Sunday, March 10, 2013

What Is Discipleship Anyway?

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The Christian community was first of all a church gathered around the feet of Christ, to receive his Word, to deepen in the apostolic teaching, to participate in Holy Communion and the prayers.
Often in reaction against the perceived narcissism of consumer-oriented faith and practice, a lot of younger Christians are talking about discipleship these days. On the one hand, this is very hopeful. Basically, we're seeing the children telling their Baby Boomer parents, "Enough about you and how you can have your best life now." Many of these younger believers endured lonely lives, letting themselves into the house after school, watching their parents' self-indulgence and unraveling marriages. Now they share their generation's more general concern to look beyond their own immediate gratification to care about God's creation, to seek justice and charity for their neighbors, and to witness to Christ's transforming hope by actively exhibiting a life of love and service to others. In short, they don't just want to know Jesus Christ as a theory or even as an experience; they want to follow him. Not bad, all things considered!
On the other hand, this promising emphasis on discipleship today is threatened by a strong tendency to reduce "following Christ" to moral and social activism-apart from, and sometimes even against, a concern for doctrine. We've heard the mantras: "deeds, not creeds," "living the gospel," "being the church, not going to church," and the familiar line from St. Francis: "Always preach the gospel and if necessary use words." Much of this new emphasis looks to the Anabaptist heritage for its understanding of discipleship. "Anabaptists see the Christian faith primarily as a way of life," writes Brian McLaren, focusing on Jesus' Sermon on the Mount rather than on Paul and the doctrines concerning personal salvation. Younger Christians are offering a bracing and important wake-up call to shift our self-identity from consumers to disciples. But what is discipleship?

A Disciple Is a Learner

Our Western culture has distinguished sharply between theory and practice, and this has affected our view of the relationship between doctrine and life. In the Old Testament, "following after" or "walking after" the Lord involved the head, the heart, and the whole body. It meant understanding and embracing the truth, responding in faith and thanksgiving, and offering one's entire self in obedience. Your heart must be moved by something other than emotional exuberance, but how can you say that you know God if you do not trust him or follow his commands?
In the New Testament, disciple means "student." To be sure, the context is not that of a lecture hall, with students taking notes that will be closely reviewed for a final exam. Rather, it is of an outdoor mobile "classroom" in which the tutorials take place in the context of daily occurrences and analogies from familiar experience. Nevertheless, this relationship provokes questions and answers, conversation, and even debate. Jesus' miraculous signs were always connected to the reality they signified: Jesus as the Bread from Heaven, the Lord of the Sabbath, the Healer who opens blind eyes and preaches the gospel to the poor, the Resurrection and the Life. Both his disciples and critics come to him with questions, and much of the sayings related in the Gospels have to do with his answers in the form of "teachings."
Jesus' disciples weren't just taking notes. They weren't in the lab, but in the field watching Jesus inaugurate his kingdom and hearing him explain what was happening. Even they, however, did not really understand the doctrine he taught until the dramatic events of which he spoke were fulfilled and the Spirit opened their eyes to understand the prophetic Scriptures with Christ at the center (Luke 24).