Discipleship is central to the New Testament’s understanding of belief in Jesus of Nazareth. NT belief was not passive; Jesus called people to follow him and learn from him.
But what does it mean to be a disciple of Jesus today? How is following and learning from Jesus now manifested?
Following Jesus still means learning from him but rather than literally sitting at his feet, we have the record of his life and teaching in Scripture. Indeed for Christians, the whole Scriptures of Old and New Testament are best understood and valued through their relationship to Jesus Christ. And while we do not have Jesus physically with us, we have his promised Holy Spirit to guide and shape our hearts and minds.
Through the Scriptures we are instructed in the way of Jesus but, most importantly, we also learn what he has done for us and why that is significant. Disciples imitate and serve their teacher, but firstly Jesus’ disciples benefit directly from his act of self-sacrifice and atonement and the gift of his Spirit.
The original disciples were more than lone learners, they were members of a community of followers. The church remains the community of Jesus’ disciples, receiving his grace, following his manifesto and worshipping him as the only Son of the Father. This communal dynamic to Christian life is a powerful antidote to the present consumerism and individualism that infect both the church and wider society.
Ultimately, our understanding of the Bible and Jesus shapes our understanding of discipleship. Disciples of Jesus the political radical will follow suit, challenging the powers and structures of society. Disciples of the cosmic mystical Christ will join him in contemplation. Disciples of Jesus the itinerant preacher will likely have a pulpit focussed ministry. Consequently, it’s vital that we have a balanced view of Jesus, encompassing all of his priorities and characteristics. This is primarily because we do not give him his full glory if we recognise only those gospel qualities that most resonate with us. But also, our discipleship is affected by a skewed view of the teacher we follow.
Similarly, how we view church will also shape our expectations of discipleship and I would like to suggest this is an aspect of Christianity which is seriously off course.
Our current view and experience of the church is often so anaemic that our perspective on discipleship is sadly lacklustre. Church is supposed to be a mode of existence; it’s the community of God’s people, the embodiment of his presence and the anticipation of his Kingdom. But by reducing church to the weekly praise gathering and sermon, we have lost the context for most of Christian life.
The church gathering is supposed to be an important expression of the life of the church, who gather for strengthening and fellowship and then flow out into the world to engage in witness, mission, service, proclamation and ministry. Instead the Sunday service is for many the entirety of their Christian life, squeezed into an hour on a Sunday morning. In this context, discipleship is essentially limited to making church services happen.
So, here we come to some questions.
How do we remove this reductionist view of church? How to we rediscover a Christian community which embodies and expresses the fullness of the Christian life, everywhere on every occasion? How might a new vision of the Christian community empower and reform our view of discipleship, so that it is not limited to coffee rotas and leading the praise band, as important as those tasks are to our gatherings? What other changes are needed to revive discipleship and restore it to the simple yet glorious way of Jesus?