“Whoever wishes to come after me must deny himself, take up his cross, and follow me.” (Matthew 16:24)
When Jesus called the twelve apostles, he invited each of them to follow him, and that call is extended to every human person. The words that Jesus uses to call us are active, not passive. If we want to live as disciples we must “deny,” “take up,” and “follow.” There is an intentionality to discipleship. One doesn’t become a disciple simply by birth or cultural affiliation or profession. We aren’t necessarily disciples because we were born into a Catholic family, or because we are Irish (or any other ethnicity), or even because we work for the Church. Discipleship emerges out of a sustained encounter with the Lord in the midst of his Church and a conscious decision to choose Christ each day. Sherry Weddell, in her landmark book, Forming Intentional Disciples, writes that we become disciples:
“By acting like Simon Peter: Jesus said to Simon, “Do not be afraid; henceforth you will be catching men.” And when they had brought their boats to land, they left everything and followed Him.” (Luke 5:10-11) Simon’s experience was not exceptional, either in human terms or in the tradition of the Church. No one voluntarily sheds his or her job, home, and whole way of life accidentally or unconsciously. Simon Peter’s “drop the net decision” is what we mean by disciple. From the moment he dropped his nets to follow Jesus, he was a disciple. (p.64)
The Great Story of Jesus, although it has cosmic dimensions, penetrates into the personal, into the heart of every man, woman, and child with ears to hear. When we respond with an openness of heart, when we say “yes” to what the Great Story, and the One who is at the center of that story, offers us, the path of discipleship opens up to us.
The word “disciple” comes from the Latin, and it means “one who learns.” In the culture of Jesus’ time, a disciple sat at the foot of a rabbi (teacher) and learned from him. Disciples were also expected to take on the lifestyle of the one they followed, absorbing not only knowledge but their rabbi’s way of life. Both in his interaction with the original twelve disciples, and now with each of us, Jesus keeps this dimension of discipleship and goes a step further. Jesus doesn’t simply want his disciples to act like him, rather we are invited to become like him. We do this through the outpouring of his life, which comes to us through the power of the Holy Spirit.
Christian disciples, then, are men and women who have heard the Great Story of Jesus, who have allowed it to penetrate and enter the circumstances of their lives, and who have given themselves over to Jesus. In this way, they bear that Story (and the one who sits at its center) within them and become heralds of that Story to everyone they meet. Saint Paul talks about this in a related way when he writes that “we are ambassadors for Christ, as if God were appealing through us” (2 Corinthians 5:20). The power of the Great Story is the reality of the kingdom lived out in the daily rhythms of life.
What Does Discipleship Look Like?
Although the working of God’s grace on each human heart is a mystery, and each person responds uniquely to God’s invitation to relationship, discipleship looks like something. Though uniquely lived out, all disciples share some common characteristics. For example, since discipleship is an intentional choice to enter into a relationship with Jesus in the midst of His Church, someone who is a disciple can articulate (even at the most basic level) their own experience of that relationship–what is it like to be in a loving relationship with Jesus.
In a similar way, all mature disciples of Jesus embrace six common disciplines–habits of life that are both expressions of their love for Jesus and ways that they grow in union with Him. So, what are the disciplines of discipleship? While a full exploration of each of these disciplines is worthy of a book, here’s a quick summary:
Daily Scripture Reading
The Bible is the very Word of God and, along with the teaching of the apostles, makes up the foundation of the Christian faith. The author of the book of Hebrews had this to say about the power of the Word of God: “Indeed, the word of God is living and effective, sharper than any two-edged sword, penetrating even between soul and spirit, joints and marrow, and able to discern reflections and thoughts of the heart” (Hebrews 4:12). Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we encounter the risen and living Jesus in a personal way when we read the scriptures. God’s desire is to meet us, speak to us, instruct us, console us, and challenge and transform us in and through our reading of scripture EVERY SINGLE DAY.
If you grew up Catholic, you may have the sense that someone told you not to read the Bible, or discouraged you from picking it up. Or you may have had a very large, coffee table Bible in your home that seemed too ornamental or unwieldy to sit and read. Or perhaps the Bible just seems too difficult to understand, and that makes you uncomfortable to try it. The reality is that the Bible is accessible, and reading it is an essential part of being a disciple. If you are not sure how to start reading the Bible, then I suggest beginning with the gospel of Mark in the New Testament. It is the shortest of the four gospels, and you can take fifteen minutes each day and read just one chapter a day, asking the Lord to open your heart to his voice before you read it.
It is important to read Scripture with “the mind of the Church,” meaning that we are to read the Bible connected to the Church’s teaching authority. It is equally important to read Scripture with the “ears of the heart,” in order to begin to discern the voice of God as he speaks to us through his Word. This is more than simply learning the scriptures through participating in a Bible study (though taking advantage of Bible study groups can be very important as you grow in Christ). It means reading with a prayerful attitude of receptivity, listening with the ears of your heart for whatever God wants to say to you specifically.
