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As a church we have recently started a short series looking at what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. This understanding seems to be a common gap for many churches, a gap that the recent pandemic has shone a huge light on. (3 Discipleship Strategies That Are Not Enough)
Sadly in our culture, being a Christian has been dislocated from the idea of being a disciple of Jesus. Many see being a Christian as simply holding to certain beliefs about God and attending church. Both good and honourable things, and yet a far cry from the call Jesus gave his original followers. To be and to make disciples.
But once we have realised this gap in our thinking and practice it’s important that we stop to realise the purpose, the end goal of this process.
The Goal of Discipleship
Being a disciple of Jesus means shaping your life around his teaching, his practice and ultimately to become like him.
The ultimate goal of Spiritual formation is to be formed into the image of Christ. The destination for a disciple is to look and sound like Jesus.
Jesus put it like this.
The student(disciple) is not above the teacher, but everyone who is fully trained will be like their teacher. Luke 6:40
Within the Jewish framework of Rabbis and disciples, success was when a disciple was just like their Rabbi (teacher), able to pass on a way of life to a further generation.
When Jesus commissioned his first followers to go out and make disciples he was commanding them to repeat the process they had been through as the walked the streets of Israel with him, only this time with the help of the Spirit not Jesus.
The goal always was to become like Jesus. Whatever our approach or tactics or strategy, our success will be measured by how Christ-like our character and actions are.
It sounds really simply, yet for many this invitation is hard to comprehend.
For those who have come to follow Jesus, it is clear that Jesus is incredible. The son of God, come in the flesh, living amongst us, dying on a cross and rising again. He walked on water, healed many sick people and performed various mind melting miracles.
Our natural response is to worship him, for he is holy, set apart and unlike anyone who has ever walked this planet.
But then to invite all of us, no matter our past and our personality and our failings, to be just like him?!
The first word that comes to mind is IMPOSSIBLE! How can that even be the case. For most of us it just seems so far removed from our 21st century lives. What does it even look like today, when most of us are not 1st century Jewish male Rabbis?
For some of us it perhaps even sounds blasphemous! Jesus is the one we worship, yet we are to be like him?!
It can be really hard to get our heads around God’s grace in this area. Yet here again we are undone by his kindness. As if saving us from our sins and forgiving us was not enough?! It turns out salvation is just the entry into something far grander than our minds can comprehend. From salvation we are invited to formation.
Once we start to grasp that this is really invitation of the gospels there remains at least two objections for many people.
1. Do I Really Want That?
Most people are not going to pursue something that they don’t really desire. The reason I hunt the cupboards for chocolate is because I really do desire chocolate! If you are going to help people be disciples it begins with a captivating vision for where they are headed.
The degree to which we want to be formed to be like Jesus is highly dependent on our view of Jesus.
When many of us think about becoming Christ like perhaps we imagine becoming some dull, joyless, “holier than thou”, stick in the mud. We imagine holiness would require us to be repellant to other people and leave us lonely, irrelevant and frankly boring to be with.
What image of Christ do we have? It turns out Jesus was invited to a lot of parties! In fact a lot of parties organised by people that most of society looked down on. The broken and outcast actually wanted to be with him. They were not repelled by his holiness but drawn in their masses.
It turns out Jesus was not dull, rather he was the most joyful person to have ever walked this planet! What a thought!
If we struggle with the idea of becoming like Jesus perhaps we need to rediscover the beauty of who Jesus is. The son of God yes, but also the most captivating human ever.
A vision for discipleship begins by checking we have the right picture of Jesus. If we really saw him for who he is, we’d be desperate to spend time with him and be shaped by his values and character.
I wrote about creating this vision for discipleship here (A Vision For Personal Growth).
2. What Happens To Me?
One further objection I’ve heard before is best put like this. If I am to be formed into the image of Christ what happens to me?
Where do the things that make me, me, go? Do I simply become some carbon copy of Jesus, almost like a robotic version of me without personality, skills or history?
It’s a great question. Is God’s great plan to make us all into some bland mass of sameness?
I very much doubt it! The creative God we worship values diversity in life. Just look around you at the number of trees, birds, insects etc in creation. Surely one kind of tree would be enough? One type of bird?
When we are formed into the image of Christ it is not about us becoming somehow less ourselves. Instead it is about us realising our God given potential. Becoming most fully the kind of person we were designed to be.
The journey of formation is not personality removal but letting go of the things that bind us, contort us and misshape us. We are all formed by the environment around us, our upbringing, our culture but this formation often not always for our good.
To become Christ-like is to discover your full self in all it’s God-given diversity, uniqueness and joy.
Sadly John the Baptist gets misquoted here often.
When he said of Jesus “he must become greater; I must become less.” John was not talking about him somehow losing himself. Rather he was describing the transition in their ministry. His job, preparing the way for Jesus, was complete. The stage is all Jesus’ now.
You don’t need to become less for Jesus to be more. Jesus doesn’t need our help to be great. He is already infinitely great. Us shrinking ourselves does nothing to help him!
God had less of you before he made you, but he chose to create you. He wants you! So in discipleship we don’t say goodbye to who we are we discover what we can be like, unburdened by sin, shame and bad habits.
If we want to create church communities where people really grow I it’s important we address these concerns, whilst painting a dynamic view of the goal. To become like Jesus, the most captivating human to ever live.
The process can be long and at times painful but it’s important we keep the prize in sight.
It should excite us each time we remember the joy before us!
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