I've been thinking about what it means to be a disciple of Jesus and how we can be better disciples. Firstly, I understand Christian discipleship to mean basically being a committed follower of Jesus. The Greek word for disciple is 'mathete' which, I'm told, was a well-known word meaning apprentice or student. So a disciple of Jesus is simply someone who wants to learn from Jesus and emulate him, just as a modern-day apprentice car mechanic or architect aims to learn from and emulate the person apprenticing them. For Jesus' physical followers 2,000 years ago being Jesus' disciple meant living with him, following him around and doing what he said to do. But what about for us now? How do we 'follow' Jesus?
Well, there's two ways that pretty clearly don't work, I think. Dallas Willard wrote in 'The Divine Conspiracy' about how it's a mistake to put signing up to a set of beliefs or trying to behave in a particular way as our highest goal. For Willard, these two goals 'either crush the human mind and soul and separate people from Jesus, or they produce hide-bound legalists and theological experts with lips close to God and hearts far away from him.'
Our highest goal is instead to learn from Jesus so that we live life as he did while he was on earth. On the positive side, this means growing in love for God so that we naturally want to do things his way. On the negative, it means overcoming our ungodly habits and patterns of thinking so that we are actually able to do what we want to. Without the second part, we might well end up saying 'the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak' rather often!
The New Testament describes being a disciple of Jesus in several different ways. Jesus himself talked about remaining in him, like the branches of a grapevine, so we will produce much fruit (John 15:4-5). Paul wrote to the church in Ephesus, praying that Christ would empower them with inner strength and make his home in their hearts so that their roots would grow down into God's love and keep them strong (Eph 3:16-17). And Peter said this: 'By his divine power, God has given us everything we need for living a godly life. We have received all of this by coming to know him, the one who called us to himself by means of his marvellous glory and excellence.' (2 Pet 1:3)
But how do we do this? If I asked you to tell me how I should go about becoming perfect like Jesus, what would you say? I read recently that when Christian leaders get interested in discipleship 'they seem to almost universally make the same mistake. They treat discipleship training the same way many overweight people approach a diet – one new wonder diet idea after another.' A similar, crash course approach to discipleship must lead into a long-term pattern of living otherwise it just won't produce lasting changes in our life.
Several Christian authors have written about particular things that we can do (or avoid doing) in order to help us (a) grow in love for God, and (b) conquer our unholy patterns of behaviour and thought. What's struck me recently though is how the support of godly friends is simply vital to making discipleship work. We just cannot do it on our own. We might develop a pattern of life that works for a while; perhaps we get into the habit of reading the Bible several times a week or we manage to train ourselves to think well of people when they hurt us. But life gets in the way. Our Bible reading routine is disrupted by a busy period at work or a holiday, or someone does something so unkind to us that we cannot ascribe honest motives to them. Don't you find it so hard to get back into a routine once it's been thrown out of joint? I certainly do! So we need people around us who'll ask how we're getting on and will lovingly remind us of our intentions to be a good follower of Jesus. And I think we need to be doing the same in return, in a small community of people who have all committed to learning from Jesus. This won't always be comfortable but it should lead us to more closely emulating our great Teacher so that we 'will produce much fruit'.
On that note, I'll end with another thing I read a few days ago, from 'Finding Organic Church' by Frank Viola. Building on 1 Peter 2:5, he described the building of an authentic church community as being like 'living stones that are being welded together to form a dwelling place for the Lord. In order for those stones to be built together, they require a great deal of cutting, chiseling, sanding, and refining.' Trying to live in genuine, life-changing community will cause us pain. But it should also bring transformation to our being, so that we more closely imitate Jesus and bring his glory, his kingdom into the world.