John Carroll finds hope for discipleship in the example of Jesus’ first followers
December 6, 2016
Over two mornings at the 2016 ARMSS/POAMN conference—a national event jointly sponsored by the Association of Retired Ministers, Their Spouses or Survivors and the Presbyterian Older Adult Ministries Network — the Rev. Dr. John T. Carroll shared his wisdom in a comprehensive, two-part keynote address with broad implications for his audience of pastors, educators, and others engaged in ministry with older adults.
Carroll’s topic, “Gospel Portraits of the Disciples and Discipleship,” informed the conference’s main theme, Christian Discipleship: People of the Spirit, People of Hope. The annual gathering was held October 11-14 in Richmond, Virginia.
Carroll, the Harriet Robertson Fitts Memorial Professor of New Testament at Union Presbyterian Seminary in Richmond, is sponsored by the Older Adult Purpose Group of the Presbytery of the James, which also planned and offered the conference’s morning devotions on October 12.
Introduced as an “aging” professor, trombone musician, and author of a new book, Jesus and the Gospels, published by Westminster John Knox Press, Carroll opened his presentation with a deeply personal reflection that resonated with conference-goers across both days.
“As I prepared for the conference today, I have some older adults on my mind,” Carroll said, beginning with his father, a Presbyterian minister, who died in 2008. The elder Carroll, who was active in civil rights work in Texas, modeled for his son how people can work together toward a healthier, more loving, and more just society.
The writer of Luke, Carroll said, tells a story of radical grace that embraces, includes, and welcomes any and all, especially the last, the lost, and the least. He highlighted the prophetic role given in Luke to two older adults, Simeon and Anna. After making various observations, he jumped to the end of the story: the walk to Emmaus in Luke 24.
“We need your wisdom,” he said of older adults.
As he then spoke of his mother, who has Alzheimer’s, Carroll teared up as the room hushed. “It is a blessing both to give and to receive,” he said. “I have learned that wisdom from her.”
Having made that connection with his audience, Carroll launched into the subject of discipleship.
“Especially today it’s not easy to be a disciple of Jesus,” he began. “How does a follower of Jesus look to his teachings as a compass? How do we make a real difference in a world that is so polarizing with such deeply entrenched racism, all of this around us like an air-polluting toxin?”
The gospels, he said, “give a glimpse of the story of the first followers of Jesus,” allowing today’s disciples to discern what it means to be attached to Jesus, and to navigate life by “the same GPS” used by Jesus’ disciples during the short time he was on earth.
Carroll observed that following Jesus was “far from easy” for the first disciples, too. “The challenges they faced were different,” he said, “but as we retrace their steps, we may find hope for our life and practice for discipleship.”
And retrace the first disciples’ steps is precisely what he did in his two-part presentation, beginning on the first day with Mark, the earliest of the gospels, and concluding the next day with an exploration of the vocation, mission, theological vision, and core convictions of the apostle Paul.
Each of the gospels, he demonstrated, paints a unique portrait of what discipleship means.
Following Jesus “Matthew-style,” for example, calls disciples not only to love their neighbors—meaning both near ones and loved ones—but also their enemies, and places a high priority on seeking reconciliation with those from whom one is estranged.
“Jesus sets a very high bar indeed for all of us who would follow,” Carroll said.
In Jesus’ last formal public teaching in Matthew, the sheep and the goats (Matthew 25:31-40), Carroll said that he “holds us accountable for the wrongs that we do to one another,” a counter-cultural teaching in both Jesus’ and today’s world.
“How might a faith community that actually lives this way make a difference for good in a fractured, fumbling society like ours?” he asked.
“Like Cleopas and the unnamed disciple, we have a journey that passes through, not around, suffering and death,” he said. “The gift of the holy, divine presence—the gift of life-nourishing grace—accompanies us along the way, and at table, when our eyes are opened and we recognize him. And at the end, our lives, too, are a journey toward hope. We may not be aware sometimes, but on that difficult path we are not alone. We are in the company of others, with disciples who are both named and anonymous. We are not alone.”
As Carroll moved in similar, exegetical fashion through John’s gospel—concluding that “we bear fruit by staying connected to the vine”—and through the letters of Paul, he charged his audience.
“As disciples we should ask, ‘How are we doing,’” said Carroll. “What does the world see in us in how we treat one another—how we treat others who are also God’s beloved?”
Emily Enders Odom, Mission Communications Strategist, Presbyterian Mission Agency
Today’s Focus: Presbytery of the James
Let us join in prayer for:
Presbytery of the James Staff
Carson Rhyne Jr., General Presbyter/Stated Clerk
Clifton Edwards, Office Administrator
Cindy Hollingshead, Staff Accountant
Phyllis Perross, Phone/Guest Reception, Staff Support
Franklin Reding, Committee on Preparation for Ministry
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray
Gracious God, we ask you to keep the vision before us of what it means to be disciples. Generations before us have followed your light. May we continue to show love and compassion with people whose voices have been long silenced. Amen.