Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Discipleship Emerging

At the end of my last post I referenced that I'd been in transition, in some ways, for a long time. One of those ways is how I think about discipleship and education in the church.

Christian Discipleship is a long-time concern of mine. By discipleship I mean, simply, following Jesus. As with the original disciples, discipleship is about following Jesus and learning his Way (his actions, his teachings, his relationships with the Father and with the people he encountered).

Discipleship can be called by a lot of names - I like the term spiritual formation. Discipleship is about being formed (transformed) into an imitator of Christ. Disciples, according to Jesus, will obey his commands; will love one another as he loved us; will lay down their lives for their friends; will love their enemies; will go out into all parts of the world and recruit ("make"; form, formation) new disciples, teaching them all the same things that Jesus taught to them; will do even greater things (somehow!) than Jesus did; will be one and united with each other by being united with and formed by Jesus (in the likeness of God, by the power of the Spirit).

I'm passionate about it in part because it seems like the key to everything the church is supposed to be - we are supposed to imitate Jesus, to be in relationship with Jesus and let that relationship transform us, and being transformed, we are supposed to be beacons lighting a lonely, scared, angry, bitter, and broken world with the awareness of the presence of Jesus, so that the world is transformed into the peacable kingdom of Jesus.

I'm also passionate about it because it seems we don't do it very well.

On the one hand, that seems an obvious, if unfair, statement. Clearly we don't disciple well - if we did, if people were being shaped into reasonable imitators of Christ, then the Kingdom would break out all over. (It actually is, I believe; but it's easy to miss it, growing as it often does in secret from tiny mustard seeds.) But it's not so much the state of the world, as the state of the church, that says we don't do discipleship all that well.

Most of the world respects Jesus. As Gandhi said, ""I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ." Many churches are filled with angry, bitter, willfully ignorant, willfully hateful people. There are millions who claim to be disciples (i.e., call themselves Christians) but don't recognize a need to live sacrificially, to love enemies, to care for the poor, the outcast, and the oppressed, to lay down their lives for the good of others - or any of the other things Jesus is known for. There are millions of others, perhaps, who recognize this - and react with cynicism and despair, rather than hope, or with a sense of moral superiority, rather than humility, or who don't react at all, secure in their belief that *feeling* a sense of compassion absolves them of the need to *act* compassionately.

Many christians - many churches - spread anger, fear, and ignorance. Others spread apathy, or smugness, or self-satisfaction with unearned prosperity. The New Testament says approximately "God is light, and in God is no darkness at all." A lot of churches and a lot of individuals spend a lot of time and effort imitating the dark and not the light.

Over the last couple of years, a new sensibility has been trying to emerge in me - a “new” sensibility that is widespread, ancient, and strong. For me, at the heart of this new sensibility is the conviction that we western, comfortable, middle class Christians spend too much time trying to explain away too much of the biblical witness. I'm not talking about debates about inerrancy and miracles and stuff. Much of that, I think, is a smokescreen. I'm talking about our impulse to soften the demands Scripture generally and Jesus specifically.

God desires, not sacrifice and offering, according to the prophet Amos, but justice and mercy.

To help the needy is your spiritual act of worship. Whatever you have done for the least of these, you have done it for me.

Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

By the way, that lost is from James chapter 1. When James is talking about keeping unstained by the world…in context, he’s talking about two things primarily - controlling how you speak to and treat other people, and about being a *hearer* of the word who is not a doer of the word.

Hearing, but not doing, is a form of being "stained by the world."

Knowledge is important, but it's meaningless unless we act in love. Acting well requires knowledge, but it also requires COURAGE.

We need discipleship that teaches us courage...that teaches us to act.

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