A Vision for Discipleship

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We talk about discipleship in the life of the church all the time.  But what is it?  What does it mean to live a life of discipleship to Jesus? What does such a life look like, and what does it entail?  Here are some of my personal reflections on the nature and content of the life of Christian discipleship.  I offer these reflections as a work in progress, in the hope that they might help all of us to live more deeply into the life to which Jesus calls us.

A Vision for Discipleship 
What is a life of discipleship to Jesus Christ?

 1. A Recognition that Following Jesus Is a Good and Necessary Thing

“Jesus said, “Follow me, and I will make you fish for people.’  Immediately they left their nets and followed him.”  (Matthew 4:19-20)

Discipleship begins with the recognition that following Jesus is a good and necessary thing.  This recognition can be inspired in various ways.  For some, it is inspired by a personal awareness of sin and an equally personal need for a savior.  For others, it is inspired by an intellectual conclusion based upon a theological conviction.  For still others, it is inspired by an unnamable hunger to find alignment with matters of eternal significance.  And yet, although the recognition comes in different ways for different people, it is always the result of God’s prevenient initiative, mysteriously and powerfully at work in human lives to draw people into the salvation that God desires for all the world’s people.

2. A Willingness to Turn Around

“Jesus said, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news.’”  (Mark 1:15)

In the journey of discipleship, the recognition of the goodness and necessity of Jesus is eventually accompanied by a willingness to take human sin seriously.  More specifically, a disciple recognizes that sin has produced a spiritual chasm between humankind and God that humankind, on its own, does not have the capacity to bridge.  Sin is collective and cosmic.  It is also deeply personal—a rebellion in which each human being participates.  Therefore, discipleship requires a personal turning around (a repentance) in which one begins to turn away from sin in order to turn toward the Christ who delivers us from sin.  Such repentance enables disciples to become receptive to the cleansing and transforming grace of God.  It is also the instrument through which one’s fondness for sin begins to decrease in order that one’s devotion to Jesus and his Way might increase.

3. A Relationship with Jesus as Savior

“God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” (John 3:16)

In healthy discipleship, Jesus becomes more than a historical figure and moral example to be studied and admired.  He becomes a Savior to be believed and embraced.  Although the church’s doctrine concerning Jesus and the salvation that he makes possible reflects a noteworthy diversity, at the heart of these doctrines is the biblical conviction that Jesus, through his life, death, and resurrection, is a Savior sent by God to a world that desperately needs salvation.  To embrace Jesus as Savior (and to be embraced by him) is to acknowledge the holy mystery that Jesus is the One who delivers us from sin, thereby enabling a reconciliation between a perfectly holy God and fallen human souls.  When one trusts in Jesus for salvation, one stands justified before God, not because of one’s own righteousness, but because of the righteousness of Jesus that he has graciously imputed to us.

4. A Transformed Life

“Jesus answered…‘No one can see the kingdom of God without being born anew.’”  (John 3:3)

The concept of spiritual rebirth has become greatly distorted and divisive over the years of Christian history, so much so that, in many circles, an artificial division is created between “born again Christians” and what might be labeled “normal” or “mainline” Christians.  This division is as unfortunate as it is misleading.  Rebirth, according to Scripture, is not a theological dividing point or litmus test.  Rather, it is an experience of being so inwardly transformed by the reality of Jesus Christ that one begins to think differently, act differently, prioritize differently, and live differently, all because the Way of Jesus has now become one’s personal Way.  For some, this rebirth is something dramatic and publicly obvious (such as an emotional experience at a church altar).  For others, it is a quieter (but no less radical) reorientation of one’s life around the ethics and priorities of Jesus.  And yet, no matter the particular experience of the rebirth, it is always the work of the Holy Spirit, bringing people into the new life that only Jesus Christ makes possible.

 5. A Relationship with Jesus as Lord

“Then Jesus said, ‘If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.’”  (Luke 9:23)

Although discipleship demands a relationship with Jesus as Savior (which is often realized and personalized through a single decision and a momentary prayer), it also demands the lifelong journey of allowing Jesus to become the Lord of every segment of one’s life.  This is the journey of allowing oneself to be remade daily into the likeness of Jesus, in such a way that every part of one’s life begins to bear witness to the reality of his Lordship. This experience of sanctification (being made holy) in Christ is the work of God’s grace and is nurtured through the practice of several important spiritual disciplines:

*The Discipline of Prayer—growing in one’s prayerful intimacy with God, so that prayer becomes a way of life

*The Discipline of Spending Time with Scripture—growing in one’s love for Scripture and one’s devotion to its revelation, so that studying Scripture and meditating upon its Truth becomes a personal priority

*The Discipline of Worship—growing in the communal and individual practice of offering to God heartfelt praise

*The Discipline of Alignment with the Church’s Ministry and Mission—growing in one’s relationship with the church, not to perpetuate an institution, but to deepen one’s discipleship and help others to do the same

*The Discipline of Gathering Regularly at the Lord’s Table—growing in the celebration of the Lord’s Supper and in an ever-deepening hunger for the bread of life and the cup of salvation

*The Discipline of Community—growing in one’s commitment to a covenantal and accountability-practicing community, since, according to Scripture, discipleship is to be personal but never privatistic or individualistic

*The Discipline of Stewardship—growing in the practice of honoring Jesus in the way one manages one’s financial resources, one’s time, and one’s talents

