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?
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,
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 AloneNever
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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?
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,