discipleship as a conversation with the living Christ

For the past year and a half or so, I have been studying up on the topic of discipleship, really trying to get a handle on what it means to follow Jesus. I wrote a 20,000 page paper on the subject, looking at it from the perspective of the Old and New Testaments with a view to bringing biblical discipleship to the foreground of our current 21st century North American context, one that often places the emphasis on going to heaven after we die rather than engaging in the present realities of the world according to the teachings and mission of Jesus.

While I am proud of my work and I learned a lot through all my reading and writing, lately I have come to see that perhaps my focus has been a bit off. This realization came, in part, from my recent reading of Jesus Manifesto, browsing other blogs, and in spending some time thinking through the following sentence and making a subtle yet massive shift in emphasis.

In my quest to understand what it means to follow Jesus, I have, to some degree, set aside the more important task of learning what it means to follow Jesus.

Confused? Allow me to bold that up for you to highlight what I am getting at.

In my quest to understand what it means to follow Jesus, I have, to some degree, set aside the more important task of learning what it means to follow Jesus.

This quest has led me to read several books that have helped me to get a handle on what discipleship is all about, leading me in some ways to reframe my theological perspective and rethink my definition of ‘Church’ and what it means to be a part of it; I have sought to engage in helpful spiritual practices and disciplines, and have made a determined effort to be less cynical. I have tried to find meaningful, Kingdom-oriented employment, support the right cause, and get involved in justice seeking movements. The list could go on, each item attempted and carried out with varying degrees of success and failure.

In other words, I have sought to figure out the steps that one needs to take in order to demonstrate that they are on the path of discipleship, and, in so doing, have lost sight of the reality that discipleship is all about a life-giving and transformational relationship with the risen, living and ever-present person of Jesus Christ. I have begun to think of discipleship as yet another empty program, losing sight of the central question that Jesus asks of each of us – who do you say that I am?

As Viola and Sweet assert early on in Jesus Manifesto, “Knowing Christ profoundly and in reality is the chief pursuit of the Christian life. The Lord is preeminently concerned about our knowing Him“; and as we get to know Him better, we see that we are daily invited “to share life with [our] Maker and Creator.” Over the past few weeks, I have been been captured anew by this invitation, and awestruck in regards to its implications. If I have been invited to share life with Him, how then are my habits and actions, my thoughts, words and deeds contributing to my daily RSVP? Part of the answer lies in the reality that [in the words of Sweet and Viola] “it is the presence of the indwelling Christ and Jesus-love that both restrains and releases us.”

This is what we mean when we speak of incarnating Jesus. We’re not simply talking about doing the tasks that Jesus would have done when He physically walked in and around Capernaum, or taking up causes He might have taken if He were still walking planet Earth today. We are talking about living in a unique, Christ/you, “I am” relationship. [Jesus Manifesto, 95]

If Christ is in me, then I have been set free from the constraints of the discipleship program that I have created for myself and opened up to converse with Him in regards to where He would have me go and what He would have me do on any given day. The question, then, is what exactly are we following? These programs and practices, however good intentioned, do not in and of themselves lead us deeper into the pursuit of knowing Christ and further on the path of discipleship; while the programs and practices are helpful, it’s entirely possible to check them off a list of things to do without acknowledging the presence of Christ within and among us at any and every given time. Again, in the words of Sweet and Viola, “it is all too possible to emphasize a spiritual truth, value, virtue or gift, yet miss Christ“, who is Himself the embodiment and incarnation of all of these things. It is rather the daily and ongoing conversation that we have with Him that is meant to guide our every step, prompting us to be the kind of people who think, speak and act as true disciples, indwelt by the living Christ, transformed and molded through our relationship with Him.

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