Recently I had the opportunity to return to some work I did a couple decades ago. In my younger years, I was fascinated with the concept of “discipleship.” People who belong to the Christian tradition typically are called disciples. And I know that earlier philosophers also had disciples. The term is not inherently religious, much less Christian. One can even say the Buddha had disciples. So what is a disciple or how does one become a disciple?
In order to keep it focused, I will stick with the process of someone becoming a Christian disciple. I don’t think it would be much different for other traditions. But before pursing the Christian process, a word can be said about the term, disciple. It is from Latin and literally means a “student” or a “learner.” Clearly, the English word, discipline, is related to being a disciple. In effect, then a disciple is a student or learner who is willing to exercise a certain amount of discipline to pursue the path.
Jesus set about to call disciples very early in his ministry. The way the New Testament tells the story, the call of disciples follow immediately after Jesus is baptized by John in the river Jordan and serves his 40 days in the wilderness. In Mark’s Gospel, probably the oldest of the written Gospels, Jesus comes out of the wilderness ready for his ministry. Soon he encounters some guys who are fishing. We are told he “sees” them and “calls” them to follow him. (Mark 1:16ff)
The powerful story is narrated very succinctly. In only a couple verses the lives of a couple guys are profoundly altered. But that’s the point. To be called as a disciple should be disruptive, disorienting and displacing. Life, as you have known it, should be changed. The narrative of the call to discipleship intends to make that clear. And it implies the narrative is not simply a story about a few old guys who were called to special roles. The narrative implies the same thing is meant for all of us who experience this kind of invitation into discipleship.
It is no wonder the church has watered down the meaning of discipleship. In fact most churches I know seldom use the language of discipleship. Instead I hear the language of membership. This sounds like the same language I hear for country clubs and other social organizations. There may be a fee to join, but the cost of membership is not too heavy. None of them ask for much sacrifice and none I know of ask for your life! I think Jesus had both sacrifice and life in mind when he called people into the way of discipleship.
I tell this story with no pretense that I am any further down the road than the average person. Of course, I like to talk about Mother, now Saint Teresa, or Desmond Tutu, but I am a minor leaguer compared to people like them. It is as if I am in Christian pre-school. The tricky part of being Christian is having the knowledge is easy. And it tempts us to think that is sufficient. But it’s not. Christianity, like Buddhism or any major religion, is a way of life. To be part of the faith---to be a disciple---should alter life, as we knew it before enrolling in the journey.
To respond to the call to be a learner of the way of Jesus is to agree to be committed. I have thought a great deal about commitment---what it is and how it is sustained. A commitment is basically a promise. A commitment is a yes to a relationship. I am not sure our contemporary culture encourages or supports commitments the way it used to support them. Commitment too often seems conditional---I stick with it as long as I get something out of it. This kind of attitude does not lead to sacrifice and certainly not the giving away of my life.
Deep commitment requires an ego-less approach to things. If I am egocentric, there is no way I will make lasting commitments---certainly no life-long commitments. Egocentric commitments are conditional and tentative. An old-fashioned way of saying what Jesus asked for is a self-transcending commitment. If I am called to deny myself and follow him that is an invitation to self-transcendence. Another way of saying it is remembering the Lord’s Prayer, which says, “not my will, but Your will.” This is a hard prayer.
Where does this leave me? To experience a call to discipleship is profound and humbling. It is a call into the deepest kind of life possible and, yet, it means giving up the petty dreams we may have had for ourselves. Essentially, it is an invitation into a loving relationship. And we all know that love is the greatest of all.