Raised as a Protestant in the Nazarene denomination, I recall hearing the term discipleship bandied about quite a bit, but I think the true meaning eluded me until we were called home to the Catholic Church. For me at least, the experience of joining the Catholic Church in 2005 was evocative (in a small way) of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s words from The Cost of Discipleship. “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” The follower of Christ must hold nothing back for himself in his wholehearted embrace of God’s will for his life. This means not necessarily depending upon the support of family and friends, but unwaveringly taking the path to which we have been directed.
Too often discipleship seems nothing more than a vague and nebulous idea rather than a relationship hinging directly upon the mysterious person of Christ. There was a popular spiritual book a few years ago called The Shack. It's message purported to free the reader from those unpleasant obligations associated with Christianity. It embraced a faith free from organized religion, and claimed to offer in its place a relationship with no strings attached. I call this a lie clothed in a truth. Yes, the relationship part is critical if we are to successfully live our lives for Christ from Sunday through Sunday: every day for Him. It’s important to also bear in mind, though, that every relationship has its own associated expectations and boundaries. John 14:15 reminds us that if we love him “we should desire to also keep his commandments.” It is through these commandments that we are set free to live for Christ, and become the people we were intended to be.
In a similar vein, I suggest that community is another critical component of discipleship. We’re not “going this alone,” after all. How we behave towards and treat others is so critical in our spiritual walk. We need to learn that it’s not about us. As C.S. Lewis put it so eloquently in the Weight of Glory.
...it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations - these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit - immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.
When my grandmother lay dying in her hospital room overlooking the colors of fall in the Yakima Valley some years ago, I remember talking to my grandfather (now also gone home to be with the Lord) about the death of self. My grandparents were a powerful model of this kind of life lived for Christ. Just as my grandfather crafted beautiful and solid things from wood, his words, actions, and sacrifices were a meaningful cooperation with Christ in building lives for Him. This concept of death to self has always been close to my heart.
Like everyone, it’s a struggle to put our own desires and hopes on that cross at times, letting things go, but it’s through the act of offering these daily struggles up that we infuse our lives with a deeper spiritual meaning and depth beyond our petty selves. If we follow Christ and die to ourselves, surrendering everything to Him, we are on the true road to discipleship.