“Christianity without discipleship is always Christianity without Christ.”
Tough words from pastor Dietrich Bonheoffer who died at the hands of the Nazis in the closing days of WW2.
But what discipleship? And what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?
Earlier this week church member Geoff Fallows and I took part in an consultation requested by Bishop Paul in setting the direction for the Diocese. The three main areas are evangelism, social justice and for our group, discipleship.
So I have been thinking about this key area now for a few days. What does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus?
In fact, the word ‘disciple’ is used more than 250 times in the New Testament – usually in the plural. The word ‘Christian,’ by contrast, is used just three times. So this is how those first followers of Jesus saw themselves. It’s the word they used to describe what they were about.
US teacher Michael Wilkins, writes that when he asks his students to raise their hands if they are a true disciple of Jesus, few do so. After all this is a big claim, a daunting challenge.
However, in contrast when he asks them to show if they are a true Christian, they all confidently raise their hands. It seems somehow safer.
When I became a Christian all those years ago, the huge emphasis was on reaching others for Christ. Becoming a Christian was the end rather than the beginning of a journey. All the energy went into evangelism. Discipleship as a word was never mentioned.
Of course, daily Bible reading, prayer meetings and Sunday services were important disciplines (as they continue to be) for the individual Christian gritting their teeth in a hostile word. Most of our choruses were sung to a marching beat.
Of course, there is the sense that once we are rooted in Christ, so the sap of the Holy Spirit brings growth and producing his fruit in our lives. We rely on him totally.
But Richard Forster so memorably pointed out in his Celebration of Discipline, “A farmer is helpless to grow grain; all he can do is provide the right conditions for the growing of grain.” But in seeking to provide the right environment for growth, what are we aiming for?
So this is what we were struggling with on Tuesday afternoon: what are we aiming for in our Christian discipleship?
There was one book my colleagues kept referring to in our discussions; in fact, Kip had actually brought his copy along with him, suitably annotated. I was impressed and decided to buy my own copy. Even the title teaches.
This was Alison Morgan’s “Following Jesus : The Plural of Disciple is Church” (ReSource, 2015). And so I am ordering a copy – let me know if you would want one yourself.
Somewhat appropriately I will now have to leave you now for about 20 minutes – morning prayer at church, praying together with other Christians. This will delay my blog – but first things first.
Right, I’m back.
And what is a disciple of Jesus? Her answer: “Learning from your master but learning to actually become like him.”
In her title Morgan makes this clear: We cannot be disciples alone. We can only be disciples of Jesus if we are disciples together. This is in stark contrast to our individualistic world, in which the consumer makes his or her choice in the marketplace.
Moreover, discipleship is a form of apprenticeship undertaken in community. She writes: “Apprenticed to Jesus himself, the key to their identity lay in their relationships, not just with him but also with one another.”
“Jesus taught them gradually, of course. ‘Watch me,’ he said as he healed the sick, freed the oppressed and offered good news to the poor. Then, ‘off you go in pairs,’ he said, ‘you have a go – do your best, and we’ll go through it when you get back.’
“Then finally, ‘I’m off now, and you are to keep on doing it, and teach others to do it too – and know that I will still be with you as you do it.’”
This may be radical stuff but no less radical than the apostle Paul himself who writes: “So in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.” (Romans 12:5).
And as the apostle knew only too well, this was no walk in the park. In fact, being disciples of Jesus means a totally new way of thinking, a way of thinking and living modelled by Jesus himself. So he pleads with his Philippian readers and also with us:
Make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit.
Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.
(Philippians 2: 2f)