*The Discipline of Generosity—growing in a spirit of extravagant giving in such a way that one’s life begins to reflect the extravagant generosity of Jesus

*The Discipline of Outreach—growing in one’s participation in regular and tangible acts of ministry, mission, and evangelism, thereby putting hands, feet, and faces on the love of Jesus

*The Discipline of Working For Peace and Justice—growing both in one’s commitment to standing against all forms of evil and injustice and in one’s commitment to eradicating them in the church and world

*The Discipline of Love—growing in one’s devotion to loving God with heart, mind, and strength, and to loving one’s neighbor as one loves her/himself

While the different segments of discipleship described in this reflection have been enumerated in a numerically linear fashion, the life of discipleship is not always linear in its unfolding.  Sometimes one finds oneself devoted to the sanctifying discipline of ministry or prayer long before coming to know Jesus as Savior.  Likewise, the Holy Spirit will sometimes inspire a lifelong churchgoer to re-experience rebirth because of some newly discovered need for personal repentance and transformation.

Discipleship, in other words, is not a mathematical equation.  It is a relational journey with Jesus Christ at its center.  As is the case with any significant journey, discipleship is frequently unpredictable and unsettling.  It will occasionally demand backtracking and unforeseen detours.  And yet, if Christ remains at the center of the journey, one will have the blessed assurance that one is journeying in a redemptive direction and with the right Companion.

In John’s gospel, Jesus describes himself as the way, the truth, and the life.  Ultimately, Christian discipleship is the transformational journey of allowing Jesus to become one’s personal WAY, one’s personal TRUTH, and one’s personal LIFE.  Paradoxically, the journey is freely offered, yet it costs a life.  The good news, however, is that it is the most abundantly joyful and blessed journey that one can ever experience.

Loving Beyond the Words

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I re-watched an interesting film recently entitled The Last Kiss. The film, released in 2006, creates a rather unsettling and multi-layered cinematic portrait of young men and women attempting to come to grips with issues of commitment, betrayal, parenthood, and covenant. Although I cannot describe the film as exceptional, it does create some memorable moments.

One of those moments revolves around the following words, spoken by an older and wiser patriarch to a younger man who has recently betrayed his girlfriend with another woman.  This younger man begins to talk about how much he loves his girlfriend. The patriarch interrupts him with an observation that is as significant as it is stark:

Stop talking about love. Every idiot in the world says he loves somebody. It means nothing. What you FEEL only matters to you.  It’s what you DO to the people you say you love. That’s what matters. It’s the only thing that counts.

It was a moment that compelled me to reflect upon how frequently I over-romanticize love, allowing it to become little more than a self-gratifying inner warmth and a euphoric means to emotional self-aggrandizement. Sometimes, I throw around the word “love” with an almost devil-may-care nonchalance. I say that I love my wife.  I say that I love my family. I say that I love Jesus. But I also say that I love homemade vanilla ice cream, and comic books, and vacations to far away places, and the food at my favorite restaurants. When it comes to love, in other words, my talk can become extremely cheap. I can say that I love just about anything or anyone and then pat myself on the back for my emotional tenderness.

Maybe the patriarch in The Last Kiss is right. Maybe “every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody,” or something

In the parable of the great judgment, Jesus tells us that, whenever we feed the hungry, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner, we have, in actuality, done those things to Jesus himself:  “Truly I tell you, just as you DID these things to one of the least of my brothers and sisters, you DID them to me” (Matthew 25:40).  In that moment of Scripture, Jesus offers a teaching that we dare not ignore—a teaching that brings him into alignment with the patriarch in The Last Kiss:  “Stop simply talking about love,” Jesus seems to be saying in Matthew 25:40.  “After all, every idiot in the world says that he loves somebody. The words, in that case, mean very little until they are validated by tangibility.”

By calling to mind real acts of ministry like feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, Jesus relocates love from the inner realm of the felt to the outer realm of the enacted.  “It’s what you DO to the people you say you love,” Jesus essentially says.  “That’s what matters. What really counts is whether or not you dared to see my face in the faces of the people around you and then enacted something real for the purpose of ministering to their deepest needs.”

Perhaps Jesus is telling us that the most authentic love is love incarnated; love in motion and action; love demonstrated and offered in the form of tangible acts of mercy and compassion.

In Zimbabwe, it is customary before a meal for two people to stand outside the door of the room where the meal is to be served. One of these persons holds a pitcher of warm, soapy water, the other person holds a basin. Their purpose is to wash the hands of all who are about to eat—a routine expression of servanthood and hospitality in a culture where such things are still treasured.

Once during my trip to Zimbabwe, as my hands were being washed before a meal, I expressed my gratitude to the two young boys who were doing the washing.  One of the boys responded in this fashion:  “It is we who are grateful, sir.  You are helping us to love you by allowing us to serve you.”

That boy’s words were a powerful reminder to me that the love of Jesus Christ finds its most profound expression, not in the words that we speak (essential as those words may be), but in the tangible ministry and servanthood that we offer.

My prayer for the church is that its people will be so inwardly transformed by the Holy Spirit that the words of the familiar song will finally become fully applicable: “They’ll know we are Christians by our love.” Not by our words, primarily. But by our indefatigable love.

It was a nice cinematic moment in “The Last Kiss.” It made me want to love more dynamically and faithfully.