Second in a two-part series
Jesus’s last instruction to his apprentices is often known as the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples.”
But what if we translated that into the language of the trade school? “Go set up satellite campuses to train apprentices in the ways of the Kingdom.” Which of course is what they did, all around the world. We call them churches.Why are we encouraging this thing called discipleship? Because discipleship is the essence of the Christian life.
Discipleship then and now
“Well,” you may say, “That’s all very well. But Jesus is no longer around for me to traipse around the villages of Galilee after him. How can this work in today’s world?”
It is true that the practicalities are different. But the principles are the same. Bishop of Oxford Steven Croft has suggested that Mark 3:14 captures the main themes of discipleship: Jesus “appointed twelve to be with him and to be sent out to preach and to have authority to cast out demons.” In other words, there are two halves: being with Jesus, and then going out in ministry—a coming in and a going out.
In today’s terms, we spend time in the presence of Jesus when we read the gospels, alone or in a group, or when we hear them explained on a Sunday morning. Prayer also puts us in the presence of Jesus to listen for his voice. And so does congregational worship—above all as we come to his table week by week.
But then there is the going out, the learning by doing. How does that work? It’s not that difficult—in theory, at least. Sometimes it’s in the big choices we make: What work should I pursue? Who (if anyone) should I marry? How should I use my leisure time? How should I use my money? If we really believe that God is remaking the world through Jesus and is inviting us to participate, then no decision is too big to be included.
Of course, in our daily lives it is more often the small choices that are guided by our commitment to discipleship: Should I stop and speak to this panhandler? What can I afford to give to relief efforts in the Middle East? Would this deal my office is proposing be an ethical one? What is our church’s responsibility to these new refugee claimants? Have I the courage to apologize to my spouse (or, even harder, my child)? You and I make such decisions every day.
We may object that Jesus is not present in person to guide and challenge, encourage, and forgive, in the way he did with the Twelve; surely that makes it much harder for us than it was for the first apprentices. But the secret is this: the Holy Spirit is actually the spirit of Jesus—the active presence of the same Jesus who trained the Twelve. Strangely enough, Jesus himself seems to suggest that the presence of the Spirit is better than having him present in the flesh (“But very truly I tell you, it is for your good that I am going away. Unless I go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you.” (John 16:7)—though I confess I don’t fully understand how.
What of the future?
In light of this, I can’t help asking myself: Will encouraging this kind of radical discipleship save the Anglican Church of Canada? Maybe—and maybe not. Philip Jenkins and other historians have documented how over the past 2,000 years whole denominations have come into being, flourished (sometimes for centuries) and then slowly died out. Such things are largely beyond our control.
In that case, is it worth encouraging discipleship? Yes—a thousand times yes. But why, if not for survival?
The answer is that Jesus is not terribly interested in survival. In fact, he warns, “Whoever wants to save their life will lose it.” (Matthew 16:25) We desperately want to save our lives—and that of our church. But Jesus tells us that doing things merely in order to survive is counter-productive: it’s actually a guarantee we will die. The only way to truly save our lives, says Jesus, is to give them away—the way Jesus models for his apprentices, the Kingdom way.
So if encouraging discipleship is not just the latest strategy for survival, what is it? It is not code for being a nicer person, or being more religious or giving time to more good causes. At its root, discipleship is the heart of Christian faith. Discipleship is individuals and communities passionately committed to the living Jesus and learning from him the ways of the Kingdom. It is churches whose whole raison d’être is following the leadership of God in what Jesus calls the renewal of all things. As one young church planter explained it to me, “God is changing everything, and we can be a part of it!”
Is discipleship the flavour of the month? Maybe it is right now. But it’s a flavour worth getting used to. I didn’t have Chinese food until I was 19 (I obviously had a deprived childhood) and I remember being startled at first by its wonderful and exotic flavours. Over the years, of course, that new flavour has become a regular and much-appreciated part of my diet. Maybe the same can happen with this new flavour we call discipleship.