Joined in Discipleship

There’s a story attributed to the late George McLeod about a small Scottish town in which there were five churches. Each church was located in just the right place in terms of its social and cultural characteristics. The Baptist church was near the river, the Salvation Army was by the fire station, the Methodist church was next to the gas station, the Episcopal church was by the drapery store, and the Presbyterian church was halfway between the ice house and the bank.[1]

We may as well laugh at the tragedy of our division.

The survivor of a ship wreck was washed up on the beach of a small and what he thought, deserted island. To his surprise, he was welcomed by a man with a nice, leathery tan and sun-bleached dreadlocks.
“I came here a long time ago, after the crash of Oceanic flight 5614. Let me show you my village,” the man said, pointing to three huts under the palm trees. “This is my house. This is where I sleep and find shelter when it rains.” They walked over to the next hut, and he said with considerable pride, “And this, this is my church; here I come every Sunday morning to worship God.” His visitor nodded and pointed to the third building, “What’s that?”
“Oh, that’s the church I used to attend; but two years ago I got mad and I left.”

We may as well laugh at the scandal of our division.

Christian faith cannot thrive in religious solitariness, and our salvation lies in our being made part of the household of God. Our faith cannot be reduced to select commitments based on pure private judgment, freed from authority and the company of others. However, the history of the churches of the reformation paints a different picture: generally speaking, we like to define freedom in terms of personal preference; we are quick to split and slow to bear one another with patience.

Mark Toulouse, professor of American Religious History at Brite Divinity School in Fort Worth, TX wrote an excellent study on Disciples identity, and he named the book Joined in Discipleship. In the introduction he writes,

In a very real sense, we are ‘joined in discipleship’ with our denominational ancestors. Our stories carry on the narratives of their stories. What they began resides in us and moves unsteadily toward the future, even as it did in their own time. From out of their future and our past, we still find inspiration to proclaim the essence of the church’s unity and to expresss our despair over the reality of the church’s fragmentation.[2]

We are joined in discipleship in a very real sense, not just with our denominational ancestors but with Presbyterians across the street, Methodists up the street, Episcopalians down the street, Churches of Christ, Catholics, Baptists, you name it, Christians in North America, Asia, Africa, in every time and place. We are joined in discipleship because church was never our idea. We are joined together because on our own we are not able to overcome the forces that alienate and divide us – selfishness, prejudice, envy, laziness, you name it. We are joined together in obedience to Christ because the church is God’s initiative, not ours.

God created humankind for communion with God and each other, but we are not content being God’s creatures. We want to be gods ourselves and we turn away from God in disobedience and rebellion. Sin is many things, but at its core it is nothing but the absence of what God intends. It is the deep alienation that spreads where trust in God is broken.

We are created for communion with God and each other, but our lives reflect and continue the story of Adam and Eve, of Cain and Abel. Like our first parents, we question the trustworthiness of God’s word and follow voices that seem to suggest what’s in our own best interest or, in these days of rampant consumerism, just more to our liking. Like the first siblings, we seek God’s blessing for our work, but envy and resentment are never far away: sin is lurking at the door, and we cannot master it.[3]

Sin breaks the communion of life which God intends for us. It turns the blessed conviviality of creation into the fractured madness of warring siblings, clans, tribes, and nations seeking fullness of life in self-absorption against God, against one another, and against God’s other creatures.
There is a perverse unity in our universal refusal to trust God’s word, to be each other’s brothers and sisters, and to till and keep God’s garden. “There is no one who is righteous, not even one!” the apostle Paul cries out. “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known.”[4]

But God is faithful. God does not abandon the good creation and the marvelous creatures made in God’s image. God calls and sends witnesses, God chooses and redeems a people, God forgives sin and upholds the covenant of love.

We affirm that Jesus Christ is God’s definitive answer to our sin; he is and does what God intended all people to be and do. He embodies God’s faithfulness to humankind and humanity’s faithful response. In him, in his life and teachings, his death and resurrection, divine love overcomes sin. We follow him, and our feet are guided into the way of peace.[5]

Christ has made us his own, and in a very real sense, we are no longer defined by who and what we have become following our own paths, but by him and by the way he chose in freedom and in love. We are no longer the results of our sinful, fractured past, but God’s own people.

Through faith, we are drawn into the fullness of life God intended in the beginning, and we are called to be God’s instrument for the mending of the world. To be a disciple of Jesus is to be given a place and part, and it is to take one’s place and part in the most demanding and rewarding enterprise of the world: the ministry of reconciliation, the proclamation of peace.[6] And to be given a place and part in that mission always means to take the place and part of one’s calling, and not necessarily one’s choosing. It means to be given a new life smack in the middle of God’s own people.

In the communion of the Holy Spirit
we are joined together in discipleship
and in obedience to Christ.

The church is God’s idea, God’s initiative, not ours. God seeks and, overcoming sin, creates communion with humans. God loves. God loves without condition and therefore without consideration of human worthiness. God loves completely alienated people who barely have a Yes left in them. God’s love is poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, and faithfulness is wakened.[7] God loves and reconciles the resistant, rebellious, self-absorbed and lost human beings and creates communion. The communion of the Holy Spirit is God’s initiative, not ours. God reaches out and we respond. God speaks and we answer. God gives and we receive.

The Holy Spirit is given to us, but not as some kind of personal religious possession, nor in a succession of moments of intense religious enthusiasm. The Holy Spirit never becomes something we have, but remains a gift for good, a gift we enjoy as long as we receive it. The Spirit is the presence of God working in the depth of the human heart transforming and renewing us. The Spirit permeates the world of death with new life and the breath of resurrection. The Spirit is the Lord who in freedom and faithfulness becomes present to the creature, creating and sustaining the communion of life. We stop receiving, our faithfulness withers. We stop receiving, our life withers.

There are several words the English speaking traditions of the church have adopted straight from the Greek New Testament, words like baptism and eucharist, or deacon. Another one I wish had made it into common church usage is the word koinonia. It is a beautiful word, and it is translated into English, depending on context and often the translator’s preference, as fellowship, communion, sharing or participation.

Koinonia speaks of our fellowship with God and with each other, of our sharing the sufferings of Christ, of our participation in ministry through mission funding, of the sharing of our resources to alleviate the needs of others, and of our common enjoyment of the gifts of God.[8] Koinonia speaks of our being joined together in discipleship and in obedience to Christ, not by our various and fickle personal preferences, but by the Holy Spirit.

On the day of Pentecost, those who welcomed Peter’s message were baptized, and they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and koinonia, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.[9]

Every Sunday at the end of our worship service we hear the benediction,
The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the koinonia of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.[10]

The church is God’s initiative, and not what we make of it. Because we have been brought into the koinonia of the Holy Spirit, we belong to one another and are responsible to one another as brothers and sisters of Christ. The story of the church is the continuing story of the love of God at work in the world, drawing people together by the Holy Spirit – into koinonia with God and each other, into “the blessed conviviality that sang Creation’s seventh sunrise.”[11]

[1] Wallace Alston, The Church of the Living God, p. 51
[2] Mark Toulouse, Joined in Discipleship, p. 2
[3] See Genesis 3:1 and 4:1-7
[4] Romans 3:10, 15-17
[5] See Luke 1:79
[6] See 2 Corinthians 5; Ephesians 2:17
[7] See Romans 5:5ff.
[8] See 1 John 1:3-7; Phil 3:10; 2 Cor 8:4; Hebr 13:16; 1 Cor 10:16
[9] Acts 2:42 see also the description of that koinonia in the following verses
[10] 2 Corinthians 13:13
[11] Wendell Berry, Sabbaths, p. 9