Discipleship is work on the self. There is a lot of complex, confusing and sometimes ambiguous terminology used to describe the goal and the process. It is when you begin to experience what is described that it begins to make some sense and it is now that you also discover that what we are trying to describe cannot be described in words at all.
We are not trying to get to anywhere. We are already here. It is just that we don’t know it and cannot see it. This is awakening to what is. Jesus invited his disciples to follow. He invited them to enter into an experiment. His teaching, ‘Love your enemies’, etc., has us live according to a pattern and agenda which still doesn’t make sense to us. It seems odd and at odds with our own wants and agendas because we have not yet awakened to the whole picture and story.
Since we do not yet see as Jesus saw the world we have to put ourselves in the position of those who had never heard of him but who heard him preach in Galilee and elsewhere. The gospels may present us with instructions which seem impossible and strange but the truth resonates within us. We recognise that here, presented to us, is the truth.
Our difficulty is that we are being asked to move into unfamiliar territory. The basic biblical metaphor of death and resurrection, dying to self, dying in order to live, letting go of life in order to have life, the seed dying, selling and giving away all we have in order to experience the fullness of God, is all about letting go of our own agenda and opening ourselves to something completely different. It is also waking up to who we really are. This is who we are all along. that is why Jesus’ teaching makes so much sense and it explains why crowds of people listened to him.
This short video may be helpful.
What is important is that we are not being asked to do anything in order to get anywhere. All that this is about is getting rid of what stops us seeing things as they really are. To use a simple illustration, it is like clearing your car windscreen and discovering that the fog you thought was outside was in fact condensation on the inside of the glass which was obscuring the clear sunshine of the day. Every single thing we are doing is about perception, how you see and therefore what you see, how you act and how you react. It is also about what you see through. We all have agendas. most of them are hidden even from ourselves. They tend to be common agendas – happiness, security, peace, self-preservation.
The basic premise of everything is this. There is a sunny, clear, day outside. You are viewing it through a clouded up, misty window. Most of the time we are unaware that there is even glass there so we think we are seeing everything as it is. The Bible uses a word which is usually translated in our English versions of the New Testament as ‘repentance’. The Greek word is μετάνοια (metanoia) which means change of mind in the sense of seeing the whole picture, opening the mind, seeing things as they really are. Awakening is probably closer to it than repentance. When people speak about the false self they are very often referring to a false view of the self. The self which doesn’t see things as they really are – you, other people, God.
In addition to engaging with scripture, you need to clean the windscreen so that you can see that things are as they are and finally you have to step outside into the bigger picture and to live and exist there so that that reality is what feeds and shapes you.
Cleaning the windscreen and stepping into the bigger picture are very closely related. in fact you do these things simultaneously because it is only when you realise the extent to which a window is clouded up that you really become enthusiastic about cleaning it. You practise Jesus’ teaching in a conscious, deliberate and open way and then the truth which now resonates within you expresses itself in a desire to practise that teaching even more. the practice both takes you to the truth and is driven by the truth. It becomes a kind of dance.
Those who read the gospels and begin to recognise what is being said and offered there often express a sense of frustration that what should be very much experimental and experiential exploration of the divine and the spiritual life is very quickly reduced in churches into another theoretical model. What people want is not a lecture on what discipleship is (however necessary that might be) but guidelines on the personal experience of following, imitating, practising Jesus’ teaching.
Many of us have a healthy distrust and nervousness of and about organised religion. That may be the case but discipleship is not far from discipline and Jesus’ use of the oxen yoked together image is powerful and essential. The gospels themselves are products of the early church and their function and purpose is to teach us what to do. The image of the twelve disciples following (imitating) Jesus and remaining not only in his presence but in each other’s presence is powerful and helpful. Their squabbles about importance and indeed Jesus’ washing of the other men’s feet could not have happened if they had been learning in isolation.
So there is a place for belonging, learning together, being accountable and recognising that Jesus’ own baptism by a flawed and self-confessed unworthy John the Baptist is an invitation to recognise that submitting to and belonging to what is flawed (the church, any church, every church) is not simply discipline and accountability but it is initiation. Serving and belonging and learning go together. The whole thing is about participation.