By Charlie Clauss
At the 1991 Annual Christian Renewal Conference in Colorado, John Rogers spoke about his time participating in Episcopal — Lutheran dialogue. With a twinkle in his eye he said, “Lutherans are so into grace they are afraid they might do a good work.”
Having grown up as a Lutheran, I can attest to this hesitancy to speak of Christian action. Whatever else I may say, I am deeply grateful that my early formative years were spent in a climate that spoke so often and so passionately about God’s love and grace. I have never been seriously tempted to believe I had to win God’s love. Deep in my bones I knew God loved me.
Instead, I have struggled with the idea of Christian discipleship.
Bishop Craig Loya in his address to the Minnesota diocesan convention painted a powerful picture of the state of the church. He used the image of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11 to point out that we have abandoned our vocation as gardeners (Gen. 2) and have tried to “make a name for ourselves” by building with brick and bitumen. And, he says, we have failed in this work, and the tower of a church we have sought to build has toppled over. He then said we have three choices: keep doing what we’ve been doing, with the near certain knowledge that we will fail; give up and go do something (anything?) else; or finally, give up the striving, put down the bricks and go back to gardening.
Then he said, the most important task for us as we resume the task of gardening is to “tend to the root system” and the priority for the Christian to do that work is discipleship.
There are at least two challenges in Christian circles to our work of discipleship. First is the challenge that has its source in the same field those Lutherans I spoke of learned their fear of good works. This perspective would reduce discipleship to the vanishing point because, it is thought, the call to discipleship is counter to the proper primacy of God’s grace. The “law-gospel” distinction makes discipleship into “law” thereby nullifying grace — grace as the heart of the gospel. Nothing can come between the Christian and the grace of God. Talk of discipleship will threaten that integral relationship. Or so we’d mistakenly believe. The only thing we should speak of, the full content of our preaching and teaching, first and last, is the grace of God.
The second challenge, and Bishop Loya, in his address does not avoid it, is to reduce discipleship purely to what humans do. This has been the trajectory of the mainline church. The bishop invites us to travel with him to various places in his diocese, but of each he tells the work being done there and that effort is the effort of the people in each location. Our task as the church is the worthy work of justice, peace, standing with the marginalized, welcoming the full diversity of the world’s people. The primary focus for this view of discipleship becomes politics, and mission is summed up in acts of service. This is not just a fault found among liberal or progressive Christians. Conservative Christians are just as likely to focus on what we are to do, whether that is evangelism, “quiet time,” or Bible study. All that matters is what we do.
It must be noted that both these emphases are rooted in truth. God is the primary focus for our lives as Christians; God’s grace is the absolute foundation. And we are called to live in the world as servants to all, fighting evil everywhere evil is found. What we need to be able to put each of these into proper perspective is a clear definition of Biblical, grace-filled discipleship, and to the point, the purpose of such a discipleship.
The first point, both a scandal and a paradox, is the idea that our discipleship both begins with the inconvenient truth that we needed a savior and that the disciple must constantly return to that beginning. While it is true that there is a finality in what God in Jesus has done for us at the cross, we run the risk of being like the Israelites in the wilderness. Again and again, they forgot those mighty acts of God who rescued them from slavery. They forgot how God cared for them, fed them, and gave them water to drink. The result was ingratitude and grumbling. In the words of a contemporary gospel song, “the ground opened up and had some of them for lunch!”
Regular confession is a central practice for the disciple.
Being people in touch with our need of a savior will also make us people more likely to own up to failures. The disciple who knows they were pulled out of the darkness are the freest to say they are sorry. They are also the most likely to fearlessly get back up when they fall. If God was willing to save us when we were utterly devoid of life, how much more will he lift us up as we dig into his forgiveness?
Second, discipleship isn’t only about doing stuff. Discipleship is about living into the things that were lost in our primordial disobedience. One of the dearest things lost as portrayed in Genesis 3 is fellowship with God. No question in all human literature rings with more sadness than God’s question to the humans, “Where are you?” The end of this separation is often spoken of in cold, rational ways. Sin separated us from God and God has dealt with sin, but rarely do we then explicitly put the emphasis on the end of that separation. Discipleship is the process of making the end of that separation more and more real in the life of the Christian.
Consider some implications of living in God’s presence. In worship, we do not worship a God who is far off, but a God who is present with us. In Bible study, we do not read a piece of literature from a long dead author, but a love letter hand delivered from its author. And in our gathering together, God seems to be especially present, delighting not only in God’s fellowship with us, but in our fellowship with one another.
The presence of God for the disciple is so central, but has been so neglected, it needs further underlining. As Jesus sends out the disciples after the resurrection, he promises “I will be with you to the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). In a particularly poignant passage in Revelation 3:20, Jesus says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me.” Here eating represent s intimate fellowship.
In Exodus 33, God tells Moses to go up and take the Promised Land, but that God would not go with them. Moses and the people grieve, and Moses talks God out of the decision. The point here seems to be that God’s presence is more important than God’s promise! The practices of discipleship have as a central purpose the enabling of the disciple to more fully live in God’s presence.
It is also true that the disciple is called to action. The first area of action involves the fact that we are placed in a situation where the brokenness of individuals, societies and cultures, and the very creation is still obvious. Our work will involve wrestling with these broken conditions. Of primary concern is the brokenness of individuals, so that the proclamation of what God has done in Jesus through the cross and resurrection will often take center stage. That we ourselves need a savior should instill in us the deepest humility. As we walk in the world, we will acknowledge that we only go because of the grace of God. We will know that all we have has been given as a gift. We will be able to ask the world if they too need a savior. We know that we each needed to come to the knowledge that we needed a savior on our own — it cannot be forced.
All too often, Christians have stopped here. Once the “ticket to heaven” has been acquired, there was nothing else. The Bible, however, is very clear on this. God’s people are called to be people of justice. The prophet Amos thundered, “But let justice roll on like a river, righteousness like a never-failing stream” (Amos 5:24)
Lost in the first garden was our relationship with one another. It has been suggested that justice is love on a societal, communal scale. The disciple is called to these practices as well.
A final piece to consider is the restoration of our primordial vocation. We were to care for creation. The disciple is called to take up this vocation again. It seems that our work in this matter will have a place in our blessed future (Rev. 21:23-26).
Bishop Loya is correct. Discipleship is the central concern of the Christian. It is at the center of Jesus’s call to us, for he bids us:
“Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you” (Matt. 28:19-20).
And that discipleship must be rooted first in what God in Jesus has done for us. We must keep the correct order: first, what Jesus has done for us. It must not shy away, however, from the work God as called us to do. This is what we need to lay aside our striving, attempting to build God’s work with “bricks and bitumen,” and rather being gardeners. Or as Genesis 11 suggests, building with the stone and mortar God gives us — that is a Biblical, grace-filled discipleship.