Lasting the Course

I remember two distressing experiences of model-making from my childhood. Whilst industriously turning out Supermarine Spitfires and German Reconnaissance Kubelwagens was a practice that did not normally produce many problems (open the box, separate the parts, stick them together, throw away the bits that didn’t seem to have been used), there were two occasions where I was left somewhat scarred by my hobby. One was where there was an integral part of the undercarriage missing from a Vickers Valiant B.Mk1. No matter how hard I tried I could not find the piece (even checking that I had not inadvertently glued it to another part of the plane already; it had happened before) and eventually had to concede that the plane would never be able to race down the runway of my imagination but would rather go around in circles due to its list to port caused by the missing part. The other depressing experience was caused by the instructions for a German Albatross DVa being wrongly included in the box for the model I was making – the British Bristol Fighter F2B. If I had noticed the mistake sooner, it would have saved a lot of time and confusion… My point is that although making models should be easy – use the right parts, follow the instructions, be patient – it doesn’t always work like that.

Making disciples is no less taxing when we treat it in a similar way to making models. When we imagine Jesus’ command to ‘make disciples’ to be a formulaic process, then we immediately walk into difficulty. Firstly people are not kits to be assembled; we do not generally arrive at a point of becoming a disciple of Christ with all the necessary parts neatly laid out, just requiring sticking together. This is why, although discipleship courses work in part, they cannot work in isolation from relational community – for they must make assumptions about the participants that will almost certainly not be entirely true. Everyone’s journey, circumstances, and expectations are different. We all carry different types of baggage. It is not enough to say we are all sinners in need of grace – although this is true, it denies the complexities of human experience, and restricts the work of the Spirit in wanting to meet individuals and bring them to the fullest knowledge of God and likeness of Christ that is possible for them.

Secondly, the ‘instructions’ for discipleship are not generic, not universally applicable to all. I know that this sounds controversial, but hear me out. Whilst it is true that discipleship requires all Christians to grow their relationship with God through prayer and Bible reading, through accessing the means of grace (fellowship, communion, confession, worship etc) and through practising their faith in the world, there is a kaleidoscopic range of expressions of discipleship through which people grow into the likeness of Christ. For some it will be a schedule of early rising and disciplined prayer; for others it will be encounter with God through creative expression. For some it will be isolation and silence, for others it will be serving breakfast in a shelter for the homeless and rootless. Some will choose by their personality to be in an inherited model of church; others will find it impossible, and seek something which perhaps seems (to them) to have more integrity of expression, culture and inclusion. So disciple-making cannot be seen as model-making can be. It is far too important for that.

Interestingly it seems that the epistles also recognize that what Jesus had in mind when he commanded his followers to ‘make’ disciples was more than a programmatic approach. It is for the whole of life rather than for the period of conversion and immediately afterwards, which is arguably where we most frequently expect people to be most aware of their need to become like Christ as they change from their old life to the new (though sometimes even then discipleship is not something very much on the radar). Whilst we often treat discipleship as the way into Christianity rather than our experience of God throughout our lives, the epistles seem to move the emphasis from becoming a disciple to being a disciple – i.e. moving it away from being about initiation to being about lifelong (and “life-wide”) experience and expression of Christ.

At one point, Paul speaks of ‘being in the pains of childbirth until Christ is formed in you’ (Galatians 4:19), and with this word ‘formed’ (from the Greek morphe) Paul slows things down and lengthens things out. He moves right away from an understanding of ‘making’ disciples as a specific process requiring a programme, to a more organic place, where it is as much (if not undoubtedly more) Christ dwelling in us that is the current for our spiritual formation, rather than our adherence to a set of rules. Certainly there is a need for discipline within discipleship (the clue is in the word) but to replace the nourishment of a real relationship with Christ with rules and regulations is to miss the point altogether. Christ being ‘formed in us’ is a journey, a story, a romance; not a destination, a fact, a contract.

Elsewhere, Paul adds prepositions to his morphe (formed) emphasis. In Romans 8:29 he says ‘For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.’ The word conform, of course, conveys a similar sense to the word ‘formed’ – i.e. we are being shaped to the likeness of Christ, and yet by the inclusion of the preposition ‘con’ (or ‘sum’ in the Greek) there is an indication of being formed with Christ. So discipleship is not something Christ does to us, but with us. We have to be active partners in our discipleship rather than passive clay. Indeed, I sometimes struggle personally with the idea of being a lump of clay that simply needs to be placed on the potter’s wheel and then moulded into shape; I do not feel like a lump of clay! I am alive, and full of the life and colour and dynamism that God created me to be, and so surely I have to be active in my discipleship. Certainly, God has the right to re-shape me as he wills, but I am afraid that (even if he wanted to) he cannot undo the free will he has given me, and simply make me into something else. I have to be willing, hence the conforming role of the Spirit working in us and alongside us rather than outside and distinct from us.

Paul gives us even more insight into discipleship in Romans 12:2 where he talks of not being conformed to the ‘pattern of this world’ but being ‘transformed by the renewing of your mind’. Once again, morphe is present but this time the emphasis is on the change that this formation will result in. The Greek is ‘meta’ as in our English words metamorphosis (a complete change in appearance, character, condition or function) which indicates that what was will be no more: change will occur. We should note of course, that here in Romans 12 Paul is using transform in opposition to conformity to the ‘pattern of this world’. His purpose is to indicate that the disciple must not (to quote J B Phillips) ‘let the world around you squeeze you into its own mould’. This works well for me: discipleship is not just passive formation, or even relational conformation, but radical and contextual transformation. Paul does not suggest we should flee the world, but we should live in it aware that first and foremost we live ‘in Christ’ and therefore allow our attitudes to be transformed according to the likeness of Christ. At this point, I think we so often get it wrong – and think that the transformed mind is the one which doesn’t think certain things, doesn’t allow us to do certain things, and stops us getting involved in wrong things. Whilst this is true (the transformed mind is one which will not condone cruelty, injustice, abuse etc), I believe that the transformed mind is also the one which will think certain things, see certain things and cause us to do certain things. The transformed mind (which is being conformed into the likeness of Christ over the long term process of formation) is one which will conceive of the ways to change communities for the better, will see the faceless, nameless ones that others will step over, and act irrationally to spend time with the poor, the forgotten and the broken. This discipled mind will find a thousand more colours than beige to paint with, and will enable Christ to be formed through us as well as in us.

I’ll finish by observing that, of course, this emphasis on formation is not really exclusive to the epistles, or Paul at all. It was Jesus who said, ‘I am the vine, you are the branches...apart from me you can do nothing’ (John 15:5) and talked of our discipleship being seen through a life of fruitfulness, rather than a moment of decision. The first disciples lived with Jesus, travelled with Jesus, encountered opposition and difficult questions with Jesus. They were no more made in a minute or by a programme than Jesus expects us to ‘make’ disciples today. Instead, they give us the understanding of what spiritual formation really is, and how this is a vital understanding of discipleship for our whole lives and for effective sharing in God’s mission.

Questions for reflection and discussion:-

  • Do you think we place too much emphasis on discipleship as something at the beginning of the Christian life rather than seeing it as a whole life process?
  • How have you known God forming you into the image of Christ in the last year?
  • What does the writer mean when he says ‘I believe that the transformed mind is the one which will think certain things, see certain things and cause us to do certain things.’? How have you felt this in your own experience in the last week?