Isaiah 50:4 (NASB)
The Lord GOD has given Me the tongue of disciples,
That I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word.
He awakens Me morning by morning,
He awakens My ear to listen as a disciple.
Like me, you might have heard the words disciple, discipleship, and… wait for it… ‘intentional friendships’ floating around in our churches at some point in time. That we should transform the world through love. I thought perhaps as long as I was intentional enough with my relationships, God will preternaturally intervene to bless my spiritual and emotional state; as a bonus, these divine relationships would then draw in the souls teetering on the edge of unbelief. Voilà! Discipleship in a nutshell. In many ways, I saw it as a silver bullet for reaching out to friends, family, colleagues, (Judea, Samaria, the ends of the earth… the list goes on).
Unfortunately, reality as I experience it is less than idyllic- Christian communities are generally imperfect. Like the churches that came before us, we can sometimes be outright infuriating. In the book of Philippians, Paul “thank[s] God every time [he] remembers them,” and goes on to describe (and encourage) what seems to be a loving and selfless community of believers. Despite this, in his final exhortations, he still appeals to some of them to be “of the same mind in the Lord” (Philippians 4:2). Even this church, who rallied together in faith to assist Paul while he was in prison, still suffered from conflict once in a while.
For me, this suggests that my expectation of what it means to be a disciple may be a little incomplete (not to disparage the vision laid out above-I am convinced there is nothing superficially wrong about it; my journey thus far has been one of examining the motivations behind this colloquial soundbite). Is it simply a means of producing a transparent, conflict-free utopia? I wouldn’t discount the Philippian church’s legitimacy as a group of disciples, yet here they are, a persecuted community, a work in progress. Not quite utopia. Yes, we are called to holiness in Christ (1 Pet 1:13-2:3), but I suspect my previous working definition was a little fuzzy when it came to dealing with the nuts and bolts of real church life. For instance, how am I to persevere in faith when I am inevitably let down? It is because I am not 'intentional' enough? Not 'loving' enough?
Over the past few years, God has been nudging me to re-examine my thoughts on discipleship, perhaps as a consequence, making me more confused than ever. However, I am encouraged by the way God continually reveals Jesus through His word, through which we glean a little more about what it looks like to be His disciple.
"He awakens my ear to listen as a disciple."
In chapters 49-53, Isaiah describes God’s Servant (ostensibly Jesus) listening to God, which suggests that to follow Jesus necessarily means spending time listening and learning. While it is written here it in Hebrew, the Greek word for Disciple μαθητής (mathitís), is derived from mathema- the word later used by the ancients to describe mathematics, or more generally, a subject of instruction. Disciples, therefore, are students first and foremost! Amidst the hubbub of term and our earthly studentship, may we not overlook our heavenly studentship, both in our communities (discipleship groups, CGs, church), and on our own. I pray that, like Jesus, our journey as disciples will be, above all, time of learning from and loving God.
"He awakens me morning by morning"
During his time on earth, Jesus consistently engaged in the spiritual disciplines of prayer, worship, and fasting. These same disciplines have empowered generations of disciples to know God better, by sharing in a small part of Jesus's life here on earth. I pray that as we consistently seek after God as Jesus did, our days will be characterised less by our 9ams than by the encounters we have with God daily.
"That I may know how to sustain the weary one with a word"
A little while ago, we started Michaelmas by considering how we may, ‘spur one another on towards love and good deeds’ (Heb 10:24). As we continue to fellowship this term, my prayer is that we will learn to be like Jesus in sustaining one another in compassion; that in our brokenness, we can be whole because of what God has done for us.
In a wonderfully divine twist of events, we’ve just started looking at radical discipleship in church small groups; I can’t help but imagine this is another of His nudges, to reflect on His calling, and to consider His words anew each day.
TL;dr Discipleship is more than just getting ‘churched’-it requires us to be open to spending time with Jesus, to become more like Him, and to learn to do as He did. In doing so, we recognise that we are, after all, still students. Yet this studentship is different-Jesus has already given us a passing grade by dying for us on the cross. Hence, we can trust that just by learning to live a life worthy of His calling, God will be faithful to reveal even more of his love and grace towards us. In turn, we are free to put God first in our relationships, where we can be challenged and made more Christ-like every time we meet-what a blessing!