Master and Disciples

Reprinted from the Jan/Feb 2016 issue of “Connections” magazine:

Not long ago, I remember sitting in the lobby of the health club I belonged to, randomly picking up and paging through a magazine on martial arts. Having no experience in the sport myself, I was interested to read how the author described his experience of having become a master of a particular school of martial arts. He talked about how the modern view of martial arts as a “sport” was not what it once was, when it used to be taught by masters of a specific discipline.  Unique historical styles and methods ― like those of Karate, Jujitsu, Kung Fu, or Tae Kwon Do, which practitioners spent their lives studying and mastering ― are now often jumbled together in the generic instruction of self-defense, taught at the “hobby” level. Almost gone, he said, were the days of masters and disciples, working within a specific set of teachings in a particular school of martial arts.

Reading this article made me think of my own experience as a pastor, teaching the Christian faith from a specific historical tradition ― in my case, the perspective of a biblical and confessional Lutheran. I began to wonder if something isn’t lost among us in our modern day, when so many seem satisfied with being generic disciples of a generic religious faith.

In the New Testament, “disciples” were followers and students of their Lord, Jesus Christ, whose faith was shaped by Him, as they lived out this faith in their everyday lives of trust and obedience to Christ himself. From their master, the first biblical disciples were given more than a list of tasks to perform. Christ opened up for them a whole new way of life ― including a new understanding of their place, purpose, and mission in the world which flowed from specific theological convictions their Lord had given them.

Recently, there has been renewed interest in the Church in the area of Discipleship, and what that means for our lives as modern-day Christians. This is a good thing to talk about.  But much is said these days about the importance of “discipleship” and “making disciples” without really defining what it means for us to be genuine disciples in our own individual lives of faith.  Often “discipleship” seems to be treated as something that needs to be added on to the foundation of our faith, rather than speaking of discipleship as living out the faith that we have already been given.

Is discipleship nothing more than a generic program that can be inserted into a person’s life of faith ― like a preprogrammed computer app, compatible with any operating system?  Or is there a specific content, shape, or goal to our lives as disciples of Christ that flows from the particular faith we confess?

For example, does discipleship mean the same thing to those who believe they are “working their way to heaven” as it does to those who understand themselves to be saved by the grace of Christ alone? Does being a disciple look the same in the lives of those who think of themselves as “former” sinners, rather than recognizing their life as the struggle of one who is simultaneously saint and sinner? Is discipleship merely a means of spiritual self-improvement, or is it a deeper matter of self-giving that reflects Christ’s own mission in the world? St. Paul writes in Philippians 2:5-8:

Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.

Following our Lord Jesus challenges us to ask not simply whether we are disciples, but what manner of disciples we will be. To use Martin Luther’s categories: Will we be disciples who seek a vain and worldly “Theology of Glory,” or will we follow our Master as disciples who hold to a biblical “Theology of the Cross”?

This is the question we hope to address in this new regular column in Connections magazine. Beginning with this issue and continuing into the future, this series will seek to look at the nature of Christian discipleship through Lutheran lenses.

What would it look like for us to speak of discipleship in a way that is informed and shaped ― from the ground up ― by the specific convictions and perspective of Lutheran theology? What unique gifts and insights from our faith tradition can be brought to bear on the mission we share with all our Christian brothers and sisters? How might our historical Lutheran theological confessions reveal a unique perspective on how we live a life of faith in Christ?

Our goal will be to provide a basis and framework for discussing the theme of discipleship in ways that reflect our Lutheran faith and heritage. For example, the series title for the column, “Sacramental Discipleship” is intended to call to mind what we Lutherans recognize as the true direction of salvation in our lives ― from God to us  ― and how God uses earthly means of grace to accomplish his will and communicate his Word in our lives. We believe that God is the actor in our faith, and that by the power of his own Holy Spirit, the Lord himself produces the fruit of faith in us.

As Lutheran disciples, we confess that we are united in a sacramental union to the death and resurrection of Christ himself, as the pattern by which we live (Romans 6). As Luther said in the Small Catechism regarding the call to discipleship we’ve been given in our Baptism:

What does all this mean for daily living? It means that our sinful self, with all its evil deeds and desires, should be drowned through daily repentance, and that day after day a new self should arise to live with God in righteousness and purity forever.

As disciples of the cross, we follow our Lord in a life of daily dying and rising, trusting in his Word alone as the way in which God creates and reveals faith. Daily discipleship is not a method by which we attain a righteousness of our own, but rather, being a disciple of Christ means that we give testimony to His righteousness and what He is able to accomplish in us (Philippians 3:9).

Through this down-to-earth faith in Christ, we recognize that our lives serve as a kind of “means” by which God accomplishes his will in the world. God uses us as his earthly instruments to serve our neighbors in love and carry his saving message of the gospel to others, as we live out our faith as disciples of our Master, Jesus Christ.

– Rev. Steven E. King