A friend in ministry just texted me a light and fluffy Friday afternoon question:
“I’m laying out a vision for Discipleship with my people on Monday. What are 3 awesome things about being a disciple? What are 3 awesome things about making disciples?”
He might as well have asked me to sum up the mystery of the Trinity using just 3 words! Well, on second thought, that’s easy if limited to just three words: 1) Father, 2) Son and 3) Holy Spirit. Poor example.
Well, I pondered for an hour while I went out for some Asian food, as nothing gets one’s theological juices flowing like Sesame Chicken and egg rolls. After polishing off the last egg roll, I texted back the following.
“I find it awesome that we’ve been given: 1) a perfect example to imitate (Jesus), 2) a precise manual to follow (Sermon on the Mount), and 3) the power needed do it (Holy Spirit).”
Then I followed up with a more pessimistic and weary admission.
“Unfortunately, getting anyone to take these 3 serious has proven difficult and rare. Three other obsessions keep winning over our hearts and stealing our would-be Kingdom focus.”
I then quoted 1 John 2:16 who offers a warning and laments the lure of the world and the “flesh”:
“Don’t love the world’s ways. Don’t love the world’s goods. Love of the world squeezes out love for the Father. Practically everything that goes on in the world—1) wanting your own way, 2) wanting everything for yourself, 3) wanting to appear important—has nothing to do with the Father. It just isolates you from him. The world and all its wanting, wanting, wanting is on the way out—but whoever does what God wants is set for eternity” (1 John 2:16).
“Love of the world” in all its forms is preventing many people from seriously 1) following Jesus’ example 2) by mastering his kingdom manifesto (Matt 5-7) which requires 3) exchanging a self-powered and self-driven existence for a Spirit-led one. No Truer words were ever spoken than “The Spirit is willing, but the flesh is so weak” or “Live your life as your spiritual nature directs you. Then you will never follow through on what your corrupt nature wants” (Gal. 5:16).
I’m in a wonderful ongoing discipleship conversation with another friend, and he was arguing that the best way to form people into disciples is by first inviting them to start to do certain things that characterized Jesus’ behavior. This is classic Aristotle who taught that character formation happens over time as we repeatedly practice certain habits. My friend contends that starting with discipleship teaching may not be very effective, as many casual Christians have shown its common to “know” certain truths but never see these “head beliefs” impact one’s actual lives. So, maybe if we teach them to embrace Christlike actions or habits, their character will eventually follow suit.
I, on the other hand, while admitting the importance of moving beyond head knowledge and practicing kingdom habits, still argue that we first need to cast/receive a compelling vision of the Kingdom life as demonstrated in Christ’s teachings and interactions on the pages of the Gospels. People need their minds transformed, to begin seeing the world and their relationships from a distinctly Kingdom perspective before we ask them to do certain things just because they ought.
My friend and I both believe its a both-and approach to discipleship: both teaching a Kingdom worldview and then inviting people to put it into practice. I have strong opinions on this, because my own spiritual journey and character formation started by learning and committing myself to Jesus’ Kingdom ethic, not practicing certain behaviors without grasping the ‘why’ of the Kingdom. My behavior is still, all these years later, driven by a conscious obedience to Jesus’ teachings, and definitely not from forming Christlike habits. Maybe this is just a weakness of mine. I still find that most of Jesus’ teachings come very unnaturally and only by a conscious choice do I find myself doing the kingdom thing. For example:
I don’t patiently embrace difficult people because it comes naturally, but because these are the people Jesus calls me to embrace.
I don’t give hard earned money away to charity because its a habit, but because generosity is a core teaching at the heart of the Kingdom Way.
I don’t welcome people into our home constantly because I love people in my personal space, but because showing hospitality to God’s family is a key part of being a pastor.
Most of the Christian things I do are not habits, they don’t come naturally or easily; they are conscious decisions I make to override my personal desires and natural tendencies out of obedience to Jesus’ Kingdom teachings and as an attempt to follow Jesus’ example (however imperfectly!).
The best thing I’ve read lately about the Kingdom and the heart of discipleship is Scot McKnight’s commentary on The Sermon on the Mount. I can’t recommend enough this very readable and practical step-by-step guide through the heart of Jesus’ Kingdom manifesto. One great takeaway was his suggestion that praying the Lord’s Prayer is a means by which we reorder our desires and begin to share God’s longings for his Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven.
Let me close with a quote to make this rambling post worth your while. Note how the structure of the prayer follows the Jesus Creed, or two greatest commands, to “love God and love others:”
“In the Lord’s Prayer our desires are reordered into the ways of God and the ways of the Kingdom….I stand with those who see in the Lord’s Prayer an essential guide to the message and mission of Jesus…his prayer expresses the heart of Jesus’ kingdom vision… We learn in the recitation, memorization, and repetition of this prayer to year for God’s glory and for God’s name to be held in highest honor, and we learn to long for God’s kingdom (not ours) and for God’s will (not ours) to be done. Then we learn to year and ache for the good of others. We yearn that each person will have sufficient food, that each person will find reconciliation with God through forgiveness of sins, and that each person will be protected and preserved by God’s grace from the snares of temptations and the grasps of evil (or the evil one). When we are done, our desires have been reordered to God and to others, and in having those desires we find ourselves as God made us to be: beings to have proper loves, that is, love for God and love for others” (McKnight, Sermon on the Mount, 191).
Finally, McKnight reminds us that the early church, shaped by Jewish practice of reciting Shema prayer three times daily, began reciting this prayer regularly (probably 3 times each day). For those who poo-poo recitational prayer as empty or “vain repetition”, McKnight challenges us to get back to the ancient practice and let Jesus’ great prayer begin to reshape and stir up in us a deeper ache and stronger yearning for the Kingdom in our lives!
I bet there’s a New Year’s challenge in here somewhere for someone out there!