Disciple: What’s in a name? (With assist from Holden Caulfield)
In the last several years I have received far more resistance in the church on using the word disciple than I would ever have imagined. People in the church just don’t want to claim it, or name themselves by it. I could understand something of this hesitancy if it was born out of the feeling that the word was too rigid (and admittedly there are some who feel that it seems to lend itself to Pharisaical Christianity… but that is a different post for another time) or formal or that it conjured too many images of Ewan McGregor as Liam Neeson’s Padawan learner (okay, forgive the Star Wars reference please – I couldn’t help myself).
However this is not the reason most people beg off the word. The vast majority of people who I have conversed with about the problematic nature of talking about being a disciple of Jesus Christ do not like the word because they feel it sets too high a standard and we do not feel adequate for it.
I’m usually at this point caught speechless. (Not anymore, but it feels good to say so for dramatic effect and because there was a time when it was true.) The word disciple is too high a standard for Christians to bear?
I’m a big fan of Kierkegaard… Soren Kierkegaard. (Please read that in your best James Bond voice.) And most who will read this know that already. So on some level maybe I was programmed by his writing to be adverse to such assertions that we can be Christians without being disciples. Kierkegaard makes a point to note that his sense of calling was to convince most Christians that they really weren’t Christian, and then to help them see what it would mean to actually think and live in the way of Jesus Christ and get on board. (This is clearly my loose paraphrase, but I’m convinced Soren would have approved this version of his call.)
So what is a disciple? What is involved with our notions that disciple is too high a standard? Can we actually have too high of standard if we name ourselves Christian after the one who commanded us to be, “perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect?” (Lots more to say about that claim, but that too is another post for another time – you can find those words at the end of the fifth chapter of the Gospel of Matthew set in the midst of that Gospels greatest teaching on discipleship.)
I do not wish to answer all those questions here… WE have to answers those questions TOGETHER – and individually as well as corporately. So what is your response?
As we think about those questions here are some thoughts I do have on the subject:
If you wish to be Christian it means wishing to follow in the way of Jesus Christ – it’s a way of life, not simply a statement of belief(s). This way is synonymous with being a disciple – one who learns the way of life of a teacher they have chosen to follow.
The disciples of Jesus in the Bible do not set a very high example. In fact they are consistently fallible, misguided, and… well… clueless. I came across a great quote two days ago (I already shared it on Facebook) from J.D. Salinger’s book The Cather in the Rye. (The book turned 61 and I happened to be looking over some quotations from it.) And I came across this quote from Holden Caulfield.
“I like Jesus and all, but I don’t care too much for most of the other stuff in the Bible. Take the Disciples, for instance. They annoy the hell out of me, if you want to know the truth. They were all right after Jesus was dead and all, but while He was alive, they were about as much use to Him as a hole in the head. All they did was keep letting Him down. I like almost anybody in the Bible better than the Disciples.”
Holden – angsty youth as he is – understands the disciples better than most. They don’t “have it all together.” They aren’t super Christians. They are no different than most of us as far as being “good.” Which I’ve heard said is only true of God… can’t quite remember who said that one… 😉
Now here is what Holden doesn’t get. (And he probably wouldn’t have liked any better than the rest of us.) The one trait I consistently find in the disciples that sets them apart – that is, makes them holy. Is their dedication to continue to follow in the way of Jesus. They endeavor to do their best to live into the example of Christ. The young man who is asked to give up all he has to the poor and then follow walks away. Peter is no less challenged and perplexed (Luke 18 for the full story) but HE STAYS! I’m fairly convinced that he doesn’t like it, wishes it didn’t have to be this way, but also can’t imagine choosing a different path. Mostly I get that idea from the next story.
In John 6 many disciples leave… MANY (far more than the 12 we remember) leave… and when Jesus – knowing he has offended them asks the twelve if they too shall leave Peter says, “Where else could we go –you’ve got the goods, the insight, the light and life we seek. As much as it would be easier to leave we just can’t… because we want what you have, we want to be who we were created to be and you alone seem able to help us.” (Okay, I acknowledge some serious paraphrasing there but again I’m willing to bet those words work for the THE word.)
That is what it means to be a disciple… staying the course. Not being right, not being good, and certainly not being as perfect as God (because even God’s perfection remains to be seen as well… yes yes, another post for another day.) Let us maybe agree to get over the idea that we aren’t good enough… and let us agree to stick around with each other in spite of our discomfort, or dis-ease, our offendedness long enough to be formed by the one who is life… love… peace… healing… advocate… and friend. The one who is God-with-us. Let us be who we are created to be, called to be, claimed to be: disciples of Jesus Christ, followers of the way.