By Hal Knight
At the end of Matthew’s gospel, the risen Jesus tells his disciples to go and make more disciples, from people of all nations. The current mission of the United Methodist Church echoes this: “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” But what does it mean to be a disciple? I want to address that question in this column for the next few months, leading up to Annual Conference where Wesleyan discipleship will be our theme.
It may seem odd to us who use the term discipleship a lot that Wesley uses it very little. Half the time when he does speak of someone being a disciple, it’s not of being a disciple of Jesus but of a contemporary philosopher like Hume or Voltaire. Wesley spoke far more often of our having the mind that was in Christ, of holiness of heart and life, or of knowing and loving God and our neighbor. If this was his way of describing what we would call “discipleship,” then from it we can draw several lessons about being a disciple.
First, being a disciple is not simply attending church. Of course, a disciple does worship God; It is his or her hearts desire. But going to church can be in Wesley’s words, a “dead formalism,” or in ours “nominal Christianity.” It can be simply a religious duty, or only a social event. Ask dishonest tradesmen if they are Christian, Wesley says, and nine out of 10 times they will respond, “As good a Christian as yourself! Go to heaven? Yes, sure! For I keep my church as well as any man.” (Letter to John Smith, June 25, 1746). Discipleship is more than “keeping church.”
Second, being a disciple is not just learning information. Sometimes people today go to “self-help experts” to learn keys to more effective living, and if they in turn pass on that information to others, they are called disciples of that expert. But becoming a disciple of Jesus is not just learning his teachings, it involves knowing and following him, as his original disciples did. Of course, when the risen Jesus, who is about to ascend to the Father, tells those original disciples to make more disciples, Jesus knows that the new disciples will not be able to literally follow him around. But because he is alive, they can have a relationship with him, through the Holy Spirit.
Wesley believed we cannot follow Jesus unless we know Jesus, not just know about Jesus; That is, by coming to know Jesus in a way analogous to how we know one another. It is knowing Jesus that changes our hearts and lives. Put another way, becoming a disciple is not just informational, it is formational: as we pray, read scripture, worship and serve others we increasingly are shaped by the Spirit into Christ-likeness. Becoming a disciple is to gain a new life, in which we begin to love God and others as Christ has loved us.