We’re looking at some key biblical texts on discipleship, and this time we come to a crie de coeur from St Paul as he writes to those troubled Galatians who had got it all so badly wrong. We have already mentioned Paul’s emphasis on knowing as the way to right living, but here he takes a slightly different tack, which as a church leader I find most challenging.
My dear children, … I am again in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you.
Recently I had a conversation with a good friend about how we might define discipleship. He was quite right in saying that those called to be disciples at the beginning of the gospels were sent out to make disciples at the end, a theme I shall return to sooner or later. You can tell when you have got a disciple, because he or she is making other disciples.
Whilst you can’t disagree with this model, I suggested that there might be a bit more to it than this. From Titus we discovered that discipleship is about the kind of knowing which leads to right living; from Matthew we discover that disciples are disciple-makers, but here Paul goes deeper than either of these: a disciple is someone in whom Christ is formed. This isn’t about knowledge, nor about skills. This is character, Christlikeness. A disciple is someone whose life looks increasingly like Jesus. This shows in who we are, how we treat others, what passions we have, how we cope when the chips are down, what choices we make: all these kinds of things.
I don’t suppose that is very controversial, but a bit of me is less interested in the disciples than in the Paul who writes about them. Look at the strength of the language here. Any woman who has actually had a baby, or any man who has stood there terrified watching, will know the picture only too well. Not only has Paul had to go through the hard work of birthing them as Christians when they were first evangelised, but now he is having to do it all over again as he tries to free them from error and make sure that their lives reflect Christ. In a weird twisting of the image Paul becomes the midwife, vicariously bearing the pain until Christ is formed in them, as a foetus is formed inside a mother, until his character shows itself out into the outside world.
Although he has to tell them off quite severely in this letter, he never lets go of the fact that they are his ‘dear children’. Yet he feels personally the anguish of their immaturity, and longs for nothing more nor less than complete Christlikeness for them.
I recently ran a training day for our diocese on how we know when we’ve completed something, a prize all too rare for busy church leaders who are indeed ‘facing a task unfinished’. Paul knew: he had done his job satisfactorily when the people under his care looked like Jesus. Until he had achieved that, he was in pain. That challenges me as someone involved in the promotion of discipleship: how much is it hurting me? It should be!