At the heart of the kingdom is relationship—intimacy, encounter, and communion. Jesus lived that out on earth through his daily times of prayer. Prayer unites our heart with God’s heart, allowing us to spend time with the One whom we are growing to love more deeply. Before I married my wife, we spent time together, getting to know one another and growing in intimacy. Prayer is simply getting to know God. It can come in many forms. There are standard rote prayers that we say (the Our Father, or the Hail Mary, for example). There are devotions (like the Rosary or the Stations of the Cross). There are more formal liturgical prayers (like the Mass or the Divine Office). Prayer can occur anywhere and at any time throughout the day. What it requires is some focused time with the Lord.
In prayer, we engage in a dialogue with the Lord. While it is definitely important that we speak to the Lord what is on our hearts, it is also critical that we learn how to hear his response. There are many books and resources on prayer, but there is no substitute for being personally formed by someone who understands this discipline. Your pastor, another priest, a deacon, or any other member of your parish’s staff can be a great resource in teaching you how to pray.
Living a Sacramental Life
The sacraments are particular and effective encounters with Jesus Christ. When we participate in and celebrate the sacraments, we receive an outpouring of God’s life that changes us, helping us to become holy and more like Christ. A disciple lives a conscious sacramental life, which means regular weekly (and sometimes daily) attendance at Mass, as well as frequent reception of the sacrament of Reconciliation. Simply put, a disciple does not stay away from the sacraments.
If it has been a while since you went to Mass or Confession, I want to encourage you to return. Discipleship is an experience of kingdom life, of communion and relationship with God. Our sin and brokenness can interfere with that relationship. In his goodness, God pours out more of his life for us in the sacraments so we can be restored again. When you fall in your journey with Christ, there is no condemnation. Instead, the Father invites us to receive his mercy again and again in the sacraments. With his grace, we are restored. He lifts us up and sets us on the path again—and we receive his power to deal with the temptations and obstacles we encounter.
Membership in the Church is not like membership in a club, non-profit, volunteer, or civic organization. The baptized are incorporated into Christ’s Body and share a bond that goes far deeper than even the natural bond that joins the human race together. The experience of life in the kingdom is not solitary but communal, characterized by mutuality and interdependence. As we have mentioned previously, communion with God by definition includes communion with all who are in relationship to him. Thus, the call to relationship with Christ as a disciple is a call into community or deep fellowship. Because of Christ, our lives no longer make any sense apart from each other. Therefore, as baptized brothers and sisters in the Lord, we must live out this deep fellowship in community, provide support for each other, and even go out and serve the world together. I like to say that Christians are like charcoal briquettes—we burn hotter, brighter, and longer when we remain connected with each other.
This kind of fellowship goes beyond just coffee and donuts after Mass, or participation in the occasional pancake breakfast. This kind of fellowship with each other is a sharing of our life in Christ together. One of the most powerful expressions of this kind of fellowship can be found in what are called Small Faith Communities or Christian Small Groups. These are small gatherings of Christians, usually in a home or at the parish, who get together to pray, learn, laugh, and support each other. I strongly encourage you to find one of these groups and join–or start one of your own!
Disciples must live out the radical self-offering of Jesus by offering our very selves for the sake of the world—especially for the poor and suffering. Not simply out of altruism, volunteer-ism, or on ethical and moral grounds, but foundationally because we know that Christ is present in each human person and God holds a special place in his heart for those who are poor and suffering. The call to service is found in one of the most recognizable passages in the New Testament, John 3:16—“For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish but have eternal life.” God’s love for the world was so great that he GAVE. If we, then, profess to follow him and hold his life within us, then how can we not give for the sake of others? This kind of giving includes acts of charity and mercy, but it also encompasses applying gospel values to issues of injustice in the world today. Where are those issues in your local community or neighborhood? Where is Christ present to you in the poor and the unwanted? How can you bring the power of the kingdom to bear for the person in need whom you encounter?
Evangelizing (Sharing Christ with Others)
The heart of the Church’s mission is to share Christ with others, to make Christ present in word and deed so the kingdom of God manifests powerfully in the world. When we encounter Christ, we encounter the One for whom our hearts were made, and we discover who we are, our purpose, and our destiny. This is an experience the Lord wants all of his children to have, not a special few.
At some point, as kingdom life takes a hold of you, your life will begin to change—and people will notice. When they ask questions, when they want to know what has happened to you, tell them! You don’t need a theology degree or advanced training. If you are excited about what you believe and what that belief has done for your life, then talk about it. At its most basic, evangelization is helping others encounter the Jesus to whom we have given ourselves.
Disciples, therefore, spend their time intentionally sharing the love of the Father with others in word and deed!