What does it really mean to live a life of Christian discipleship? Since its beginning, the church has been at war with itself over the answer to that question. When Paul was losing the churches he founded to the influence of the church in Jerusalem, he wrote to one of his congregations, “You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you” (Gal. 3:1)? It was a conflict between two distinct ideas about what it means to be Christian.
That conflict continues today. Methodists, for example, over the past 200 years have split over one issue or another on average about every twenty years, and they seem ready to do it again. Progressive are at odds with conservative Christians over basic social norms. Evangelical Christians are imploding because of divisiveness Trump has inflamed and capitalized on. Nasty, vulgar emails, even death threats, fly back and forth in the name of Christian faith. Who will forget the sight of an angry mod wearing Christian symbols, kneeling on the sidewalk in prayer, and shouting “Hang Mike Pence”?
This is not what Christian discipleship looks like. A life of Christian discipleship bears the fruit of the Holy Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22-23). Such a life is patient and kind; it’s not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude; it doesn’t insist on having its own way. It rejoices not in wrongdoing but in the truth (1 Cor. 13). I haven’t seen much of this life in the news from Washington recently.
Here’s what I think it means to live a life of Christian discipleship. First, it doesn’t mean calling yourself by a certain name – “Christian,” for example, or “Muslim,” or “Buddhist.” It doesn’t mean arguing over dogma, reciting certain creeds or professions of faith, or worshiping in a certain style. It doesn’t mean reading certain scriptures or interpreting them in a certain way. And it doesn’t mean aiming yourself toward a certain goal or destination that’s “out there” somewhere – like “heaven,” for example.
Living a life of Christian discipleship means learning, from one who knows, how to live with authenticity and depth the one precious life you’ve been given. It means laying down the life the world tries to give you and the life you’ve created for yourself, and learning to live the original life God is creating in you and through you and for you. It means learning to be silent and to listen to the silence, to listen to your life, to listen to the deep truth you embody and learning to give it pure expression.
Living a life of Christian discipleship means learning how to “pray continually – not by offering prayer in words but by joining yourself to God through your whole way of life, so that your life becomes one continuous and uninterrupted prayer” (St. Basil the Great). Being a disciple means learning how to allow your own authentic, gracefully eccentric life to rise like incense, a fragrant offering to God.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you?” St. Paul asked the Corinthians (1 Cor. 6:19). A life of discipleship is an education in how your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit and in recognizing and affirming how every other person is equally a temple of that same Holy Spirit. And it’s a life-long experiment in creating and living out a practical ethic that reflects that recognition.
Farmer, poet, and essayist Wendell Berry once wrote a little poem called “How to Be a Poet.” If I change a word or two, his poem becomes pretty good instruction in how to live a life of discipleship.
Make a place to sit down.
Sit down. Be quiet.
You must depend upon
affection, reading, knowledge,
skill—more of each
than you have—inspiration,
work, growing older, patience,
for patience joins time
to eternity. Any[one]
who like[s] your [life],
doubt their judgment.
Breathe with unconditional breath
the unconditioned air.
Shun electric wire.
Communicate slowly. Live
a three-dimensioned life;
stay away from screens.
Stay away from anything
that obscures the place it is in.
There are no unsacred places;
there are only sacred places
and desecrated places.
Accept what comes from silence.
Make the best you can of it.
Of the little words that come
out of the silence, like prayers
prayed back to the one who prays,
make a [life] that does not disturb
the silence from which it came.
If we’re going to transcend the conflict that threatens us, if we’re going to heal our divisions and regain our original integrity, we need to rediscover the one Truth that’s behind our separate little truths. We need to rediscover and partner with the Spirit of reconciliation that’s at work among us. We, who have been entrusted with the message of reconciliation (2 Cor. 5:19), must learn how to honor that trust by living every aspect of our lives as ministers of reconciliation. That’s what it really means to live a life of Christian discipleship.