saw the small man, Zacchaeus, who climbed a tree to catch a glimpse of him. He noticed the tax collector, Levi, seated in his office. He saw Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, yelling out for pity. He noticed a woman in a crowded street who touched his cloak. He saw the crowds who followed him like a flock without a shepherd. He realized that they were hungry.

Jesus also stopped to listen to people and responded to them, sometimes with the simple questions: "What can I do for you?" or "What do you want from me?"

Disciples in the 21st century have their eyes wide open. They notice people. They recognize the Christ standing in front of them in the lunchroom, the Christ who is made fun of at recess and the Christ by the roadside with a sign asking for money. They notice the Christ at the cash register who is struggling to come up with enough money to pay for her family's groceries.

Who do you notice and who gets bypassed in your life? Who are the people you listen to and whose voices do you drown out?

Disciples Stand Out

Jesus was recognizable. His reputation preceded him and he often had to sneak away with his friends when the crowds became too much for them. He was known as a friend of well-known sinners and the social outcasts that others avoided. He was also known as a healer of the people who were sick or broken, and he visited those who were poor and humble.

Jesus challenged his disciple-friends to be servant-friends with a special care for weak and vulnerable people. When his friends asked for recognition, to be celebrities, he reminded them that being a disciple means to choose to serve people.

If disciples are to be recognized it can only be as those who are servant-friends of poor and needy people. Who recognizes you, and what are you known for in school or in your neighborhood? How are you responding to the people who ask you for assistance? Whom are you helping? When have you asked the discipleship question: "What can I do for you?"

Being a teen disciple today means practicing the art of noticing people, all kinds of people. It also means recognizing the Christ in them, Christ who comes in a variety of disguises. It means stopping to listen to people's needs and making time for others.

In the 13th century, Francis and Clare of Assisi were two young disciples, well-known to the poor people of Italy. In the 19th century, Frederick Ozanam and his young friends, founders of the St. Vincent de Paul Society, were well-known among the hungry people of Paris. In the 20th century, the young activist Dorothy Day became well-known to New York City's immigrant workers when she opened Catholic Worker houses for homeless people.

Becoming a disciple is about who you know and who knows you. It's about being known as someone who cares and it's about being known by people in need. Becoming a disciple means becoming connected to the kinds of people Jesus blesses in the Beatitudes (check out Matthew 5:3-12).

Growing by Going and Knowing

Disciples grow in faith by going together to the places Jesus visited and knowing the kinds of people Jesus knew. So what exactly is a young disciple supposed to be doing?

Teen disciples are asked to do three things: to follow Christ, to encounter Christ and to become Christ. Together with your family, your high school friends, your youth minister and religion teacher, you are invited to follow Jesus by going places. You are challenged to practice being a disciple by noticing Christ in the people you encounter. You are asked to become a friend by listening, asking how you can help and reaching out to those who need you.

So, where are you going to be a follower? Who are your disciple companions? Where in your world does Christ need to be known and befriended?

Joseph Grant is the Consultant for Youth Ministry for the Archdiocese of Louisville, Kentucky, and a published author. A native of Scotland, he has been involved in ministry in a variety of contexts and cultures in Europe, Brazil and the United States. He lives in Louisville with his wife, Anne, and their three young children.

Kenneth Gibson III (15), Chris Jasko (16) and Kristen Kinnison (16) are members of St. Anthony Parish in Dayton, Ohio. Parish evangelization coordinator Karen Emmerich gathered the youth to preview this issue on discipleship, a.k.a. evangelization.

 

"To Do" List for Teen Disciples

Here are a few verbs to practice with your disciple-friends and some questions to bring to your family, your youth group or Confirmation class, your service club or religion class.

You are invited to...   

QUESTION: "God, how can we show that we care?"

GO: "Where do you need us to go, God, in school, in our neighborhood, town and beyond?"

VISIT: "Who are the friendless, lonely, outcast  people in our lives and how do we connect with them?"

LISTEN: "Who are the people that no one pays attention to?"

CARE: "Why, God, are your people suffering?"

ASK: "What can we do for needy people near and far?"

REACH OUT: "What do people need most from us?"

PRAY: "God, open our eyes and ears and hearts.  Who will help us to live for others?"

INVITE: "Who will go with us? Which adults and teens can we invite to follow, to encounter and to become Christ today?"

Go therefore and make disciples of all nations...and behold, I am with you...! (Matthew 28:19-20)

 

Q.

One question Jesus asked was, "What do you want from me?" If we asked people that question, I think we would sound disrespectful! What kind of response did Jesus get?

A.

Often a direct question gets a direct response. Blind Bartimaeus answered that he wanted to see again. By asking the direct question, we avoid presuming that we already know what other people really need from us. Disciples are people who dare to ask, "How can I help?"

Q.

You ask us to imagine the transformation into teen disciples. I still find that hard. What do you think will cause it to happen?

A.

Any young person who cares enough to listen to the stories of people in need, who gets to know the names and faces of folks in nursing homes, hospitals, shelters or jails has become a teen disciple. The transformation is already happening! That so many young people care and are looking for ways to help is a sign that discipleship is happening in our world.

Q.

If everyone who went out to do Jesus' work in proclaiming the Kingdom was considered a disciple, why were only 12 acknowledged in the Bible?

A.

The 12 were Jesus' core team and he also gave them the name apostles, meaning special messengers. Look closely at the Gospels and you'll notice many other disciples. Some of them were named—Mary of Magdala, Joanna, Susanna, Martha and Mary, Nicodemus and the 72 disciples sent out to preach in the villages.

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