21 January 2015

discipleship and the experience of god

A friend of mine serves as a military chaplain, and has found himself in some harrowing situations as a minister of the gospel. Having surveyed the eyes of young men and women, many the furthest they've ever been from home, he concluded about his work: My mission is to prepare men and women to die. Some might say that is rather stark but, in a very real sense, there is truth in his words. I wondered how true that it is for any who would work in the field of ministry. Then, as I am prone to do, I thought about the inverse – what if it is our role to prepare men and women to live? Perhaps we will uncover other aspects of our role by examining from that direction.

These two assertions demonstrate two real pieces of Christian mission. The whole, however, must be located within the context of discipleship – Great Commission stuff, making disciples of all nations. One of the challenges this has presented to the church throughout the years is defining discipleship – what parameters are contained, and what work does it entail? The two perspectives listed above – that we prepare people to die, that we prepare people to live – are simply aspects of a larger story and mission. Discipleship is primarily about preparing men and women for an experience of God, and this is an important reality for the church to consider.

Scripture has many eschatological metaphors and images, but only two fates for humanity regardless: some will be granted eternal life and some will face eternal destruction. It's that simple, and repeatedly so. But the end of all things is centered around the return of Christ and the coming of God to his creation – the restoration of heaven and earth to what it was always supposed to be. So, we can rightly say that the world is heading towards an experience of God. Which then means that the work of discipleship is to prepare men and women for an experience of God.

If we take the exodus event seriously, then we ought to notice that what happens is because of a direct encounter with the divine presence. "On that same night I will pass through Egypt and strike down every firstborn of both people and animals, and I will bring judgment on all the gods of Egypt. I am the LORD" (Exodus 12:12). Although it is often casually commonplace to think that the Passover was the moment when some sort of angel-of-death goes through Egypt, but the biblical account knows no such entity. In reality, it is the presence of God himself that goes through the land – holiness meeting with unholiness, bringing destruction on that which is impure (at least, in a limited sense to the firstborn in this instance). The same presence which destroyed evil brings release to the children of God – if they have the blood over their homes.

The same theme runs throughout Scripture, and is true of our lives as well. We are all heading towards an experience of God which will either destroy us or give us life. This should give shape to the work of discipleship if the church is to be serious about preparing men and women for an experience of God. There are two levels at which this works:

First, discipleship is about making Christ known. When speaking of Jesus it is necessary to give a complete picture. This means that we must include the parts that are difficult to explain, that are hard to live with, and which are almost offensive. Although every culture would seek to wish certain aspects of Jesus away, we must encounter him as he is found in the Gospels, despite our own desires and sensitivities. He speaks not only of love and forgiveness, but of judgment and consequence. He comes with a challenge and a message that is life-giving, and life-demanding at the same time. We cannot make disciples of Jesus if we do not present the Jesus of the Gospels. The commitment of faith is the first step in following Christ.

Second, discipleship is about moving individuals towards Christlikeness. Every person exists in relationship to the Cross of Christ, and the main objective of discipleship is to move individuals closer to the cross. I doubt that an adequate definition of discipleship can be any more precise than that. This will allow for grace and salvation to work together as well, for what may be a significant move for one person might not be a fruitful step for another.

I once spoke with a woman who worked with at-risk youth, spending a great amount of time with girls who were in poor socio-economic and familial situations. Having built up a relationship with one particular girl for some time, the youth worker challenged her on some promiscuous activity. After some time went by, the girl returned and said that, because of her relationship with Jesus, she had decided that she would only have sex with one person, if they were truly in love. Although many would think that this wasn't much of a commitment, for her it was a breakthrough in her spiritual journey. And discipleship happened ... because of a commitment to Christ she moved towards Christlikeness.

This is the faith and fruit of discipleship – to know Christ and to be shaped into his presence with each new day. In this way we relive the exodus narrative with each life – being protected from destruction, delivered into a new freedom, and then shaped into the people of God. We will move through deserts and stop at mountains of God, growing and failing along the way. Before us is the promised land of a new heavens and earth, and the presence of Almighty God. To this end we make disciples of Jesus, the Lamb who makes the story possible.

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