My job at the moment is developing discipleship in one Anglican diocese, so as you can imagine I do quite a bit of thinking about what discipleship is, what it means, and what it looks like. Here are some random thoughts, gleaned from my reflection on the Bible and current thinking …
I’ve been reading 1 Peter recently, and I was struck by the logic of the few verses overlapping chapters 1 and 2, which I think give the lie to a lot of thinking about discipleship. Many Christians have picked up the idea that it is all about hard work, trying, striving to be more holy, and so on, and I honestly think this puts some people off even trying to think about being better disciples. Peter (or whoever) is clearly writing to newish Christians – elsewhere the NT urges people to leave off the milk and get onto meat instead, but here it is milk which is commended – but his starting point isn’t about how they should try harder. He begins by telling them an objective fact about their status in Christ: ‘you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth’.
They have become Christians: ‘You have been born again’ he tells them in the next verse. The quote from Isaiah 40 demonstrates that they have stepped out of the merely human cycle of birth, life and death because the Word in which they have put their trust is an eternal Word. They will almost certainly ‘go the way of all flesh’ sooner or later, but for them that won’t be the end, but rather a new beginning. So he clearly establishes the fact that they have crossed the line and have become disciples of Jesus Christ.
Then comes that fateful word ‘Therefore’ in 2:1, a word so often used in the Epistles as a transition from what is true, what has happened, and what they must now do about it. It’s a little word, but it has vital implications. What the author is saying is basically ‘You have changed your status before God – now learn to live that out’. You have been ‘born again’: now get rid of the baggage that you don’t need any more. It’s a similar argument to that used in Hebrews 12 about throwing off the sin which so easily entangles us. The picture there is of a Roman soldier getting rid of his voluminous cloak ready for action. Stuff like malice, deceit, hypocrisy, envy and slander simply don’t belong to the changed life you now live, so fling them off, as you would a restricting garment. This can , of course, be hard work, since old habits die hard. But what he doesn’t say, and this is where we get it oh so wrong, is that you have to behave differently in order to live in a new relationship with Christ. So we get back to that age-old heresy of salvation by works: I live the right way in order to get right with God, not because I am right with God. I’ve been purified, so now impurities are simply no longer appropriate in my life.
When we really know who we are in Christ we are filled with the desire to live up to that calling: when we believe that we have to work that hard so that Christ will accept us, it’s easy to see how we can believe we’re onto a loser from the start and stop bothering. After all, being a mere ‘churchgoer’ feels like a lot less hard work.