The way of discipleship

art 05Jesus’ journey to the new life of resurrection began, I believe, not at his conception or birth or baptism. It did not begin in his choices during forty days of testing in the wilderness, nor with the beginning of his preaching and healing. I believe Jesus’ real journey toward the fulfillment of his life on earth and his resurrection to life eternal began when “he set his face to go to Jerusalem” (Luke 9:51). It began when he decided to give himself completely, without reservation, to the work God had begun in him and was bringing to fulfillment. And I believe that’s when our journey to the new life of resurrection begins as well.

Jesus could have settled for a life like everyone else, blending into the world around him with hardly a second thought, going through the motions of life without ever really living. Or he might have gone ahead with what he started, but half-heartedly, never risking himself totally. He could have remained quiet and unprovocative, active in his community and congregation perhaps, but avoiding the hard daily choices that shape a life of true faith.

Instead, he chose the rigorous, costly way of total commitment to his calling. He opened himself to his true nature, his God nature, uncovering the will of God that lay deep beneath his own will. In that choice, he became his true, authentic self, in all his fullness, in all his wholeness, in all his radiant glory. And because of that, he is believable when he invites us to be his disciples, to travel the path of life he traveled and receive the resurrection he received.

In one of his most well-known sermons, John Wesley referred to the many people who are almost Christian. They’re honest and truthful; they perform acts of mercy and justice, helping to feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, etc.; they try to live ethically, morally, and peacefully with their neighbors; they even take a prominent place in worship each week and may teach Sunday school or serve on a church board or committee.

But they have forgotten the truth Garrison Keillor so quaintly expressed, that sitting in church doesn’t make you Christian any more than sitting in a garage makes you an automobile. They have the form of faith without the substance of faith. They have not left everything to follow their Lord. They praise Jesus for taking up his cross but will not take up their own. In their hearts, they are just like their neighbors, only perhaps a little better, but that God-shaped hole in the center of their lives feels as empty as ever.

We hear of people whose inner emptiness seems to have been filled to overflowing, who radiate light and grace and peace and leave healing in their wake. We may occasionally meet one of them. But can we be one of them? Can we become illuminated with that inner fire like one of them? Not only can we; such people are examples of the maturity into which all Christians are intended to grow, a maturity measured by nothing less than the full stature of Christ (Eph. 5:13).

However – and here’s the difficulty that often stops us – I grew up thinking those examples of faith aren’t normal people. They’re not like you and me; they’re made of different stuff; they’re called to live in a different sphere of existence. To be one of them, to become divine like that, you have to leave this ordinary world behind and take up life in a monastery. Or you have to die, literally. That kind of discipleship is not for me.

But what I’m learning is that the aim of discipleship is not to make me divine; the aim of discipleship is to make me human. The end of the spiritual path is to be fully human, as God made me to be. And if I’m willing to commit myself to that path, Wesley believed, God will cleanse me of everything that’s not me, will purify me of everything that’s less than fully human. God will sanctify me and make me perfect in love.

In The Sound of Music – you know the movie; this year marks the fiftieth anniversary of its release – Maria has entered a local monastery, thinking the only way she can live her devotion to God is by becoming a nun, cloistered almost out of the world’s reach. In the movie’s opening sequence, Maria is in an alpine meadow, her arms outstretched, as she revels in the glory of God’s creation, with the rest of the world far below. I still find it an uplifting sequence, and I’m not surprised that we talk of moments of special grace as “mountaintop experiences.”

What I think is the defining moment of the film, however, comes much later. After retreating to the monastery when her job as governess becomes too much for her to handle, she is sent once again to the von Trapp household. As she reaches the villa, the children race to greet her, and Maria opens her arms wide again, this time ready, literally, to embrace her new life, not apart from the world but in the world.

The path of Christian discipleship does not lead us out of the world; it leads us directly to the world, but with new eyes for seeing it clearly, and a new heart for loving it truly, and new arms for embracing it fully. The way of discipleship, for us as for Jesus, leads to Jerusalem, to the heart of the world’s brokenness and darkness, where we will be crushed. That’s what it means to take up our cross and follow Jesus.

But if we, like Jesus, will set our face to go there, if we will surrender ourselves utterly to the way of true discipleship, cost what it may, we will find that behind the darkness lies what one writer called “a living splendor, woven of love by wisdom, with power” (Fra Giovanni, “Letter to a Friend,” Christmas Eve, 1513). We will find that just as we have been buried with Christ by baptism into death, in the same way, just as Christ has been raised from the dead by the glory of God, so we too might walk in newness of life” (Rom. 6:4).

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