What is a disciple, and why does it matter?
Lately I’ve been on a bit of a speaking tour. It has been my great joy to have the opportunity to speak about discipleship. As more and more people focus on being disciples — rather than habitual Christians — lives are transformed and our church grows.
But what is discipleship? And why does it matter?
Discipleship matters because Jesus said so. In fact, Jesus said making disciples was the main thing for us followers to do. We’ll get to that in a moment. First, we need to talk about the meaning of the word “disciple.” There’s a danger that it gets reduced to being a buzzword, something we slap onto the latest trends or whatever new program we want to implement.
In his excellent little book Being Disciples, Rowan Williams says that discipleship is a way of being not just set of particular decisions we make or activities we undertake. That said, there are ancient spiritual practices that can help us live as people transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ, people who are disciples.
The word “disciple” literally means “student.” A disciple is a student of Jesus, someone who looks to Jesus as the image of the invisible God, for the revelation of God’s great love for us. Adapting from the cultural context of the first century to the 21st, we might use the word “follower” instead of student. Those who are disciples follow in the ways of Jesus, patterning our lives after the example he taught. Those who are disciples live our lives transformed by the grace of Jesus Christ, the free gift of his passion, death, and resurrection for our salvation.
Discipleship is the pattern of life for a disciple. As our baptismal service says, we are seeking to grow into the full stature of Christ when we are following him. Of course, we’ll never manage to become fully Christlike, but that is the destination toward which we set our earthly pilgrimage.
What would the life of a disciple look like, if we managed to live this way? We would be loving at all times. We would love those at the margins of society. We would invite transformation in the lives of all whom we meet. We would be bearers of mercy, heralds of hope, and agents of grace. We would always speak the truth in love. We would we sacrificially generous, even willing to give our lives for the sake of the Gospel if necessary.
Living this way is not easy. In fact, it is impossible if we try to do it on our own. When we make impossible promises at baptism, we say, “I will, with God’s help.” If I try to follow Jesus on my own, I will fail every time. But by God’s grace and with God’s help, I can sometimes get it right.
Before we shift to spiritual practices, I should make one important point. We don’t live this way so that God loves us. We don’t need to live this way so that Jesus will save us. God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit already loves us more than we can imagine. And our salvation has been accomplished on the cross and in the empty tomb. If you are baptized, you have been grafted into Christ’s body the church; you have died to your old self and have been born again into the new creation. The reason we want to live as disciples is to know and to enjoy the gift that God has given us in Jesus Christ. If we know the breadth and the depth of God’s love for us, we can share that love with others.
In other words, we aren’t trying to be good Christians so that God will love us. We are being good Christians because God loves us.
There are several spiritual practices to help us live this way. Perhaps I’ll say more in another blog post, but we’ll give a quick glimpse here. By the way, I’ve written a small book on the spiritual practices of the Way of Love, and that book will be out early in 2020. For now, let’s look very briefly at just a few spiritual practices that help disciples.
Prayer. Disciples have a habit of daily prayer. There are a zillion ways to pray, and I’ve already written a blog post with ten of them. The important thing is to talk to God — and, eventually, listen to God — every day. Maybe you say grace with meals. Maybe you pray the daily office. Maybe you have a few words with God at the start or end of your day. Whatever you do, talk to God. It’s hard to maintain a relationship with someone we don’t talk to!
Study the scriptures. Disciples delight in scripture. We are meant to know the stories of God’s love for us, for each encounter between God and God’s people in the past is also a promise of God’s encounter with us in the future. The scriptures are not merely ancient texts to be dissected and scrutinized, but rather they are the words of life, the knowledge by which we are assured of God’s loving purposes for us and all creation from the start of time until the end of time. Alongside the sacraments, the scriptures are one of the places we can know Jesus Christ. You might read your way through the whole Bible, or read a book or two, or read the daily lessons. But disciples certainly turn to the Bible regularly. In 2017, I wrote a series of three blog posts on how to get your whole congregation reading scripture.
Worship. Disciples make weekly worship attendance the priority. It is the most important hour (or two?) we spend each week of the 168 hours that God gave us. For Christians, this time with fellow disciples can be inspiring as others offer the encouragement we need. And sometimes we offer the encouragement others need. More than that, however, is our need as humans to offer our thanks and praise to Almighty God. It is the glory of human existence to be able to offer our worship. Sometimes I hear people saying that we can find God anywhere. Perhaps that’s true, but we can surely and certainly know God as the church gathers. Jesus himself was always going to weekly worship, and he kept the feasts. So if we’re following Jesus, we should attend weekly worship and keep the feasts.
Serve the poor and the outcast. Read Matthew 25. Jesus taught that we are meeting him when we feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome strangers, clothe the naked, care for the sick, or visit prisoners. And when we fail to do these things, we are turning our backs on our Lord and Savior. This is not a case of me politicizing the church. Far from it. The Gospel itself calls us do this work. And when we do it, it offers blessings to us and to those we serve. It is Christ’s way.
There are other spiritual practices, and one could write a library on how to be a disciple. The thing is that it’s not just checking off a list: pray daily, read a book of the Bible now and then, volunteer at the soup kitchen, and so on. Sure, those activities are key, but the real essence of discipleship is the transformation that follows our encounters with God and the awareness we develop of God’s love for us. As we do these things, our very lives will become more grace filled. Our problems do not go away by any means, but we might begin to know the peace of God which passes all understanding.
And here’s the thing. Once I am a disciple, I’m going to want to share this great gift with others. I’m going to want to invite others to know Jesus Christ. I’m going to want to share God’s vast love with a world in need of healing and hope. A focus on discipleship is not a vain exercise that is limited to an inward focus. The church that focuses on discipleship is a church that forms a stronger community. The church that focuses on discipleship turns outward to embrace the world with the love of Jesus Christ.
(If you want to learn more about how to create a culture of discipleship in your congregation, Forward Movement is offering a Discipleship Intensive pre-conference before the Rooted in Jesus conference in Atlanta in January 2020. Hope to see you there!)
When Jesus met his disciples after the resurrection, he gave them some marching orders. Until he comes again, Jesus’ instructions still apply to us:
Jesus came and said to the disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Mt. 28:19-20)
Our primary task as followers of Jesus is to make disciples. And the disciples we make are to make more disciples. We don’t just baptize them, though that is of life-changing importance. We are also to teach the commandments that Jesus taught us. And we don’t have to do it alone. We are accompanied by Jesus’ eternal presence and the power of the Holy Spirit.
Being a disciple is highest calling. It’s a gift too great to keep to ourselves. Let us go and make disciples.
Image: Mosaic (12th century) from Hagia Sophia. Photo by yours truly.