The Rev. Rob Courtney
Fr. Rob is the Rector of St. Paul's Episcopal Church & School
"What is a disciple?" Maybe that's an easy one for you, but if you're like a lot of people I bet you have to stop and think for a second before you give an answer.
One answer might be that "a disciple is one of the original followers of Jesus. Guys like Peter, James, and John." That's true, but there's more to it than that. Aren't there still disciples today, or is the term frozen in time with those 12? And have you ever thought of yourself as disciple? That's right! If you are a baptized Christian, then you are a disciple.
"You are a disciple."
I find some people can't really think of themselves as disciple for a couple of reasons. First, we tend to put the disciples--the original 12--on a pedestal. Since they're up there on that pedestal it's hard to imagine ourselves being on the same footing as them. I get it, but here's what you've got to do:
Take the original 12 disciples off of the pedestal
They were, after all, just people! Yes, I get that we call them saints--Saint Matthew, Saint Peter, Saint John, etc. Regardless of this, they still were just people, and messy people at that. Saint Peter, for example, was an uneducated fisherman. Throughout the gospels he's shown as impulsive, cowardly, on one occasion violent, and sometimes just flat out wrong. Again, he was just a person and people are messy. You know who else is a people? You. And you're not perfect. And that's okay. The good news is about grace for imperfect people. Lord knows the original 12 disciples were imperfect. Jesus knew this, and he picked them anyway! Seek to emulate their better moments, venerate them as saints, but take them off of the pedestal that makes discipleship unattainable.
Here's something else you have to do to recover this idea of being a disciple:
Remember that the word disciple means student
That's it. That's what it means. Disciples are students. All those 12 guys (and the many other referred to as disciples in the gospel stories) were learners. They had placed themselves under the instruction of a teacher, and they were learning. When we frame ourselves as learners then it becomes much easier to allow ourselves to make some mistakes--which, as we've already seen, is what disciples seem to do best! It's what students do. When we are students of something one of the main ways we learn is by failing. Grace, again, is the operative word here. Jesus, our teacher, never ceases to be our teacher. We will always be learning from him. He's a loving teacher, too, and offers us the room and the grace to fall, and reaches out to help us get up for the next challenge.
Okay, so we're recovering the idea of our own discipleship by taking "the disciples" off their pedestals, and letting them stand on level ground with us. We're remembering that it means "student," and looking at ourselves as learners. The last thing is this:
Remember that Christian disciples never. Stop. Learning.
Over the years I've seen many, many Christians, especially as we grow older, begin to believe they do not have anything else to learn. Maybe that's one of the problems with the word student. Our school at St. Paul's is filled with students. They are all the kids. The adults are the teachers. But even those adult teachers don't know it all. They have to earn continuing education units. It's expected that they will continue to grow in their craft. Life is also like this. There is always more to learn in life, and the same is true of the Christian life. As one of my mentors used to say, "There are no spiritual blackbelts." Not even your clergy. I wear a literal black belt, but that's just because it matches the rest of the ensemble. It certainly ain't that I've spiritual arrived.
"There are no spiritual blackbelts."
What, then, do we think a disciple really is? The student of a teacher. Our teacher is Jesus. The Rev. Winnie Varghese, Rector of St. Luke's Episcopal Church in Atlanta, says that “The life of a Christian person (aka a disciple) is to find practices that take us closer and closer to union with God." Notice that she says the Christian life. Christian Discipleship means being a life-long student of Jesus.
"Christian discipleship means being a life-long student of Jesus."
What would it be like if we recovered and truly embraced this word "disciple" as our fundamental Christian identity in today's world? What would that mean for our lives? What would it mean for our relationships? What would it mean for our current priorities?