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What is discipleship?

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Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles
Christ Taking Leave of the Apostles

Luke 9:51-62 invites us to reflect on the issue of discipleship. Discipleship is often misunderstood in our culture. We tend to think of a disciple, especially in a Christian context, as one who has some familiarity with Jesus, and who is favorably disposed toward him. Basically, we think of a disciple as a fan of Jesus. Being a fan of him may have its moments of emotional and spiritual significance. A fan of Jesus may be moved when they hear a particularly well presented sermon about him, his activity and his message, just as a fan of a professional sport team might be moved when their team wins a championship. Or, a fan of Jesus may be moved when they hear someone attack him, his message, or his followers, just as a sports fan may be moved to defend their team when it is attacked by fans of opposing teams. Fans are positively disposed toward their team, and toward Jesus. Fans root for him, and his church. 

But, a fan is not a disciple. A fan may lose interest, or switch allegiances. As the saying goes, there are “fair weathered fans” — fans of a sports team who only shows support when the team is doing well. During hard times they lose interest, or begin to follow other teams. They basically have no real loyalty to the team. This is similar to the would be disciples in our gospel reading. They say they want to follow Jesus, but they have more pressing priorities and turn away to handle other matters.

We might say that a disciple is like an apprentice. An apprentice is an unskilled or minimally skilled novice who puts himself or herself in relationship with a master. The apprentice has the goal of acquiring the knowledge, skills and world view of the master, so that in time the apprentice will know what the master knows, be able to do what the master does, and become another master. We see this in the trades, such as with a plumber or electrician or carpenter: one progresses from being an unskilled apprentice, to an independent tradesman, to a master. The knowledge, skills and world view are acquired gradually, in relationship with the master(s). The result is that the person is transformed. The novice electrician may well electrocute themselves due to their insufficient knowledge, whereas the master can recognize and anticipate potential electrical problems that others will not perceive, and plan accordingly to prevent them. So, discipleship is much more than being a fan. It is an intentional relationship of novice to master, which gradually transforms the novice into another master.

What is the genuine mark of a disciple of Jesus? How can we discern an authentic path of discipleship in ourselves, and in others? There are a few clues. In Romans 12, for example, Paul instructs us: “do not conform to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may know and discern what is the will of God — what is good and acceptable and perfect.” In Paul's words, a disciple is one whose mind (i.e., perceptions, value systems, priorities, reasoning, decisions) is being transformed. A mature disciple no longer conforms to the values and ways of thinking of this world, but like the master electrician, has been transformed, and has taken on an alternative mind. The disciple of Jesus, in the process of being transformed, more or less relinquishes the dominant cultural world view, and takes on the mind and heart of Christ. So, discipleship can be discerned through one's patterns of perception, valuing, reasoning and deciding. A mature disciple does not conform to the values and patterns of this world, but values what Jesus valued, loves what he loved, and lives as he lived. Another clue is what Jesus said to his disciples in another context: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). Another  mark of a mature disciple, then, is love. A mature disciple (similar to a mature master electrician) does things differently than the novice. A mature disciple asks, in every relationship and in every situation, “what is the most loving thing I can do here? What is the most loving way to respond to this person, or this situation?”

It is helpful, I think, to remind ourselves that this transformational process is usually slow and gradual. For the plumber, or electrician there is a long period of apprenticeship, with much to learn and with mistakes made along the way. And, so it is for us who may seek to be disciples of Jesus. Being a disciple in any area (whether as an electrician or a Christ follower) is not about being perfect. One can be an incompetent beginner and still be a disciple. 

The ultimate question is, have we accepted Jesus' invitation to discipleship, and allowed ourselves to begin down the road of transformation?  Have we set a hand to the plow, and not looked back?

It is also helpful, and quite consoling, to recall his final words: “I am always with you.” In other words, the presence, compassion, mercy and love of Christ are with us in every situation, in every relationship, in every choice. Even when we make mistakes, make bad choices, or treat each other in unkind or unloving ways, the presence, compassion, mercy and love of Christ are with us, and do not leave us. The presence, compassion, mercy and love of God are with us in each moment; in each situation; in each choice; in each interaction with others. The compassion, mercy and love of God are already given, as a free gift. We cannot earn them by our behaviors, our morality, or by being “better disciples,” because they have already been given, freely. And, we cannot lose them, by our behaviors, our immorality, or by being “worse disciples,” because they have already been given, freely.  

Let us reflect up on our relationship with Christ. Are we merely fans? Or, have we accepted the invitation to enter into a relationship of an apprentice, a disciple? How are we progressing in our apprenticeship? Are we gradually experiencing a transformation, a renewal of our mind? Are we exhibiting greater charity and compassion, greater Christ-like love, in our relationships with others?  

And, wherever we are along the path, let us take time to rest in the unconditional, unfailing, ever present compassion and mercy of God.

 

About Thomas Altepeter

  Rev. Thomas Altepeter is an Ecumenical Catholic priest and pastor of St. Clare Ecumenical Catholic Community in Spokane.

He is also a licensed psychologist and has previously served as pastor of an ECC community in Wisconsin, been employed as a university professor, served as a director of a large behavioral health department, and worked in private practice as a psychologist.

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