The Big Picture of Discipleship

We live in a curriculum driven world. Just as we can download as many individual apps to our phones and tablets that gigs of memory will allow, we can sign up for as many different programs and studies in our seminaries and church congregations that time and resources allocate. In many ways, a student’s regular review of the seminary catalogue to determine course offerings for the upcoming semester’s schedule is not wholly unlike the constant search of ministers and pastors as they scour publisher’s catalogues and websites for the next great study to offer their congregants. We are on the hunt for the just the right curriculum, perfectly timed in relevance, captivating, informative, affordable — and bonus points if it’s “transformative” in any way.

In this vast market of printed and electronic text, many of us, whether we geek out over the finer points of theology and church history or understand seminary as just one of several requirements for ordination, can easily mistake and reduce discipleship to the “educational ministry of the church.” Yet, discipleship is more than the slate of Sunday school offerings, Bible studies, and leadership resources that arrive in shrink-wrapped kits with participant guides and posters to advertise the next educational opportunity for the church. Discipleship encompasses the whole of our lives — 24/7 — our work and Sabbath moments that make up the patterns and rhythms of who we are as children of God and who we are becoming through the power of the Holy Spirit as we grow in Christlikeness.

Our discipleship is what we do as followers of Jesus. Yes, we learn as disciples of Jesus. We take time to learn through Bible and other rigorous study, but discipleship also includes our life of prayer, participation in worship, compassionate outreach, advocating for justice, and intentionally nurturing relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and God. In short, our discipleship is doing all the things Jesus did during his earthly life and ministry. Regardless of the specific season through which any of us journey, whether it be the midst of formal theological study, in the throes of worship planning, pastoral care, and vision-casting in congregational leadership, or even anticipating retirement regardless of occupation — from the secular or sacred world — our lives are the living curriculum of what constitutes our discipleship.

There is nothing inherently wrong with curriculum. Curriculum fills a real need both in seminary and congregational life. Curriculum can help inspire transformation in the lives of learners and have profound lasting impact (true transformation) after the final grade is assigned or the culminating commissioning service is completed. But to understand discipleship as curriculum or a checklist of ministry activities that can be marked “done” is to reduce discipleship from its intended vibrancy and robustness within the Christian life. It can become easy enough to lose sight of the forest when looking at the trees. It is imperative to remember that our discipleship cannot be a tree, a copse of trees standing on a hillside, or even the forest itself. Discipleship is the whole ecological package: the trees, the creatures, the terrain, and the atmosphere — all that brings life and provides nurture to the ecosystem. Discipleship is both what we can see and what we cannot see.

An apocryphal story of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson offers insight on how easy it can be to lose our perspective on all that a life of faithful Christian discipleship entails:

Taking a well-earned break from the detective business, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson decide to go on a camping trip. After dinner and a bottle of wine (they were good Church of England folk after all), they lay down for the night, and go to sleep. Some hours later, Holmes awoke and nudged his faithful friend. “Watson, look up at the sky and tell me what you see.”

Watson replied, “I see millions of stars.”

“What does that tell you?”

Watson pondered for a minute. “Astronomically, it tells me that there are millions of galaxies and potentially billions of planets. Horologically, I deduce that the time is approximately a quarter past three. Theologically, I can see that God is all powerful and that we are small and insignificant. Meteorologically, I suspect that we will have a beautiful day tomorrow. What does it tell you, Holmes?”

Holmes was silent for a minute, then spoke: “Watson, you idiot. Someone has stolen our tent!”

Do not allow the big picture of discipleship to be stolen away from you!

Living into Identity, Living out Discipleship

It’s not a task many of us relish, but gathering the required documentation to secure a valid, government-approved photo identity card or driver’s license is an inevitable chore of contemporary life. As a new transplant to the Midwest, I was recently obligated to do so. After retrieving all necessary documents, I set aside time in order to get to the motor vehicle commission, wait my turn, and be dully processed. Once successfully completed, all paperwork was filed back away for safekeeping and my new photo ID was tucked away into a secure but accessible place for future need. With my identity validated by the state of Indiana, I could now go about the normal business of life, career, and calling once again.

How different it is when demonstrating our identity as a disciple of Jesus. While churches keep (somewhat) detailed records of baptisms and membership rolls, the burden of proof regarding Christian identity is less about paperwork but the type of life we live on an ongoing, daily basis. Early Methodists might have been identified and received their name from others because they methodically and regularly engaged in particular acts of piety and mercy (e.g., prayer, Scripture reading, visiting the sick, and the imprisoned), but Wesley refuted the idea that the identifying marks of a Methodist was due to any particular activity. His tract detailing the distinguishing marks of Methodists is aptly titled The Character of a Methodist – in which he explains it isn’t a particular set of opinions, phrases, actions, or customs that make one a Methodist. Rather, it is having a heart filled with the love of God and seeking to love God and neighbor with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength that made one a Methodist.

Furthermore, Wesley rejected the notion that Methodists were any particular kind of Christian, and that their manner and character was consistent with the scriptural witness that bore testimony to plain, common Christianity. The term disciple was not in vogue in Wesley’s day, so his description of a Methodist took its cue from Scripture as one who “having the mind that was in Christ” (Phil 2:5) and who “so walked” as Christ “also walked” (1 John 2:6). In other words, the same self-sacrificing love of Christ that distinguished Christians, motivates and characterizes the practices and habits that early Methodists incorporated into their everyday lives.

Baptism within United Methodism is often associated with Christian identity. The early church taught that through baptism (mostly for adults) one received a new identity as a Christian. The ritual of baptism was understood as dying and rising with Christ. In Colossians, Paul speaks of baptism as putting to death the earthly nature so that, hidden in Jesus, the baptized could rise and be clothed in garments consistent with the virtues of Christ. But before those new clothes could be worn, the old ways of sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires, greed, idolatry, anger, rage, malice, slander, foul language, and dishonesty must be stripped away (Col 3:5-9). Then, the clothing of compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, forgiveness and love could be put on (3:12-14). And while Wesley preached the acceptance of God’s justifying grace at the new birth resulted in Christian identity (as opposed to [infant] baptism), he understood the need to remove old habits and manners in order to acquire new. Accordingly, the General Rules of the Methodist Societies were (1) to do no harm, (2) to do good, and (3) to attend on the ordinances of God. A guiding principle holds true: a Christian, as a child of God, surrenders their own identity to Christ and begins to live in new ways that yields fruit of the Spirit.

Whereas securing a government photo ID requires time apart from a normally scheduled life, Christian identity is infused into every moment of our lives. Yes, we might carve time into our weekly lives to attend worship, pray, participate in studies, or assist someone in need, and early Methodists may have had class tickets recording their attendance to admit them to Society meetings. But there is a difference between incorporating acts of devotion, compassion, and justice into the rhythms of life and waiting for time and circumstances to align themselves that we can accomplish another item on our to-do list. Discipleship is not an activity that we do on top of everything else. Rather, discipleship is the transcript of our lives, continually shaping and molding us into Christlikeness. Discipleship is the joy-filled response of living out our baptismal vows (whether made by others on our behalf or not) and bears living, vibrant proof of our identity as children of God.

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