Besides offering an example of discipleship himself within academia, N.T. Wright isn’t typically known for his work on the topic of discipleship. Yet in his recently updated book, Following Jesus, we get insight into Wright’s pastoral side, an area often overshadowed by his scholarly accomplishments, but one I would say is no less important. Yes, Wright is a formidable New Testament scholar, but his years as a chaplain, bishop and a preacher provide a ministry context for his work that is worth sharing. Following Jesus is the fruit of such ministry, showing that discipleship and theology belong together.
Discipleship needs the church
Following Jesus is composed of several of Wright’s sermons from a variety of ministry contexts, giving glimpses into his view for theological discipleship. But the book isn’t an abstract presentation on a theology or model for discipleship (although it is deeply theological while also highly accessible). Rather, Following Jesus offers a window into how Wright sees discipleship occurring within the context of local worshipping communities.
These sermons reflect the day-to-day journey of discipleship within a church. And while at times they don’t fit together as seamlessly as many of Wright’s other books, the accessibility of his sermons more than makes up for any disconnection from chapter to chapter.
King Jesus makes the difference
Part one contains a collection of sermons from 1994. Naturally, some of the cultural references are dated, but these still contribute to Wright’s ability to connect theology and discipleship to the real world.
Each sermon in this section provides a summary of a biblical book from the lens of following Jesus. Highlights include an engaging and continually relevant sermon on Colossians that challenges disciples to recognize Christ’s kingship over all things. Contrary to the world’s way of leading by force, discipleship is about allegiance to the suffering king.
The reader should also note Wright’s sermon on Revelation both for his insightful treatment of the text itself and for the hope Revelation offers. To be the people of the King is to offer the tangible hope of the resurrection in the world.
In this whole section, Wright’s preaching and teaching acumen is on full display. He’s an example
to preachers in all contexts of how to deal concisely and clearly with vast information, without overloading the listener or simply skimming the content.
Following the God of resurrection
Part two has more variety as the sermons come from several contexts within Wright’s preaching ministry. Yet in multiple ways, all the sermons contribute to a broader task of offering a biblical model of discipleship.
The theme of resurrection continues in this section, with the sermon “The God Who Raises the Dead” setting an important tone for how we define discipleship: it’s God’s work in the midst of our failures and struggles that inspires our faithfulness.
Here Wright shows his pastoral heart, guiding the reader to accept that, while we live with much failure, we follow a God of resurrection.
The sermon on hell offers brief but challenging commentary on justice, humanness and theological priorities. Wright points out how what we believe about hell will impact how we live as Christians.
Finally, the book concludes with “New Life, New World”) connecting discipleship to Wright’s later popular themes around heaven (e.g., Surprised By Hope). It’s interesting to see these concepts percolating in Wright’s mind long before his wide publication of them.
Overall, in Following Jesus, Wright proves that discipleship and theology can go together. In fact, they belong together.
Discipleship without theology risks mirroring the legalism of ages past, and theology without discipleship risks becoming mere belief that creates an illusion of faithfulness. Together, however, theology and discipleship reveal the path of following Jesus to be about our whole selves, individually and together, as we seek to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength in all that we encounter in the world.