Belonging Before Believing

Twenty-fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Matthew 25:31–46

When did the disciples “believe” in Jesus? Whatever we mean by “believe,” the different gospel writers put that point at different times depending on their particular agenda.

In the Gospel of John, the author states quite early that it wasn’t until after the resurrection that the disciples finally got it: “After he was raised from the dead, his disciples recalled what he had said. Then they believed the scripture and the words that Jesus had spoken” (John 2:22)

In the synoptic Gospels, Peter, the spokesperson of the disciples, confesses that Jesus is the messiah, but we can be sure that his understanding of who the messiah is was incomplete at best and more likely completely wrong, since he attempts to rebuke Jesus for predicting his execution and resurrection (Matt 16:21–3, Mark 8:27–33, Luke 9:18–20; Luke does not include Peter’s rebuke).

In the Gospel of Mark, the evangelist who is least charitable to the disciples, Jesus rebukes the disciples in a post-resurrection appearance for their “lack of faith and stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (Mark 16:14).

In Luke-Acts, we read that the full understanding of Jesus comes in post-resurrection appearances, with the eleven, with some of the other disciples on the road to Emmaus, and in the upper room.

Many other askew declarations, denials, and confirmations could be added. Jesus’s disciples just took a long time to “get it.” They ministered with Jesus, saw him perform miracles, were sent out in the power of God to heal and cast out demons, witnessed the Transfiguration, and were still some of the most obtuse characters we read in any story.

The point is that Jesus’s disciples were disciples before they believed, which flies in the face of everything we have learned from American Christianity and its enthusiasm for converts. Romans Road, the Four Spiritual Laws, the Bridge: these are all paradigms for making new Christians, not disciples.

Disciples are those that follow in the footsteps of their teacher and master. Disciples of Jesus do the work he commanded and demonstrated. They feed the hungry, offer clean water to the thirsty, clothe the naked, and offer hospitality to the stranger, for these are the things that Jesus did.

The lectionary passage comes from a larger portion of Jesus’s teaching that is prompted by the disciples’ question regarding the End Times: “‘Tell us,’ they said, ‘when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?’”

Over against so many Christians’ attempts to predict the date of Christ’s return and the way this causes them to get wrapped up in the worst pursuits of human history, Christ is adamant that even he doesn’t know. What he does know, however, is what will be of most import in those days: whether or not we had mercy and compassion upon the weak and vulnerable in the world, whether or not we got close to the poor, the homeless, and the vulnerable in order to see, understand, and work to offer aid.

This passage is seemingly unimpressed with beliefs, emphasizing instead our actions. It reminds me of a quote (I regret I cannot attribute it properly): “Jesus would rather be taken seriously than worshipped. Of course, if you take Jesus seriously, you’ll worship him.” Taking Jesus seriously means being his disciple. Being Jesus’s disciple means that I won’t always “get it.”

Being Jesus’s disciple means that I can partner with those who say that want nothing to do with Christians or the Church or even God. Discipleship can and does happen before belief. Atheist disciples? Muslim disciples? Apathetic disciples? These all seem possible to me if the invitation to follow Christ happens through our obedience. Perhaps by faithfully obeying Christ and feeding the hungry alongside non-Christians opens up the space for them to someday “get it.” I believe now that works of mercy are evangelism, the making of new disciples.

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