We live in a strange time where the church has found ways of turning Bible verses into clichés or platitudes (or worse, mission statements!). No verse seems to have suffered more than the great commission of Jesus found in Matthew 28:18-20 (yes, you are a very close second, Jeremiah 29:11). This is rather unfortunate as Jesus’ last words in Matthew’s account of our Lord are truly wonderful! The text reads as follows:
And Jesus came and said to them, "All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age."
Now, if you read it too quickly, you’ll tend to skip the marvelous promises (all authority has been given to me... I am with you always) and run straight to the equally marvelous commission (Go...make disciples... baptizing and teaching them to observe). Our crucified and risen Lord has promised to always be with His church while it goes about the business He has granted it to do. Thus, while the church listens to her Lord, baptizes, and teaches His Word, Jesus is there for her.
It may seem like a pretty obvious point to say that Jesus is with His church to the end of the age. But I wonder if we don’t miss just how miraculous this is! I mean, have you seen His church? We aren’t always the easiest group to hang around. In fact, many people don’t stick around. The church is a community of sinners which, unfortunately, has a problem of constantly showing that off! This is not something to grin at or take lightly. It is a problem we must confront.
So, there is a great library of discipleship material that seeks to do just that. The idea is that Jesus has called His church to make disciples, and since the church doesn’t look much like the One they are following, the people need to be changed. So that, the emphasis in most discipleship material tends toward behavioral modification. Some discipleship material will offer you steps on how to become a better Christian. Other material will teach you how to find balance in various areas of your life. Others will present a sort of modern-monasticism by teaching you how to pray for hours on end and meditate on what God is saying to your heart. (One classic in discipleship, Practicing the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence, judging by the title, teaches you how to be a disciple by confusing law and Gospel!) The bottom line is that the majority of discipleship material reduces discipleship to how the disciple is supposed to act.
Obviously, a change in the church’s behavior is quite desirable. And, who doesn’t need guidance in prayer or finding balance. What is remarkable, however, is that centuries of discipleship training haven’t produced such a change! Emphasizing desired behavioral changes has only served to produce disciples who are full of pride or despair. Finding pride in many who are involved with such programs should not be surprising, especially as much of the material claims to take you from being “merely” a Sunday morning observer of the faith to a “mature” disciple (thus, not every Christian can consider themselves a full-fledged disciple except those invested in a given “discipleship” program).
The response of despair also shouldn’t surprise anyone when the majority of the pastor’s time is spent giving his congregation an idealized picture of what a disciple of Jesus looks like, and then goes on to show how many of their lives are not measuring up. It seems to me that pride and despair result when the focus of our churches is on discipleship itself, and not on the One we are to follow.
Perhaps it would serve the church well to focus less on what we think a disciple ought to look like and examine a real, actual disciple from the pages of the New Testament. Look at our beloved Peter. The guy was full of pride! And it came back to bite him constantly. He desires glory and not a cross. Jesus calls him Satan. It is Peter’s unbelief, not his mighty faith, that causes Jesus to beckon him for a stroll on the water. He slept when Jesus desired him to pray. He denied Jesus out of fear. Even after the resurrection, he had to be corrected by Paul for slipping into the ways of the Judaizers. I mean, if anyone’s behavior needed modification, it was Peter’s. Yet, Peter is called a disciple and a friend by Jesus. Peter remained a disciple, not because he figured it all out, but because Christ graciously remained with Peter, continually forgiving and teaching Him. And that is the key to discipleship.
What makes one a disciple, you see, is not becoming a better person. It is baptism, it is the Word, it is Jesus. What makes one a disciple, first and foremost, is not how we live, but the gracious presence of Jesus, Who bled and died for the world, remaining with His flawed church always to the end of the age. To be a disciple, one does not just need to change a few lifestyle habits (though this will follow). They need to be died for by Jesus. They need to die and rise again in order to walk in newness of life. So Jesus baptizes us (Romans 6:3-4). His blood-bought, baptismal promise of forgiveness and presence, of a new life of faith, then sustains us as we go through this life carrying crosses, daily dying and rising, repenting and receiving, and, yes, serving and loving.
Discipleship is not about the focus of disciples on changing their lifestyle. I suppose you could say it is not even about the disciple’s focus on Jesus. It is about Jesus’ promise to be faithful to the disciple whom He has baptized into His kingdom. And, He is with us always, even to the end of the age!