“Come, and you will see” John 1:39
This Lent we are looking at difficult words, words which we use regularly in church that might not be understood. Last week, it was temptation, and we saw temptation meant more than most would imagine, that it could mean hard times, that it could mean trial and testing. This week it is discipleship, what do we understand by the word discipleship?
If we asked people, “who are the disciples?” The response would probably be to name people in the Bible. If we asked what discipleship meant for the church today, the response would probably be that it was something for those who were particularly interested.
If we look at the New Testament, the Greek word for disciple was “mathetes”, it meant a “learner”. The people whom Jesus invited to come and see were to learn. A disciple was someone going through a process of learning. We read the stories of Jesus and his disciples, the stories of Jesus and his learners. The Gospel stories show us Jesus teaching the learners by his words and by his actions.
When we turn to the Acts of the Apostles, we see that the number of disciples, the number of those learning the faith grew by thousands, and church leaders realised that people had to learn to do different things. In Acts Chapter 6, we read that widows who were not from a Jewish background claimed they were being neglected and we read of how the work began to be divided, Verses 2-4 tell us, “And the twelve called together the whole community of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should neglect the word of God in order to wait at tables. Therefore, friends, select from among yourselves seven men of good standing, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint to this task, while we, for our part, will devote ourselves to prayer and to serving the word.'” There was recognition that different people had different gifts, the seven were going to deal with the work of administration while the Twelve continued their work of prayer and preaching.
By the time of Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, the church has developed titles for particular work. In Chapter 1 Verse 1, Paul writes, “To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons.” If we read the First Letter to Timothy Chapter 3, we read of the qualifications required of the bishops and deacons. There might have been particular people with particular work, but the whole church was learning together. When he writes to the church of Philippi, Paul is mindful of the work of all of the learners, he says to them that he is thankful, “because of your sharing in the gospel from the first day until now.” Sharing in the good news was something that was the task of every member. As we look back on the church in those times, can we say that Saint Paul would look at us and say he was thankful for the ways in which we shared in the gospel?
In the centuries that followed, the church lost sight of the fact that every member was a learner and had work to do. In the early church, every member’s work was valued equally, but by the time of the medieval church, the idea of being a disciple, being a learner, became very specialized. Discipleship was about a calling to be ordained as a priest or about a calling to pursue a religious life in a monastery or a convent. The work of the church became focused upon a small group of people; the person responsible for the work in the local church was the ordained person. Worship was about what one person did, the parish was centred upon one person.
When the Reformation came in the Sixteenth Century, it was meant to reform the church along biblical lines, to recover the idea of everyone being a disciple, of everyone being a learner. The church itself ensured such a thing would not happen, clergy were not going to cede power and privilege, and, for some, prosperity, in the pursuit of a church that would have been recognized by the first disciples. Except for small radical Protestant groups, ministry remained mostly the preserve of clergy.
It has taken us centuries to gradually shift back to an understanding of discipleship as something that is for all of us. The Church of Ireland constitution entrusts the material things of church life to those who are not ordained. Finances, at parish, diocesan and national level are under lay management. Church buildings are the responsibility of the people of the parish; the care of church property is the task of various committees where lay people play leading roles. We have constructed a church where most of the work that is shared is about the organisation; much of the role of lay people differs little from the work of secular organisations.
When we look at the ministry of the disciples, the ministry of preaching and teaching is something is shared. But the idea that anyone might stand up from the congregation and read the Scriptures and then speak, as Jesus did in the synagogue, is something that our church would not countenance; the nearest thing we accept is lay people leading the prayers. Lay people may be trusted with the music, which is a significant element of our worship, but not with the words. Our ideas about being like the disciples are very restricted in our services and in our pastoral care, we tend to feel that in pastoral care it is the work of the ordained person that really matters.
We are going to have to learn to be disciples ourselves. The ideal remains for most parishes remains having a stipendiary rector who will conduct the services and provide pastoral care for the parish. It has been the way of doing things that maintained the church for decades, but now no longer works in the way that it did. We have to ask what is going to happen in the future? Who will do the work of the church?
If we have fewer clergy, we have to ask what is God saying to us? I think he is saying to us that that we must be learners. I think he is saying that we do need not more clergy, but more disciples.
Discipleship is not something just to be found in the Bible, or something just for particular people. Discipleship is about learning and doing; it is about all of us learning and doing.